Not unlike anyone who hasn’t been in a coma since this past November, the results of America’s recent presidential election have galvanized Frank Turner into speaking out. While 2013’s Tape Deck Heart was a self-described “inward-looking record” and his most recent outing, 2015’s Positive Songs For Negative People, avoided any kind of topicality, Turner is ready to address the reality show that’s currently emanating from the White House. It’s a big part of the newer material he’s working on for his forthcoming, yet untitled album.
He’s even using his current tour to test out “Sand in the Gears,” a new composition whose telling couplets include, “A change is going to come, and there’s nothing to be done/A change is going to come, come, come/The only thing to choose is to decide which way you’re going to jump/So don’t give into the hatred; don’t give into the fear/Pour yourself a shot of anger to go with your beer/Let’s be the sand in the gears for the next four years.”
“I’ve got a lot of new material and we’re opening the tour in the States this time around with [this] new song,” he explained. “For the first time in a long time, I was self-driven to write about current affairs, which is something that I’ve quite consciously steered away from for the last couple of albums and right now, I just feel like the world is demanding that. I’m sort of getting political again.”
With all indications being that Turner will be true to his word with this upcoming batch of songs, it’ll be quite a turnaround from the introspective nature infusing the material that makes up Positive Songs, a collection overseen by pop-rock production guru Butch Walker that was bashed out in nine days.
Hanging these dozen songs on a combination of optimism and inner fortitude, Turner goes from the searing pain of heartbreak at the heart of the anthemic “Mittens” to rallying against life’s obstacles in the Springsteen-flavored “Demons.” He finishes strong with a pair of odes to people who’ve died—Christa McAuliffe, the teacher-astronaut who perished on the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, and Josh Burdette, the late manager of Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club who wound up taking his own life. McAuliffe is featured on “Silent Key,” a heartfelt tribute featuring Denver singer-songwriter Esmé Patterson voicing the late educator while Burdette is given his due in the acoustic ballad “Song For Josh” that was recorded live at the 9:30 Club. Both songs carry a special resonance for Turner.
“I’ve had that as a note in my diary to write about that [the Challenger exploding and Christa McAuliffe perishing] for a long time. There’s something almost sort of like a Greek tragedy in a way. There’s something about it—this woman is hired to attract the attention of children and dies on international television. Something about that sort of stuck with me the moment I thought about it seriously,” Turner said. “Josh was the head of security at the 9:30 Club and he was a wonderful, lovely human being and he took his life in 2014. It was a real shock to everyone and I don’t think anyone saw it coming. I certainly didn’t. It seemed a fitting tribute to Josh to record it at the 9:30 Club and the last track on my debut album is a live track as well and it’s called ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends.’ I just wanted to give a nod to that as well.”
Having cut his teeth in the early 2000s as part of the post-hardcore outfit Million Dead, Turner found the leap to passionate folk singer to be a short one.
“There are lots of reasons for picking up an acoustic guitar. One of them was that I started listening to a lot of country and folk music as an antidote to the guitar noise that I was surrounded by. Also, part of it is that it seemed like it could be the most counterintuitive thing I could do possible. Plus, to go out on stage on your own with just an acoustic guitar is in some way kind of punk because you stand there,” he pointed out. “You sort of have to set your stool out and be who you’ve gotta be. It took a fair amount of guts to do and in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m certain now, retrospectively, that a lot of those early shows, and despite the fact that there are people who eulogize them as being the greatest thing I ever did, were actually kind of [crappy].”
With his band The Lost Souls, the Bahrain native has spent the past decade-plus touring, building up a devoted fan base and throwing his support behind organizations like Dignity in Dying, a UK-based pro-assisted dying campaigning group that Turner first became involved with in 2013. Last year he was appointed a patron of the British Humanist Association, which campaigns on a number of ethical and secularist issues, including assisted dying. And while he’s modest about his involvement, Turner’s dedication is not unlike his populist approach to music.
“I don’t want to paint myself as overly passive, but I don’t want to paint myself as overly active either. When they have a campaign come together, they generally get in touch and I use what platform, whether online on in person, that I have, to do something about that. It’s a philosophical position that I’m strongly behind,” Turner said. “I also think of the idea of music as being a tool for communicating between a community of equals rather than having it dictated from on high by the gods. Certainly both philosophically and from a practical level of my live shows, I want what I do to be a conversation between the performers and the audience and not just a dictated statement.”
Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls will be appearing on Feb. 17 at the Beacon Theatre, 74th Street & Broadway, NYC. For more information, visit www.beacontheatre.com or call 866-858-0008.