Interview: Frances England

Frances England

Frances England

Me and Frances England, we go way back.  Like, more than a decade.

Frances was the very first artist I ever interviewed for this website (read it here -- really, go ahead and read it), and it's been fun as an observer to see her career grow in interesting ways, from learning to play live to releasing an album for adults (2013's Paths We Have Worn).

As unique as her five previous albums have sounded compared to much of the kindie sonic landscape, they're not quite like the sui generis sound of her latest release, Explorer of the World, which is released tomorrow, April 1.  The record was co-produced by Dean Jones and Dave Winer (best known in the kids music world for being one of Justin Roberts' Not Ready for Naptime Players). Full of found sounds and dynamic percussion and rhythmic choices, the album celebrates exploration and travel with verve and love.  (Listen to "City Don't Sleep" here, and preferably in a car, as Frances reports that Winer "insisted that several songs ("My Street, "Ballad for a Beatboxer," "Street Life," and "City Don't Sleep") be mixed like a hip hop record-- you don't get full effect if you're not surrounded by speakers.")

In this interview, Frances and I talk about the musical and visual inspirations for the album, how she, Dean and Dave worked together, and what her home -- San Francisco -- means to her.

Zooglobble: What sort of sounds are you drawn to? What sort of visuals are you drawn to?

Frances England: Music I'm drawn to... I listen to a lot of different genres: mostly indie stuff, but also some Pop, R&B, Folk, Country, Soul, Metal (just kidding, not metal).  But everything else.  I appreciate songs with strong melodies and hooks, and also love when there is some interesting - slightly weird - subtle stuff happening underneath... probably why I'm so drawn to bands like Sparklehorse, Magnetic Fields, Woods, Postal Service, Vampire Weekend.

When I was young, I watched a lot of Soul Train in the '80s and that show gave me a great appreciation for Soul and R&B sounds. I don't thing that's ever been reflected in my songs until this new album, Explorer of the World. But I spent a long time figuring out vocal melody arrangements for these new songs and lots of that is influenced by those sounds. And Dave Winer :)

Visuals I'm drawn to: I can honestly say that I'm inspired every single day by the artful and the ordinary things around me. I have a dog so I am out walking her everyday and am constantly noticing interesting colors, patterns, lines, contrasts. I'm also really interested in both the thoughtful and the random choices architects/gardeners/painters/homeowners make... it's everywhere and so visually stimulating to me.

There are lots of artists I'm curious about too and love seeing what they are working on: Wendy McNaughton, Nathaniel Russell, Maira Kalman, Keri Smith, Miranda July, Thomas Campbell... lots and lots!  It's hard to keep up... so many interesting people making interesting things :)

Portion of Chris Raschka illustration, inspiration for "City Don't Sleep"

Portion of Chris Raschka illustration, inspiration for "City Don't Sleep"

What visuals did you use as inspiration for each song?  (I recall you telling me that you used some Chris Raschka as inspiration for "City Don't Sleep," for example.)

Regarding using visual inspiration for the songs... As you know, I'm a DIY musician - [I] never studied music so sometimes I have a hard time explaining with words and vocabulary what I'm hearing or envisioning for the songs inside my head.  I do a lot of demo'ing/arranging songs at home and I always have a pretty clear idea of what I'm going after but with this album especially, I used visuals a lot to help Dean and Dave understand the vibe I was looking for.

For "City Don't Sleep," I gave them some photos of Chris Raschka's book Happy to Be Nappy and told them I wanted the song to sound like the picture.  Vibrant, funky, loose, playful... basically let's make it sound like this picture (see above).

