Frank Turner Talks About His Childhood on New Album 'FTHC' Despite Having 'Not Been Ready' Until Recently

The punk and folk singer-songwriter's ninth studio album FTHC dropped on Friday

Frank Turner
Frank Turner. Photo: Ben Morse

English rocker Frank Turner released his ninth studio album FTHC on Friday. Stepping away from the more folk sounds of his last few albums, Frank and his band are bringing back some of the fast-paced punk tunes that make you want to stand on a table and sing along.

This time around he's also diving into more personal and heavy topics — in "Miranda," Turner breaks down reconciling his relationship with his father after her transition, while "Haven't Been Doing So Well" hits hard on feelings of anxiety that seem close to home during the last two years. PEOPLE caught up with Frank to chat more about his new album, coping and writing during the lockdown and rocking out with The Counting Crows.

What was the process of writing this album like? Did you write mostly during lockdown or was some of this on paper before things closed down?

Well, some of it was coming together before the pandemic. February 2020, I had maybe 10 songs and was thinking to myself, 'I'll write five more and then that'll be enough.' And then I was supposed to be in LA, actually, in the summer of 2020 making an album. Obviously, that didn't happen and whilst the pandemic is broadly speaking a cloud, there are a couple of slivers of silver lining. One of which is that I ended up writing 28 songs for the record. And not only that, but reworking a lot of stuff… I wrote more songs, I rewrote songs, I rearranged songs. I got deep into the weeds with stuff in a way that I wouldn't otherwise have done. And in a way that I haven't really done to quite that extent before. That was an effect of it. Always when I'm writing there is stuff that pops up from old lists — the verse melody to the song "The Work" I wrote when I was 16 years old and the lyrics — as you might imagine — were extremely bad. It's always slightly flowed around the edge of my song lists as something worth revisiting, and it found its home… but it's funny, it's not a lockdown album. I didn't want to write a lockdown album. I think there's enough lockdown records. I'm not sure I want to talk about this any longer than I have to, but at the same time, art reflects life and it would be ridiculous for the lockdown not to cast some shadow over the record, do you know what I mean? We have lived through, we are living through this thing, so it hovers around the edge of it conceptually in a lot of different ways.

Frank Turner
FTHC Cover Art.

A lot of these songs are heavy! As generally being considered more of a positive, upbeat songwriter, how have you unpacked some of these heavier topics?

[If we] were to go musically a little more aggressive and then lyrically more intense, should we say, or deeper, whatever you want to call it — both of those impulses were there before the lockdown. I think if there hadn't been a lockdown I would've taken a couple of steps down each of those paths. And I had plenty of time to run headlong down them into this onset as it turned out, and to go further. I have written in a confessional, autobiographical style in the past. The last two records I've made have been a holiday away from lots of things. I made a political pop record and then I made a history podcast record, Goddammit. You can imagine what my record label thought about that.

But there's been detours, should we say. Talking about my childhood, for example, is the thing that I've not been ready to do at all until quite recently. And there is a part of me that's still quite surprised that we are talking about it right now because I got very good and very comfortable at keeping certain things in a box as far as my outward-facing presentation goes, and it's mad talking about it now

2021 Punk Rock Bowling
Frank Turner. Ben Trivett

When you're approaching topics like that are you pulling straight from your memory? Or are you a songwriter who is constantly journaling or working things out in therapy?

Yeah. That's an interesting question. I don't journal. I keep endless notepads in which the beginnings of a lot of songs are just jottings and they'll be a line or two lines or whatever, or just a feeling almost. I don't know if you can write down a feeling? There's a lot of that goes on, and every couple of months I do a Herculean effort to collate my notes in some meaningful, comprehensible way. I like to pretend that I have this system that only I understand, but the truth is I don't understand it either.

It's funny that you mention therapy. I've engaged in therapy as a concept, as an activity in the last few years. It predates this record, but as I'm sure you know it's a long-term thing, it's an ongoing process, all this kind of business. I suspect that that process has probably influenced the writing of this record. I genuinely hadn't considered that until now, but I think that's probably a fair point. For a long time, I didn't go to therapy — I was aggressively of the opinion that my record collection was therapist enough. And if not that then shouting about my problems in a fashion in public would do the rest. And part of growing up for me is realizing whilst all of that is necessary it is not perhaps sufficient to solving this.

To be specific, the song hadn't been doing so well, which is quite a good example of the lockdown shadow thing incidentally, my issues of anxiety have definitely been bad in the last two years, but they also predate the global pandemic or whatever. But that song was sparked initially by... There's a huge thing of naming something, giving something a name can be a huge step forward in a way. And I got through my issues with substance abuse, which the song "Untainted Love" discusses. And can you f---ng believe it, it turns out that that might even have been a symptom rather than a cause. Who would've possibly thought such a thing? And that there was other s--- going on underneath. It's f---ing crazy, right? And I was talking to my therapist one day and describing various episodes that I have, and she was, "Well that's anxiety."

I'm familiar with the concept, I've talked to friends about it and all the rest, I'd never in my life tried turning that word round to face me. And it was like unlocking a room. It was like, "That is what that is." And she was, "Yes, catch up here." And that's not to say it solved the problem. Goddamn. And, as I say, the last couple of years have been pretty rough for that kind of thing, but I'd never considered that terminology to apply to myself before and it was really quite a breakthrough if you like for me to use those words of myself. That was the beginning of that song.

Do you think opening yourself up and writing about these heavier topics gives you an extra layer of relatability to your audience?

