FRANK TURNER cuts an imp-osing figure . . . tall, bearded, handsome, his arms and hands covered in tattoos.
When I meet the so-called “folk-punk” singer, he’s clutching a paperback tome so huge that I can’t help asking what it is.
“I’m reading Deirdre McCloskey’s history of economics, which is extremely heavy going,” he informs me.
“This is volume three (Bourgeois Equality), 650 pages. I’m getting through it, er, slowly.”
As he puts down the book, I notice F-R-E-E spelled out on the fingers of his right hand and B-O-R-N on those of his left.
The term “freeborn” is a clue to the type of man he is. It derives from English Civil War political agitator John Lilburne, a member of the Levellers movement, who argued for basic human rights.
Turner subscribes to “classical liberal” ideology, his stance allied to an abiding obsession with history. He’s well aware of his liability to drone on about his frequent deep dives into the past.
“When I read something interesting, I want to tell all my friends about it,” he says. “At parties, everyone starts edging towards the kitchen!”
Trapped in the confines of a record label exec’s office, there’s no chance of me escaping well-spoken, Eton-educated Turner.
As it turns out, an hour in his company indeed proves a history lesson, enlightening and entirely relevant to his latest songwriting endeavours.
His new album, No Man’s Land, tells the stories of remarkable women, some wicked, some wonderful, some tragic, some inspiring, all no longer with us save his beloved mother Rosemary Jane.
Most are fairly obscure historical figures and his fascination with them extends to illuminating half-hour podcasts to accompany each song.
“Part of the motivation for writing this record is rescuing my social life,” he quips. “By channelling my interests into songwriting, hopefully I’m punishing my friends less at parties.
“Traditional, storytelling folk music is a big influence, anything since Robin Hood. Another inspiration is Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I come from a family of raconteurs and you should avoid us at Christmas where we tell stories that people have heard 18 times already.”
His new songs focus on rock ’n’ roll “godmother” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, serial husband slayer Nannie Doss and Rothschild heiress Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who became a devoted patron of the New York jazz scene.
Three tracks are strongly connected to London, including I Believed You, William Blake — about the Battersea-based poet’s steadfast wife Catherine.
The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead reflects on the ancient Cross Bones burial ground for prostitutes in Southwark, while Jinny Bingham’s Ghost is about a suspected Camden Town witch in the 1700s.
“All the songs are about something as well as the person . . . faith or greed or whatever,” says Turner.
He’s keen to address social media mutterings along the lines of “what does this man know about women?”.
“I don’t want to lead a parade that I have no right to lead,” he says. “I’m trying to present these women with me being the student as much as anyone else.”
But he’s sick of “entirely censorious” tendencies of social media, particularly Twitter.
“I’ve completely stopped reading all forms and I can’t recommend it highly enough,” he affirms. I’d love to sit here and tough it out and be Johnny Rotten about everything. I can’t. Having a small yet vociferous minority telling you you’re an a**ehole 200 times a day doesn’t do wonders for your mental health.”
While Turner’s mindful of “stepping into potentially controversial waters”, he has the credentials to pull off this ambitious, narrative-rich project.
He studied history at the London School of Economics and today the 37-year-loves nothing more than to trudge round the capital searching out haunts of past lives less ordinary.
He even collects old walking guides to London and says: “I’m like the biggest nerd in the world. I’ve started buying 19th-century guides to see how much of these walks you can still do.”
Referring to Samuel Johnson’s immortal quote “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, he adds: “You could spend all day, every day for the rest of your life walking round London.”
His starting point for No Man’s Land was Camden Town, specifically the building housing The World’s End pub where Jinny Bingham once did her worst (or best, depending what you believe).
“Camden is my spiritual home, my favourite place on Earth,” says Turner. “There’s a plaque in the doorway at The World’s End telling Jinny’s story. I’ve often read it while waiting for people who are running late.”
Turner explains why she piqued his interest and became his “patron saint of the waifs and strays” on the rollicking album opener.
“Not only was she a 17th-century barkeep, but also an apothecary,” he says. “Commonly in those days, someone who dealt out substances affecting the body was in danger of being accused of witchcraft.
“She had this romanticised reputation for gathering up outcasts and outlaws. That’s exactly what attracted me to Camden when I first got there aged 14. I felt like I’d come home for the first time in my life, because I had been feeling socially ostracised. It’s a place for people who don’t fit.”
