LESSON: Frank Turner: Songwriting Interview

Frank Turner is the walking, talking embodiment of the punk ideology.

And no, that doesn't mean that he wanders around London with a Mohawk frightening tourists. Rather that with little more than a battered acoustic, a handful of songs and a tireless DIY ethic, he's turned himself into one of the UK's most popular songwriters.

Since going solo from cult post-hardcore outfit Million Dead in 2005, he's worked his way up from the toilet circuit to a sold out Wembley Arena. The world caught a glimpse of him when he performed at the Olympics opening ceremony at London 2012, and latest album Tape Deck Heart has taken him to the main stage at this year's Reading Festival.

MusicRadar met up with Frank in London to record a lesson for Recovery, the lead track from Tape Deck Heart, and to talk heroes, songwriting, and why ABBA have got more in common with NOFX than you might think…

It's interesting to watch you talk through how you put together Recovery – what was your musical education like? Do you have any music theory behind you at all?

"Not really, no. I didn't really study music. I got a few piano lessons as a kid which I didn't pay much attention to, and then just started teaching myself the guitar.

"I was originally into metal and stuff, but Nirvana kind of turned my head on to punk rock. Counting Crows were a big deal for me when I was a kid as well. I still feel like my academy of songwriting was the first three Counting Crows records. But I mean, I didn't have much in the way of official teaching, but I've always been quite analytical in the way I think about music.

"I have always voraciously learned how to play songs by bands that I like. If I hear a song that I like, I'll immediately pick up a guitar and try and figure out how it goes. I think that there is an art to songwriting that is distinct from the technicalities of playing. It's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about.

"I mean, the greats for me songwriting-wise are Adam Duritz, Rivers Cuomo, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, Springsteen obviously. Nina Simone I'm really big on as well, and Loudon Wainwright is a big one too."

So all quite emotionally direct stuff?

"Yeah, totally. I think it's kind of interesting, and after a while it's like that bit at the end of The Matrix where the numbers start coming down, and you start seeing songwriting as something detached from style.

"So you start realised that ABBA and NOFX, to pick bands with four letters in their name, have more in common from a songwriting point of view than they do that separates them. It's about melodic structure and the flow of the song, that kind of thing."

Has the way that you write songs changed over the last few years?

"Yeah it has. I'm trying to improve what I do, I'm trying not to repeat myself, and there's lots of types of song. The obvious ones, you've got ballads and upbeat songs, but you can get way more categorical about it. There are shuffles, fast songs, you know what I mean?

"If I hear something that is in a stylistic mode that I haven't tried yet myself, then my first thought is always 'hmm, I wonder if I could jam something into that approach'. It keeps things fresh, and there's an endless permutation of ways of doing that."

So is songwriting as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one for you? Are you able to separate the two?

"I think that they go hand in hand. There's definitely two sides to it. I mean, there is a technical side, I know what you mean by intellectual but intellectual sounds a little too cold. It is an emotional thing, at the end of the day one creates in order to express yourself. I'm doing this stuff because I have to make music, I have to make sounds to scratch a certain itch in myself that I can't adequately describe.

"There's a technical side to it when you're talking about building blocks and structure, and all the things I was talking about - using simple ascending chord sequences and going from first to fifth or whatever – but then at the same time, that's an intellectual veneer over the fact that it hits you one an emotional level. And actually, the emotional impact of any good song is completely unquantifiable really.

"I remember seeing a great thing of Springsteen talking through Thunder Road. He talked through the whole thing, got to the end and said 'Was I thinking any of that when I wrote it, hell no! Was I feeling it? Hell yes!' And that's it. You've got to trust your gut at the end of the day.

"I don't really have a method for songwriting, sometimes lyrics comes first, sometimes music comes first, sometimes it's slow, sometimes it's fast, whatever, but my favourite moments are when something comes quickly. I really feel like if you're running on pure instinct and gut then you're writing something good. If the song just kind of tumbles out, that's way better than something that you spend six months agonising over chords changes with."



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