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“Try This At Home”: A fine book and call to action

“I do believe that everyone with any small amount of musical ability has something good to say inside them. At the very least, they have the right to try.”
— Frank Turner, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting”

Photo of Frank Turner's "Try This At Home" songwriting book atop a dobro guitarNot everybody knows that I have a long, albeit hidden, track record as a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since before high school, easily dozens of them. Styles range from punk and pop (especially in my teen years) to rock’n’roll and alternative (whatever that means) for my adult life, and most recently folk and blues.

Despite this catalog, I’ve never, ever played one of my own songs for an audience. Many of them probably shouldn’t be because they’re just not good (my earliest ones influenced by U2 and INXS and The Alarm would be dreadfully dated now, at best). Some of them are too personal to let out of the bottle. Too many of them are unfinished. But a handful might be passable at an open mic night.

This backstory, to say nothing of my admiration of his music and writings, dovetailed nicely into buying Frank Turner’s latest book, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting.” In addition to having several of his records, I also own his entertaining autobiography, “The Road Beneath My Feet.” In his books as in his singing, Frank is brutally honest, charmingly self-effacing and always very engaging.

The book is not exactly what you’d find on the syllabus of a songwriting class in a conservatory. Frank cusses a lot, draws on the lessons of poor behavior and decisions on his part, and doesn’t really get too technical. “Songwriting is an art and a craft,” he notes in the book’s introduction. “While the art part remains appropriately mystical and out of reach, the latter craft side of it can be examined, dissected, practiced and ultimately taught,” even as he next admits he’s not much trained in it.

And so, Frank takes readers through deep dives into the inspiration, structure and timelines of around three dozen songs, from tales of love lost and found to politics to the passing of Vaudeville. For whatever one might think of his music, Frank’s knowledge of world history, musical traditions and the creative process are all first-rate, and you’ll learn something about many different topics in these pages. He’s also one of the best showmen I’ve ever seen, expert at drawing his audiences into the song through call-and-response, singalongs and all kinds of interaction. Not surprisingly, his books similarly draw a reader in close.

A very valuable lesson from this book has been the difficulty for even the best writers of bringing a song from idea to lyrics to arrangement and then a lengthy fine-tuning process. One of my weaknesses in songwriting has been the initial excitement of a piece fading to the point I just want to get it done and then just leaving it. Frank often returns to songs he knows have potential to try to make them better, often trying again and again.

He also talks considerably about having a metaphorical treasure trunk of ideas. For him it’s notepads of everything from a clever turn of phrase to fragments of a tune to a song that he’s written but doesn’t feel complete. He does similar things with chords and arrangements that he later pieces together for finished tracks. It’s advice I give to my students working on ads and other creative projects — generate a bunch of ideas, because you never know if you’ll need them — but I’m bad at in my own life.

If you’re a Frank Turner fan, this is a must-have, obviously. If you’re interested in songwriting and like his style, this could also be useful. I’ve actually started writing pieces of songs — eschewing my normal habit of just writing a song to be done with it and moving on — so it’s already influencing my musical process.

So it’s truth in advertising: If you read this book about trying it at home, there’s a fair chance you actually will.

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The Frank Turner experience: part concert, part therapy

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Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls rocking in concert

Seeing Frank Turner live is as much of a group therapy session as it is a(n excellent) concert.

Frank’s catalogue includes beautiful, poignant song about broken people trying to mend themselves. His words have found many of us at the right time in the right place with the right message. For me, songs like “Recovery,” “The Next Storm” and “Get Better” all lifted my spirits and my thoughts when I really needed it. And looking around the crowd that enjoyed Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls’ show last night at the State Theater in Ithaca, I was far from alone. Many people were shouting his lyrics back cathartically, while others wore their emotion on their faces, these songs washing over them and making them feel cleansed.

He’s been through a lot himself, known as a man who got where he is by a rather ridiculous work ethic couple with being a charismatic everyman. It comes across in his songs, his shows and, if you want a nice read, his autobiography “The Road Beneath My Feet.” Frank is a rock star, to be sure, but this nervous, angular, foul-mouthed Englishman really feels like one of us.

Frank tells audiences his shows have two rules: “Don’t be an asshole” and “If you know the words, sing.” If you don’t know the words, he says, you can dance. But he also urged the crowd to dance during various songs, so much of the crowd was singing and dancing.

He started with a slow song, the title track off his new album “Be More Kind,” which thematically set the theme for the night. Frank and the band picked things up with “1933,” one of a few tracks on the new record castigating fascists and racists (as any good punk rocker would) and by the time the crowd was sing “we can get better/because we’re not dead yet” from “Get Better,” the show was in full gear.

A smattering of people had their smartphones out taking a lot of pictures and recording, although it seemed like less than an average show. Frank and the Sleeping Souls provide a very immersive concert experience, best not viewed through a tiny lense. Take a few photos to remember the experience, sure — I usually do mine during the first few songs, then put my phone away — but realize this a live and dynamic thing you should enjoy in the moment. In “Don’t Worry,” the first track on his new album, Frank even has a few lines that seem to address the need to spend less time with technology and be more human:

Don’t let your heart get hardened into stone
Or lose yourself in looking at your phone
So many so-called friends
And still you feel alone
You should spend more time with the do’s than with the don’ts

This was an evening about doing and feeling and singing and dancing. Frank inserted a three-song solo acoustic set, which included “Smiling at Strangers on Trains,” a reworking of an old song from his previous band, Million Dead. Then he asked the crowd up front to make a circle and a mosh pit broke out (I was more concerned about my glasses than my body, but we all made it through).

The band closed the set with “Photosynthesis” (the show-closer for some previous tours). During the break before the last chorus, Frank said we had a chance to take this feeling, this positivity forward, that on Monday morning we could go to work or school and choose not to be assholes, to make compassion in fashion again and to simply be more kind. It sounds cheesy to say, but it was actually quite inspirational.

His four-song encore included one last fast dancing song, “Four Simple Words,” before he closed with “Polaroid Picture,” a song about making memories last. He asked the crowd to put their arms on each other’s shoulders, and soon strangers on both sides of me stretched out their arms and smiled. So we were one big, sweaty, happy wave of people swaying side to side together, one more indelible memory during a song about just such a feeling.

The best art is about transformative experiences. For many of us fans, that’s what Frank Turner’s songs mean to our life. Last night felt that way too, where even a solo like me was dancing with hundreds of strangers turned friends. How many of us got up this morning and went to work or school and decide to be more kind as a result? We’ll never know for sure. But what if we did?

 

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