It’s been an eventful couple years for English-born Frank Turner. The hardcore punk-poet turned folk-punk singer/songwriter earned worldwide exposure for his performance during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies in London. He then signed to Interscope Records for his first charting U.S. album, last year’s Tape Deck Heart, which reached No. 52 in America and No. 2 in the U.K.
His triumph was bittersweet as he was beset by physical and personal issues the last half of the 2013. Back and foot injuries forced him to cancel several dates in England — something he doesn’t do lightly.
“Anyone who knows me even vaguely will know that, as well as being in a fair amount of pain, I’m filled with rage at my puny weakling back for letting me down, not to mention all the people at the shows,” he wrote on his blog at the time. This was followed in November by a personal matter that forced him back home, postponing shows in Columbia and Charleston.
Turner’s fiery rhetoric and sharp lyrical wit share a heritage with first-wave U.K. punks like Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, and Elvis Costello, though as a youth he gravitated toward American underground acts. He earned his stripes in the London hardcore band Million Dead during the first half of the 2000s. He spent his early 20s with them, releasing two albums and living the high life.
It’s quite the switch for a kid with a scholarship to exclusive English boarding school Eton, where he attended classes with Prince William. Turner later attended the London School of Economics, but found the cerebral world of numbers too constricting and instead moved in the direction of his passion.
This radical change of direction informs Turner’s thinking and is a theme that resonates throughout Tape Deck Heart, which finds him reflective on turning 30.
“I’m interested in the way, up to a certain age, the doors of possibility are open in life, and then you reach a point in life where suddenly you start making decisions that are irretractable,” says the 31-year-old singer. “Even in your 20s, there’s a fair amount of time to choose your path in life. Then as time goes by, suddenly the avenues become fewer and farther between because you’ve already made certain decisions. … It’s almost like you can slowly draw away from yourself and get an outline of the kind of person you are.”
Amidst his rising profile over the past year, Turner’s swanky past bit him in the ass across the pond when he had the temerity to suggest that some of his economic beliefs were “rightward.” Nevermind that he disavowed the English conservative party, the Tories. Class divisions are stark there, and Turner’s comments were viewed similarly to if Bruce Springsteen said he wasn’t into unions and listened regularly to Rush Limbaugh. He received hundreds of death threats.
“It’s one of the things that depresses me about the U.K., the class obsession, and it’s one of the things I like about America. People don’t automatically define and judge your entire character based upon what your parents do for a living. It’s fucking depressing to put up with that bullshit in the U.K. It makes me enjoy being in America more some days,” Turner says.
“I’ve had my fair amount of shit thrown at me and whatever over the years,” he continues. “But I’m trying to be a successful musician, and I feel quite strongly that it’s slightly redundant to spend the first half of your career working your ass off to try and be a public figure, to be popular and successful, and then complaining about what comes with that. I can’t really complain about people having opinions about the things I say in public if I’m going to the effort to have people listen to me.”
Turner’s music possesses a keen balance of hopeful idealism and sober Sunday morning reflection as life’s new discoveries are replaced by bittersweet truths. On “Photosynthesis,” he promises not to grow up to be “bored and unfulfilled,” because “if all you ever do with your life is photosynthesize, then you’ll deserve every hour of your sleepless nights that you waste wondering when you’re going to die.”
But he’s not blinkered or blinded to dreams that won’t die; he recognizes every choice closes down another one. On the new album track, “Losing Days” he sings, “I keep losing days that used to take a lifetime in the blinking of an eye, and all these small ideas are suddenly commitments, as greatness slips on by.”
The album was fueled by a breakup, but Turner didn’t want to take the typical approach. This is reflected in songs such as “Plain Sailing Weather” and “Wherefore Art Thou Gene Simmons.” In the latter, he sings that he resents “the implication that everyone who plays guitar plays women like Gene Simmons,” only later to confess to the same sins himself.
“I’m interested in the idea of writing a breakup album, not 100 percent, but at least partly from the perspective of being the perpetrator rather than the victim,” he says. “I feel like most breakup albums come from the point of view of being the victim, and it takes a fair bit more self-excoriation. It’s an interesting thing to take the spotlight and turn it back on yourself and look at your own flaws. I’m definitely no saint. ‘Gene Simmons’ is a song about that, and there are a lot of songs on the album about me fucking things up.”
In the end, it was punk rock — not economics — that became Turner’s church, and you won’t find a much more dedicated acolyte. Though he chose to make music more accessible than his hardcore start, maybe that’s just part of growing up. At the same time, it certainly doesn’t mean that because he’s 31, he’s lost his youthful idealism or rock ‘n’ roll fervor, which are perhaps one and the same for him.
“Ben Nichols from Lucero commented about me that — I think he meant it half as an insult and half as a compliment, but I took it as a compliment — he told me that I was more obsessively in love with rock ‘n’ roll as a concept than anybody he knew,” Turner says. “Just the paradigm, the whole kind of culture, the idea of being young and drunk and in love, or old and bitter listening to records at 4 a.m. on Scotch whisky. Just that whole everything that comes with the paradigm of rock ‘n’ roll is something I’m obsessed with.”