Robert Francis began taking piano lessons before his toes could reach the foot pedals. When he was seven years old, his mother encouraged him to learn guitar so he could play the traditional ranchera songs she’d grown up singing with her sisters. Two years later, Ry Cooder gave him his first guitar, a vintage National Steel. In his teens Red Hot Chili Pepper’s John Frusciante took him on as his only student and a few years later, he released his first album One by One – at nineteen. His second album Before Nightfall, included the song ‘Junebug’ which became a commercial success in Europe. Strangers in the First Place, his new release and first for Vanguard Records, represents a breathtaking artistic leap for the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Strangers in the First Place was recorded in a rented mansion perched high above the Pacific Ocean in the Malibu hills. Francis went there to capture the feeling of expansiveness that lies at the heart of Los Angeles, where he was born and has always lived. The album embraces that feeling in every song, using a cinematically vivid imagery to tell a story of love and loss, but one that always offers hope as an underlying constant. In order to reconnect with the emotions he wanted to express, Francis radically altered his songwriting methodology for the new album to find his way forward.
“What was different about this album is that it started with the lyrics,” Francis says. “Typically I’d write the lyrics and wait for melodies to come that would rhythmically fit with them. And when those two worlds collide and become one, it was as if they were meant to be a song at some point. That was an interesting process for me, because I would constantly surprise myself.”
That strong element of self-surprise runs through the dozen songs, like a buried emotional thread. Also evident is another inspiration: poetry. “I was becoming frustrated with the idea of writing a traditional song,” he says. “At that point I started reading a lot of poetry—Stanley Kunitz, Conrad Aiken, W.H. Auden—and I was trying to work with different meters. There’s a Yale Series of Younger Poets, and I wanted to compile enough work to submit my poems into their competition. ‘Alibi,’ ‘It First Occurred to Me,’ ‘Closest Exit,’ ‘I Sail Ships’—those are poems. Going about it as poetry opened up my mind and released me from the pressure to come up with choruses and melodies. Kunitz said that when you sit down to write something, your mind should be clear enough that you’re not writing about something, you write, and if you’re clear enough or if you’re lucky, it is something. That inspired me.”
Francis’ newly-penned poems were dancing in his consciousness when, after his band mates flew from Seattle to L.A, he drove his van down the coast—in total silence. “During the drive I started hearing melodies,” he recalls, “and that’s when I wrote a lot of the melodies for this album. I would also take trips up the coast with my dog Pancho and just have silence as a way to release what was in my most inner psyche and pick up on that. I was listening closely to the sounds inside my head.”
At its thematic core, Strangers in the First Place forges deep into that treacherous psychological terrain. Its dozen songs fearlessly probe the dizzying arc of romantic ecstasy and its bittersweet aftermath. “Like my other albums, the running theme that seems to tie everything together is love and love lost,” Francis confirms. “My first album was such an easy one for me to write because I was so caught up in this tumultuous love affair. It was the first time I’d ever experienced these things.” But as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that the more I see and the more I travel, the more I lose touch with that wholesome feeling of youthful naiveté,” he continues. “So as much as anything, this album is a way for me to hold onto and express myself and feel those things before they’re lost to me.”
Francis and his band—drummer Richard Gowen, bassist Rob Douglas, guitarist Benji Lysaght and keyboardist Ben Oginz—later joined by special guests Mike Campbell, Jim Keltner, Ry Cooder, Joachim Cooder, Blake Mills and sisters Juliette and Carla Commagere —recorded the album set up in a circle and playing live while the sun played hide-and-seek with the marine layer in Malibu. Producer Martin Pradler (Ronnie Wood, Ry Cooder, The Pretenders) manned the console as the music unfolded. The result was an evocative, richly detailed work of vaulting musical and literary sophistication, all within the excitement of musicians playing as one.
Robert Francis’ musical prowess stems both from his genes and his upbringing. His father is a producer, pianist and collector who has single-mindedly devoted his life to classical music. “He’s very much obsessive with his music,” says Francis. “But that inspired me to find my own passions. I‘ve developed that same approach to my music—to be that extreme, to live and die by it, in a sense.”
As for the time when the young boy had his first musical epiphany, Robert Francis will never forget that night when he was 10 years old. “It was at Harry Dean Stanton’s birthday, and my sisters were opening up for his blues band,” he remembers. “I was noodling on guitar outside the club when the guitar player in Stanton’s band motioned for me to come onstage. He hung his big Gibson ES-335 over my shoulders and I started taking a solo. I looked up at Harry Dean in his white suite, holding a highball glass and singing, and then Chaka Khan came onstage and she was on her knees singing to me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to play music. Shortly after that I discovered the (Wim Wenders’ classic film) Paris, Texas. The imagery and the way it was shot, Ry’s soundtrack—all of it spoke to me in such a way that I just wanted to make that my life.”
And so he has. Since those early moments of clarity, Robert Francis has grown from a wide-eyed precocious kid to a young master of every aspect of his chosen medium of expression. Strangers in the First Place thrillingly documents his coming of age as an artist of the first rank.
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