Chameleonic British musician Frank Turner has certainly ruffled some feathers with his latest release, No Man’s Land, a concept album that revolves around famous women in history. We got the chance to chat with the singer/songwriter about the record, his career, and thoughts on the current state of the music industry.
“I think the concept of mainstream doesn’t really make any sense anymore, I’m not sure anything’s in the middle today. Sure, somebody will scream to me and say Drake or whatever, but honestly I have never heard a fucking song by Drake. And I have no issue with Drake, if people are into that, that’s great, I just don’t listen to it. It’s not quite on my radar.”
Since joining the post-hardcore band Million Dead around 2011, Turner has explored a wide gamut of genres that go from punk to country. And while his sound palette is diverse on the surface, everything he’s done so far has an underlying DIY ethos that unifies his body of work and encompasses what his act is all about.
“I’m a kid who grew up listening to punk rock, who then bought an acoustic guitar and started trying to play something like country or folk music. I just got mixed up in the middle of it all,” Turner explains in a humble but assured tone,
“I have a habit of winding up punk rock purists by describing myself as DIY to this day. And you know, I’m signed to a record label and all, but to me, DIY doesn’t mean you have to sit at home cutting out your own record sleeves. It just means an attitude where you don’t wait for shit to happen, you go out there and take control of your own life”
On paper, Turner’s upbringing seems like the very antithesis of punk. His many biographies on the internet describe him as being born in Bahrain where his father worked as an investment banker, and later on attending Eton college, one of the poshest boarding schools in the whole world.
“Don’t trust what you read on Wikipedia” Frank tells me, “a lot of that stuff is only half true.”
“Certainly my dad had aspirations to that kind of social environment, but whether or not it was actually true is debatable. The thing about where I went to school is that my dad put me up for a scholarship exam to go to Eton, because otherwise, I couldn’t go there, it’s fucking insanely expensive. I passed the scholarship exam when I was 12 years old.”
“I found my time there really traumatic,” he continues, “It certainly helped to discover Iron Maiden when I was a kid, and I thought they were rad, but the thing that changed my life, the thing that was really philosophically important to me was punk rock.
“When I was about 13 years old I discovered the pistols and The Clash, NOFX, The Offspring, Green Day, and then Black Flag and all that shit. And all that stuff kept me sane during my school days because I fucking hated its political environment. It just never really made any sense to me.
“From a pretty early age, I started bunking off school to go to London to attend the anarchist Book Fair and go to punk shows and stuff like that. I moved to London 45 minutes after I graduated, I just went home and grabbed my clothes and got the fuck out of there. My mom was pissed.”
Turner has released so far eight solo albums, each one with a very distinct sound. He started out exploring a brand of acoustic guitar-based folk in his first solo outing, Sleep is for the Week from 2007, and since then he has been slowly evolving into more sophisticated efforts that feature keys, horns, and anthemic vocal harmonies.
Although he has tried his hand at different genres throughout his career, Turner’s output has always been characterized for highly articulate lyrics that resemble the great wordsmiths of rock’n’roll from times past like Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan.
“I don’t give a fuck about what’s in the charts, I don’t think the charts mean anything at all anymore. And that lack of centralization is cool because it means there’s less pressure for everybody to be part of the same thing,” he says.
A sonic middle ground between his most folk-infused efforts and his most pop-flavoured escapades, No Man’s Land was devised as an album about history, a homage to 13 brilliant women from past and present. Turner’s cast of subjects is extremely varied, dedicating songs to 20th-century musicians Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Dora Hand, activist Huda Sha’arawi, astronaut Christa McAuliffe, serial killer Nannie Doss, jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Mata Hari, and Frank’s own mother Rosemary Jane, among others.
For this album, Turner decided to work with an all-female crew that included bassist Andrea Goldsworthy (Paloma Faith, Ladytron), drummer Holly Madge (Hans Zimmer) and mixer/producer Catherine Marks (Foals, The Killers, Wolf Alice). London-based illustrator Olivia Healy provided the artwork.
“The main difference this time around is that I didn’t record with The Sleeping Souls who I love dearly and have been my band for like 12 years now. I had this idea a long time ago, about trying to make one record with a different group of people. Not because I dislike anything about the Souls at all, it’s quite the contrary. The thing is, when you get to play with the same bunch for so long, you can get stuck in the same musical habits, you know what I mean?” explains Turner about his decision to change personnel.
“Once No Man’s Land became this sort of like gendered history project, it struck me as a good idea to play with an all-female band. This time I worked with Catherine Marks, who is an incredible producer I haven’t worked with before. So it was a different cast of people in the studio, and that brought different things which was the intention”
The project was accompanied by a podcast titled ‘Tales from No Man’s Land’ where the musician talks about the life of each of the women depicted in the album, inviting historians and other experts, often hosting the show in a location relevant to each story.
