The punk and folk singer-songwriter reveals the inspiration and craft that went into a track about an 1800s vaudeville star
Francis Edward ‘Frank’ Turner is a folk singer-songwriter from Winchester, who began as the vocalist of post-hardcore band Million Dead, before embarking upon a solo career when the band split-up in 2005. Frank released his debut album, Sleep Is For The Week, in 2007 and has been on an upward curve ever since. He is now a highly regarded performer, a man who plays some of the biggest venues in the UK and whose records reach the higher echelons of the charts.
When we learned that Frank’s new LP was driven by the lives and legacies of 13 extraordinary women, we invited him to explain how one song developed from the story of 1800s Dodge City vaudeville star and philanthropist, Dora Hand…
The Death Of Dora Hand was one of the first songs I wrote for my latest record, No Man’s Land. It’s an album of story-telling, history songs, in the first instance. Once the writing picked up speed, I realised that, in trying to tell unknown stories, I was writing exclusively about female subjects, and there’s an implicit politics in that. But in the first instance, I was trying to tell cool stories. I read the story of the life, and more strikingly the death, of Dora Hand, in Dee Brown’s book about the American Old West. He covers her in a couple of paragraphs, but they brought me up short, and I dived into trying to learn more about her. It blew my mind that no one had written a song about her before; her story is high tragedy, and it has all the ingredients required for a great story song.
There are no books (as far as I know) exclusively about Dora. But I bought some more general histories of Kansas and Dodge City and found many more details. I made notes – it was like being back at university! – and started trying to assemble them into a song. Of course, I had to find an emotional angle on the story to make it a successful song, rather than just listing facts and events. It was a very different creative process for me; I had to get a certain amount of information into certain sections of the songs, and to allocate parts of her life to different verses, bridges and so on. Quite a few of the words are direct quotes. For example, Mayor Kelly did actually say of her, “she brings men a strange nostalgia, dreams of finer things and better days.” I’m glad that he apparently tended to speak with a poetic diction! And I had to find a way to wrap up and conclude the story. I’d read that her funeral was a huge event in the history of Dodge City. When I got to Dodge City myself to interview the curator of the local museum for the podcast episode that accompanies the song, I actually found out that this is more the stuff of legend than history; we don’t actually know anything about how and where she was buried. But at that point, I have to claim artistic license!
For the music for this song, I had the beginnings of a country piece coming together, and that felt appropriate for the subject matter, tending as that style does towards older American styles. It’s slightly more involved than a traditional country song, there are some weird suspended chords in the chorus, and the bridge heads off into unusual tonic territory. But the overall feel, by design, is something that might, at a stretch, have been heard when she was alive, at least in terms of the overall feel. The piece also features a proper bluegrass guitar solo. I’ve been teaching myself the work of Doc Watson and Tony Rice in recent years, partly because it’s a great technical discipline and partly because I love the sound of it. I’m not a virtuoso guitar player by any stretch, and this is the first proper guitar solo I’ve committed to tape, so laying it down took more than one take!
In The Studio
To make this record, it seemed important to me to work with a female producer, for obvious reasons. I ended up connecting with the great Catherine Marks, who is an A-list producer, and a real genius in the studio. Together we put together a line-up of female musicians to play on the songs, to play the parts I couldn’t handle myself. Holly Madge from the band Lock came down and played brilliant drums, and then Andrea Goldsworthy, from Imelda May’s band, laid down the upright bass, which really brought the country feel. Beyond that, my friend Gill Sandell played piano and killer accordion, and my fiancée Jess [Guise] came up with and sang some sweet harmonies. I played everything else. So the whole track came together piecemeal in the studio. It was reminiscent of the methodology employed on my first two albums, and it felt very free and creative. Catherine was a wonderful producer, endlessly encouraging and open to experimentation. On some songs, we went right down the rabbit hole, but for this one, given the stylistic approach, we stayed pretty tight to the original vision. My intention was to get the feel of a joyous, slightly ramshackle ensemble, much like the band on Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album. I like to think we succeeded there. And I did eventually nail the guitar solo!
The Death Of Dora Hand is an important song for this project, and for me as a writer. It represents new frontiers for me, both musically (in engaging with a proper country or bluegrass style) and lyrically (in it being one of my first attempts at a straight story song in the style of Phil Ochs and so on). I think it came together really well, and it certainly showcases not only the talents of the great players I was lucky enough to have with me in the studio, but also my growth as a guitarist. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a great story, and it’s got many more people reading and thinking about the life of a remarkable woman who was in danger of being swept under the carpet of history.
Frank Turner’s new album No Man’s Land is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings/Polydor Records. For all the latest news, head to theendofamericamusic.com