John Turrell: A Northern Soul

An exclusive glimpse into the life of the up-and-coming soul star. Life, love and the lost delights of booking holidays on Teletext when you are drunk.
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An exclusive glimpse into the life of the up-and-coming soul star. Life, love and the lost delights of booking holidays on Teletext when you are drunk.

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John Turrell is the next big voice in British music. After building up a devoted cult following through his work with the deeply funky dancefloor fillers, Smoove and Turrell, the Fantasy Funk Band and The James Taylor Quartet, Turrell’s crossover to mainstream stardom seems assured following the release of his stunning debut solo album, “The Kingmaker”.

“The Kingmaker” melds Turrell’s magnificent vocals with a soulful soundscape and singer-songwriter sensibility to produce a 21st Century British “state of the nation” album. “Sabotage Times” caught up with Turrell before a recent gig in Switzerland to discuss life, love and the lost delights of booking holidays on Teletext when you are drunk.

Turrell explains that “The Kingmaker” is driven by his and songwriting partner, Nick Faber’s, desire to create “a genuine album that is strong enough musically and lyrically to inspire people to keep coming back to it. Music” he says “has gone back to being a disjointed jumble of single tracks, like it was before artists like Bob Dylan started creating albums as a whole piece of art. Nick and I wanted to make an album that had a coherent thread the listener could detect running right through it”

Turrell acknowledges with his trademark Geordie geniality that this approach goes against the talent contest dominated music industry tide. ”We are” he laughs, “swimming against a big, powerful river of shit. They’re the Thames and we are the Ouse! But if you look at the success of people like Guy Garvey of Elbow, it shows that there is a desire for musicians who are doing their own thing and not following any template of how popular music should sound”.

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For Turrell, the soul that his voice exudes means marrying music to emotion and storytelling about real life experiences. As he says “something like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” is not only musically perfect, it’s also like a history book. If you want to know something about life in Black America in the early ‘70’s, then you can learn a lot about it right there. And you can’t sing soul without having lived life a bit. Kids just can’t do it, even if the record labels keep making them try.

That’s why you end up with endless R&B “bling, bling” stuff, because they haven’t got anything else to say yet. Nick and I were keen not to let our angst override the music but you can feel it on “The Kingmaker”. It comes from the tough times we both lived through when we were writing these songs”.

Turrell has been singing since before he can remember, motivated, he confesses, by “always wanting to be the centre of attention”. But his life also includes five hedonistic years working as a joiner in London and another half-decade lecturing on construction at a Newcastle college. The latter experience provides an example of how sheer talent can turn the mundane into the magical. Turrell says that he “always enjoyed working with the kids but I hated the idea of education being treated as a business, which is how the college operated, and it turned the job into a grind”. One morning he saw that someone had graffiteed the words “Day In, Day Out” on the ugly concrete bridge he trudged across on his way to work. These words captured perfectly the mood of his existence at the time and eventually turned into the emotive piano-driven ballad “Day In, Day Out” on the new album.

Musically, the album succeeds emphatically in its aim of using different styles to create a coherent whole. Ballads such as “Day In, Day Out” blend seamlessly with reflective, bluesy growers such as “Wrong Time”, rockier songs like the title track and infectiously funky numbers like “Go Low”. There is a hint that Turrell’s training as a tradesman has influenced the feel of “The Kingmaker” as a beautifully put together piece work that is made to last. But Turrell’s life experiences are, most of all, expressed through the resonant lyrics that infuse the album with added depth.

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Turrell’s words explore the intersection between the political and the personal and the pitting of the powerful against the hardworking everyman. The album is a heartfelt expression of the struggles of working people, who are currently, as Turrell bluntly puts it “getting shafted again” by problems that are not of their own making and suffering insult on top of injury by being told “that the unemployed are idle when 99% of people just want to work and to provide for the ones they love”. The redemptive power of love is another theme of the album and Turrell makes clear that “I miss my girls (his wife and three daughters) when I am on the road”, a sentiment which closes “The Kingmaker” on the final track “Home”.

For all of that passionate anger and yearning, though, there is no hiding the other influence of Turrell’s regular Joe past on his music. He exudes a joyful appreciation for “having the chance to do what I love for a living, even if I currently make less than I could earn at Tesco’s!” As he relishes a pre-performance pint before bounding off energetically to go on stage, he muses enthusiastically about walking to the nearby Rhine Waterfalls to clear the inevitable post show hangover and “seeing more of Switzerland than the Aldi’s we passed on the way in!”

John Turrell is a genuinely good bloke, a big personality and an even bigger talent. With the spirit of a Jarrow Marcher and the voice of a soul legend, you sense that this is the “right time” for him to cross the bridge to stardom.

The Kingmaker” will be released on Big Chill records on 8th September