Frank Turner on languages and lyrics

Lauren Ward

Frank Turner is a folk singer-songwriter from the UK who often attempts to learn a little of the language of each of the places he visits while on tour. Ahead of his show in London with pop-punk legends Blink-182, Frank kindly gave up some time to talk to us about the importance of language when it comes to lyrics and connecting with fans.

In the past, you have posted videos on YouTube of you trying out new languages, such as Finnish, Czech, and Latvian. Can you tell us about your motivation for doing this?

A few times I’ve done language videos online, usually to promote a specific tour or show. It just seems to me that it’s both more fun and more respectful to the audience in question if you at least give it a go trying it out in the local language. I don’t speak many languages other than English but it’s fun, even if I’m reading it off a sheet and mangling the pronunciation. It’s a tip of the hat to people to say that you understand that you’re going somewhere that isn’t Anglophone. It just seems like a decent thing to do.

Are there any other languages you wish you could speak?

I wish I could speak many more languages than I do. I think lots of people get to a certain age and realise that school was actually kind of awesome in terms of the opportunities you had to learn things but you probably passed up, because you thought it was all boring when you were a teenager. I wish I’d done more languages when I was at school. There’s something really glorious about being able to speak another language. I think it gives you a different intellectual perspective, and it’s just nice to be able to chat to people in that way. I speak reasonably good French, and I can scrape by in German, just about. But I wish I could speak more languages than I do.

Have you ever attempted to write a song in another language?

I’ve never flat-out attempted to write a song in another language from scratch. I have translated songs into other languages. I have a song called ‘Eulogy’, which is eight lines long. It started with this guy in Germany: the show was sold out, and he wanted to get in on the guest list, and his offering was a translation of ‘Eulogy’ into German. He also sent me a video of him singing, to show me the scansion and the pronunciation. That’s the thing: translating lyrics is actually really hard because you have to think about things like scansion, as well as meaning and poetry. So I did that at the show, and then it became a thing. I think I’ve done twenty-three different languages now. Czech is the hardest one by a country mile. I have also then translated other songs of mine into French, often with help from friends. I usually do a first draft and then send it to my Parisian friends, who go: ‘Wow! Erm…’ And then tidy it up for me. But I’ve never sat down and started from scratch with the song in another language.

Frank Turner

Do you think there’s a relationship between music genre and the language you use when writing the lyrics?

I think that the corner of the music world that I inhabit is heavily Anglophone. To take the example of a band like Refused – one of my favourite bands – who are from Umeå in Sweden, they always sang in English. And in good English. I have mixed feelings about that. Because on the one hand, it means I can understand what they’re talking about, but on the other hand, there’s part of me that wants to go: ‘Sing in your own language! Communicate with us! It should be on us to translate it, from our end!’ Because they spent their lives listening to English bands singing in English. I think that outside of the punk scene and the indie rock scene, there’s probably more linguistic diversity in some areas. But I’m not an expert on those scenes, so it’s hard for me to say that with any degree of certainty.

Do you have a favourite lyric? Either one of yours or from an idol?

I have lyrics of my own that I prefer to other lyrics of my own..I go through a pretty heavy self-editing process, so I like to think that anything that makes it into the public domain has had at least a fair amount of care and attention. That’s not to say that I always hit the mark. There’s a few songs in my canon that make me go: ‘Ugh. Really?’ But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In terms of other people’s lyrics, there’s entire writers I could mention. John K. Samson, who’s a Canadian writer, is one of my favourite lyricists. Adam Duritz from Counting Crows is a really important writer for me. Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap is a phenomenal lyricist. Nick Cave gives me the fear because he’s so good. And Leonard Cohen is like the sun; he’s a little bit too bright to look at. I have quite a lot of lyrics by various other people tattooed on me. I have a Townes Van Zandt lyric on my back which says: ‘Everything is not enough, and nothing is too much to bear.’ Which is close to perfect, I think.

Do you think that language learning is important?

I feel very fortunate to be somebody raised speaking English, given the context, but I don’t think it’s good or bad that any one language exists as a sort of international form of communication. If anything, it’s bad for me because it makes me lazy about learning other languages, because most places in the world you can get by with English. I think learning a language is a really intellectually rewarding thing to do as an individual. My favourite writer not as a musician is Clive James. I adore Clive James… this is a man who learned French by buying a copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and a French dictionary. That is not a thing that normal human beings can do. And he is a great proponent of linguistic diversity. I do think that, to the limited extent that I can hold a meaningful intellectual conversation in French, it certainly gives me different perspectives while I’m doing it, and I think that anything that shakes you out of a kind of monist view of the world is a good thing. I think it’s excellent to have a different perspective wherever possible.

Would you have any tips for someone trying to learn a language?

I suppose – this is a hackneyed one – just throwing yourself in is pretty good. But that gets increasingly hard to do. I have friends who’ve lived in Berlin for five years who don’t speak any German because everybody speaks English in Berlin. Countries are different like that. Southern Europe is a lot less Anglophone than Northern Europe. You could happily live the rest of your life in Sweden without speaking a word of Swedish and it wouldn’t matter at all, whereas in Italy you have to speak Italian. I think throwing yourself in at the deep end works. Earlier this year, I did a three-week tour in France. I learned French at school, then I had a French girlfriend and I spent a lot of time in the Parisian punk scene, and it got pretty good then. But then it gets quite rusty when it’s not practiced. By the end of the third week of the tour, I was happily doing the whole show in French. But at the beginning of the tour, I was struggling. So it comes back, or you can soak it up quite easily.

If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to watch our chat with singer-songwriter Emmelie de Forest.

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