Interview: Francis and the Lights
Thu Aug 12 2010
Francis and the Lights, the stylish, enigmatic local soul outfit led by Francis Farewell Starlite, first showed up on my radar last year, and I've been an avid fan ever since. At that time, Starlite filmed an in-office performance for TONY (see above) and responded to an e-mail Q&A for the Volume, but I had been waiting for the right time to feature Francis and the Lights in a larger way. Happily, this week's TONY contains a profile of Starlite, based on an interview I conducted last week. The occasions are Francis and the Lights' outstanding new record, It'll Be Better, and two upcoming shows: a headlining date at S.O.B.'s tonight (Thursday, August 12), and an opening spot for MGMT at Radio City Music Hall next Tuesday (August 17). A lot of interesting material didn't end up making it to the TONY piece, so I present to you here my full conversation with Starlite, during which we discussed his online presence, his admiration for experimental composer Anthony Braxton, his recent tours with MGMT and Drake, and much more.
[We began by discussing the M.I.A.--Lynn Hirschberg incident.]
Time Out New York: I read an interview where you talked about the unfair balance of power in interviews, how the journalist has an advantage because they get the final word.
Francis Farewell Starlite: In the modern interview, the interviewer has a lot of power. The other thing I think is that when people feel they are misquoted, it is because they talked too much—it's because they said too much. Because everything in our daily lives is misinterpreted. Every day, all the time.
Do you think that it's someone's own fault if they get burned by the interview process?
I think the burden is on the artist or the interviewee in this unfair situation.
Right. Because ultimately the interviewer gets to take the material and write the story how they see fit.
Exactly, and I think the burden is on the interviewee to know that.
Do you think it's important for someone like M.I.A to make the statement that the artist has power too?
I don't think I know enough about what happened to comment, the details of it. I don't have anything to say about that.
This last tour you did, it was with Drake?
We were out with MGMT, and then we just played two shows at the end with Drake.
Those two artists, they represent the poles of two different worlds, like you're playing with the top of the Pitchfork world (MGMT) and the top of the Hot 97 world. Any thoughts on that?
I'll says this: I love both of those artists unquestionably, and I think both of their work has the power to transcend those things that you were just talking about. That said, it's very exciting for me to see on my website "July 24th with MGMT in Vancouver" and then "July 27th with Drake in Vancouver." There is something electric about it.
Yeah, it's almost like anyone you could run into on the street would recognize one of those two artists.
Yeah, there's something special about it. I don't know if I can put it into words exactly, because I might say something that I wouldn't feel like reading later.
Do you sense that those two worlds have a permeable border?
We are very generally talking about the audience of those bands, and it's impossible to categorize in that way. I don't even think about my own audience that way. I can't think about them individually and what their choices are or what their motivations or anything is. I have to think of them as people. I don't want to sound New Age--y, but MGMT, they're fans of Drake's work, and Drake is a huge fan of their work. That, to me, is the more telling thing.... Wait, what was the question exactly?
I was just wondering, since you've gotten a taste of both of those worlds, do you think the border between the "pop" world and the "indie" world are permeable?
I think I don't know how to answer that question.
What did you note as a difference in audience response when performing in front of those two audiences?
Being an opening act is a challenge. I imagine you could have two bands, one of them very famous and the other one not as famous, not as well known. And a person could say these two bands are in the same category sharing a similar audience. One of them is opening for the other one, and it could be a disaster because being an opening act is challenge, it's a difficult proposition. You have a lot going against you. People aren't there to see you; they don't know who you are; they have never listened to your music. These are the factors that override any subtle differences in the demographics. I think that's the thing, but it's been good. Both of these tours have been really good. I've learned an incredible amount in both of those situations, all sorts of things, just observing their shows over and over again. I do not like to talk about audience's reactions very much, because I do not think about it in that particular way.
Can you mention something in particular that you feel like you learned from each of those artists?
Sure. [Long pause] I'm thinking. [Long pause] The Drake operation as a whole was my first experience with such a high-functioning operation, and they're in the middle of so much insanity and excitement and electricity and people going crazy. The way they navigate was my first close-hand experience with that. And I felt like I learned from that: seeing the operation in action. Everything from the way the stage is set up, the timing of it all with the people around him, and with the people one step further, then the people one step further from them. Also, I played some very big venues on that tour. That was me sort of personally learning from that experience. But I wouldn't have been able to do that if it wasn't for his draw. And I was very interested in the way that MGMT ran their sound check. It was very relaxed. Again, this was just my first experience watching it again and again on a high level. They take their time, put in some new things. So I learned from that. A sound check is very difficult.
