Studio Life – Frank Turner

Frank Turner needs little introduction, having released a string of successful solo albums and performed thousands of headlining gigs around the world. His appearance at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012 exposed his songs to an even wider audience.

From history student, completing assignments while on tour, to hardcore punk with Million Dead, to his solo folk albums, Turner’s musical journey has been a long one. In a sense, it has come full circle as his eighth studio album is a fascinating tour through the lives of significant women from the past. It’s an intriguing project, requiring copious research and a necessary focus on the lyrical content. Turner’s keen interest in history led him to writing ‘No Man’s Land’, driven by the sense that some remarkable women were in danger of being forgotten, their stories left untold, their achievements unrecognised or uncelebrated. Turner has turned their lives into accessible narratives, none more captivating than ‘The Hymn of Kassiani’ about the 9th century Constantinople poet, who rejected the Emperor’s marriage proposal while composing music that has endured throughout history and can still be heard today. Remarkable. Shortly after the release of ‘No Man’s Land’, Americana-UK caught up with Frank to explore the creation of ‘The Hymn of Kassiani’.

Frank, there are so many fascinating narratives and significant women featured on the new album. The impact of Kassiani can’t be overstated. Can you tell us the ‘story’ of the song?

The song ‘The Hymn of Kassiani’ is essentially a co-write, across round 1150 years, between me and a Byzantine Greek abbess. I was putting together my new record, ‘No Man’s Land’, which is a history, story-telling record. Once I’d got quite deep into the writing process, I’d established that the subjects I was writing about were all women, which was interesting to me – that wasn’t my initial plan, but in trying to tell untold stories, I’d ended up writing about exclusively female subjects. I wanted to make sure that the record wasn’t overly Euro-centric and started thinking about other points in history, other cultures. After a while, I came across the name of Kassiani. She’s remembered for several reasons, but the one that caught my eye was the fact that she’s the earliest known female composer whose music we still have.

I started looking into her music. Her most famous composition is her a cappella eponymous hymn, which is still sung today in the Greek Orthodox church. It’s a haunting piece of music, so I worked it out, laying some slightly more conventional (to me) chords underneath. Next, I looked at the words to the hymn, and learnt as much as I could about what we know of her life story. She famously rejected the Emperor Theophilus at a bride show in the 9th century, and then lived out her days as a nun, writing music and aphorisms, many of which survive today.

I wanted to emotionally and respectfully inhabit Kassiani’s character, if possible, so I took the words to her hymn (which are very religious and supplicatory), and repurposed them to tell a slightly different story. Much of what we know about her fades from history into legend, but she comes across to me, from the sources, as a singularly defiant and charismatic person. I turned the inflections of the words around to reflect this, and finished writing the song. Musically I tried to keep a Byzantine feel, as much as I could with my limited knowledge of that world, and included an a cappella intro and outro, in keeping with the original feel.

In the studio, producer Catherine Marks helped me get the feel right, bringing in Anna Jenkins on fiddle and Gill Sandell on piano, to back up my acoustic parts (played in DADGAD tuning). I’m really pleased with the finished product; it sounds like it has an edge to me, as well as keeping a historical feel to it appropriate for the person in question. I’ve played it live a handful of times and it’s gone over well; the accompanying podcast episode, recorded with Byzantinist professor Liz Jones, is one of my favourites from the series.

This song, as well as the rest of the album, is something of a departure for me, musically and thematically, but that’s by design; I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer, to say something new, for me. It’s been a really rewarding process, researching, writing, recording and sharing these songs, and bringing attention to some historical characters who deserve to be better remembered.”

For further ‘stories’ about Turner’s songs, look out for his new book, ‘Try This at Home: Adventures in Song Writing’.

Read Americana-UK’s review of Frank Turner’s new album, ‘No Man’s Land’.

Frank Turner “No Man’s Land” (Xtra Mile Recordings/Polydor Records, 2019)

Lyrics:

The Hymn of Kassiani

I’ve heard that they call me the woman
Who has fallen into many sins.
They made me bear myrrh to the burial,
And at the graveside, I began to sing.

Woe to me, all of you sinners,
I’m the lady of a moonless night.
The darkness to me is my ecstasy,
But for my sins I am far from contrite.
They dragged me away from the library;
I was cast to the bride-show’s harsh light,
Where I told the king I was better than him,
And thus earned Theophilus’ spite.

And Theo, he still thinks I love him,
But I know him, and he knows not a thing.
They call me Kassiani:
The woman who rejected the king.

The emperor, he tore down the icons,
The images and words thought divine,
But in the quiet of my cell I redrew them all,
And the name that I signed with was mine.
I was scourged with the lash for my impudence,
My tears were a fountain of brine,
But I conceded no defeat, my groaning heart beats
With defiant blue blood Byzantine.

And Theo, he still thinks I love him
But I know him, and he knows not a thing.
Don’t disregard me as a servant, know me
As the woman who rejected the king.

Yes I hid from his eyes when he visited,
But don’t dare think me frightened or meek.
I was sick of his ineffable condescension,
And I will not kiss those sacred feet.
I will make his footsteps into music
To be heard by both heathen and Greek.
They will mock his meanderings in paradise at twilight,
And they’ll remember me: Kassiani,
She who hates silence when it’s time to speak.

And Theo, he still thinks I love him,
He knows not the multitude of my sins.
They will sing my song after Byzantium has gone:
The woman who rejected the king.

I’ve heard all the things that they’ve called me;
It’s just so many arrows and slings.
Leave the glory to the stepmother, and to the son,
I’m the woman who rejected the king.

Photo credit: Lisa Marie Gee

Author: Andrew Frolish

From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Lukas Nelson, Midland, Jarrod Dickenson.

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