Fran Smith writes like she means it: refreshingly uncompromising, with an honesty that is both brutal and beautiful. Singing with unflinching commitment, Smith relentlessly spits out her flat, northern vowels, with a diction that suggests her voice is wrapping itself round each and every syllable of the lyric. It’s as if she meticulously relishes every possible nuance, not just in the meaning of the words, but the individual sounds from which they are constructed; it’s a performance that is utterly disarming in its naked candour.
Leading with her own piano, Smith lays elegant foundations upon which producer Nigel Stonier has built compelling arrangements, making use of strings, distorted electric guitar, and a prominent percussion that serves to accentuate the bite of Smith’s vocal. It’s a well-balanced production that manages to be sumptuous without ever sounding ostentatious; intoxicating, yet never overpowering.
Lyrically speaking, all four songs are most certainly up close and personal. Without ever sounding twee, Smith has a quirky take on matters of the heart, and she certainly takes no prisoners. On “Take These Bones,” Smith sings of the weariness of a love, delivering a wonderfully caustic dismissal: “…and I don’t have too much love left inside of me, these days remember you’re taxing the poor.” It seems that as far as love is concerned Smith both yearns for its comforts, yet runs from its confines, sentiments that are depicted vividly on “We Will Have No More Marriages,” where she mournfully declares her disillusions: “I will wear your embrace like a warm coat, and the collar of kisses you’ve sewn at my throat.”
So, where has this siren sprung from? Fran was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions to introduce herself:
You’re a graduate of Newcastle University’s folk degree; what influence has that had on your approach to songwriting and performing?
As many other graduates before me have agreed, the course was a lot of fun! The standard of musicianship amongst our peers was very high, and the one-on-one tuition we received was excellent, equipping me with performance skills, confidence and vocal techniques that still serve me well.
I threw myself into my studies head-first and whole-heartedly, but found it constantly frustrating that I had to limit my creative output to the confines of a narrowly-defined genre of music. I grew up surrounded by all kinds of rock, pop, blues and country music, and I began to realise that I want some or all those influences to have a place in my musical repertoire, too. This was a really valuable lesson, and I know this about myself now: I don’t like being labelled, and I don’t like being told what to do!
One of my favourite folk artistes, Chris Wood, said something very timely and profound to me shortly before I graduated: “Tradition must be respected, but convention may be broken.” I’ve carried that phrase with me like a talisman ever since. These days, I think: as long as I acknowledge, understand and respect the origins of my music, then I’m free to tear up the rule book and do my own thing. In many ways, the best thing the course did for me was give me something to rebel against. It made me think hard about the music I really wanted to make and trust my own instincts. I’m a much better musician and a much happier person for having gone through that process.
You then honed your craft further by studying on a Master’s course in songwriting- what’s the most valuable thing you learned from this?
To be honest, the most valuable lesson I learned personally, was to have more self-belief. It’s one thing having the skills to craft a song; having the guts is another thing altogether. I’d tie myself in knots until my tutor, Davey Ray Moor, finally said to me, “What you are already doing is really working, so stop worrying about what everybody else is writing and keep going!” It’s quite a big deal when someone gives you permission to be yourself!
Davey also said, “Think of the record that is currently missing from your collection – the one that you are always in the mood to play, but that no one’s made yet. Now make that record.” That’s what I had in my head when I was in the studio recording the EP!
What are your wider influences? Who do you admire as a writer and a performer?
There are so many: from songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, to punk bands, Springsteen, The Velvet Underground, blues, musicals, country, loads of New York-based stuff like Antony and the Johnsons and Joan As Police Woman… oh, and plenty of folk music, obviously! I could go on all day, but instead I’ll pick out these three women…
Joanna Newsom – I’ve always loved verbose, poetic, visual song lyrics, but how you begin to have the vision and ambition that she has – combined with that level of musicianship – just baffles me! It’s something for us all to aspire to. The Van Dyke Parks string sections on her album “Ys” were a big influence on my EP, too.
Martha Wainwright – My favourite singer; she can sing anything. Hearing her music for the first time when I was 20 was a real turning point; it accelerated my desire and ambition to be a singer-songwriter. There’s a rawness and honesty in her delivery that I’m really drawn to.
Patti Smith – My hero! There are so many things to admire about her: her individuality, her stage presence, how articulate she is, the bravery and heart with which she attacks every performance, her politics, her generosity towards her audiences and towards other musicians; Patti’s the embodiment of a true artist.
What drives you the most; which aspect of music do you enjoy the most- writing, singing, performing, or recording?
For me, the writing and singing go hand in hand. I suppose performing is the thing that drives me the most, I just wouldn’t get the same satisfaction writing songs for myself; songs are a means of communication, they’re made for sharing with an audience. I love being on stage, and when I don’t have a gig for a few weeks I start to pine for one! The studio experience was fantastic and now I’m itching to do some more recording.
There is an almost brutal honesty in your writing- do you worry about putting this out there, and opening up so publicly?
I try not to worry about it too much, because then it becomes inhibiting. I enjoy dressing emotions up in metaphor and sometimes deliberately obfuscating situations, because it means each audience member has to pin their own associations on the lyric. But there’s a difference between that and censoring myself. Honesty is a quality that I love in other writers’ work, and I want to feel like I can say what I need to say.
What did you make of going through the recording process for the first time- how did it match up to your expectations? What new doors did it open, musically speaking?
I have absolutely loved making this EP, from start to finish! I never expected to enjoy it this much. My previous experiences of recording demos with friends had led me to believe it would be a frustrating and demoralising struggle to capture the definitive performance, but going into a professional studio with a dedicated engineer and a wonderful producer was, of course, a whole different ballgame. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had making music.
Working with Nigel Stonier was a privilege – he really knows how to create a positive, supportive environment to make music in. It’s an amazing feeling when such a respected producer says, “I get what you’re about, I think your songs are brilliant, and I want the rest of the world to hear them too!” Nigel found us two great studios, and brought in a small team of very talented musicians who all worked hard and believed in the project – I honestly couldn’t have asked for more.
I remember saying very early on that I didn’t want the EP to be easy listening; I had no interest in being obscure just for the sake of it, but at the same time I wanted my music to challenge people. There’s darkness and drama in the lyrics that I wanted to draw out and explore, and as a songwriter himself, Nigel got what I meant immediately. That became our brief, in a way. At the heart of each track is the lyric, the voice and the piano, just like in my live performances. What all the other musicians are adding is enhancement, nuance, drama and storytelling – they’re painting the picture I had in my head when I wrote the song.
Review by: Mike Wilson
Beverley Folk Festival
Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire, UK (map)
Friday, June 15, 2012
The Big Session Festival
Walton-on-Trent, South Derbyshire, UK (map)
Saturday, June 16, 2012
All Hallows Church (Hyde Park)
support for Wilful Missing
Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK (map)
Sunday, June 24, 2012
The Old Cinema Launderette
intimate acoustic show – limited tickets available
Durham, County Durham, UK (map)
Saturday, July 21, 2012