Just getting your bearings in each new venue?
Yeah, and I guess for me, it's like, you don't have very much time. So you have to figure out what you want and then try to get it. And then also predicting that this is the way the sound is going to be for the show.
What is the most important thing to get out of a sound check?
[Long pause] I don't take enough time—for me to make sure that I'm okay. I tend to defer to the band in my sound checks. Does the guitar player have everything he needs? Does the drummer have everything he needs in his monitor and all that? Then I forget that I'm the one that really needs to feel good up there. It's a technical thing. It's all a combination of things.
The presentation of Francis and the Lights is one of a solo project. Are these musicians integral or are they more sidemen? Could it be anybody, or does it have to be them?
It certainly could not be anybody. The people that I'm playing with now: Jump Back Jake Rabinbach on guitar—I've been playing music with him for almost ten years. When Jake Schreier was in my band playing keyboards, I've known him since high school. Jon Finlayson, who currently plays keyboards, we played music in high school together. Elijah Grace, who plays drums now, we played in bands in high school. And this is important to me, because these people understand my music. But, and I'm paraphrasing something someone else said, and that's that if everybody left me tomorrow, I would still do this. I would move forward.
Is that both inside and outside the band?
It's really anything.
Are you quoting someone in particular?
I was, but I don't want to say who it was.
There was a lineup you had with two drummers. Was the current guy one of those?
He was for a short time. I mean I have had different people in my band over time. And it is ultimately my choice: The instrumentation is my choice. So yeah, that was just a choice. But yeah, he played with us. At South by Southwest, for example, Elijah was playing the main trap set and Rene Solomon was the percussion player. It looked like a drum set, but it was sort of a stripped-down set. And then when I moved to just one drummer for about a year, Rene took over, and now Elijah has taken over.
I've heard that everyone's part is written by you. Does this mean literally written on score paper?
No, but it is all composed. I show people. I don't play the guitar; I don't play drums very well, but I vocalize them. I show them. And the parts do change, and there is a sort of malleability to the songs. Jake, on guitar, for example, now is very tuned in to the kind of guitar part that is Francis and the Lights, so we have a more intuitive thing now, where it's like, "It's like this," and then we'll change it or adapt to it. But I do always reserve the right to tell someone exactly what I want, or tell them not to play something that they're playing.
Is that common?
Is what common?
Having to tell someone not to do something.
Oh, it's like in The Elements of Style: Writing is rewriting. It's just like making something good, changing it, making it better.
I think the new record is great, but it did take me a little while to warm up to it. I was listening a lot to A Modern Promise, which had a little bit more of a funk thing—with falsetto singing, like a Prince vibe—and the new one is not what I expected: It seems less funk-oriented, more soft rock or soul. Did you intend to depart from your previous record?
Let me think about that for a second. [Long pause] I would never use the terms that you used to describe it. Those sorts of terms never entered my thought process, those specific genres and artists, so in that way, no, I was not trying to do that. I think that the words you're using, and I've heard them a lot recently about the record...A Modern Promise is a very focused record. It's a very successful record, I think. It establishes its purpose and its goals, and then it accomplishes them: to be minimal and to be tight. I think It'll Be Better is a less successful record in that way. I think that its goals somehow got a little bit lost, and I think that's the difference. I don't think the difference is going for some particular genre. I think that's the language for when something is not quite successful. I think that the genres you're describing are, like, middle. They are neither one thing nor another. I think the point of failure of this record is that it is not one thing or another. It's, like, the sound: There's beats, but they don't truly move you. And there are some songs that are obviously songs, with verses and choruses and things, but they don't, like, get inside you and take you somewhere. I am critical of the record right now, because it has been that certain amount of time where I'm just critical of it. So that's what I would say.
Just to point out something specific, the first song hit me differently—the rhythm sounded like a swing thing or a country thing or something like, and to me, knowing what I did of your work, it sounded like a curveball. And as I mentioned before, I think I had you pegged as a falsetto singer, and that's not on this record.
