Last month, British punk-folk legend Frank Turner released the 10-year anniversary reissue of his fourth studio album ‘England Keep my Bones’ (‘EKMB’). Released back in June 2011 to critical acclaim, ‘EKMB’ took a more folky, acoustic turn than Turner’s previous albums and hosts some of his most popular tracks including I Still Believe, If I Ever Stray, and Wessex Boy. As well as the release of the album, Lilith Hudson spoke to him about British identity, his newest single, and the long-anticipated return of live music.
Although not strictly a concept album, ‘EKMB’ has a running theme of English national identity. Turner stated back in 2011 that he wanted to produce music that sounds English while encapsulating what British identity means to him through his lyrics (“I’m a Wessex Boy and when I’m here I’m home”). While many of the tracks have a timeless quality, the album itself exists as a sort of time capsule; “records” he says “are snapshots of the time and place that they’re made.”
But a lot has happened in the past decade. I wanted to know how it felt to revisit the album after so much time had passed. “The world has changed quite a lot in the last 10 years,” Turner admits, “The issue of national identity is a different conversation now to what it was. Quite a lot of darker elements have come to the fore when you talk about ‘nationalism’ as opposed to national identity. It’s a more loaded conversation now.”
The elephant in the room is of course Brexit. The decision to leave the EU severed a relation intrinsic to many Briton’s (and mainland European’s) identities, and the contention has since polarised our population. Turner believes it’s changed the way we talk about national identity too: “In the years prior to 2016, because a lot of people wanted to make any discussion of English national identity off limits, it became the preserve of some seriously unpleasant politics.” Would he write ‘EKMB’ in the same way had he written it now? “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t really know… One of the things about the record is that it seemed so obvious to me when making it that there’s no moral content to the accident of where you come from.”
It captures the essence of Englishness that’s familiar to anyone who’s called this country home
And that is the message the album conveys so beautifully without needing to be political. It captures the essence of Englishness that’s familiar to anyone who has called this country home. While history, culture, and identity are prominent themes, Turner is eager to avoid any notion of patriotism. “There have been people who have taken [the album] to be a much more strident nationalist statement, and it wasn’t intended to be. I happened to be raised in England and the culture and history has shaped me to a small degree, just as much that someone who was born in Bangladesh was shaped by Bangladesh and the way that someone who grew up in Ireland was shaped by Ireland.”
Turning to one of my favourite tracks on the album, Rivers, I note how the lyrics resonate in a more profound way than they did pre-pandemic (“Our history runs down our rivers / Down our rivers to the sea / Reminds us of the things that matter / Home and heart and history”). In this COVID era, we’ve found ourselves confined to British soil, reconnecting with our homeland and reinstating values closer to home. Asking Turner what he thought of this, he said, “There’s something in that, in a way, that’s very depressing for my career, because foreign travel looks like it’s going to be problematic for a while! I’ve toured at lot in my life and seen a lot of this country. There’s a lot of beauty and diversity out there and I will probably never exhaust it in my lifetime which is kind of a nice, humbling feeling.”
As well as the original album, the commemorative edition includes unheard demo recordings, his El Paso sessions, and exclusive to digital download only are 15 additional solo B-sides recorded at Old Blacksmiths Studios
Talk turned to the new additions to the anniversary release. As well as the original album, the commemorative edition includes unheard demo recordings, his El Paso sessions, and exclusive to digital download only are 15 additional solo B-sides recorded at Old Blacksmiths Studios. Intrigued, I asked when they were both recorded and why he chose to include them: “They felt like they would be a more illustrative package. I have endless collections of Regina Spectre B-sides and Bruce Springsteen studio outtakes and all this kind of sh*t and now it’s my turn!”
He tells me the solo versions were recorded straight after the original album. “I went down to Portsmouth for the day with my friend Neil who has a studio there and I seem to remember we banged them out in one session and moved on.” I made my appreciation of acoustic versions known. Raw and stripped back, these tracks are as authentic as it gets. There’s an originality to them too: for any songwriter with a guitar, that’s the way a song comes into existence. Turner nods in agreement: “I’ve always wanted to have a band and I’ve had The Sleeping Souls for a very long time, but there’s a kind of skeleton, conceptually, in what I do, which is just me and a guitar. Every song I write to this day I want to be able to do it solo.”
