A brief promo trip gave FRUK a chance for an exclusive face to face with Robert Francis to talk about the superb Heaven and his journey from hell, taking in the Ry Cooder and RHCP connections.
Heaven is actually the fourth album from Robert Francis, but the first to come my way. The multi-instrumentalist and singer songwriter is still only in his mid-20s, yet the road to this new release has been a convoluted one of twists and turns, packed with incident and more than its fare share of demons. Despite the title, it seems Robert has been to hell and back, but whatever the journey it makes for a totally compelling and finely crafted record, which stands as a true reflection of its principal architect in its intricate and complex variety.
I managed to catch up with Robert whilst he was on a promo trip to the UK. We met in a Soho pub and he filled me in with a little of his history. Robert told me, “I started making my first record, One By One, when I was 18 and finished it when I was still only 19. The songs were mostly centred around a very troubled relationship that defined my teenage years. It didn’t sell fantastically well when it came out, but got me a lot of attention, enough to attract some big labels. I was coerced, or perhaps I shouldn’t say that, let’s just say persuaded to sign for Atlantic. We released the second album, Before Nightfall and it really took off in France. I had a number one single and a gold-selling record there.”
So far so good then, but he continues, “Perhaps it was because I was still so young and also a bit of a control freak, I decided it wasn’t really working for me, so I quit Atlantic and signed with Vanguard who are more of an indie label. I then made Strangers In The First Place with them, but it was following that release when my problems really started. I had a bit of a breakdown and had to cancel the tour I was on. In the end, I walked away from making music completely, so there was actually a two-year hiatus before I realised I had to start writing songs again and that was when I started working on this new release.”
Reading a snippet online, it appears that the two-year lay off saw Robert enter into another troubled and self-destructive relationship with a girl he’d met on tour that involved a lot of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. It’s not something that I want to get embroiled in, however, preferring to tell the story of how Heaven did eventually appear and as loaded as that sounds, there is a ring of truth about it.
There’s the Night Tide too, Robert’s new band. David Kitz and Ben Messelbeck on drums and bass, who are an important part of the picture. As Robert explains, “Although I’ve always made records with people in my touring bands there have also been more guests involved, like Jim Keltner or my brother in law Joachim. This time it felt good to have the same people play through the whole record and to aim for a sound that can easily be replicated live. I was also looking for that camaraderie that you can take out on the road.”
He builds on that point explaining, “I guess I’ve learnt one lesson in that being in the spotlight as the singer songwriter, you tend to question yourself an awful lot, especially when touring, so it’s really important that you have people around you who understand you and can support you through that. It’s important to have people who believe in you and trust you.”
Talking about Heaven, Robert also credits a couple of other people, in particular, revealing, “I had some help from Marc Gabor and Mark Rains with the engineering and mixing, but the production is all mine. I suppose that’s probably why there isn’t one style to the way the record sounds, it’s a mix of electric and acoustic and segues from genre to genre through the release. But that feels like me at the moment.” He continues, “When we first started recording I went to Seattle and worked with Tom Monahan. Everything we did was stylistically very coherent, but it all started to sound too much the same. That’s not Tom’s fault, he’s a really great producer, but all the songs had the same sonic imprint and it just started to bore me.”
It’s a point that’s worth making especially for someone with Robert’s experiences as he confesses, “For me to believe in a record it has to excite me, engage me and keep me engaged. I have to imagine touring it and playing the songs over and over because after all the record is a big part of me. I think that the fact it was recorded over a year-long period and in lots of different places is another important part of the jigsaw. I was able to approach the different songs with a fresh mindset. But for better or worse, after my two-year break, this is what I’ve come up with.”
If it is a mixed bag, then it’s not to the detriment of Heaven and there are many great records that are varied and different track by track. It does however also mean that this is another of those records that repays repeated play. If at first you are rather surprised by the gear shifts through the brooding opener, Something Tells It Not Too, through the surging power-pop and spangling-guitar-riffarama of Baby Was The Devil and Love is a Chemical, to the gospel blues of the title track, stick with it, as familiarity and also the context of the many changing moods as they appear across the 13 tracks takes hold, it all starts to make sense, creating a template of its own that is hard to pick holes in.
The changes keep on ringing through the surf twang of Ukiah into the more acoustic singer songwriter mode of Wasted On You. Both in their own way are revealing of the troubled times of Robert’s life. There’s a highly literate mind at work here and he spins these stories through a poetic kaleidoscope of shifting patterns that pull little pearls of wisdom into focus. My favourite lines from the album and quite possibly from the year so far have to be, “Outside the world was tender as a sponge, we watched the glaciers melt and the stock markets plunge, I don’t care if it’s true my mind is wasted on you.” When I suggest to Robert it has something Dylanesque about it, he instead points me in the direction of Townes van Zandt revealing, “I’ve been listening to a lot of Townes recently.”
I also quiz Robert about the title as there are a couple of songs that directly reference the devil and others where it seems his soul is in hock to some nefarious deal or compromise. He confides, “There’s a line in there, ‘The hearts gotta wander just to know where it’s from,’ which is a pretty good summary of my life so far. I suppose Heaven is this idea we are all after. We think we’ll own a piece of it if this or that happens. For me, it was getting to be a musician and making records, living the rock ‘n’ roll life. But we reach some of these goals we find out it doesn’t actually make us happy we are as satiated as we thought we’d be. Then there’s my mom who’s Mexican and brought up a Catholic, so Heaven has a very different meaning for her.”