Next up is Turner’s stirring tribute to the singing evangelist who helped kick-start pop music in the Thirties with her electric guitar and glorious holler.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the living link between Pentecostal religion and rock ’n’ roll,” he says.
“She was wildly successful and then, in 1956, Sun Records started releasing the same kind of music made by white people . . . Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis . . . and she got written out of history.
“As a white man who plays rock ’n’ roll and has written songs about Elvis and Jerry Lee, the very least I can do is tip the hat.”
We’re back in England for third song — I Believed You, William Blake — about the wife who stood by him through thick and thin.
“Catherine kept him together, in many instances kept him clothed in public. When he died (in 1827), no one cared and his work was in a complete mess. Catherine catalogued and arranged it. If she hadn’t, we would know very little about William Blake.
“It has been reported, not entirely facetiously, that she was the only person who understood his theology. I have this image of her standing by his graveside and saying, ‘I hope you’re right, because, if you’re not, I have wasted my life’.”
The song Nica is an affectionate paean to the Rothschild family’s Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who threw support behind jazz icons Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.
Turner says: “She rejected the life given to her, instead giving her life to music. In a way, that’s very pure, because she wasn’t a musician and she wasn’t a groupie.
“Her sacrifice was total. She lost family connections, most of her money, her husband, her children. It was because this sound hit her. There’s a quote of hers on the album’s sleeve: ‘Throw your heart over the garden fence and the rest will follow.’
“She reminds me of my grandmother, a free spirit who gave me my first shot of whisky when I was ten.”
No Man’s Land gets darker, with A Perfect Wife about awful Nannie Doss, the Giggling Granny who bumped off four husbands and other relatives.
“I started Googling female serial killers,” says Turner. “If you want to waste a couple of days of your life, that’s quite an effective way of doing it.”
Doss, we learn, escaped the death penalty because of her gender but “smoked herself to death in the penitentiary and never displayed remorse.
“In her clearly damaged mind, she was pursuing true love. If it didn’t turn out like penny romance novels, she’d wipe the slate clean.”
If Nannie Doss was a devil, Christa McAuliffe, the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger astronaut, was an angel. Turner found it hard to get the tone of Silent Key right. “Christa was a primary school teacher, put on the shuttle to get children excited about the space programme,” he says.
“It’s difficult for me as a writer not to be captivated by her story but I knew I also had to be respectful. The disaster is right on the edge of my memory. My mother was my teacher at primary school and she says we watched it.”
Turner’s insights continue with The Death Of Dora Hand, about a dance hall singer from America’s East Coast who ended up in the fabled Boot Hill cemetery, Dodge City, which he visited for some up-close research.
“Her story is high Shakespearean tragedy,” he reports. “She was accidentally murdered by a suitor in the bed of her lover.”
No Man’s Land, it seems, is full of intrigue all the way. Eye Of The Day remembers mysterious dancer Mata Hari, questionably shot by the French for spying during WW1.
The Lioness details pioneering Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi, who defiantly gave up her veil. The Hymn Of Kassiani summons the spirit of a Byzantine luminary — one of only two Middle Ages women known to have written down their names.
Rescue Annie dwells on a girl drowned in the Seine in the late 1800s, whose death mask was copied for CPR training manikins. The song, suggests Turner, “treads the line between myth and history”, imagining a poor soul who had never been kissed but whose likeness, the dummy, is being kissed for eternity.
Finally, we come to the album’s most personal song, Rosemary Jane, about Turner’s mum. “She’s known as Jane but her name is Rosemary Jane, which I’ve always thought is beautiful,” he says.
“I have her initials on my wrist, a bit of a ploy because my mum hates tattoos. She was furious but touched! There are more raw things about my childhood in this song than in anything I’ve written previously.
“I was a bit nervous about that. My father was absent and emotionally abusive when I was a kid and there’s a lot more I can’t tell in public. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t really give a s**t but I have to be cautious about my mum’s feelings.”
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Turner sent her a rough mix of Rosemary Jane without realising it was Mother’s Day. “I accidentally became the greatest son of all time,” he says.
“My sisters couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘You little sucker! We sent her flowers and you sent her a f*****g song.’ So I came out of it very well and I’m pleased to say my mum has embraced it. My partner described it as a little boy singing to his mother.”
That little boy became big, tall Frank Turner . . . the singing history book.
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