Francis and the Lights

On a hot streak after opening for Drake and MGMT, a local artist does his best to square fame with integrity.

You can’t fairly sum up the year in pop without mentioning Drake and MGMT. And while little other than fame would seem to unite the Canuck crooner-MC and the futuristic Brooklyn duo, there is one key point of overlap: Both have chosen the enigmatic New York art-soul outfit Francis and the Lights as an opening act in 2010.

Bridging this Hot 97--Pitchfork divide requires an unusual sort of talent—and that’s putting it mildly. In just a few short years of performing around town, 29-year-old bandleader Francis Farewell Starlite—yes, his legal name—has already garnered a “difficult artist” reputation to rival that of many notorious veterans. For a primer, check out a would-be lighthearted SXSW interview from 2009, viewable on YouTube. The hosts lob snarky inquiries like, “So what’s your idea of heaven?” Starlite responds to each with a flat “I don’t feel like answering that question.”

This writer met with a similar stonewalling last year, after inviting Starlite to the TONY office for a live taping. When asked to recite a customary plug for our music blog, the Volume, the artist shook his head and said simply, “I’m not going to read that.”

This is the kind of behavior that could stall a burgeoning career. So how is it that Drake, MGMT and many other high-profile tastemakers such as Kanye West have fallen under Starlite’s spell? First and foremost, his music—as heard on It’ll Be Better (Cantora), a new full-length that’s starting to sound like the album of the year—is thoroughly captivating, a minimalist brand of R&B that functions equally well as a sultry party soundtrack or a late-night headphone trip. And second, is it really such a crime to be wary of the media?

Walking into a favorite Chinese spot near his LES apartment for our interview, Starlite immediately brings that issue to the fore. “So I hear you have to be careful what you order in interviews these days,” the tall, pale, pompadoured artist says impishly, referencing M.I.A.’s recent truffle-fries debacle. (For the record, he settled on the black-pepper beef with broccoli.)

To label Starlite careful is an absurd understatement. His pre-answer pauses are epic, but what follows is almost always worth the wait. I bring up his refusal to recite the TONY plug, and a candid unpacking ensues. “What’s behind those [refusals] is, I think for a second and I ask myself, Would I feel good watching this or reading this? Would that feel right, if I was a fan of me? And if I say to myself, No, then I just don’t do it.”

When I suggest that such an uncompromising attitude might result in burned bridges or hurt feelings, he agrees—then counters passionately: “Everything that I’ve ever done has been with the idea that if I try as hard as I can to do something real, that if I don’t compromise for the work, then that will be better than anything that I will lose.”

When he speaks of “the work,” Starlite isn’t just talking about his music. For example, he has used the Internet in a variety of innovative ways, yielding intimacy without a tacky sense of TMI. One ongoing project consists of time-lapse videos of marathon late-night piano-practice sessions. Another, now concluded, featured a ledger of every single dime Starlite spent.

Discussing his overall self-presentation, Starlite touches on this theme of transparency. “The one idea is that everything should add up,” he says. “The website should be just as minimalist and striking as the records and the album cover. If you see me walking down the street, it should fall in line, if you’ve listened to my music, or seen one of my videos. And even if I don’t consider these things, they will become a part of the statement. So I consider it.”

Francis and the Lights headline S.O.B.’s Thu 12 and open for MGMT at Radio City Music Hall Tue 17.

Read the full Q&A here.

Buy It'll Be Better on iTunes.

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