Well, I sing some falsetto on that song.
But for the most part, it's more of your midrange voice.
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. But my previous record, Striking, is almost exclusively chest voice as well. "My Goals" is falsetto, but the title track, "How Could You," "He Was a Good Friend" and "I'll Never Forget You"—all with my middle register. And my single, after A Modern Promise, "LIME," and the b-side of that, "WYN," also, that's a double: middle and falsetto, singing at the same time. So obviously I understand what you're saying. And obviously that song is different—it sounds different. I'm not sure what to say. I can tell you what I was trying to do. There was three things I wanted from this record: I wanted the rhythmic element to be better then ever before—I wanted it to be tight and interesting. And then I also wanted to do a lot, so I did sequenced percussion, and then I played live drums over it, and I tried to do that as best I could. I wanted strong beats. Again, possibly a point of failure on the record: its production, its sound, everything. I wanted there to be songs with strong choruses, and I wanted to try do do that. And I wanted the choruses to have background vocals. And then, I wanted to sing very well—I wanted it to be good singing. And the other whole thing about this record is that it's based on the piano. I played through the whole record on the piano. That was the first thing we tracked and those takes were on every track; they form the backbone of every track. And I think that if I had been more minimal about it and maybe used just piano and drum machine, it would have been more successful and there would be less of these questions. I don't know. It's a little self-important to take these things so seriously. There is nothing wrong with doing something different anyways, right?
I guess all I was saying is that in my personal experience, it took a while to warm up to the record, and I don't know exactly why. I guess that whenever you're a fan of an artist and you hear that they have a new record coming out, you almost write the thing in your mind. I'm sure you've had that experience.
Can you think of a time when that happened to you, as a listener?
I don't think so. I don't think—[Long pause] I don't like to talk about other bands in that way. Something about it feels like—I know I was talking about Drake and MGMT—Yeah, I don't know...
Before, we were talking about the interview process. And I remember that when you came to Time Out to do that live performance—because most the people that come in just sort of read the little "You're tuned in to the Volume" plug and play, but you said "No, I'm not doing that." And reading up on you, it seems like this notion comes up a lot—not in a mean way, but, "I'm just not gonna do that," just saying no to something.
Yeah, like I just did, saying, "I don't know how to answer that."
Like I saw that YouTube clip where you were at some festival and they were asking intentionally stupid questions—Is saying no trying to even the stakes a little bit in what you feel is an unfair process?
No, I don't think so. Well—I think at its heart, what's behind those things, like not wanting to do the—what do you call that sort of thing?
A plug, yeah. Or talk about another artist in an interview. I think that at its heart, I think for a second, and I ask myself, "Would I feel good watching this or reading this?" Like me being critical of myself. Me saying, "I believe in Francis and the Lights and in what I'm doing." And if I were to separate myself from myself, I say, "Let's say I believe in what this person is doing. I'm with them—I'm with this person along the way, every step of the way." Would that make sense? Would that feel right? If I was a fan of me. And so I ask myself that and if I say, "No, I don't think that would feel right," then I just don't do it. And I'm trying to find the ways to say it that aren't oppressive or combative or whatever. And I think maybe if I had more people, me making those sorts of things more clear beforehand, if they had said, "Oh, also, Francis isn't going to do any plugs or anything," then it would just be understood. I wouldn't have to say it. But yeah, every time I see one of those things, every time I see somebody performing at a radio station or a magazine and they say, "Hi, my name's blah blah blah, and you're watching this, that and the other," I think it's distasteful. I think it's asking an artist to become a spokesman. For certain artists it works, and certain artists can excel in that format and that's a part of what they do. For others, I feel like I want the pure—the work.
Yeah, it's interesting, because for me, being in the position of being the one asking people to do that, it doesn't seem weird to me at all that someone wouldn't want to do it. And maybe in a way, it's surprising that more people don't say no.
It's hard to say no, I think.
Maybe people feel that if they say no, the door will close and they won't get asked again.
Yeah, right. And maybe that's true?
Do you feel like you have lost out on any opportunities because of this stance?
