Frank Turner returns with his eighth solo album this month and heads to Cropredy next week for a Friday night headline slot at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, David Jackson talks to the star.
No Man’s Land is the follow up to last year’s LP Be More Kind and sees Turner combine his folk song writing prowess with his other passion, history, in a record which tells the story of women from throughout history – and his mum.
The album is also accompanied by a series of podcasts in which Turner speaks to historians and experts about each track.
“I was interested in taking a different approach to song-writing,” explains Turner.
“I’m quite deep into my career now and I think it’s important to try and keep both myself and my audience interested.
“History and song storytelling have a rich tradition within the world of folk music so I thought I’d head down that road.
“Although this is my eighth solo album, there’s always a mix of excitement and nervousness about a new record.”
Many of the songs for this project were written before Turner’s last LP but were put on hold while he prioritised Be More Kind.
Turner said: “I was working on this project and everyone went insane and 2016 and I felt duty-bound to respond with Be More Kind
“I’m very proud of it and it went well but we’re back to plan A now.”
The women featured on the album’s 13 tracks come from across wide geographical and historical lines.
There’s Byzantine princess Kassiani, Egyptian feminist activist Huda Sha’arawi and Resusci Anne - an apocryphal drowned virgin whose face was used as the model for the medical CPR mannequin across the world.
The LP also features serial killer from the Deep South who plucked her victims from lonely hearts pages, the jazz-obsessed heiress Nica Rothschild, 17th century Camden Town landlady Jinny Bigham who was accused of witchcraft and the Wild West vaudeville star Dora Hand shot by a small-town outlaw.
“I didn’t originally set out to write a record entirely about women. I was just trying to tell stories that I thought were interesting and fun and that hadn’t been given their due,” Turner explains.
“In the process, I ended up writing a record of stories exclusive about women and there is an implicit politics to that obviously, but first and foremost, it’s a storytelling record.
“History is my other passion outside of music and I bore all my friends socially by telling them stories they don’t know.”
Turner added: “One of the things I’m doing this record was trying to save my social life by redirecting that impulse.”
For the majority of the research, Turner was leaning about each woman for the first time.
“I don’t want to present it as hipster history” he explains. “It’s not, ‘I’ve heard of these people why haven’t you’, I was definitely learning as I was writing.
“Jinny Bigham’s Ghost was the first song I wrote because I wanted to write a song about Camden and it seemed an angle into doing that.
“It’s definitely secondary research, I wasn’t in the archives with cotton gloves reading people’s hand written letters.”
Turning to his favourite tracks on No Man’s Land, Turner picks The Hymn of Kassiani and Nica.
“I think probably the most dramatic and yet unknown person I came across was Huda Sha’arawi, an Egyptian women’s rights activist in the early 20th century.
“She famously tore off her face veil at Cairo station in 1923 in protest and to this day Egyptian women do not wear the full-face Veil and because of that event.
“I have an Egyptian friend who told me about it and sort of looked at me like I was an idiot for not having heard this story before.
“I was also very taken by the story of Nica Rothschild who just sort of threw everything out of the life that was presented to her to dedicate it to her passion for jazz.”
No Man’s Land ends with the song Rosemary Jane, a track about Turner’s mum, a song he describes as “heavily emotional” in places and the “odd one out” on the LP as it touches on his childhood.]
When Tuner headlines Cropredy next week, he will be joined by his band The Sleeping Souls, however, for No Man’s Land he worked with a group of female musicians in the studio.
Stressing he will continue to work with the former in the future, he explained this time around the different approach was “challenging, fun and liberating.”
“I think it’s important for me to continue to creatively justify my existence, or at least my continued output and I like to feel I’ve done this for this record,” he said.
Musicians who helped Turner bring No Man’s Land to life included Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverstone, Gill Sandell, Holly Madge and Andrea Goldsworthy.
“I tried to choose friends where I could,” Turner explains, “But I was fortunate that when I was looking for someone who could play upright bass, I put something on Facebook saying ‘help’ and everyone said Andrea Goldsworthy.”
For the promotion of this album, Turner will be playing two sets on tour, a solo set of songs from the record and talking about the stories and a second set with his band.
Turner said: “My music often gets described as folk punk and whether or not that’s justified there are at the very least two components to that phrase.
“We’ve been playing a punk heavy set for a long time and I’ve decided it’ll be fun to play a more folk set, stripping it back.”
Turning to Cropredy which will be a full shows with The Sleeping Souls - Turner is quick to champion the festival.
“Cropredy is going to be amazing,” he explains. “Simon from Fairport has been trying to get me to play there for years and I’m glad we have finally figured it out.
“We planned our festival season around Cropredy this time because we wanted to be there.
“Cropredy is an institution and I’m very honoured to be part of it.”
Touring his latest record will take Frank Turner into 2020 with an American tour also pending for his hardcore project Möngöl Hörde.
Quizzed on whether there will be a direct follow ups to No Man’s Land, Turner concludes: “I’m creatively restless and there’s a part of me that feels like I’m kind of doing this project now and I will try and do a different thing next year and see how that goes, but never say never.”
No Man’s Land is out on August 16. Turner plays the Cropredy Festival on Friday, August 9.