When I traveled to Dean's studio in New York I brought about 50 photographs with me into the studio... When you are doing vocals for a song, you spend a lot of time standing in front of a music stand and for each song, I would lay out a collage of photographs on the stand  and before we started recording,  I'd show Dave + Dean some of the images I was looking at... I think it helped... it was also nice for me to have a visual reminder of what was inspiring me when I wrote the song at home in San Francisco. [Here] are some [more] examples of some of the collages I'd build:

"See What We Can See"

"See What We Can See" collage

"See What We Can See" collage

"My Street"

"My Street" collage

"My Street" collage

"City of Hills"

"City of Hills" collage

"City of Hills" collage

Without asking you to specifically speak for Dean and Dave, what was their reaction to this approach?  Were there cases where they specifically locked on to the sound in your head, or where what they did was way off what you were expecting?

Dean and Dave probably thought, "Oh boy, here we go with some California crazy."  :)  

I don't know what they thought, to be honest. The collages were more for me than for them, but I realized while we were in the studio that having visuals probably helped convey the tone and mood of certain songs, for sure.  It definitely doesn't hurt!

Dave Winer and I had done months and months of pre-production demoing prior to stepping into the studio so we had a really good idea on direction before we started recording. But the in-studio chemistry and collaboration between the three of us was really fantastic - and it was basically just the three of us in the studio making this record. Even though we have very different musical influences, we have similar taste - we agree on what's good and what's not good.  So that makes things so much easier from the get go.

But, of course, there were lots of surprises.  "Street Life" was probably the biggest in that it steered furthest away from what I thought the song was going to be. Going in, I knew I wanted to start it minimally with the bucket drum, bass, vocals and field recording sounds.  At the first chorus, Dean added beats from this amazing vintage Maestro Rhythm King drum machine and started doing these fun little electronic glitches with my vocals and some analog synths.

Then, the vocal breakdown part in the middle of the song happened so spontaneously. Dean's kids just happened to have some friends over for a playdate and we asked them to come in and lay down vocals with all of us singing the "ha ha ha " bits together.  They were game so we all crowded round the microphones and spent about 5 minutes recording what truly sounded like a big hot mess of vocals.  But Dean had a vision and finesses it into this cool TuneYards-inspired goodness.

The song was getting there but still missing something until Dave came up with the funky horn/melodica lines that break into the group vocals and take the song out - it's so playful, imitating car horns and brought such a joyful, funky soul to the song.  

It's probably my favorite song on the album and it was one of those instances (there were many) when I felt so profoundly grateful to Dean and Dave for helping me create something so much better and more interesting than what I'd initially envisioned. That's the magic of music.

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World cover

It's funny, reading this, it's almost like *you* were the producer and *Dean and Dave* were the musicians, that you had the grand vision and built the musical foundation and infrastructure, and their job was to help you build the walls and furnish the house.  Not that you weren't also making the music, but this sounds a little more like a director directing a movie -- you have a definite sense of what you want, but it requires the input and work of others to accomplish the vision.

It felt like a fun team effort.  Because I wrote the songs, I  think it’s natural that I would be  “directing” a lot of what happened, but Dave and Dean also did a lot of that, especially keeping the big-picture in mind to make it all sound like one cohesive album.  I really hope I get to make another album with those two again.

What does San Francisco mean to you? You're obviously a fan of the city -- what role does the city generally ("city" defined however you'd like) play in your life?

San Francisco… boy, I do love this place so much. My husband and I moved here almost twenty years ago and thought we’d only be here for a couple of years, but we both feel in love with it and have been here ever since.

We live in the Outer Sunset, a half block away from the N train line and five blocks away from the Pacific Ocean.  I love that mix of city and wide open natural space. The landscape is dramatic here - we live right on the very edge of the country and it feels unlike any other part of  the United States that I’ve been to.  I also love how diverse it is and the fact that my kids are exposed to so many different cultures here.  And the neighborhoods are so fascinating to explore - each has its own unique character and just walking down the sidewalk is interesting because there’s so much happening around.

So the city plays a huge role in my life.  At this point, it actually feels like a part of my identity, and it’s come to be a place that comforts me, challenges me, stimulates me, and inspires me every single day.  I feel very lucky to live here.

Photo credits: Frances (John Funke), Chris Raschka illustration (Chris Raschka), all others (Frances England)