Frank Turner is a punk rock indie hero. But he’s also someone who is searingly honest about his emotions and his problems. Annabel Platt talks to him about overcoming the stigma of mental health issues and the reality of surviving the music business.
When I shake the hand of Frank Turner, I have to crane my neck to look up at him. He’s impossibly tall, draped in a denim jacket and thin T-shirt, with tattoos poking out of the neckline. He’s commanded stages and grand venues around the world, yet here in the opulent bar of the Camden Roundhouse he seems understated, quiet and friendly. Throughout his career, which spans six full length studio albums and over two thousand live shows, Turner has tackled his own emotional wellbeing unflinchingly, both in his music and through interviews. With mental health recently rising up the music industry agenda (after being ignored for decades), I begin by wondering how easy it is for him to put so much of his personal life (the lows as well as the highs) into his music.
Within your music you speak openly about your own emotional wellbeing, is that something that comes naturally in your creative process?
I’ve always been interested in raw emotional honesty; I love it, that moment when you hear somebody say something un-retractable. I think music is empathy, a balm to soothe the problems of this shitty world we live in. It’s better to use it to talk about those problems than to pretend they don’t exist.
Some of your songs have very dark personal undertones, do you ever feel like you’ve opened yourself up too much?
There are certain songs I don’t like playing very much. Although Plain Sailing Weather is a song about my own failings, and to play that and have a room of thousands of people sing it back is a very bizarre form of therapy.
You have your personal email address listed as a point of contact on your website, is that connection with your fans important to you?
My email address is on my website because I don’t want to be removed from my audience. But I do get quite a lot of slightly ‘cry for help’ emails, and I understand why, but I’m not a therapist, I have my own shit that’s a very long way away from being figured out. I tell people to talk to somebody, get help, because I’m not going to be able to do that for you directly.
Your track Song For Josh highlights the feelings of confusion and regret that occur after losing someone to suicide; do you think within the media and the music industry there should be more awareness about suicide prevention?
Josh was everybody’s shoulder to cry on and to realise he’d carried that weight without sharing the burden with anyone was totally gutting. I wanted to know why he hadn’t talked to me. There are statistics you can reel off, like suicide being the biggest killer of young men in the UK. Prince Harry talked about mental health recently – and although I’m not a monarchist, good for him. I think that the stigma is starting to lift, but that doesn’t mean that anybody should stop talking about mental health, there’s still lots more to be done.
A music industry job isn’t the type that you can close the door on at the end of the day, and a lot of students struggle to get to grips with that when they’re just starting out. Is there anything that you’d wish you’d known when you started out?
Learning as I went along was fun and valuable, but I’m always telling people to educate themselves about how the music industry works. When I was starting out, I wanted to get good advice and get good people around me. It’s always been a huge privilege to work in a creative industry and for music to be the centre of my life; I’m hugely grateful for that.
A lot of young musicians use their craft as a creative outlet for dealing with their emotions, but do you think the music industry can trigger negative feelings?
There are places in the music industry that aren’t easy to work in, but I think that’s the nature of the beast. Touring is a very high stress environment, it’s hard on your physical health and it’s hard on your mental health.
Are there techniques you have learned that have helped you cope with that?
I drink less now and don’t do drugs. That sounds really simple, but with all the stress that comes with touring, it’s an extra weight on the structure that you don’t need. I like to think I’ve got better at looking after myself and talking to key people, but I’m far from perfect.
Photo by JJ Medina