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Strangers in the First Place: Another Conversation With Robert Francis

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A Conversation With Robert Francis

Mike Ragogna: Hey Robert, last time out, I think we did one of the longest interviews I've ever had with someone. We got way into your last album, Before Nightfall, and I think we went through every single song on that one.

Robert Francis: I think so. That's right!

MR: What are your thoughts about your new album, Strangers In The First Place?

RF: Let's see. I think this record for me is a much more adventurous, much clearer representation of probably who I am as a human being. I think with the transition to an indie label and where I'm at today, I think this album has more colors and different textures so I think it has much more to offer than my previous work. I think on a deeper listen, like every time you listen to a song, I think there are deeper layers to strip away and songs have multiple meanings and double entendres and that sort of thing, so it's just a bit of a new sound for me.

MR: I also want to ask you about your single, "Heroin Lovers." It's not as blatant as the title suggests, although there is a history here, because you revealed aspects of your past relationship to me during the Before Nightfall interview. This one kind of ties into it as well, right?

RF: It does. I mean, it also was inspired by a couple friends of mine. But you know, that song was probably the most stream of consciousness. Usually, I'll sit down to write a song and I'll really analyze the lyrics and I'll work at it for a really long time, but "Heroin Lovers" came quickly. I wrote it very fast. So yeah, it hints at what it's about.

MR: Do we dare go into the album like we did your last one?

RF: No, that's good

MR: Okay, let's just do a few, starting with the title track. In "Some Things Never Change," the chorus goes, "People like you, people like me... some things never change." That's very true, isn't it.

RF: I think so -- I would hope so. That song is about the idiosyncrasies that make us who we are and it's about, obviously, a tumultuous relationship and these attractions between lovers that's basically, "This is never going to work, this is never going to happen because we are, at the end of the day, who we are and some things never change." But at the end of the day, we have to learn to, I guess, accept that and move on.

MR: Are we okay with the fact that we were sort of in that situation to begin with or do we kick ourselves for having ever been in it at all?

RF: I think we're okay. I think we're not kicking ourselves, no.

MR: I don't know. Sometimes, I feel like kicking myself for ever having gotten into certain situations.

RF: Right. No, I think these things are necessary for growing and for changing.

MR: Could you give us a little history on that one?

RF: Yeah. That song's interesting since there are a lot of people who like it because they think it's a romantic love song but really, it's sort of about... You know, in the bridge, when it's like "When I'm out of my mind, when the sun tries to shine we get lost in the sheets," and it's all these things? Basically, it's about being free and moving on and how all these things that are repressing me keep me contained -- that was when I was perfectly yours, and now I've moved on and I can see clearly, which is sort of the underlying, running theme for the entire record. It's reminiscing about when I was perfectly yours and how now that that's done, I can finally see clearly.

MR: Nice, and with "Strangers In The First Place," you've got two different meaning on that one; you're strangers when you're first meeting but when you're looking at or maybe reflecting on something that happens in the relationship, it proves that maybe this isn't what we thought it was.

RF: Right. Also, for me, I was always obsessed with this idea when writing the album, just how, almost in like sort of an existential way, no matter what we do and where we go, when all is said and done, at the very end of it all, we go back to the way it was in the very, very beginning. All of us human beings are strangers to each other and I was just fascinated by that, and it sort of has a greater meaning.

MR: All right, before I cry, let's quickly look at a couple more songs on the project such as "Tunnels," that kicks off the album.

RF: I wrote "Tunnels" when I was traveling. I've been back and forth to Europe for about two years every other month. I'd be flying back and forth and back and forth and "Tunnels," I wrote in this girl's flat in Paris. She was in the bedroom and I was sort of out at the window staring out at this city at night and sort of pondering my very existence. But it's sort of about the things that follow you and no matter where you go, the things that come with you. I don't want to sound too morose, that every song is about this type of thing. There are a lot of times when I think "Oh, I should be so happy, I mean look where I am, and look what I'm doing." But if you're held captive by those lingering feelings of love, it's sometimes difficult.

MR: I know what you mean, feeling like you're in a tunnel.

RF: Yes.

MR: And I love how "Tunnel" kicks the album off with a goodbye song.

RF: At the very beginning, I actually thought I'd start the album with "Dangerous Neighborhood," which is now the last song, and "Tunnels" would be the last song. But I think it leaves you on a positive note now, and that's the way I wanted the album to be.

Listen to Robert Francis's "Tunnels":

MR: Let's talk about "Dangerous Neighborhood," where you have a certain guest, a certain person who appears pretty prominently in your history, Mr. