It’s been five days since the release of Frank Turner’s eighth album No Man’s Land when PSNEurope meets the singer/songwriter and the album’s award-winning producer Catherine Marks (The Big Moon, The Amazons, St Vincent) at London’s Assault & Battery Studios. Run as a joint venture between studio pioneers Alan Moulder and Flood, it is one of the city’s premium facilities, a world-class sonic playground for some of the biggest names in the business. Recorded here earlier this year, No Man’s Land joins a raft of acclaimed albums to come out of the studio of late, with Interpol, Royal Blood, Brandon Flowers, Foals and many others all having made use of its services.
We’re greeted by Moulder and a pair of excitable but well-behaved greyhounds upon our arrival, as Marks offers us a seat while we wait for Turner to arrive. He’s heading straight to the studio from a delayed flight. It gives us time to have a brief solo chat with Marks about initial reactions to the record.
“It looks like it’s going to go straight into the Top 3,” she says, “but some of the reviews haven’t even mentioned the music, they’ve been really personal…”
Two days later the record does indeed debut at No.3 on the official UK albums chart, but the big talking point has been the vitriolic response from some – particularly on social media – towards the album’s subject matter, or rather, Turner’s treatment of it. For the uninitiated, No Man’s Land tells the stories of various women whose lives he believes have been overlooked throughout history, ranging from rock’n’roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to New York jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter and a suspected Camden Town witch named Jinny Bingham, to name a few. An accompanying podcast has been released to provide additional context to the album, while Turner’s band The Sleeping Souls have been replaced by an all-female line-up of musicians. Accusations of mansplaining and condescension have been voiced by some, while others have leapt to his defence, highlighting the importance of men being able to discuss representations of women.
Still, Marks is typically bright and enthused, as is Turner when he arrives, showing little sign of fatigue despite an intensive travelling schedule. The pair’s easy rapport is immediately evident. Both are clearly proud of No Man’s Land and Turner seems amiable and happy to discuss criticism of the album, but the air bristles when he talks about some of the insults that have been thrown his way on social media.
“That’s just Twitter – people taking it upon themselves to be outraged on other people’s behalves,” he says, taking a seat. “There are intelligent questions to be asked and I’m always up for a good faith debate, but Twitter is a hate factory. There’s an in-built incentive towards disconsolate rage.”
We’ll revisit the subject later. The primary reason for our visit today is to discuss the production of No Man’s Land, an album which stands musically and sonically apart from much of Turner’s previous work. In the past, he has bobbed and weaved between punk and folk. This time, it’s the latter that features most prominently, complemented by elements of rock and jazz, making for his most melodic and musically diverse collection of songs yet. It’s an album that’s been a long time in the making, and one that Turner says has been pivotal in helping him explore new artistic ground.
“I wrote this record before [previous record] Be More Kind,” he tells us. “The previous two albums were personal, confessional records, and I wanted to try a different approach. I started writing history storytelling songs and after I had a few in the can I realised they were all about women. That seemed interesting, and there was an implicit politics in the fact that I was trying to tell stories I don’t think are told enough. I was thinking about producers, and the optics of two men sitting in a windowless room for a month recording songs about women didn’t feel smart. So I started thinking about women who produce records, and the first name that came up was Catherine Marks.”
So what did she think when she first heard about the album’s concept?
“I knew Frank was interested in doing an album and building a podcast around it; I hadn’t heard any music but had heard that he was pretty awesome,” Marks adds, addressing Turner. “Everyone I spoke to said you were ridiculously talented and very prolific. I’d been working with very young artists, so was interested in working with someone who has the level of experience that I do. Then we got on the phone and he explained in better detail what the record was about. He asked if I minded being involved in this project and I said, ‘No, not at all’.
“Then I heard the demos and one of the things I was drawn to was the quality of his voice, so irrespective of what the songs were about, he had a beautiful voice that was presented in a more intimate way than I had heard in his music before.”
When Turner and Marks finally entered the studio together, the core of the album had already been written, but there was still plenty of room for collaboration in bringing the songs to life.
“There was no pre-production in the way I would usually work with a band, where we’d look at arrangements and parts,” explains Marks. “Frank had written a blueprint for the songs and had a very clear idea of the instrumentation, which directed what the aesthetic would be. But as the project moved forward we learned things from the previous songs that had been recorded.”
“One of my favourite moments was on a song called ‘Perfect Wife’,” Turner elaborates, “which I was going to do just as vocals and guitar. Then Holly, who was playing drums, joined in. Catherine went nuts and essentially built a kit out of scrap, like drum cases and bits of metal, and we ended up cutting that song as a live take. It was completely different to how I thought it would sound. I’m becoming drawn to arrangements that have fewer, but stronger, elements. One of the records we talked about was Is This Desire? by PJ Harvey. There’s one bassline, one piano line, one guitar line and a vocal, and each element is individually very strong.”
“That made mixing it very easy, and it also helps that [Frank’s] a very good player,” Marks notes. “Before, if a player wasn’t necessarily that competent or fresh and we had to be quick, I’d use other instrumentation to support them. But when you have a really good player, that part can be out and proud by itself.”
Responding, Turner beams: “This is something I haven’t said to you before, but you have greatly increased my confidence as a guitar player. I’ve come out of this record thinking I’m possibly an average guitar player rather than a below-average guitar player!”
“It’s what I do, mate,” she smiles back.
The role of the producer
He may have eight albums to his name, but Turner has never worked with the same producer twice.
“Some bands use the same producer on every album, I’ve never used the same producer twice… yet,” he laughs. “When I made Tape Deck Heart with Rich Costey I wanted to go down the bombastic major label producer route; for Positive Songs For Negative People Butch Walker’s job was essentially to keep the record label out of the studio. In this instance, I was looking for an ally. I needed someone who had the skill set, but the personal connection was the most important part, and we had that straight away.”
Marks agrees, highlighting just how greatly the definition of the term ‘producer’ can vary from one artist to the next. “I’ve just done a record – not Frank’s – where the process was so different to anything I’ve experienced before,” she says. “I was sent a vocal and a piano part and I had to build the song around that. That’s still production, but my favourite part of the job is being in the room with the artist, creating that chemistry, being their support and facilitator. I also love eking out different sonics and reacting to what’s happening in the moment.”
Given that Marks had been working mostly with new artists, was the process of creating that artistic chemistry with a more experienced musician an easier or more difficult process?
“This was the easiest record I’ve ever made because it was so enjoyable,” she says emphatically. “[Frank] has this childlike love of history; it’s like you’re driving into this Jurassic Park of history, with your hands on the window. That’s really infectious. There was so much love and joy that went into making this record.
“One of the challenges I find sometimes is getting the artist to do stuff; they just want it to be fun and to muck around, but it’s a lot of work and we have to work to time frames. With this, every day was fun and we were achieving so much so quickly.”
Another defining aspect of No Man’s Land was Turner’s decision to recruit an all-female band. “If you work with the same musicians on every record you can achieve a level of harmony or tightness which is quite hard to cheat, but you can get into musical cul-de-sacs, and a big part of the idea for this was to not work with those guys for one record,” he says. “It allowed me to be more holistic, to be in charge of everything. And it felt great. There were moments where I missed my boys, but for the most part it was refreshing and exciting.”
Marks also played a pivotal role in coaxing Turner into a position that was more vulnerable and markedly less guarded than usual in the studio.
“[Catherine] was adamant I had to tell her a story when I was doing my vocal takes,” he continues. “That’s a great example of the intangible stuff a producer does with the artist; just throwing in a suggestion like that completely reshaped the way I was performing. We started using scratch (guide) vocals as the finished takes. There was one song where she made me redo a couple of lines for the scratch vocals. I was like, ‘Why do we need to do that? And suddenly I was like, I see what you’re doing!’ But it worked so well, and it sounds like what it is, which is someone telling you a story in an intimate way.”
Inevitably, we return to the controversy surrounding the record’s release. Fans of Turner have largely stood in staunch support of the album, while some of the more negative reviews have ranged in tone from mild disapproval to personal condemnation. He’s also been the subject of some vicious trolling on social media. None of this, he claims, has surprised him.
“It hasn’t surprised me because I’m a grown up who’s used the Internet,” he deadpans. “There are intelligent questions to be asked about this. I thought a lot about the politics of what and how I was writing, not only with regard to gender but also that these are real people. I wanted to be respectful, sensitive and intelligent, while also trying to find an emotional core to each song.” “I thought a lot of the negativity was personal, not about the music,” Marks adds, before asking Turner, “Do you think if you’d released this as just a set of songs you’d have had the same reaction?”
“It’d probably have flown under that radar a lot more,” he responds. “But I’m a songwriter and it’s important that the songs survive without the podcasts and the history lessons. At the same time there is a didactic angle to this album and it is cool to talk about history and get this into the open. I didn’t want to hide what I was trying to do.
“The accusation from the ‘haters’ that winds me up most is that I didn’t think about the implications of what I was doing. I think about my songs more than anything else. I’ve been thinking about these songs for four fucking years,” his easygoing demeanour becoming spikier by the second. “Of course I’ve thought about it. People might disagree with my take or think I could have done it better, and that’s legit and I’ll have that discussion, but the idea I wasn’t thoughtful going into it is insulting.”
Though the personal attacks on Twitter can be more easily dismissed, there are indeed legitimate questions to be asked about a project in which the real life stories of women are written and spoken by a man. Has Turner been able to understand and engage with any such questions or criticisms?
“Yes, definitely,” he nods. “The first press release announcing the album could have been presented better. And one of the things I thought about a lot was that I wanted to present the record with myself being as much a student as a teacher. I didn’t want it to be me just telling people how it is. I mention in the podcast that no one has ever written a book about Dora Hand, then someone emailed me to inform me that someone has, so I shared it out. I want it to be an ongoing process.
“There are fans who have been aggressively defensive of me – which is very sweet of them – but in a very smart way,” he continues. “They’ve put together a blog called Tales From Wo-Fans Land, with posts about female historical figures. It’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping might come from this; people using it as a leaping off point and taking more account of the imbalance in the way that history has been recorded.”
Whatever one’s view of No Man’s Land, it is clearly the product of a labour of love, and Marks and Turner’s pride in it is palpable. And one does sense that Turner is genuinely willing to engage with critics and participate in debate with those who find the record problematic. It’s an album that will continue to polarise, but regardless of its politics, they both ultimately want No Man’s Land to be treated first and foremost as a collection of songs. “I really pushed myself, musically and lyrically,” a defiant Turner signs off. “There is a whole load on this record I’ve never done before. To be able to say that on your eighth record is pretty cool, and I’m proud of it.”