Frank Turner adds perplexed pop to his musical recipe
Clearly, Toronto has some affection for Frank Turner.
The English folk-punk troubadour and his ace backing band, the Sleeping Souls, set up shop at the 1,350-capacity Phoenix this week for three consecutive shows — the first two of which sold out long ago, the third of which is probably close to selling out while you read this — on Wednesday through Friday this week, throwing in a bonus post-gig DJ set at the Bovine Sex Club on the Thursday for good measure.
It’s a testament to the longtime support of local concert-promotion company Collective Concerts, whose Jeff Cohen is a super-fan and refers to Turner as “the British Bruce Springsteen,” that Turner has been able to nurture such a following here without ever really yet hitting the mainstream radar in Canada. But the affable Turner is also a gifted and prolific songwriter who’s got a few tunes in his catalogue that almost everyone can get with — tunes that have regained some of the Billy Bragg-esque political bite of vintage Turner on his surprisingly pop-savvy latest effort, Be More Kind.
The Star spoke to him a couple of weeks ago about how Be More Kind’s ruminations on the political situation in America and how his flirtations with Ed Sheeran-ish accessibility are currently being received on the road. Here are some highlights.
Am I right in thinking Toronto is one of your largest “markets” outside the U.K?
It’s extremely gratifying to be able to come to see you on the other side and to have the opportunity to play three nights in a large and prestigious venue. I feel like Canada has always been good to me over the years. It just sort of felt like a natural home. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that an awful lot of my favourite bands growing up were Canadian bands and, indeed, are Canadian bands — stuff like Propagandhi, the Weakerthans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and that kind of thing — and, in later years, Joel Plaskett and the Arkells.
You’re in the States right now so how’s a tune like “Make America Great Again” going over?
For the most part, it’s been absolutely great. The genesis of a lot of the writing on the record was from touring in the U.S.A. during the summer of 2016 during the election campaign as everything was heating up. I’m a huge fan of the U.S.A. and to be in the country during that period of time was kind of confusing and depressing in equal measure, and that’s where an awful lot of the ideas that became the record started coming together — obviously, in particular, the song “Make America Great Again.”
What compelled you to start writing about politics again?
On the one hand, it was the first time in quite a long time that I’d sort of felt like I had anything to say about politics, particularly, or at least to say in such a way that I wanted to try to put it to music and sing it on a stage. But also I’m a bit older and I’m a bit less bothered about what people on Twitter think, you know what I mean?
For the most part, the song “Make America Great Again” goes down excellently in the United States. Every night, there’s always a couple of people who are a little discombobulated by the statement (but) aside from the title it doesn’t actually, specifically mention any political movement other than essentially being an anti-racist song.
It’s hard to disagree with the overall “Can’t we all just listen to each other and work this stuff out and get along” sentiment of the new record.
There are so many people who seem to be rejoicing in a retreat from civil discourse. And the question that’s immediately raised by that is “Well, if we’re not going to disagree with each other through words, then we’re just going to disagree with each other through force of arms and that’s a f--king disaster.”
The other thing is that the central feeling I have about the world right now is confusion and doubt, you know? And I think that’s partly a symptom of getting old because the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know anything about anything, at least in my experience.
You’ve also tinkered with your musical vision a bit on this one. Were you actively trying to shake things up for yourself?
Very much. I was trying to push myself out of my stylistic comfort zone, if for no other reason than this is my seventh album and I feel like I’ve earned the right to make some left-field musical decisions.
But actually a really big influence on the sound of the record was touring with Arkells. I love that band and I love those people, but they’re also making intelligent, relevant pop music and I wanted to be inspired by that. They and me and my band, the Sleeping Souls, are engaged in a bromance for the ages.
Were there any other inspirations for trying on new hats on Be More Kind?
For the first time in my career, really, I started thinking about rhythm and about dancing — for some of the songs, not all of them — which is not really something I’d thought about very much before. I was the stereotypical kind of awkward teenager who didn’t do any dancing until he’d discovered the mosh pit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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