He darkens a little as he admits, “I’ve had a lot of problems, issues I’m trying to work through. This record is about figuring it out.” He’s thoughtful as he adds, “I suppose as you get older you get desensitised too. I need a lot more. The little things don’t do it for me anymore and it takes more to make me happy.” I ask Robert whether making the record has been a cathartic process and he confirms, “I guess you could say that. Making records is never easy for me, some people can do it, in, out and they’re done, but I have to tap into my subconscious and it’s through doing that that I start to see the truth and learn about myself.”
We return to the style of the album and I wonder about the evolution of the variations in sound and chance has played its part suggesting perhaps a series of happy accidents. Robert looks quizzical but tells me, “There were definitely accidents that happened, although I wouldn’t necessarily describe them happy. For example, I was surfing, had an accident and broke a rib. I ended up taking these really strong painkillers called Vicodin and was high on them for days, hunched over a computer with my guitar. It was only in that state that I could possibly have come up with the stuff I play on Blue and Hotter Than Our Souls.”
Both songs have a decidedly dreamy quality, matched with an almost psychedelic tinge to the start of Give Me Your Love, but it’s worth stating that the album simply bristles with little details and also uses layers of sound so well. Songs like See You Around and Pain boast clever little guitar runs, but the whole record benefits from the kind of melodic substance that fans of the likes of The Shins and Midlake will adore. Something that Robert will say later suggests Thin Lizzy as a point of reference for Take You To The Water. It’s just a hint in the melodic structure rather than any outbreak of hard-rockin’. I’ve Been Meaning To Call is pure acoustic singer songwriter gold dust and a great story song and proof indeed that variety is the spice of this particular life. Once you start to piece together a little of Robert’s story, then there are details here that are clearly autobiographical, but it’s not self-indulgent, or at least no more so than with other great songwriters.
It’s probably fair to say that Robert was always likely to make music. His father is a noted classical music producer. Robert recalls, “I grew up in a house with three grand pianos, 30,000 records and 30,000 books. My dad would blast music at concert volume all day. It was the sort of house that if you got up in the night to take a leak, you’d end up bumping into a big pile of astronomy books and knocking then down the stairs.” That sounds like a particularly and possibly painful memory, but he laughs.
Of course, he had to find his own music and has received some notable patronage along the way. He confirms, “Ry Cooder gave me my first guitar, well actually my first slide guitar.” The Cooder connection is family as Robert’s sister, the singer Carla Commager is married to Ry’s son Joachim. Robert tells me a funny story involving a video shoot and a rent-a-wreck car hire car dealer who pressed Robert into a phone call with Roger McGuinn, which he later had to tell Ry about. It’s not name dropping but, just illustrates that they remain close and spoke barely a week ago.
Then there’s the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and again he almost casually tells me, “Yes, I went to school with Flea’s daughter and through him, John Frusciante agreed to give me guitar lessons. I was sixteen years old and so excited I was bouncing off the walls.” He smiles ruefully and admits, “I was really too young to properly benefit, especially with John having so many of his own demons that he was trying to work through.”
In truth, Robert seems more relaxed and is genuinely funny and good humoured when the conversation turns to other people. Perhaps it’s my over earnest questioning in trying to get to the bottom of what I take to be a very serious and deliciously complex new album. As if to confirm the point, there’s some time to kill before Robert’s next interview. I suggest to Gary, who is Robert’s PR person and chaperone for the day that we take a trip round to Sister Ray, as it’s on my agenda and a rare opportunity for me to have a nonspecific mooch. So we do.
We chat on route and when in the store I find myself with Robert flicking through the vinyl. He surprises me by first pulling Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom from the racks asking, “Do you know this record?” Indeed I do and tell Robert it’s a particular favourite. We then get locked into a conversation about Robert’s favourite singers, Paul Rodgers, Doug Sahm and Karen Dalton. Then onto Thin Lizzy and Vagabonds Of The Western World and more specifically the track, Little Girl In Bloom. The last two I confess to Robert I don’t know, although am able to correct his Free chronology, for what it’s worth, but then I owned their records before Robert was even born and his choices are as unusual as his enthusiasm is infectious.
A few days and a little homework later, not forgetting to fill the Townes van Zandt void in my recent play history and I’m suddenly passing messages of my own newfound enthusiasms through to Robert via Gary. I guess it poses some questions about questions. Perhaps the best ones are the ones that rarely get asked. Although thoughts about a whole new interview strategy, might not be the healthiest line of thinking. Besides, it was just the circumstances and I was in my element too, talking about music and found the flow of conversation inspirational, which perhaps shows how it can hit you when you least expect it. I’m in my element with Heaven too and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in lyrical, intelligent, pop music, alive with wit and great tunes. When let loose, Robert’s unconscious mind is a key that will unlock many a heart. Try yours for fit.
Review & Interview by: Simon Holland
UK & European Tour Dates
11 – Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester
12 – The Hope,Brighton
13 – Bush Hall, London
15 – Nouveau Casino, Paris, France
16 – Depot, Leuven, Belgium
17 – Bitterzoet, Amsterdam, Netherlands
18 – Rockhal, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
21 – Backstage,Munich, Germany
22 – FLEX, Vienna, Austria
23 – Komplex Club, Zurich, Switzerland
24 – Les Docks, Lusanne, Switzerland
25 – Longhorn, Stuttgart, Germany
27 – Batschkapp, Frankfurt, Germany
28 – Kulturkirche, Cologne, Germany
29 – Forum, Bielefeld, Germany
30 – Grunspan, Hamburg, Germany
31 – Franzz Club, Berlin, Germany
UK Release 28 April 2014
Order Heaven via: Amazon