Punk-folk singer Frank Turner talks us through the songwriters who have shaped his career, from American rockers to his friend Jay (aka Beans On Toast).
August and Everything After by Counting Crows
As a kid, I was mostly listening to thrash metal and punk rock. It was my older sister who got into Counting Crows. It wasn’t my favourite record, but I was learning to play the guitar at the time, and it was easy to play while thrash metal was hard to play.
I basically sat down with a chord book and a tape recorder and by a process of trial and error, figured out the chords to every song on that record. First of all, it was mainly so that I could play something, and then also so I could play the songs and my sister and I could sing along together. So we could sit around the kitchen table and campfires on camping holidays and play those songs.
"By a process of trial and error, I figured out the chords to every song on that record"
In the process of learning those songs and looking under the hood as it were, I came to fall deeply, deeply in love with that music. I still feel quite strongly that most of the songs I write today are informed in some way by the songwriting of Counting Crows and in particular the lyrics of their singer, Adam Duritz.
I’m kind of friends with [Adam] now which is weird because he’s a genius. My sister is pretty annoyed about the fact that we know each other because she’s like, “I was into them before you were, this is so unfair!”
Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans
The main singer in The Weakerthans is a guy called John K Sampson. John used to be in a punk band called Propagandhi who I was really into. After he quit that band, he formed a country band, and I remember at the time everybody in the punk scene was kind of thinking, What the f**k is that about? Well, they put out their first two records and I remember getting a copy of Left And Leaving on cassette just before I left for my first ever tour when I was 16 years old. I listened to it on my Walkman on repeat. It was then, and is now, one of my all-time favourite records.
It has a kind of subtlety and intelligence and a rareness to it which I’ve rarely heard anywhere else in music. I don’t regard lyrics and poetry as the same thing, I think they’re very different disciplines, but John’s lyrics are some of the few pop lyrics that stand the test of being able to be published as just poetry without the music.
"He gives me a sense of ambition"
He gives me a sense of ambition when I write [my own music] in terms of his choice of subject matter, his choice of vocabulary, his attention to detail and his rhyming and his rhythm and his structure—it's just leaps ahead of almost any other band I’ve ever heard. I spend a lot of time, whenever I’m feeling kind of worn out and dry or [suffering from] writer’s block putting on Weakerthans—it inspires me to try harder.
John is quite a reticent guy and that particular move [from punk to country] is quite similar to one that I made a few years later, so I think that that was definitely inspirational to me, to see that it was possible to move from the aggressive, noisy world of hardcore punk into something that was more focused on songs rather than riffs or was just pure rage or whatever. It [showed me it] was possible to be more nuanced in your approach to music.
Standing On A Chair by Beans On Toast
Beans On Toast is a guy called Jay and he used to run a pub in North London called Nambucca. When I was playing [gigs] in North London, I started hanging out there. Jay had this tiny little guitar and knew basically three chords, and he used to write these fun little songs about stuff that happened to us the weekend before.
This was happening during the point in my life when my writing was deliberately complex and I was trying to be obtuse and challenging and all these kinds of things, so to hear that kind of simplicity both lyrically and musically was so inspirational to me. And it was so direct that it felt kind of punk in a roundabout way. I’d spent years writing these obscurantist lyrics and suddenly, here was a guy writing songs about us and our adventures and our thoughts and feelings and foibles and all the rest of it. It just knocked me sideways.
When my old band Million Dead broke up, Jay was the leading light for me in terms of what I was going to do next—quite a lot of my early songs sound quite a lot like Jay, for good reason.
Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting by Frank Turner, published by Headline, is out March 21st
Feature images via Ben Morse
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