Craft. Content. Creativity. – Thoughts on Frank Turner’s Songwriting

When Frank Turner earlier this year mentioned that he’s writing a book on songwriting, I was thrilled. I still am, even more thrilled in fact, now that there is a blurb, a release date, a UK book tour and all that jazz. If you think I’m thrilled because it’s new ‘material’ from my favourite artist, you’re not exactly wrong. But you’re not really right either. Anyone who’s been reading my blog for a while or has been following me on Twitter, should have realised by now, that I’m a huge fan of Frank’s songwriting. His lyrics. His way with words. I’ve tried to express my appreciation for his craft in my album reviews and thoughts on songs over and over again. In March I wrote a long post about what I love about the rhythm & rhyme of his work. In short: I gush about his lyrics constantly. I think I didn’t only turn into such a huge fan so quickly, because he wrote words and songs that resonated so deeply with me on so many levels. A big part of me “falling head over heels” for him as an artist also was, that he used such beautiful words to express what I feel or have felt at some point so much better than I ever could. And I’m a sucker for beautiful writing, whether prose or poetry, fiction or news feature.

Before I came across Frank’s work, I never put too much thought into figuring out why I like the lyrics or the sound of a song. But I started thinking about that much more in regards to so many of Frank’s songs. Maybe because his songs move me so much more than any other songs have before? Maybe because I’ve seen or read Frank himself talk about his songwriting process in quite a few interviews over the years. Maybe because I realised how much I like the ‘challenge’ to figure out why hearing some lyrics give me a bigger thrill than others? Recalling and applying what I’ve learned about language and writing in school decades ago. Learning new things, even if it’s just by looking up the right term for the literary device I recognize in some of the lyrics. It’s fun and educational and to some small extent I consider it even inspiriational for my own writing.

I’m well aware, that I may have unrealistically high expectations for his book on songwriting. I know it’s not going to be a “Analysing Frank Turner Songs 101”. I also know I might already know quite of a few of the stories behind the songs, because he talked about them on stage or in interviews. Nonetheless I want to share some thoughts of what I hope Frank will talk about in this book and what elements of his songwriting I hope he’ll shed some light on. Because I’ve got so many questions about so many aspects of this, ranging from trivial to significant.

I’ll start with Creativity, which is also the hardest to pin down and thus might only garner a few words from me. I know there is a creative element to songwriting. If there wasn’t anyone could do it, right? If I take the word “to create” in it’s strictest sense: what’s been Frank’s impulse to “make something new” from the words and melodies in his mind? I’m not quite sure if I consider ‘inspiration’ part of the creative or the crafty part of (song)writing. It’s one thing to have an idea (inspiration) to write about something and another to acutally do it. I have “Oh, you should write about this or that” thoughts all the time and I don’t follow through on 98% of them.

But inspriation of course is a good segue to Content. Why does Frank write about the things he’s writing about? He has always stated that he writes autobiographically and chronologically. Where those first few albums now feel like a snapshot of his personal life at that given time, later albums (from “England Keep My Bones” onwards) seem to be more centred around a specific theme, while still being personal and autobigraphical. Has that changed his approach of songwriting over time? Is there a difference for him in writing a song about unrequited love (“A Decent Cup of Tea”) or writing a song about the crazy state of modern age global politics (“1933”)? He’s written – but not recorded yet – a whole album on women ignored in the historical record, which seems as far away from autobiograpical as it can get. I’ve heard a few of those songs and they are ace! So: how much does the topic of a song actually matter when he’s writing a song?

And the most important question in this regard: How does he feel about baring his soul to strangers through his music? Why on earth is he putting himself through this? Or is that the wrong question to ask, because baring his soul to strangers is exactly the point of why he’s doing this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m so very glad that he has written all those deeply personal songs, because that’s what I needed to hear and that what helped me (and still does) to some extent. But to show the contrast: there are so many of my thoughts and emotions I’m not sharing with the world, neither here on my blog nor with people in ‘real life’. So many people in my ‘real life’ don’t even know that I have a blog! I’m very cautious about which aspect of ‘me’ I’m sharing with other people. I think we all do that to some extent, especially if it’s about fears and emotions and failures and such. And then Frank comes along and shamelessly sings about all of this and I’m in awe.