I'd start by saying I don't try and think about relatability very much when I'm writing, because that feels weird to me. Ultimately, if you sit down and try and write a relatable song, you're going to produce... I'm trying not to be super rude. It feels very songwriting factory in a way. Do you know what I mean? And you're going to end up putting out a Robbie Williams song or something, and that's all well and good, but that's not what I do. Obviously once you finish writing a song, if it does become relatable, that's f---ing fantastic. I'm all about that. But it's almost like a magic eye — you have to not look at it in order to see it, in a strange way. You can't aim for it directly or else you're slightly betraying your instincts.

It's a funny thing that I've been doing this for a fair amount of time now and conversations, open conversations about mental health were just not a thing when I started out in the music industry. And I think that it would've been considered really bizarre to try and start those conversations in 2002, 2003, whatever. The conversation collectively has definitely moved on in a positive direction. Of course, that's not to say that the issue is dealt with.

It's funny, I try quite hard not to make bold claims for what I do for a living. I just play guitar. And certainly it's true that for a long time I talked the talk in terms of trying to write songs about my mental health and constantly I was, I still am, I'm a patron for a charity called CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably. And I knew my lines, man. What you're supposed to say, and you are because it's true, that the hardest part is the first conversation about it and deciding to break down those walls of isolation that we all put up. I would go in public and say this kind of thing and I would go home and completely and utterly do the opposite. And I was very, very much talking the talk and not walking the walk. It's been a big thing for me to actually take my own f---ing advice and make some steps down those roads.

Now that you've already released a few singles from this record, what are you excited for people to hear next?

A bunch of stuff. I'm excited for people to hear "My Bad," because it's a proper old-school Spirit of 88 hardcore song. And the first one of those in my catalog, which it'll be fun. I'm very proud of "Farewell to My City" as a piece of art. There's definitely, as I'm sure you've noticed, there is a thing in this record, vocally, a slightly stylistic experiment for me heading more in a, let's say, Craig Finn, or even Mark E. Smith almost street preacher vibe. Rich Costa, who produced the album, called it the angry preacher and he kept... I'd do a vocal take and he'd just go, "More angry preacher, more angry preacher." Maybe there's another career for me there, but it's fun and it verges on spoken word and I enjoy that a lot.

In a funny way, I feel like "The Resurrectionist" is one of the more complicated pieces of art. Complicated is the wrong word — complex. And there's a handful of songs in my catalog, which I find it quite difficult to explain what they're about in a good way. "I Am Disappeared," for example — what I like about that is that if it was easy to say what the song was about, then maybe I wouldn't have had to write the song. The whole point is that it's about something that is quite difficult to put your finger on. And the meaning of that song has changed for me over the years, pretty considerably in a way that I like, because it makes me think it's a subtle piece of writing.

I feel in a similar way about "The Resurrectionist" — I think it's a complex analogy. Charles Dickens, the writer, when he was young, when he first became a journalist, had a business card printed that said, "Resurrectionist in search of a subject." And at the time, resurrectionists were body snatchers, people who would steal corpses from graveyards and sell them to the medical profession. And it was a black joke from his point of view, dark humor or whatever. But that's always stuck with me and hence the song title and all the rest of it, and indeed the line, searching for something to bring us back to life or whatever. It's a song about... I wrote endlessly about my Kerouac days, if you know what I mean? When we were young and invincible and beautiful and could stay up all night and go to work the next day and whatever the f--- else. And all of those young and wild and invincible people that I wrote about, and now have kids and live in the suburbs and they're pushing 40 and it's an interesting question to me about how we feel about that precisely. Because ultimately there's two ways of coming at it. You can either be furious about it or you can try and find some acceptance. And I certainly think that the second option is the more constructive one.

I saw you just played a show with The Counting Crows, now that is a lineup. How did you make that happen?

I spent forever in interviews talking about Iron Maiden and then Nirvana and then punk rock and that is entirely true, but there is this sidebar in my musical youth, which is that my older sister had a slightly different taste and she was obsessed with Counting Crows. And it's interesting because whilst I think "Mr. Jones" was reasonably big over here, but beyond that they were pretty cult, might be the word, niche, however you want to put it. They weren't all that well known over here. And she and I played... Well, she initially played August and Everything After until the tape broke, literally. And I was into Thrash at the time and struggling to learn Megadeth songs, and discovered that it was quite a lot easier to play the songs off August and Everything After. I learned every single one and still know every single one and became a fan through the process of playing them. And so they've been this sidebar of my music taste all the way through. I've known Adam [Duritz] for a while and we were, again, planning on doing some dates in 2020, which again, didn't happen. But we pulled it together and we just did the last two weeks of the tour and had the best time so there is intention there, I think, to do that again at some point.

I've also been seeing a lot of supergroups pop up. If you were forming a Frank Turner supergroup, who would you have on your roster?

I'm currently very enamored of Ilan Rubin's drumming, so we'll go with Ilan. I don't know. Who else are we going to go with here? We're going to have Nina Simone on keys, for sure. I think we're going to have Jason Isbell on guitar because he's really very good at the guitar. I don't know if you knew that? I'm going to have Robbie Robertson in the band as well, by the way. Robbie Robertson is definitely in the band. What's the name of the guy? He literally died just... Am I allowed to choose people who've died? Robbie Shakespeare's on bass and then... That's a pretty good band. We got Robbie Robertson, Jason Isbell, Nina Simone, Robbie Shakespeare. Oh, drums. You know what, I'm going to have Dave Bazan on drums from Pedro the Lion. And I know that he's better known as the singer, but he plays drums like a beast, that guy. That's going to be the f---ing weirdest band ever, incidentally.

FTHC is out on now.

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