Possibly, but the music is—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, because in the end you'll have something that's so, like...good. And that's what people—that's what I want. And I personally don't want great plugs. Unless they are great....I guess I don't feel like it's categorically wrong to do those things. All I'm trying to say with this is that possibly I've closed some doors, but it's in the service of the work, and that makes it okay.
I guess if you're on a certain path and then you're getting asked to open for Drake and MGMT, you're saying to yourself—
It's because of the music.
Yeah, or "I wasn't wrong."
Also, this isn't on a super high level yet, so it's a little pretentious to talk about it in this way because...you know what I mean? Because people who are in super high demand are turning things down left and right, so it's a little overreaching to be so self-important.
Well, that's what I was going to say. Not that I agree with you that it's self-important, but that it's almost a clich to be a famous person saying no—people are accepting of people in those high places being really eccentric and really difficult. But if you're up-and-coming and behaving the same way, you can get called an asshole or pretentious or difficult.
In a way it's sort of like punk—like Fugazi gets praised for saying, "Our shows are only going to cost $5," but why can't someone behave that way in pop? Why can't you have ethics about what you do? It makes sense to me. But there is a double standard though, like if Kanye wants to act extremely eccentric, it's like, "Oh, that's just how famous people are," whereas you don't have, like you say, the seven degrees of handlers between you and someone coming to interview you, so you have to build those walls for yourself and it creates weirdness.
I think it'll be okay. [Laughs]
Do you look forward to the day when you have people dealing with that stuff for you?
I look forward to that day because that will mean that a lot of things are going well. Not just for that, but if there's a need for that, it probably means that a lot of people are listening to my records.
In the way that you view a plug like that as superfluous to what you do, is speaking about what you do to the press, is that also extraneous? Would you avoid it if you could?
So it's important to you that if people want to know about the music, you talk to them.
Yeah. Or it makes sense for me to do interviews and things like that. I do think of it all as part of the same thing, the same body of work.
You said "work" just now, and I think you mentioned that word before. Obviously, with those piano-practice videos, it seems like there is a part of you that's interested in conveying devotion, and that it's almost this monastic thing, like "I'm up all night doing this for you, the listener." That's the image I get: a hermitlike existence. Is it important for you to convey that there's a lot of work in what you do?
Well, it's important to me that I do that work. Practicing the piano is the most important thing that I do. If I don't do it, I'm, like, nothing—if I don't work on my elemental craft, of music, of my instrument. So, the videos, I think of them as having three parts. I think of the practicing videos first as an art project. It's inspired by this piece that I saw at Dia:Beacon, and I can't remember the name of the artist, but this artist paints the written date—like "June 12, 1972"—and it takes him, like, a day to do each one. He paints the canvas white, and then he paints in black, all exactly the same. And that's just beautiful—when I saw it, I thought it was beautiful. And this is his only work, for the most part—it takes him a day to do it. I'm extrapolating a bit; I read a little bit, but I don't know everything about him. Anyway, it's inspired by that, so it's art, first of all, with the songs, each one has a little song. I think it of it mostly as, "Isn't this nice? Isn't this good art?" Like you could sit and listen to the whole thing and have just listened to like two hours of one-minute piano songs. And then as a function, it's a way to motivate myself to practice every day. And it works and then it doesn't work; it can work against me, because rather than just going and sitting down and playing, I have to go and set up the camera. And I really look forward to the time when there's just a camera there and I just hit the button.... But if I've set it up and there are people expecting it, then I'm more driven to do it. And it's so important that I do it. Does that make sense? But to answer your question, like that's the first time I ever really thought about it like that, when you asked me, like, is it important to show people that I'm working? Maybe in the back of my mind. But really, those videos are art that I've made, and I like that sort of art that follows the function. It's almost purely functional, but it's still something. Like those drawings: There's almost no art to it; it's minimalism. The art is in the story, the effort, the fact that someone devoted their life to doing just that.
I guess that stuff made me think about the track that you made for Drake. It seems like there is a melancholy quality of late-night solitude that's in that track. You wrote the lyrics to that song, right?
But not the rap?
It seems to me that Drake has this thing too, where on one hand, he can be this glitzy rapper, and on the other, there's this lonely, wounded quality, and it seems like that latter thing fits in really well with your work. And I guess I would look at the piano-practicing videos as a visual representation of that side of your work.
