FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS
In its waning days on the air, WFNX kept a particular song in heavy rotation. “I Still Believe,” by the English folk-punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner, became something of a battle cry for the alternative-rock radio station. After Clear Channel bought ’FNX’s signal and ended its 29-year-long reign in July, “I Still Believe,” with its exaltation of the power of rock ’n’ roll, felt like a commentary on the hometown situation.
“That song was not just about what was happening at ’FNX,” says Paul Driscoll, who was the station’s program director at the time. “It spoke more about the community the station created — its listeners and the people who worked there and loved the music more than anything else.”
“I think that’s great,” says Turner, who kicks off his latest tour with a two-night stand at Royale beginning on Thursday. “The song was inspired by a trip to China, where I did an underground tour in 2010. We live in a culture so saturated by rock ’n’ roll that it’s easy to forget what’s great about it. I was playing with local bands that had a fire in their bellies like nothing you see in London or New York. I found it quite arresting. It reminded that this is the art form I engage with for a living, and I love it.”
So much of Turner’s catalog, including last year’s “England Keep My Bones,” is full of exuberant odes to the salvation you find in music. He started as a member of hardcore bands before shifting to more acoustic fare that retained a punk intensity. The transition wasn’t as easy as he had expected.
“Stylistically, I took a pretty left-hand turn,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to keep making music and keep traveling, but I also knew I needed to start over, to some degree within myself. I had gotten into listening more to folk and country almost as a reaction to the fact that I was in a noisy band. I got in the habit of plugging my headphones in and listening to the ‘American Recordings’ series by Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ ”
Right away Turner, who’s 30, connected to this new direction, even as his friends and fans questioned his intentions.
“When I first started playing acoustic stuff, pretty much everyone I knew thought I had lost my mind,” he says. “The general expectation among my friends was that I’d spend six months messing around with an acoustic guitar and join a hardcore band again and/or go get a job. But one of my nearest and dearest said to me that the acoustic music I was making sounded more like me and a better reflection of me as an individual person.”
Already a star in the United Kingdom, Turner has slowly made inroads in this country. A new compilation, “Last Minutes and Lost Evenings,” which Turner curated as an introduction to his work and includes a DVD of a concert at Wembley Arena, is a good place to start. It’s proof that part of Turner’s appeal is his threadbare honesty as a songwriter. On “Nashville Tennessee,” he openly declares over a rootsy strum:
Yes, I’m in 4/4 time
And yes, I use cheap, cheap rhymes
But I try to make a sound my own
I know I don’t break new ground
Many have traveled this sound
But I try to make it sound like home
Driscoll, who is now the program director at RadioBDC, Boston.com’s new online streaming radio station, says he still remembers seeing Turner for the first time last year at the Reading Festival in England.
“I was blown away,” Driscoll says. “No radio stations in the United States were playing him yet, which didn’t make any sense to me.” (RadioBDC will host a private show with Turner on Friday at T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge; the only way to get in is to listen to the station, at www.boston.com/radio, for a chance to be put on the guest list.)
Driscoll likens Turner to the bridge between fellow English raconteur Billy Bragg and bands like Dropkick Murphys and Mumford & Sons. The Dropkicks, in fact, have been big supporters of Turner, who toured with the Boston Celtic-punk rockers earlier this year. (“It sounds like I say this in every interview,” Turner says, “but I can honestly say the Dropkicks are the nicest band I’ve ever opened for.”)
Asked what had been missing in his music before he became more of a hell-raising troubadour, Turner considers the prospect and quickly realizes he hasn’t figured that out yet.
“That’s an interesting question and one that I’m still answering with the music I’m now making,” Turner says. “I always think that the day when I wake up and I’m not hypercritical of the last thing I did, that’s when it’ll be time to hang up my boots.”
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