Now, here’s the thing about phone calls – I despise them. I hate talking on the phone to anyone. My flatmate will ring to ask if I want anything from the big Sainsburys and I’ll start sweating like a marathon runner being interrogated. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly exciting to get the chance to chat to Frank about his latest album, Live in Newcastle which I really did enjoy. Objectively, it’s a great album. It tells you more about Frank Turner’s life than the ‘Early Life’ section in his Wikipedia article ever will. During the two hour show, he talks about his failed relationships, his teenage experience of London, and his turbulent mental health before coming full circle to the present day.
The whole album feels like a love letter to Frank’s fans, and almost to himself. It’s a celebration of growth, development and flourishment, carrying the perfect amount of confidence and pride without tiptoeing the line into egoism. It’s an honest response to the cliché ‘it gets better’, as Frank openly details his struggles with mental health, and the ways in which touring and songwriting has truly changed his life.
Alisha: Hello! Am I talking to Mister Frank Turner?
Frank: You certainly are, how are you doing?
Alisha: I’m okay! How have you been in isolation?
Frank: I’m alright! It’s weird, it’s strange, but I’m sure I have it easier than some right now, so I’m doing my best to knuckle down and not complain.
Alisha: You’ve been incredibly busy with live streams and fundraisers recently. I was wondering if you found the online performances more nerve-wracking than live performances, or if they’re easier?
(*Note: this interview was recorded before Frank’s live-streamed show, during which he debuted his newly-dyed, bright pink hair. I convinced everyone that the dye-job was my idea. This is not true.*)
Frank: At the beginning… I’m not sure if I’d say nerve-wracking, but it was weird. I came into doing the live streams straight after the tour because I (…) had to pull shows when the lockdown kicked in. It was really odd because I hadn’t really realised until I sat down in front of a laptop how much in the way that I play is dependent on crowd reaction and crowd energy, and that kind of thing. And during that first show, I kept stopping for a cheer or something, but nothing happens – and I’m like “Oh, well, fuck me!”. So they’re definitely different things to get used to. But you do get used to it after a while and I’ve done quite a few of them now, so I am settling into it.
A: I can imagine that it’s weird singing and not having loads of faces staring up at you.
F: If that’s what you’re used to, yeah. It’s an odd time for everybody for many, many different reasons.
A: Speaking of your live performances, you’ve just released Live in Newcastle. How do you go about creating your setlists?
F: I spend a ridiculous amount of my waking life thinking about setlists, altogether too much, really. You’ve got to strike a balance, in my opinion, between leading and following. What I mean by that is, on one hand, I appreciate that some people might only come to one gig every couple of years and they want to hear the big songs as it were, I’d be a bit of an arsehole not to play them. But at the same time, if all you do is try to play crowd-pleasers, then you turn into a bit of a tribute act. Also, you want to keep people on their toes, play something they aren’t expecting. With Live In Newcastle that was a slightly different [setlist], as, before the tour, I sat down and wrote a setlist that had a narrative arc. That’s kind of why we recorded it and put it out; the whole vibe was different.
A: If I’m not mistaken, the Live in Newcastle album was filmed during your No Man’s Land tour, but it doesn’t include any of the songs from the new album. Was it that you weren’t ready to debut those songs, or did it not fit with the narrative /telling structure?
F: On the night, during the actual gig, I did two sets. The first set was only songs from No Man’s Land, but… it was the first time we were touring it, it seemed a little bit soon to be releasing a live album with songs from No Man’s Land, given that the album came out less than a year ago. So I wanted to still focus on the bit of the show that was more unusual if you see what I mean? And so we went with that. I love the idea of doing a live document of No Man’s Land at some point, but I wanted to let it live in the world a little bit more before I did that.
A: You call some of the tracks ‘anti-love songs’ and then you go on to talk about the regret of naming a song after someone in your past…
F: Yeah, like an idiot. *laughs*
A: …so if you could go back and give your younger self some songwriting advice – or even relationship advice – what would it be?