I like that. That sounds right.
It's just interesting because with you moving ahead and playing bigger places with bigger artists, there's this party vibe—there's that on one hand, and then on the other hand there's this solitude. Do you think about that, like the duality of that?
I do think about that; I do think about that. And I like thinking about that. It's extremes—I like that idea. Yeah, man. Someone who plays shows for thousands of people and then is alone the rest of the time—it seems like an ideal, a perfect ideal.
Well, you can't be in a field like you're in and not want the attention. So is there a certain place where that stops and it's like, "I want the attention, but I also want this bubble of my own," or something like that?
[Long pause] I don't know how to answer that question. I don't think I agree with that. Something about that sort of—I got a little lost. I don't know how to answer that. [Laughs]
I guess I was just trying to tease out the duality of being onstage in front of thousands of people and then being alone.
Right. I guess the reason I got a little confused is that being onstage isn't just wanting attention. It's performance. It isn't just—and then being by yourself, the purpose isn't just to isolate yourself. Right?
It's probably that certain kinds of work can only get done alone.
Exactly. So, I don't know—it got away from me a little bit.
[At this point, we left the restaurant and resumed talking during a drive in Starlite's rented tour van. We began discussing Anthony Braxton, with whom Starlite had taken classes at Wesleyan.]
Those classes [with Anthony Braxton] really affected me. I feel very fortunate that I took them. He has an incredible way of talking about music. He is extremely specific. He has a system, a language for describing music. It really affected me. I feel like if I were to try to describe it, I would get it wrong. All I can say is, it's very specific, as opposed to the way music is talked about or written about in terms of broad genres or social context, cultural context. It has nothing to do with that. See, I'm already saying things I don't really think are true...
Well, he talks a lot about "restructuralists"—
Oh yeah, that's just an incredible idea. I mean, I think about it—that's a great thing to think about; I love thinking about it. "Stylist" and "restructuralist." I mean, it's just a perfect thing to think about. The thing I always like about that is there's respect for both.
He always seemed to have a real respect for—he'd always talk about so-called pop and so-called experimental music in a very evenhanded way.
Yes, absolutely. That's another thing that's so beautiful about it: everything on the same plane, everything taken for its merits. Absolutely. Anything that seemed to come his way was considered. "What is this? What does this mean? If this is good, why is it good? If someone's telling you that this is good, what is it about it?" Nothing written off.
Were you in situations where you were performing in an improvised context, or was it just the music-history classes?
Yeah, I took three music-history classes with him.
Do you listen to or think about something like his music—if you want to put a label on it: experimental or music that is away from the pop continuum? Do you have interest in that stuff as a listener?
That's a pretty general question. If I say yes to that, what does that even really mean?
Well, let's say [Braxton's] music.
Yes, I listened to his music at that time, to try to understand more about him, and I only listened to a couple records, because he has hundreds of records. So I just got a couple records and I listened to them, and I really enjoyed listening to them.
Yeah, I only ask because I write about a lot of stuff in that vein. I interviewed him a couple years ago—
Oh, wow. How was that?
It was awesome. He's a gentleman—
He's willing to come to the table and sit down and discuss his ideas. It's intellectual, what he does, but he's not trying to go over people's heads. It's just kind of like, "Let's talk about this in a respectful way."
Absolutely. I think he's affected me in that way too, because he's figured out such a way to talk about his music. And I haven't figured that out, in that way, so it's comfortable.
He really takes control of the terminology. He's always saying, "I'm a black man with a saxophone, so to most people, I'm jazz." And he said to me, "Please print in your magazine, 'I'm not a jazz musician.' Whatever you want to call me, that's fine, but if you only print one quote from this interview: 'I am not a jazz musician.' "
And he feels like he has to harp on that, because he will get labeled that.
And listening to the entire spectrum of jazz, I'm not sure that I'd necessarily agree with him—I think parts of what he does have to do with jazz, but I think it's just that thing of owning the terminology, or just getting people to wonder if the words they're using are limited. But he has invented a whole way of speaking about it—those terms we mentioned are just scratching the surface of the lingo he uses.
So I'd asked you before about having those relationships with musicians that stretched back to high school. And it seems to me from reading a few other interviews that there's a part of you that wants to place a limitation on the amount of biographical information that gets out. Or you changed your name at a certain point, and it was like, "We don't really need to go into what happened before that." Would you say that's accurate?
I'd say that facts are facts, and they're not to be denied or hidden. But that's not important to me, or certain things aren't important to me.
I was just going to mention, since we were talking about Anthony Braxton, there's a really good book on him that has a certain amount of biographical information. I mean, I just read a great biography of Neil Young. And I read that book because I love Neil Young, and I think it's natural—
So do you have that kind of curiosity about the artists you're interested in?
I do, yes. Absolutely.
And so, in those cases, you would say you think that [biography] is important to their bodies of work?
Yes, or it's important to me. I am drawn to it in that way. And I also don't deny that—yes, as a fan, I seek out that sort of information all the time.
Just to make it straightforward, about yourself, what can you tell me, in a very basic way, about where you come from? Do you feel comfortable saying, "I was born here. I'm this age"?
Oh, yeah. Right.... Well, I mean, I guess, first of all, I really appreciate the respect you're showing to me based on how I haven't felt comfortable talking about that in the past. If you want to ask me something, I'm probably happy to answer a specific question.
I guess the reason I thought about it first was you had mentioned playing in bands in high school. And everyone has high-school bands, and they don't always inform what the person does later. But what were you doing with music in high school and before?
At a certain point I realized that a lot of the way I had been thinking about music was wrong. And this is not an experience unique to me, I'm sure: I took piano lessons and I played the piano, and I played a lot of different sorts of music, and then at a certain point, after I'd dropped out of school—or in between my first [and second] year at Wesleyan, I started to realize that everything I had been thinking about was wrong, that I hadn't been thinking about what I was doing. That was why I was so influenced by the book The Elements of Style. Everything I had been doing was embellishment or didn't have a design behind it, or contained extraneous things with no meaning or rationality behind them. And in the writing analogy, I had been using dialects and turns of phrase in my music. And that was with everything in my life: the way I was behaving and choices I was making. I basically just realized that everything I do should have a reason. Where before nothing that I was doing had any reason. So from that moment forward, everything I do I try to have a reason. So I changed my name because I wanted to have a name I wanted, rather than something that was just randomly given to me. I decided to focus on a specific line of music. I know I'm not answering your question, but that's why I say that it's not important to me. Maybe in the future, it will be important, because people will want to find out about it. I also feel like until I create a definitive piece of work, then what led up to it isn't as important.
Did you run into problems with this with your publicist? Was it difficult to submit a bio?
Yes. It was very difficult, and I just didn't submit one for months. And every day, there was an e-mail like, "We need the bio. We need the bio." And I'm still very unhappy with the bio. I don't like bios in general.
I think that the bio is like what were talking about before, of saying no to this or that. Because the truth is, the bio often functions like, there's a journalist on a deadline and they need text and so the bio writes the story in a way, because it provides a narrative, like, "Oh, my dog died when I was making this record, and this record is about my dog." And so you'd go to the interview and start asking about the dog. So in a way, you can take control of it to whatever degree you wanted. You could make something up, and that would be the story that would get retold.
Right, and I could get into that. I think that that's worth working on and making good. Finding the pieces of information that are catchy and exciting but also true. I'd love to do that.
I think it's interesting that you had a problem with the bio, but unlike some artists, you seem to have absolutely no problem with—and I don't want this to sound derogatory—image creation, or I guess I'd even say mystique. Because I remember when I first read about Francis and the Lights. and I went to your website and I said to myself, "This is really professional. This is not like a MySpace page. This person is obviously very interested in taking control of their image." When did you start thinking about this idea of, I guess I would say, "packaging" yourself, if that can be taken in a way that isn't derogatory, which I don't think it is.
I don't think it is at all. [Long pause] There's so many ideas in what you just said. There's so many ideas that are really—I want to say something about it. So I guess, the one idea is that everything should add up. Everything should add up with what I am doing. So that's the one idea. If you take that idea, then it makes complete sense that the website should be just as minimalist and striking as the records and the album cover. Also, I believe in functionality. That is what minimalism is you know—it's functional. And if you see me walking down the street, it should still fall in line, if you've listened to my music or watched one of my videos. And even if I don't consider it, it will fall in line and become a part—Even if I don't consider these things, they will become a part of the statement. So I consider it. And the other half of it is style—trying to do things with style.