Finally let’s talk about Craft which by now I think is the key element of songwriting. The more I hear or read Frank talk about it, the more I’m fascinated by the whole process. So I hope he’s going to answer some of my questions by talking about how he wrote each of the 36 songs featured in the book. The most fundamental of all questions: How do you actually start writing a song? I’m quite serious. I imagine it being a very different process from the kind of writing I do here, where I am not limited by a song structure or a melody. I just sit down and hammer thoughts into my keyboard in an often purely stream-of-consciousness kind of way at first. Later comes the part of rephrasing, deleting, replacing, switching words and whole paragraphs around. But how does that work with a song? Does he have the words first? Or the melody? When does he bring those two parts together? Or does a song usually start with some words and a melody simultanously? Are there dozens of way to start “writing a song”? And if so, which is his favourite? Does he have a favourite? Does he focus on writing one song at a time or slipping back and forth between various pieces? Does he usually have more melodies or lyrical ideas floating around in his mind? How much of songwriting happens just mulling things over in his mind? And when does he start writing things down?

Which brings me to the practical side of his song writing: How does he work? I mean that quite literally. He’s mentioned having various journals to jot down ideas and words and that he’s usually writing lyrics by hand until it’s time to record the song and only then he’s typing them up to print them out. At what point though does he go from having these words in his mind to jotting them down and to sounding them out? Because he’s writing words to be sung and sound and rhythm are essential elements of a song. Has he ever written some lyrics and then realized there is no way he could sing those words, because they didn’t sound good or they were too complicated to sing? Although the latter is hard to imagine as he also wrote and more importantely sings “Recovery”, where I always stumble over the copious lyrics half way through. Does he also jot down nice sounding words or phrases without having any idea if he’ll ever use them, but he nonetheless keeps them for a later time? How much of his songwriting happens on the fly, because inspiration struck and he just needs to write this down and work this out? How much is actually tedious work at his desk at home: rephrasing and deleting words and putting new words in or switching words around until he get’s it right?

There are so many beautiful lyrics I would like to know the genesis of. How much of those were a bolt of inspiration and how much were gruntwork of a wordsmith. And how on earth could the in my eyes perfect lyrics of “Brave Face” be the result of a last minute rewrite of the original lyrics? How much of that was talent? Creativity? Craft? Whether creative inspriation or hard work, I just love how Frank makes such great use of all the wonderful linguistic elements the English language – or language in general – has to offer. My three favourites elements in that regard?

  • His beautiful metaphors, especially about the sea or any historical references
  • His sense of perfect rhythm in so many songs, wether it’s a very varied one (“Recovery”) or a perfectly even one (“Journey of the Magi”), they always just flow so very smoothly.
  • And most all his use of sonic repetition: rhymes of all kinds, but also assonance and alliteration.

“Josephine” is a song with some neat historical references. Was it always clear that the two most prominent lovers of a “Josephine” – Napoleon and Beethoven – would be part of that song and was in fact the song built around that idea?

“Journey of the Magi” is pure perfection in it’s even rhythm through the whole song. How much work was it to find the right words to fit into this pattern? Was it clear from the start that “played” would be drawn out to make it fit?

“Substitute” is another great example for his craft, as I’ve extensively explained here already and I’d love to know how these lyrics came to be. Did one of the alliteration came first and did he then work to find the other? “The first girl that I fell for was a fair and faithful fighter [….] The last girl that I loved, she was a low and lusty liar”. Where did the fire metaphors come from?

I could go on and on about the many many more bits and pieces of lyrics I’d like to know more about. I know Frank can’t and won’t write too much about such minutae in the book, because that’s such a special field of interest for linguistic nerds like me. But nerd that I am I started a thread on Twitter challenging myself to each day list a new piece of lyric I consider beautiful till the book’s release date next March. Let’s see how that will play out over the next few weeks…

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