The story behind the El Paso demos is the more interesting of the two. “We were on tour in America with a band called Social Distortion and we were driving from Arizona to Texas which is an extremely long way! In the middle there is El Paso on the Western tip of Texas. My friend Jim Ward lives there, he used to be in a band called At The Drive In and he had a studio there at the time. I called him up and said ‘Can we load in and demo?’ and he was like ‘Yeah, knock yourself out!'” Demos, he tells me, are an essential part of the creative process, “It’s like making a sketch before you do a painting. It gives you loads of opportunity to rethink your structuring, arrangement and feel.”
The half-developed form is what’s so brilliant about any demo, particularly the indistinguishable mumbling which stands in for the incomplete lyrics
I asked him why he chose to share them with us on the new album. “It’s a window into ‘How did you get from this to that?’ and that’s the idea I guess: so that people can listen to the songs in kind of half-developed form and see what the thinking was that got them to where they ended up.” The half-developed form is what’s so brilliant about any demo, particularly the indistinguishable mumbling which stands in for the incomplete lyrics! It’s bizarre listening to what are now some of Turner’s most legendary lyrics as nothing but unintelligible noise…
We had just enough time to discuss Turner’s new single The Gathering, a track which captures the euphoric return of live music free from COVID restrictions. The plosive alliteration in the opening line (“The first time that the beat drops in the bar is gonna be biblical”) instantly hypes up the listener and made me envision a thrashing mosh pit of gig-goers, while the alliterative and volatile verses sound so relatable they could have been taken straight from the pages of my pandemic journal. Despite our mutual hatred for this virus, the track wouldn’t have existed at all without the pandemic. While being nothing short of a horrific ordeal, it’s nevertheless proven to be a huge creative influence for a lot of musicians; I guess every cloud does have a silver lining.
Discussing the return of gigs and the inspiration for the track, Turner reminds me that we are fundamentally social creatures. “Human beings have this kind of collectivist impulse […] and for some people that’s live music. It’s that sense of – at the risk of quoting myself – gathering, of just coming together and being with other people and losing yourself in something that’s greater than just you. It’s a really important and beautiful thing.”
It’s an identity crisis that anyone whose professional living has suffered the prolonged effects of the pandemic has had to grapple with
The return of night-time venues is something many of us are eagerly waiting for, but for musicians it means the return of their literal livelihoods. Turner spoke candidly about how the last 16 months have impacted him personally, “The last year and a half has been really tough for me, partly financially – I make my living playing shows and I haven’t played any in a long time and that’s been a challenge – but more importantly it’s identity. If I’m not the guy who’s on tour all the time then who the f*ck am I?”
It’s an identity crisis that anyone whose professional living has suffered the prolonged effects of the pandemic has had to grapple with. Quoting the iconic Joni Mitchel’s Big Yellow Taxi, Turner admits “‘You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone’, we all took live music culture for granted.” Although he relished the opportunity to take a break during the first lockdown, the novelty has well and truly worn off. “F*ck Netflix!” he tells me, “I’ve completed it all anyway! I would literally go out and see anyone right now.”
I couldn’t let him leave without telling me his favourite song from ‘EKMB’. Like a proud parent, he insists he can’t choose favourites (but proceeds to do so anyway!). “I think Redemption is a favourite because it goes to quite an extreme emotional place and is quite a complicated piece of song-writing. They’re obvious choices but I Still Believe and If Ever I Stray are two songs that have stood me in good stead and I’m proud of them. They’re songs that I suspect will be in my setlist for as long as I’m playing shows and that’s a strange but cool thing.”
Longevity is certainly an indicator of a successful song, and I know most of us can’t wait to be belting them out crammed into a sold-out venue ASAP, now that live music has made its triumphant return.
The 10-year anniversary reissue of ‘England Keep My Bones’ is out now.
Featured image courtesy of Sonic PR. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
In-article images courtesy of @frankturner via instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.
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