Robert Francis On The Fine Art Of Song Craft

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Interview By: Quinn Allan

At 22 years old, Robert Francis is looking down from his view in the hills of Los Angeles and taking in what he sees. With his dog at his side, he translates the feelings of his surroundings into a sweet melody that people can’t help but get in to. His band, now signed to Atlantic records, prepare themselves for a string of West Coast shows as they celebrate the recent release of their album, Before Nightfall, a twelve track triumph in the field of Americana, folk-roots tunes. But before the success, before the new record and before the band, Robert Francis was a man searching for sanity the only way he knew how, by putting his thoughts into song. I had a chat with Robert to shed some daylight on what things were like before Before Nightfall.

Quinn Allan: There’s a huge difference between being in a band and leading a group of musicians under your name. Did you find it at all hard to attract other musicians to your cause?

Robert Francis: Umm… (pauses) it’s… yeah, it actually was difficult. I mean, what I managed to do, and what I was fortunate enough to accomplish, was find a bassist and drummer that I felt we became, musically, so close and just as friends. Everything just clicked and it instantly felt like more than just a solo project, it felt like a band. I think if one can create that environment, that feeling of having more than just a project that’s the most important thing. So yeah, I was able to have them play with me for seven or eight months without getting paid anything and having it go under my name and they stuck by me, and now things have turned out just the way we had hoped.

QA: What were some of the conflicts you ran into while turning Robert Francis from a one man show to a formidable performing group?

Robert: You know the conflicts are… (pauses) not much, not many, I think besides figuring out different ways to pay people and how to go about something like that. I think that there weren’t many conflicts. It’s really difficult to find people that you enjoy playing music with and that you enjoy spending time with and if you can find something like that you got to hold on to it for as long as possible. I think I heard Springsteen say that in an interview (laughs), but yeah…not many conflicts.

QA: Listening to your songs I can hear elements of talented musicians like U2, Dylan, a little Iron and Wine, and even Nick Drake. What musicians helped direct you to your sound?

Robert: I grew up listening to The Band, Dylan, Neil Young, Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt and Ry Cooder was my mentor, you know with a lot of this desolate folk-inspired, blues roots-inspired music. I was always turned on to people who wrote choruses and had real firm, you know, melodies and that’s sort of what inspired my creativity and the music that I make.

QA: Your sound has a very cinematic feel to it. What are your thoughts on the impact music has on film? What impact, if any, has film had on you?

Robert: Film has a huge impact on me. I think the first was the 1984 Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas, it was one of the main reasons I got into music. Ry Cooder did this sort of cinematic soundtrack, this real sort of powerful, guitar-heavy soundtrack. That was the first time, and that film sort of gave me the idea, it was the first time I really understood what it was like to be free and to move out into the world and try to find one’s self. I live in California, in LA, up in the hills and I’m inspired by more than just relationships and romance and love and what not, but more by these landscapes that surround me. And I try to draw from those things.

QA: You’ve mentioned that music is less an expression for you and more to keep from losing your mind. Being a musician myself, there have been times I’ve tried to quit, only to find myself magnetically drawn back to music. What do you think it is about certain types that simply makes them a musician?

Robert: I think with my upbringing and my life at home growing up I didn’t have… I never… you know my band just recently told me “Wow Robert, you never really got a shot at being normal, did you?” (laughs) You know, I’ve had this pretty eccentric upbringing. Music was the only thread in my life that tied together society, and functioning within a society together. Without it I would be, I’ve had to figure out pretty much everything on my own so far, and without it I would be completely lost and I would just totally succumb to my psyche and my sort of crippling insanity. (Laughs) So I don’t know.

QA: I see that same dog a lot in your pictures and even in your music video. Are you a strong lover of animals?

Robert: Yeah, I’m with him right now, playing ball outside.

QA: What’s his name?

Robert: His name’s Pancho. Yeah, I mean a dog for me… I love animals of course, but I have this ridiculous connection with my dog (laughs). I’ve tried taking him on tour a few times, but it doesn’t really work. I can make do without really seeing anyone or going out and doing much and spend time here with my dog and be content.

QA: I’m a dog person too. You say that honesty is what makes a good song. Do you feel there is a general lack of honesty in popular music these days? Do you think your audience respects the honesty that you bring to your music?

Robert: I do. I think it’s uhh…there are a lot of different ways to look at it. I mean, I do believe that honesty is what makes a good song. I think there’s a whole different side of music with bands that are in it for different reasons. I don’t actually have any certain disdain for the other side; I think it’s actually fascinating. I think my audience, yeah, the people who have been interested in my music, I think definitely that’s maybe what does it for them, I’m not really sure. But I just try to be as true to myself as I possibly can because if I’m doing that then I can’t ever say I should have done it any other way. If that makes sense, I don’t know. (Laughs)

QA: It does. Finally, if you could cite one thing that brought you to where you are today, what would it be?

Robert: Ummm…huh. I’ve always had this underlying drive within me to never really second guess myself and to really trust my gut instinct. And I’ve been told many, many times throughout my life… hold on, sorry, one second. (Pause) I thought my dog escaped. I’ve been told many times throughout my life that I’m screwing myself. No one thought I would even be able to put out my first record. I had a lot of people who did not believe in me, classmates. But my family stuck by me and real important, imperative people in my life. But just to really follow that gut instinct, and to maintain that drive that’s inside you, and if you just keep going and going and going you’re going to get there… in one way or another.

Following his gut instinct seems to have worked out well for Robert and for Pancho. I found him to be just as genuine as his songs and truly a musician at heart. You can catch Robert Francis at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on December 12th. His album, Before Nightfall, is available on iTunes now.

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