By Ashley Zimmerman
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"I regard everything I've achieved in my career as the old-fashioned way of going out, standing in front of people, and playing, and apparently that is old-fashioned. To me, it seems like the best way of doing things and the most honest way of doing things."
That's a typical sentiment from British folk-punk singer Frank Turner, who has grown to be regarded as one of the U.K.'s finest new songwriting talents. After the 2005 split of Million Dead, the cult posthardcore band he fronted, Turner has toured relentlessly, garnering an intense following and releasing an album a year while developing a distinctive and evolving sound that fuses the aggressive energy of punk within acoustic melodies.
An accomplished and impassioned storyteller, Turner is as affable, cerebral, articulate, and entirely humble as any interviewee could be. Thus, one can't subconsciously help wishing that his expansive opinions on music, politics, national identity, and the genealogy of rock 'n' roll and punk could be discussed over ciders in an English pub with Johnny Cash songs playing on the jukebox — rather than across a crackly transatlantic telephone call.
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Speaking from Cork, Ireland, at the start of a world tour, from where he will immediately cross the Atlantic, there's a clear sense of not only relishing an exciting opportunity but living a romantic dream of life on the road. "There is something slightly archetypal about touring America," he says. "The whole Almost Famous kind of thing — especially if you're English. It's crazy to me that we're selling out venues on the other side of the Atlantic."
Turner also possesses the tangible confidence and conviction of a singer/songwriter enjoying a career apex in his home country and in the midst of an upsurge in popularity elsewhere. He freely admits that his new album, England Keep My Bones, his fourth studio album in five years, has "sold an awful lot of copies, more than I have of other records that I have done, and it's something extremely gratifying." His excitement and pride in his rapidly selling out U.S. tour is tangible.
Identifying oneself as English and the idea of national identity as a whole is central to England Keep My Bones, which thematically explores his personal relationship to his home country. Turner depicts a rich and mythologized landscape of everyday and historical references ranging from traditional romantic English folk ("Rivers"), a personal tale of loss dedicated to the memory of his grandmother ("Peggy Sang the Blues"), a celebration of the inspiring power of music ("I Still Believe"), and an a cappella narration of the Norman Conquest and the death of William II ("English Curse").
The pure folk discontent of his earlier work has been replaced with something more inwardly complex on this album, and Turner seems to be following in the footsteps of troubadours such as Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg. Yet in many ways, it's difficult to listen to the album's poetic approaches to identity and nationalistic sentiments without thinking of Bruce Springsteen — an influence Turner readily acknowledges.
"Springsteen is a major influence, and the way he writes about New Jersey is fantastic to me," he says. "I'm not from there — but the more time I spend on the road outside of England, the more I think about it in an abstract way. I didn't want to make a political record about England... To the extent that I'm interested in reclaiming English national identity is to depoliticize it to a certain degree. To me, it's about understanding a certain mood and feeling and understanding the rules of cricket and eating bacon sarnies [sandwiches]..."
Despite his willingness to create poetry and art out of distinct cultural artifacts — or as he puts it, "things about where I'm from that at least I want to talk about, and some of them I want to celebrate" — Turner's overall concerns are ultimately universal. National identity seems to be an avenue to express complete authenticity, and like the detailed lines of the Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, he's aspiring to chronicle and reflect everyday experience in an unashamed way that seems rare and distinct within today's irony-laden indie-rock world.
"I'm bored of irony," Turner says. "I try to write songs about things that move me to kind of actually bother shouting myself hoarse with a guitar every single night for the next ten years. So it tends to be things that I'm actually serious about and really care about. Personally, I like music when people sound like they mean it, and I think that has something to do with growing up on hardcore, which is direct and not a particularly emotionally complicated style of music."
Musically, the album is a crystallization of his personal songwriting craft and features some of the finest songs he has yet written. These are anthemic songs written to be played out for years on end during his intense and compelling live show. It's the portrait of an artist who opens the album with the lines, "But on the day I die, I'll say, 'Well at least I fucking tried'/That's the only eulogy I need." Such bold sincerity seems relatively unfashionable and unlikely to ever be lauded by jaded hipsters around the world. Yet for every person who dismisses him, you sense there will be another listener who embraces Turner's words as self-actualization gospel.