I guess what you're saying is that if you choose not to control any part of your self-presentation, it will be controlled by default.
Absolutely. It's like, you have to wear clothes every day. If you don't decide what clothes to wear, for some reasons, then that reason will be thrust upon you. Even if you decide not to care.
I guess what I was saying is that it was immediately clear that Francis and the Lights was very concerted. Because now, someone may very well be looking at your website before they listen to your music, or rather, they'd be looking at your website while they were listening to your music for the first time. And you said, "Everything should add up," which seems to be so directly related to that thing of itemizing your expenditures. I guess this idea of image control, or regulation of things, it sounds to me like your whole life becomes this project.
I think this idea has been coming up a lot. I can recall reading things about Janelle Mone, who said something similar. I think it's kind of like, you're either jumping into this thing or you're not. I mean, when you started that process, did you realize the ramifications of that entirely? Or are there hidden challenges?
No. I knew from the very beginning what I was getting into.
We were talking about practicing every day, and devotion to this becomes so total. What is that like?
I think that...I'm trying to think about what to say without being pretentious, without being self-aggrandizing. That's what being an artist is. You devote yourself to it. You do it all the time. Maybe it's naive to say that.
Maybe that's why it's interesting to read about someone like Neil Young, because you can see that even when he's not onstage, there's something of the artist about his activity.
Yes! Yes. It's more effortless for some people, I think. Maybe they don't get those sorts of questions. But you know, I was thinking about Apple, as we were talking about this image thing. Everything that they do is Apple.
It's funny because I was thinking about this recently. There's this band called Bone Awl that plays this really lo-fi form of underground black metal. And all their record covers are like this old, punk type of thing. And the music fits into that and the lyrics fit into that, and I was reading an interview with the guy from the band, and the interviewer asked him about the record covers, and the guy from the band said, "Look, I'm only gonna say this one more time: What this is about is one idea written three ways: the artwork, the music and the lyrics." And he said it to the interviewer as if that should've been self-evident.
Yeah, man. That's beautiful.
Can you tell me about this digital album that you released?
I think it's just trying to do what makes the most sense. And also I'm very fortunate to have Justin Ouellette working on my things like that. Because if I didn't have him, it wouldn't be at the forefront. He's the guy who designed that website, and he's brilliant, and he's also incredibly skilled. So all credit to him, but I believe in what he's doing, and again, it's just like, what makes the most sense?
Was it important to you to release this album in a CD format?
It was not important to me. It was important to the label that released this record.
What was that situation with you Tweeting "UNSIGNED"?
Well, what happened is that I am unsigned right now. This is a one-off deal for this record. So I am not signed to a record label right now for the future. So there was a little Twitter conversation between two people about how this label that I'm on right now did a distribution with something called Sony Red. And I uploaded my music to YouTube, this record. This record is streaming on YouTube. And in my relationship with this small label, I can do whatever I want as long as we talk about it. And this was my idea because I read and I experienced that YouTube is the second-most-popular search engine behind Google. And I know from my own experience that when I am trying to listen to new music, the first place I go to is YouTube. It used to be MySpace. So I said, "It seems to make sense to put my music on YouTube and then have links to iTunes, those overlays." What could be more nice? So I uploaded my music to YouTube, and then Sony blocked it. [Laughs] Because as part of this distribution deal, they took over the digital distribution. They submitted the content through the YouTube content-ID program, so the audio filters caught my songs. There's audio filters now—I think it's part of them making deals with these labels and things. So Sony blocked it, and for a while, if you searched for it, you would see it, and if you clicked on it, it would say, "This content is owned by Sony corporation." It was this ironic situation I was in to the point of—what's the word where something is just too bizarre or ridiculous to...?
To the point of absurdity. Because I released this record with a small label, not a major label, but then they made some sort of deal with a major label who didn't own it—I own the rights to this record worldwide, but it was being blocked in Europe and...that's what led to this Twitter conversation. And I'm still trying to sort out the red-tape stuff with Sony, because their systems are so slow. There's not some person who's uploading the stuff—I have no idea what it's like over there. But they can't remove these things from their content, the filter. So right now, it's still in, like...so those Twitter people were like, "I think Francis is on Sony Red," and I couldn't help myself but to say that it's not true.