The Brit folk hero opens each episode of his podcast series with a straightforward declaration of intent, “It’s about 13 women from history who you probably haven’t heard of, but definitely should have. Their stories are fascinating, moving, funny, and most importantly, are worth celebrating, and sharing”
Surprisingly, — or not — the idea of a man creating an album about influential women was received with some harsh criticism. No Man’s Land met such an adverse reaction, the rocker had to further explain his intentions in a blog post.
“I have not tried to present this record as an aggressively feminist statement. I have no issue with that word – in fact, I’m very much in favour of feminism, and equality in general. But putting that first would seem overbearing to me. I’m not trying to lead a parade I have no right to lead.” he wrote.
NME gave it two out of five stars, focusing more on Turner’s usual contestatory attitude towards his critics, rather than reviewing the music itself.
“There’s no doubt that the stories of the women spoken about here are well worth telling, but you shouldn’t need to read a defensive blog post to work out what it’s all about, and on listening to the record, their voices are consistently overshadowed by Turner’s. Should’ve just made us a Spotify playlist instead, mate”, read the scathing review.
The Independent also gave it just two stars, describing the album as a “case of extreme mansplaining”.
Their review lambasts Turner for having picked well-known personalities like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mata Hari, “It’s frustrating to think that, because he didn’t know about these women, he assumed they don’t have significance for others. Well, they do, and I can only imagine that most of them would prefer he left them alone. This isn’t so much “No Man’s Land” as extreme mansplaining.”
In a world more inclined to forgive, and even reward racist and sexist comments from guys like Trump or Boris Johnson, while a 16-year old environmental activist is bullied to oblivion, the adverse reaction to something like No Man’s Land is kind of predictable.
Of course, the album is in no way flawless. Although it’s comforting to see Turner returning to his most gentle folk incarnation throughout the record, that shift comes with all the good and bad his repertoire has to offer.
Prioritizing the words over the music often forces Turner to stretch out phrases to fit the melodies, an artifice that not always works. Some lines sound clumsy, or even hokey, and there are songs in No Man’s Land that feel like they’re going on longer than they should.
Yet, the few blemishes do not outshine the record’s many virtues. In fact, the high points of the album probably show Turner producing the most mature music of his entire career.
The punk troubadour put himself against the wall with this project, getting himself into a contest that required of him to balance respectful lyrics that honor the lives of these women with appealing music. And for the most part, he managed to pull it off quite bravely.
Songs like ‘The Death of Dora Hand’ and ‘The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead’ come out as incredibly heartfelt folk tunes with tight composition and incisive lyrics, while ‘The Lioness’ is an energetic, defiant rocker that’s so blunt it feels it could be the soundtrack of a revolution.
Turner includes in his new album a new version of ‘Silent Key’ a song dedicated to Christa McAuliffe — one of the victims of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster — that he included in his 2015 record Positive Songs For Negative People. This new, revamped rendition takes away the impetus of the original version, exchanging it for a far gentler approach that allows the words to take center stage, making it heart wrenching and much more emotional.
And there’s ‘Rosemary Jane’ probably the best track on the album, where Turner pours his heart out singing about his mom.
I do not see anything offensive or condescending about a man wanting to make an album that honors women, especially in a time when we find songs in mainstream charts referring to women as “hoes” and “bitches”.
Turner used an all-female crew for the project, involves activist groups in his tours, and on top of that gathered a bunch of experts to produce a podcast. What else does he have to do to contract the divine right to talk about women? Release his own album under another name? Remove himself from his own work and have a woman sing the vocals?
Maybe go through a sex change surgery?
All in all, No Man’s Land is an emotional release from a damn talented and thoughtful musician who has the honest intention of respectfully putting these women into the realm of a whole new audience. I personally hadn’t heard the story of many of the individuals homaged in the album, and if Turner could introduce these magnificent characters into my worldview, I’m sure the record will do the same for countless others. And that alone is a mammoth artistic triumph.
“When was the last time you fucking listened to a mainstream radio station?” he asks me at one point in our conversation, “It’s been a long time since I gave a shit. If people don’t like guitar music anymore, well they shouldn’t have to listen to it. The same goes the other way round. You know, I’m not a huge fan of like, house music, and I don’t listen to house music, and I don’t have to, and that’s all cool.”
The Brit musician will visit New Zealand and Australia in April 2020, for a series of shows that will take him from Auckland to Byron Bay Bluesfest. Tickets are already available and some venues are already sold out, so we recommend you jumping like, right now for a chance to experience live one of the most important folk artists of our time.