The story of singer-songwriter Robert Francis is one of those only-in-L.A. stories. You know, that kind of story where Los Angeles' interconnected social matrix engineers moments of serendipity, where fame crashes into the everyday, rendering something distinct in the ashes. Francis' mother is Mexican, his brother is a Hare Krishna, and his father is a musician and producer. Those elements, those L.A. conditions, make him one of a kind, and his music is too. His brand of mid-tempo, contemporary Americana, comes from an unusual place. As a kid, his father had musicians around the house. Ry Cooder gave Francis his first guitar. Later, on-again-off-again Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, took Francis under his wing, making the budding songwriter into his very first student.
Francis is particularly deft at creating that emotional paradox inherent to great Americana. The best American guitar music, be it blues, country, or rock, shores the weight of melancholy, alongside heart-clutching uplifting anthems. Francis can knock you down or lift you up. It's just a matter how the throws that low, gristled voice and simple, yet poignant lyrics.
His debut record with Vanguard Records, "Strangers in the First Place" comes out this week and Francis' talked to Artbound about growing up in L.A., playing music with John Frusciante as a teen, and calling Ry Cooder whenever life got him down.
What role did your sense of place, the landscape of Los Angeles, play in the way you developed creatively?
I grew up in a well off isolated neighborhood in Los Angeles. My house was surrounded by pine trees, and more often than not, we would see deer grazing in our backyard. There wasn't a sense of closeness between neighbors, so we existed up on our hill in moderate isolation. I bought a beat up '68 Chevelle when I was sixteen and would take San Vincente to PCH and park by the ocean. I had a fake I.D from Glenview, Illinois and bought 24 packs of Sam Adams. I'd sit on the hood of my car, chug beers and chuck the bottles into parking lot trashcans and pretend to shoot sea gulls with my index finger until the sun went down. I can't express how much those sunsets impacted me. I've carried each one of them with me to this day, and a lot of that thirsty, coastal nostalgia releases itself in my music.
You recorded this album in Malibu, by the coast. Can you give us a typical day during these sessions?
I'd spent so much time touring before Nightfall that when it came down to recording Strangers, I wanted to be home. We were all so tired at that point that none of us wanted to record in a studio in L.A, or go out of town and record somewhere away from home. The house in Malibu was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was far enough from home in which I could concentrate, but close enough that nothing was unfamiliar. I would wake up to the sound of the howling wind at 3 a.m. and record myself playing guitar. Eventually the band would tire of this house because they felt disconnected from the world outside, and when they were done laying down their parts, they would go home. Most nights it was just me and my dog, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the wind tumbling through the canyon.
Your father is a producer and musician, so your life in L.A seems to have intersected with some well known musicians too. What are some more memorable experiences that you had growing up in what seems like an only-in-LA kind of life?
My folks always suggested I become an actor or director. They knew how difficult it was to succeed as a musician and I'm not sure they wanted to see me struggle. As time went on, we were all certain there wasn't much else I could do. The touring lifestyle is nothing less than a dangerous cocktail of contradicting emotions; exhaustion, elation, rage and restlessness. Touring doesn't allow the artist to absorb his surroundings for more than a night or two in each territory. If I imagined myself occupying a different profession, it would be one in which I could slow down in.
How did Ry Cooder enter your life?
Ry Cooder taught me all the important things I know about music. His son Joachim is my brother-in-law. We're all very close. Ry took from Rev. Gary Davis and I took from Ry. I can't express how lucky I am to have had some of that deep knowledge imparted to me. Ry is one of the only people I know who I can call when I'm down who will always say the right thing to lift me up. "Robert, the last thing you need is another hole in your head," he would say.
How did you get hooked up with John Frusciante? He has been through a lot, from the heights of fame to the lows of drug addiction, what kind of advice or cautionary tales did he give you to survive in the music industry?
Frusciante was nothing less than inspiring. As a sixteen year old with a death wish, I learned instantly from meeting him that I had a lot of growing up to do. He'd been to hell and back and at this point he was eating a lot of Zucchini and Hummus. Looking back, I wish I'd been older so I could have taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from him more. I had trouble retaining, let alone imbibing any information at that point in my life. He was patient with me.
When you look back at your first album, comprised of songs you wrote as a teenager to now, what differences do you see?
I guess I realized I had a voice when all my record labels, suits and industry types had trouble recognizing where I fit in. I was never indie enough for the indie rockers and never mainstream enough for the main streamers. At one point when I wrapped my head around this, I understood I had something unique to offer but, because of this, it would take a considerable amount of time paving my own road.
What's something about you that know one knows, that you want everyone to know?
I spend most of my time in Birkenstocks and sweatpants.
Robert Francis plays his record release party for "Stangers in the First Place" at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, May 23nd.