F: There’s a part of me that doesn’t quote by the premise of the whole ‘what would you say to your younger self’ type question, just because on a lot of levels – the process of learning – that’s what life is, it’s figuring out as you go. Although having said that, there are definitely some moments in my life where I was less than kind to people than I should’ve been. There are things I regret on that level and would have done differently. So I might go back in time and tell myself to be less of an arsehole.
A: So, you have the anecdote about being nineteen in London, and it really threw me off because I’m currently nineteen in London.
F: Oh, really? Well I hope you’re enjoying it! I mean, London is my absolute passion and I live in London myself so hello from the other side of the city!
A: So why did you choose to record the show in Newcastle? Do you have a specific connection to the city?
F: I love Newcastle, but actually what happened was that we recorded the whole tour. The reason behind that was that I don’t believe in editing live albums or sneakily overdubbing or rerecording shit. A depressingly large number of acts do that, and I don’t see the fucking point. If you’re going to go into the studio to do it again, then record a fucking studio album. For me, a live album is a document of a night or an event. But, of course, having said all of that, if you’re only going to record one show, that’s some risky shit right there. We thought that we had the technology on the tour to record the shows pretty easily. So, we recorded the whole tour and then I went back and listened to everything, which was quite dull (…). But yeah, I picked the best one and it so happened that the combination of our best performance and the best crowd was Newcastle.
A: You said that this is the 18th time you’ve performed in Newcastle, so how do you keep track? Because I can imagine that it’s easy to get mixed up with the numbers! Is there a notebook or…?
F: Absolutely none of it is in my head, believe you me! I have a list! And in fact, the list is public, and you can have a look at it yourself, it’s on my website. So, you know, people can check my calculations if they wish to do that (…). It’s funny because, on some levels, I’m aware – how do I put this – that quantity does not equal quality, but nevertheless it’s a thing I’m proud of, and it’s what I’ve done my whole life.
(*It is at this point I decide that being Frank Turner is frankly exhausting. Pun intended.*)
A: So you use the numbers or a way of tracking how far you’ve come? Or as a motivation?
F: A way of tracking things, at this point it’s kind of cool – the reason I started doing the number counting thing on the shows – when I was in my old band Million Dead, our drummer Ben counted our shows. I thought he was mental, I didn’t really understand why he was doing it until the band broke up, and suddenly we had a list of everything we had done. And it made me really happy that they kept that list. So, at the beginning of my solo career I started listing it myself and I always just put it on the website, and it was really interesting – no one gave a fuck for quite a long time and I remember on my 1000th show was in a car park in Shoreditch and I threw a little party for it. All my mates who were putting on the show (…) they couldn’t really believe it. But now, of course, there are people with show numbers tattooed on them, and everyone was bugging me about where show 2000 would be, and now everyone is bugging me about where show 3000 is going to be, and it’s like ‘I don’t fucking know’, (…) but yeah it’s a thing I’m proud of.
A: So, it’s going to be a while until live shows return again, but what is it about touring are you most excited to get back into?
F: Ooh! I’ll try and give the short answer to this question, but touring is my passion, touring is the one thing in the world that I’m sure I have some talent in – touring and performing. And, to get philosophical for a second, the thing I love about touring is the fact that every day (…) the slate is wiped clean and you have a new chance to state your case. If you have a shit gig, there’s always tomorrow night to do it better. On a psychological level, I find that really useful and helpful and redemptive. It’s like there’s always another gig. And the final thing – I know this is a longer answer than you were imagining – there’s a discipline to touring that is useful to me as an individual. Once a day, at 9 pm, you’ve got to go up on a stage in front of people who have paid money to be there, and you’ve got to be good at what you do. (…) There’s something really pure about it. You just do the fucking show. I kind of need that in my life in some ways.
(*This, sadly, was the end of the interview, and Frank finished with a poignant goodbye*)
F: It’s been a pleasure and I hope you and yours are keeping safe and well through all of this!
Talking to Frank Turner truly was a pleasure, and throughout the whole interview he was attentive and present, and really seemed interested in the whole conversation. If you’re looking for some music and some storytelling to keep you company during lockdown – Live in Newcastle might be for you.
Listen to Live in Newcastle on Spotify: