Frank Turner is heading to Leeds to launch as album based on the stories of women throughout history after an online backlash against the concept. Lucy Mapstone speaks to him.
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 story-telling, a history record, a pretty traditional folk approach.”
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A few weeks later, 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.
“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.”
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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 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”.
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“It certainly felt like a watershed year,” he says, referring to the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. “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.”
The 37-year-old is starting a headline UK tour in November but will be doing two back-to-back album launch shows at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds on August 24.
His love of live performing has seen him play more than 150 gigs per year since going solo in 2004 from his band Million Dead.
“A long time ago, a very close 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.”