Reading Music: A Talk With Frank Turner

Frank Turner

Reading, writing, and rock ‘n’ roll, the three r’s.  Frank Turner’s got them all covered, as we found out in the latest installment of Reading Music.  If you’re not familiar with Frank, he’s a British singer-songwriter with five albums of excellent songs that capture his articulate, earnest brand of folk/punk rock ‘n’ roll, and he’s one hell of a storyteller.  I spoke to him about what he likes to read and the effect literature has on his songwriting.

Music Lit 101:  I read an interview that you did last year where you spoke about your love of history.  Do you read a lot of non-fiction and/or historical fiction?

Frank Turner:  I mainly read history books actually. I studied history at university and loved it, and I try to broaden my knowledge as much as time and my amateurishness allows.

Music Lit 101:  Your song “English Curse” certainly seems inspired by history, were you trying to ignite your listeners interest in English history or simply trying to write the definitive English retort to the Norman invaders?

Frank:  I’m very interested in traditional English music – it kind of bridges my two passions, history and songs. I was reading up on some of the folklore of Hampshire, the area I come from, and found a story about the curse placed on William I. It’s obvious apocryphal, but I loved it, it has history and resistance to authority and it’s local to me, so it pushed all my buttons. I guess musically it’s also designed to sound like a traditional, though it is my composition.

Music Lit 101:  Many of your songs are of a confessional nature, what inspired that narrative style, and do you prefer first person narratives in other forms of writing (books, articles, etc)?

Frank:  I guess I’m attracted to honesty as a quality in the music that I listen to. I wrote autobiographically, confessionally. I love the work of Aidan Moffat (singer for Arab Strap), also Adam Duritz, John K Samson and others. It’s what feels best to me, there’s not much more to be said than that really! I enjoy first person narrative some of the time but I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily conceptually wed to it.

Music Lit 101:  Most songs have a much more detailed story behind them, something that inspired them. How hard is it to capture the essence of a story or life experience in a three to four-minute song?

Frank:  It’s hard. That’s the holy grail of songwriting, right there, and I try every day and in every song to get better at it. How successful I am (or am not) isn’t really for me to say!

Music Lit 101:  Has a book ever directly inspired you to write a song?

Frank:  Sort of. “Balthazar Impresario” was partly inspired by a book I read about Joseph Grimaldi (“The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi” by Andrew McConnell). The song is actually about a different period in the history of entertainment, but his farewell speech is something I find very moving. Recently an essay by Clive James on death inspired a new song called “Demons”, but it’s not out yet!

Music Lit 101:  You’re about to go out on tour with your hardcore band Möngöl Hörde. More history in the making?

Frank:  Haha, actually the band name comes from the song “We Are The Heathens”  by The Van Pelt. But I do like the historical overtone, shall we say.

Music Lit 101:  As a musician, I’m guessing there is a lot of time spent traveling in cars, buses, planes, and waiting in dressing rooms. Do you fill the void with books or do you occupy yourself with other pursuits? 

Frank:  Mainly books actually. My mum got me a Kindle for Christmas a while back and I was doubtful at first but it’s actually led me to read a lot more than I used to. Plus I save a lot of space and weight in my tour packing! But yes, I read a lot.

Music Lit 101:  What books are you currently reading?

Frank:  I just finished a biography of Houdini and a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Right now I’m reading a book about libertarianism by Matt Kibbe called “Don’t Hurt People And Don’t Take Their Stuff”, which is cool. Next up, Michael J Totten’s travel writing. I love travel writers, Paul Theroux is one of my favourites.

Music Lit 101:  Any books you’d recommend to our readers?

Frank:   “Fugitive Pieces” by Ann Michaels is the most powerful novel I know (not, admittedly, that my knowledge of fiction is particularly wide). I always recommend “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley too, great book. And finally, Viktor Sebestyen’s “Revolution 1989” should be required reading for everyone. Fascinating and very moving book about some recent history that’s in danger of being forgotten.

Music Lit 101:  What’s your favorite book about music?

Frank:  “The Story Of The Streets” by Mike Skinner was an absolutely fantastic read. Even if you’re not a fan of his work (and I emphatically am) it’s a really good look at the music industry. I also loved “Black Vinyl, White Powder” by Simon Napier-Bell.


To find out more about Frank Turner:

Follow Frank on Twitter

Watch Frank’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert

Follow him on Facebook

Visit his website

Catch him on tour

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