Do you have the faith that if people can listen to your music and stream it via you, that they will still take that extra step and purchase it?
I don't know.
But nevertheless, you feel that you might as well provide it for free listening, because ultimately it's better heard free than not heard?
Yes. Or, basically, who knows what is going on right now? Right? It seems to be changing, what people do. Do they buy music in stores? Some people do. Right? Do those people buy music on iTunes? I don't know. There's people who only buy music on iTunes; they don't buy music in the store, and they don't download music for free. There's those people, right? And probably they don't even stream music on people's websites. And then there's people who only download music for free and don't buy it anywhere. And I like thinking about those different groups. I think that people talk about, "If someone streams it, are they gonna buy it?" I don't know! Who is this person?!? You know? I like thinking about these little groups, and I also like thinking about how the populations of these groups are changing. And it may be linear: People are going from buying their music at a store, and then someone introduces them to iTunes and then they get an iPod. The populations are shifting and changing, and then I think they started to shift back maybe. Like there were lots and lots of people getting music only for free. God, I've never gone into this in depth. I hope—I don't know anything about this. I'm totally speculating. Nobody knows, I don't think, but there was a large group just torrenting things and downloading them for free, and now there's a slight equalization with the convenience of doing that with buying it now on iTunes, especially without the DRM. I'm actually only really speaking from experience. Like, I've bought a few records from iTunes, because it was the most convenient thing to do. I like thinking about all those things, but as it influences the decision I've made, I mostly just think, What would I want? If I went on YouTube and I had never heard of my band, I would want to find it and listen to it.
Yeah, I think about that at work a lot, because we get records free. And if I'm researching something, I don't feel guilty about downloading something for free, like an archival record. But I do feel that when possible, if I can go to an artist's website and they have something for sale personally from them, I feel like there's something to that: If people feel like, even if it's not true, that the artist is right there, and they can give the money directly to them, that people will choose that.
I think I don't feel like that, but I also react against that general idea that people want the artist to be inviting them and thanking. I don't think that's something people actually want. I think that's something people talk about people wanting.
I think there's a distinction between an artist being on Twitter and saying, "I'm getting my nails done," and what you do. There is access, in terms of, like, "Here's a camera that's in my practice space," but it's a controlled access.
Yes. The things I've done like that are comments on that. It's closer than you could ever get and yet still removed. You're still not being directly addressed. You know what I mean? I like the tension. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly.
Maybe it's like intimacy but still there's a mystique about it, or you're not giving something too personal up?
What is it exactly? What is the difference between someone selling download on their website and they say, "Hey! Thanks for coming to my website!" And it's even in writing: "Download this song from me! From me to you."
So you're saying that's articifical.
I think it's by nature artificial. Who are they talking to? It's fake. It's like the language of advertising. And all that stuff is so editorialized.
Well, it's not always that. I mean, like, I have a band that's on the level of playing small places, and we have stuff to sell, and it literally is just me going on the MySpace and saying, "We have stuff to sell." But I hear what you're saying, that if you go on Green Day's website, and there's a message like that...
Don't get me wrong. I've probably gone too far. I've probably said things that I wouldn't even—that I don't even know what I'm talking about. All I'm talking about was the tension of the things that I've done that appear to be very transparent, they are transparent, but there's—
Well, I guess I would say that they're transparent, but they don't break the mystique.
Well, I'm not going to say that, but I will say that the Twitter thing was incredibly honest. It was just so honest. Like and I'm telling you, every single dollar that I spent or received, I notated, for a year and a half, and it consisted only of facts and figures, of numbers and factual descriptions, and yet it was so personal. It was a window into someone's life. And the practicing videos are also in that same way honest and factual. It's like, "This is something that I am doing," and I try to present it as plainly as possible. I try to present exactly what happened, and I think that's what I like. It's like self-presentation with no editorializing.
But does that ever influence your life? Like when you were in the midst of that spending project, did if ever influence the money you spent?
Yes, and that was part of why I did it—I wanted to be better about money, but yes, it did.
Because a lot of people do that for their personal accounting.
And that's part of what the purpose was, for me to try to get a handle on my finances, which I'm terrible at personally.