Interview: Frances England

FrancesWithUke.jpg.jpgSan Francisco's Frances England was a Zooglobble first -- the first-ever artist interview on this site. Since that time, England's debut Fascinating Creatures continued to win universal acclaim and England herself added a second child to her family. Two years later, her even-stronger follow-up Family Tree (review) seems certain to attract even more acclaim.

England recently answered some questions about what she's been doing the past couple years, how life has changed for her, and how it hasn't. Read on for Frances' trick to overcoming stage nervousness, the inspiration for "Animal Friends," and her plans for live shows.

Zooglobble: When we last talked 2 years ago, Fascinating Creatures was just beginning to get noticed in the world at large. Can you pinpoint a certain moment at which you said to yourself, "Oh, my, something really big is going on here"?
Frances England: Well, in the wide world of music I don’t know how big this all really is but definitely for me, what happened with Fascinating Creatures was shocking - probably because I had no expectations. Not too long after I began selling the CD online, I remember getting these emails saying that random people in Hong Kong were buying it, then it was Australia, and New Zealand and all these far away places.

And it was just really weird to think about how far this little homespun CD had gone, especially considering where it all got started – in our bathroom. (I wrote all of the songs for FC while my first son, Liam, was taking baths). I was also really blown away to be named the sole winner of the 2007 Oppenheim Award. As a mom, I’ve used that very recognizable seal of theirs to scout out quality products for years, so I was really honored by that.

How did life change for you as a result of Fascinating Creatures' success?
I guess the biggest change that occurred for me was that this record forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of performing and putting myself out there. I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes girl and have never relished being front and center. But suddenly, I was getting invited to come play at all of these great places and for the first year I just said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I had just had my second son, Rowan, so I was really busy with the kids, but the truth was I was also incredibly nervous about getting up and singing for people.

But I had two big revelations that helped me get over that. First, I realized that I wanted my kids to see me overcome something I was afraid of. My son Liam knew how much I loved singing and playing guitar and definitely picked up on the fact that it was shyness and nerves that was keeping me from singing out for other people. So I thought, how am I ever going to encourage him to stretch himself to do something unknown or scary if I’m not modeling that myself.

The other big revelation was at my first public performance, which was at Enzo Garcia’s breakfast sing along here in San Francisco. Enzo had invited me to play a couple of sets and before going up to sing I told him how nervous I was. He told me not to worry – the kids would love it all. When I told him it was the parents that made me nervous, he said, “The parents aren’t here to watch you - they are here to watch their children respond to the music,” which was true and so comforting to me. I think it made me realize that performing this kind of music is not about any one person, but about a community coming together to celebrate something really fun and joyful. What a relief!

How did life not change for you?
Well as I mentioned, we had our second son about the same time I released Fascinating Creatures, so really everything has changed because our family changed. But as is probably the case with the majority of your readers, our world is very child-centered and my schedule seems to revolve around drop-offs, pick-ups, playdates, and a never-ending stream of weekend birthday parties. None of that has changed…good times.

Two years ago, you said you were beginning to write songs for another album -- how did writing the songs for the new album differ from how you wrote the songs for the debut?
Well, I did write almost all of the songs on Family Tree about two years ago so everything about that process is really fuzzy (life with a newborn will do that to you). But in terms of how I write songs, I don’t really spend time coming up with a list of topics I want to write about. I generally just sit down with the guitar and a melody floating around my head and see what comes...

The inspiration for the title track is fairly obvious -- the birth of your second son Rowan. Did other tracks have a specific inspiration?
The song “Animal Friends” is about endangered animals and it was inspired by my son Liam’s passion for the ocean and sea life. One day we were watching a PBS special by Jean Michael Cousteau and Liam saw how sharks’ fins are removed to make shark fin soup. It’s so brutal and wasteful, and Liam was totally aghast that anyone would ever eat such a thing. A week or so later we were walking in our neighborhood and happened to pass by a Chinese restaurant that had shark fin soup listed on their menu. It was so shocking to him and he immediately wanted to run home and write a letter to the restaurant telling them how BAD this evil soup was.

Anyway, it was this urgency to right such an obvious wrong that was so inspiring to me. And I think Liam’s reaction is typical of most 4, 5, 6 year olds. At this age, kids have such an innate sense of right and wrong and justice, and I wanted to write a song that spoke to that and talked about what powerful players they are in changing the world for the better.

I asked last time, I'll ask this time -- what are your kids' favorite songs on the album?
Well, when he’s not listening to the Beatles or David Bowie or Justin Roberts, Liam is really into “Spring Has Sprung,” “Animal Friends,” and “Free to Be Me.” And Rowan, my 20 month old, seems to love “I Scream, You Scream,” probably because he can hear himself and a handful of other kids screaming at the end of the song. He’s also completely enamored with our drummer, Jeff Koch, so I think he’s biased towards the more rockin’ numbers...

How was the process of recording different this time around?
We started recording Family Tree at home, after we put the kids to bed (which usually meant sometime after 9 pm.). And then inevitably, Rowan would wake up around 11:30 ready to nurse. So I sound really sleepy in all of those recording – they are actually really funny to listen to now – the tempo is so much slower than the final versions.

After about 6 months of this, I stumbled upon a great little studio here in San Francisco called Snoppy Quop, and I began recording there with Tim Thurman (guitar) and Jeff Koch (drums) and a few other friends. We ended up doing about half the record at the studio, and half at home. A lot of people seemed to respond to the intimate homey feeling of Fascinating Creatures, so I wanted to hold on to that, but also wanted to tighten things up, especially on the more indie-rock songs, which was a lot easier to do in a studio.

You're playing live in Charlotte for the Tricycle Music Festival -- are you preparing anything special for that?
We are so excited about going to Charlotte. Tim and Jeff are coming too and we’re planning on playing songs from both Family Tree and Fascinating Creatures. Something we’ve started doing at live shows that the kids (and parents) have really responded to is adding a projector slideshow of photographs to accompany some of the songs, especially the slower ones. I wanted to add an interesting visual element to the live shows and because some of the images are synchronized to the lyrics, it really seems to help the kids connect to the meaning of the songs in a much deeper way. So we’ll be doing that in Charlotte too.

What else do you have planned (e.g., videos, tours, world domination)?
I have lots of ideas for a children’s book and maybe even some videos so we’ll see what happens. To be honest, right now I’m just having a lot of fun playing with Tim and Jeff and we are excited about the shows we’ve booked for the summer. I’ve always wanted to be in a band and I really couldn’t have found better people to play with -- Tim and Jeff are two of the nicest guys on earth and both of them are dads at my son’s preschool, where all of this got started.