Ever since his debut release, One on One, as a 19-year-old songwriter, Robert Francis has grabbed our attention. He kept us rapt for the next two albums, Before Nightfall and Strangers in the First Place, his lyrics rooted in the authentic pursuits of the heart and wrapped in adventurous textures from one release to the next. Then, as Francis describes it, he simply took a break.
It wasn’t that Francis ever really walked away from it all. There was no definitely decision to set it all down, per se. Instead it was a storming away, an emotional response to circumstances building, marked by a search for identity, love, and meaning. In short, all elements that lead to great art.
Francis is now back again, this time with another strong collection of songs entitled Heaven. Francis is already anxious to move on to a new set, since he refers to Heaven, his fourth LP, as a bookend of an entire season of life. But he’s got a great story worth telling in the interim, and he recently gave us a chance to relay it.
Stereo Subversion: You release three albums back to back and then you disappear for a bit, and the story put out there on your end talks about this descent into drugs and just needing to disappear. Can you take us into that a bit more? What’s going on that you need to break away from the music or at least being a musician?
Robert Francis: It was basically a series of events and circumstances piling on top of each other. At one point, I started to crack. A lot of it was me trying to maintain my artistic integrity, I suppose, and the transition from Atlantic Records to Vanguard. I made this record, Strangers in the First Place, and I think the label had no idea what to do with it. They basically said, ‘We want you to keep writing songs and then go into the studio with another producer.’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ My manager has two of their biggest artists, so he was able to leverage them and me and said we were going to walk with this record.
I wanted real, substantial connections with people that didn't only last one night in one strange city and then go on to the next.
We went to Vanguard, then, and they pretended they knew what to do with the record, but they didn’t know either. Basically I was thrown on a never-ending tour that I eventually had to cancel. I guess I just lost this thing, where you’re out there every single night and you just forget why you’re doing something in the first place.
So that was happening and there were personal things at home. This is just all I’ve ever really done. I wanted real, substantial connections with people that didn’t only last one night in one strange city and then go on to the next. Once you’re on that train and touring and promoting a record, if it’s going well, you just can’t get off. It’s a snowball. So there were lots of nightmares about trying to stop this moving train. Eventually I just cracked.
SSv: You were powerless to get off that train? Why is that?
Robert: Definitely. There’s just nothing you can do. Eventually I just cancelled the tour, and the people who were working on my behalf and my fans… I don’t think it went over so well. Cancelling is never a good thing. [Laughs]
SSv: The lifestyle itself isn’t exactly healthy as it is, so to add all of that–
Robert: Yeah, there are two ways to deal with it. A lot of artists are able to maneuver through it by being healthy and eating as well as you can and take it slow and are very focused. The other thing is to embrace the insanity. I’ve always did the latter. In order to balance youreself, you have to continually drink and do these things. I find it’s a hard line to straddle. For me in that moment in time, I was going out in every city, every single night, partying and trying to cope with the shows and the drives and everything that was going on. That being said, it was really fun, but it’s also conducive for burning out really quickly.
SSv: Did you know the music was just on pause, or were you willing to walk away from the whole thing?
Robert: The whole thing for me was when I took a plunge and went to Michigan with this girl on a whim. That, for me, was a really good situation that just needed to happen. I was able to find myself inspired again. For the most part, every record that I’ve made has been about one relationship and one person and these elements that orbited this one single thing. I wouldn’t have been writing songs otherwise had I not gone through this tumultuous relationship. It was a way to express myself, I suppose, or a way to describe what I was feeling. But to keep opening up that wound and look to that for inspiration was extremely taxing, so to find inspiration in another place, with someone else for a while, was what I needed to do.
SSv: So when does the music begin to come back?
Robert: When I was in Michigan, I got a call from the label. I’d let go of my manager and everyone at that time, so they called and said I was contractually obligated to work a record and they said they had the Jay Leno show. I had to fly back and played that. I actually had fun doing it. I moved back to Laguna for a bit and ended up approaching it again on my own terms.
Music is such an interesting thing. I can’t escape it. There are so many things for so long that I have been trying to express and words alone can’t do it. The only outlet for me is this music. I think I realized at one point that it’s just important to embrace that and not ignore it.
SSv: Are all of the songs on Heaven rooted in this new season?
Robert: Everything except for “Wasted on You”. I wrote the song a long time ago, but then I adjusted the lyrics post-this whole mess. So yeah, everything is new.
SSv: When the first couple songs start to come, do you start to find out things about yourself as a songwriter that were not true before?
Robert: Definitely. I think that’s true just as a human being. I don’t know if it was an infantile choice that I made to build up so many things and then tear them down. It’s like I was never happy in so many different circumstances, whether it was like all of these labels or whatever I was projecting on, it was never enough.
What this pause has allowed me to do is not take for granted what it is to be a musician — all of the places I get to go and experience. That in and of itself has been motivating to write music and become comfortable with who I am and take risks I would not have before. It’s allowed me to really, really try. With my first few records, it never felt like enough. Now I want to push through and break through to not only satisfy myself but my fans as well. That’s something I’ve never really done in the past.
SSv: Did it allow you to find the innocence of the first recording or is that impossible?
Robert: The innocence of the first recording is something I’m forever trying to recapture. My first album wasn’t spoiled by anything. You make music and it exists in its own realm. It exists for no other reason. No one has their hands on it. It’s music in its purest form. Then the larger you get or the further you go, the more people become attached to it.
How do you excite yourself? How do you find that feeling again and go back to that? That also transcends music. I think that’s a common thread in all people. We’re all searching for that feeling that we had the first time we met someone or fell in love or any number of things. So I’m always searching for that, but I try not to let that get me down.
SSv: Tell me about the Night Tide. Is this a new permanent band or only this album?
Robert: They’re friends of mine who for some reason we never played music together growing up. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because we had different styles we were into. Toward the end of my last record, I was playing with some of the heaviest cats in L.A. It was amazing because they were phenomenal jazz musicians. But I remember I was looking to my left and to the right and behind me playing in Zurich, Switzerland and thought, ‘This sounds fucking great but it didn’t mean anything.’ I don’t mean to put them down at all. They’re great. Everyone was fantastic, but something wasn’t getting across to the audience.
I guess when you hire someone, their investment isn’t as strong as someone who is in a band because they were in it together. That’s when I needed to look for different types of musicians who would invest themselves so it can be a palpable feeling with the audience. These guys are hard-hitting, awesome, younger guys and it’s obvious for the crowd that we’re all in it together.
It was scary at first because it’s this commitment. This is something where I don’t want to release one Night Tide record and that’s it. I want to do many of them. Now when I’m writing music, I’m thinking about playing with these guys. So now things I would have done otherwise, I’m adjusting now so the band can pull it off to their best ability.
SSv: Before I go, I just have to ask about the track “Hotter Than Our Souls”. That’s a real standout.
Robert: This girl was living with me at the time and we were fighting a lot. We had plans to get out of town and go to Pioneertown and stay at Pappy and Harriet’s and figure some things out. Just getting out of L.A. But something happened, there was a huge fallout, and that morning that she left, I grabbed the guitar I’d set down and the song instantly wrote itself. It was clearly about letting go. In order to truly let go, you have to be able to forgive someone. That’s unfortunate because that’s the last thing you want to do, but it’s the only way to forgiveness I suppose.