Frank Turner: I'm not trying to give a voice to women – I'm just telling stories
Frank Turner's eighth album No Man's Land is a collection of songs based on the vital stories of women throughout history. The singer-songwriter talks to Lucy Mapstone about how he handled the backlash after being branded a man trying to 'give a voice to women'
FRANK Turner's new concept album influenced by the remarkable tales of women from history has been met with a bit of a mixed reaction. He's somewhat bemused over the early response to the record – co-created with a female team of musicians and aptly titled No Man's Land – but he understands that critics will critique, despite not having heard it yet.
Addressing the backlash in a post on his website, the singer-songwriter and history graduate wrote that he knew he was "stepping into some potentially contentious waters with the whole concept behind the record", describing it simply as: "A piece of storytelling, a history record, a pretty traditional folk approach."
A few weeks after setting the record straight, Turner tells me: "I've been doing this long enough to know there is nothing that people in general like more than complaining. And what social media has done has given everybody a voice to be as complainy and moany as they like to be, and you have to take all that with a pinch of salt."
The album, on which Turner sings about largely unknown or barely documented historical figures, such as Egyptian feminist activist Huda Sha'arawi, exiled Byzantine princess Kassiani and Jenny Bingham, a rowdy coach house landlady from 17th century Camden Town accused of witchcraft, is accompanied by a podcast series, where he shares further insight into each of their lives and achievements.
"I thought quite hard about how to present this, in terms of introducing it before people had heard the record or the podcast, and I'm sure I probably didn't do that quite as well as I could have done," Turner admits.
"I just wanted to tell some stories that I felt could stand to be told again, or perhaps be told to a lot of people for the first time – myself included – and it was only once I was about four or five songs deep, that I realised there was a theme emerging in that all of the people I was choosing to write about were women."
He chuckles at the suggestion that he's trying to give a voice to women with the record, another sticking point with some of his online detractors.
"I'm not sure I would phrase it that way – I'm not necessarily trying to speak on behalf of anybody else; I'm trying to tell these stories. And if Huda Sha'arawi was a woman who was well-written about in the canon of popular songs, then I'm not sure I would feel the need to write something about her," he explains, using the pioneering 20th century feminist leader as an example.
"I would prefer to phrase it as I'm writing some stories that haven't really been told, and maybe trying to start conversations about people who have been underappreciated by popular culture."
For Turner, the album – a huge departure from his usual introspective, heart-on-his-sleeve style – has been a long time coming. He started working on the concept four years ago, but it was put on the back burner so he could release 2018 record Be More Kind because, as he says, "2016 happened".
"It certainly felt like a watershed year," he says, referring to the Brexit vote and Donald Trump being elected into the White House.
"I'm an old-fashioned liberal in my politics and I'd grown up in a world where certain political tendencies and types of political rhetoric – I thought – were comfortably confined to the political dustbin. 2016 was a year of waking up and realising that I was naive in thinking that," he says of the catalyst for the socially and politically conscious album, which reached number three in the charts.
The album followed top two records Tape Deck Heart (2013) and Positive Songs for Negative People (2015), both of which heralded a new level of success in this raconteur musician's lengthy career.
Having found his feet in the music industry as a member of post-hardcore band Million Dead in the early noughties – a stark contrast from his years at Eton alongside Prince William – Turner went on to carve out a career as a solo singer-songwriter, releasing four albums between 2007 and 2011, each one more popular than the last, until his 2013 LP peaked at number two.
While he admits chart success is not the be all and end all of his career (although says that "to discover that your record is the second or third most popular in your home country that week, is certainly a nice thing"), Turner does acknowledge that live performing is really the thing that keeps him going.
To date, the 37-year-old musician has played more than 2,300 live gigs as a solo artist in the 15 years since 2004. That works out as more than 150 live gigs a year, and is likely to be many more than the majority of his musical peers can stomach.
"A long time ago, a very close and analytical friend of mine said the only place he's ever seen me look comfortable was in the middle of a stage, and I think there's something to that," he notes.
"I can be quite awkward in the rest of my life, and I guess putting on a show is the one thing I'm sure that I'm good at. So I love doing it."
He adds with a laugh: "Also – to be slightly less personal about it – it's how I make my living."
Having produced eight albums in the space of 12 years, and with yet another tour across Europe, America and the UK lined up for later this year, is there ever going to be a point he slows down and takes some time off?
"It's become a bit of a running joke with my band and my crew and my management, that the whole time I go, 'Oh yeah I'm going to take next year off', and then I never do," Turner jokes.
"I work in a fickle industry and it might be the case I'm slightly starting to accept I've reached a point whereby I can afford to take a bit more time off without my audience deserting me completely.
"But I do also believe in making hay while the sun shines. I've got things to say and I've got ideas, so I'll put them out."
"And," he adds, "If I do feel like I've creatively dried up, I'm not just going to churn out music for the sake of it. I want to make sure that my artistic contributions are at the very least meaningful and valid to me."
:: Frank Turner's No Man's Land is out now.