Right here, right now, Elvis brings his children home. Right here, right now, you never have to feel alone. Right here, right now, teenage kicks and gramophones. We hold them in our hearts.
With the words from his song "I Still Believe" ringing in my ears, I answered a phone call from Frank Turner, the English singer, songwriter, and writer who has enjoyed a decade's worth of hit records in the best possible sense: not manufactured beats and songs written by a committee, but honest, well crafted gems by one human trying to make sense of the world. It helps that he backs up his strum-along numbers of such wit and poignancy with the onslaught of his longtime band, the Sleeping Souls, seeming to give the legacy of Billy Bragg an extra kick for the 21st Century. And those lyrics about Elvis, from a song about the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll, will ring truer than ever this Saturday, when he and the Sleeping Souls play Graceland. I asked him about his latest work and the challenge of playing trenchant, socially-aware music in this day and age.
Memphis Flyer: It seems your work is in keeping with a great tradition of political song from the British Isles.
Frank Turner: With the most recent record I made, Be More Kind, I definitely was dipping my toe into making kind of public political statements again, in a way that I haven't done for a few records. Which I felt compelled to do because of what was happening around me, both in America and in the U.K., where, as I'm sure you know, we have our own share of ridiculous arguments to be having right now. For me personally, my taste in punk rock was always more American than English, with the possible exception of the Clash. Political music for me, when you say that I think of Bad Religion and Propagandhi. And bands like that. That particular take on the politicized punk rock thing.
Do you ever worry that your new song "Make America Great Again" could be appropriated by the right the way Reagan used "Born in the USA"?[Sample lyric: "Let's make America great again! By making racists ashamed again!"]
FT: Yeah, I know that story. I think it would be a serious lapse of judgment on behalf of anybody who was working for the Trump campaign to try and use my song. That song in particular was one that I wondered about putting out there, because life is easier if you don't make thorny political statements. And certainly I went through a few years where I wasn't talking about politics in my music. And I slept better and I had lower blood pressure.
But the reason I felt comfortable putting it out was that it was kind of unbidden. It just kind of arrived. I felt the need to say these things. And that felt honest to me. In terms of the actual reaction that the song has received...I mean, when you're on the coasts, let's say, people are kind of into it. But even so, I've had some pretty cool grown up conversations with people who fall on the other side of the political divide for me. Which is kind of the point, in the sense that what the whole record's about is the fact that I feel like we've stopped having grown up political conversations. So it's kind of nice here and there to have some, you know, reasoned back and forth with people. That sort of thing we need more of.
I just feel that every one's in this massive hurry to not listen to the people that they disagree with, which I think is not a particularly adult way of conducting a debate. So I'm not saying everyone should agree. We won't. Human beings don't agree with each other, that's written into our political DNA. But we need to find a way to conduct our disagreements in a civil and adult fashion, and that seems to be the thing that we're all collectively losing sight of right now.
I have some extremely progressive left wing friends, and I have conservative friends. And they're all intelligent people in good faith, and they deserve to be listened to. The solution to our problems lies in the middle, and it always has been and always will be. The problem for me is when the two different approaches to life become incommunicable. Right now people take pride, they take pleasure in fighting people they disagree with. And I think that's actually a sign of weakness. The first thing I was told about political debate when I was a kid was that you should be able to inhabit your opponent's mental universe, if only to defeat their arguments better. And if you just turn around and say 'I can't understand anything you're saying,' well then it's like, try harder.
Musically, the new record has some really subtle arrangements and rhythmic elements, beyond the solid song structures and sharp lyrics.
FT: If there's ever a point in my career as a writer where I'm allowed to take some risks and some experiments, some left hand musical turns, then it would be on album seven. I think I've earned the right at that point. And it was really fun. One of the things this time around was, the band and I, we didn't work up any arrangements at all before we got to the studio. Which is very different from how I've done things in the past. In the past, I tended to show up at the studio with the band very well drilled, knowing exactly what we're gonna play and how it's gonna go. And a lot of the time that's just been out of necessity, in the sense that we've only got eight days to make a record, and not enough money and all the rest of it. This time around I had the schedule and the money and the wherewithal and the will to really take my time and to use the studio as a tool, and to let the songs grow and develop in the manner of their own choosing, in the context of the studio. And that led me into some very different arrangements and different sonic textures and that sort of thing. It was really fun.
Funnily enough, I'll actually be joining you in Boston, at one of your Lost Evenings IIIshows at the House of Blues — playing bass for Cory Branan.
FT: Amazing! I love Cory! Cory's one of my absolute favorite people in the world. We've done a handful of shows together and we have a lot of mutual friends — Jason Isbell and Jon Snodgrass and people like that. The thing about Cory for me is, almost every songwriter I know is slightly embarrassed by his existence, in the sense that he's just better than all of us. And should be more successful than any of us. And we're all just slightly like, 'Oh man, that Cory Branan's so f*cking good.' So actually yeah, I'm extremely excited to have him on the bill for the festival. It's been too long since we did a show together. That motherf*cker can play guitar as well. He can shred.
Will this be a full band show for you at Graceland on Saturday? And what does being in Memphis mean to you?
FT: I've been through Memphis once or twice in my time. And the boys from Lucero raised me right, in the sense that, if I had to pick a town in Tennessee I'd probably pick Memphis over Nashville.
Yes, I have the Sleeping Souls with me Saturday. And in fact the rest of the bill for that show is really great. We've got my friends in Murder By Death playing as well, who are amazing. And then one of my favorite humans in the world, Tim Barry. So it's a hell of a lineup in my opinion.
My other engagement, when I'm in Memphis on Saturday is, I'm gonna make a little stop at Lansky Brothers. I'm getting married in August this year, and I'm planning on getting a Lansky Brothers suit for my wedding.
Brilliant. That bodes well for this sacred union...
FT: Yeah, well, my missus won't let me dress as Elvis from the 1970s at the wedding, but she will tolerate a Lansky Brothers suit.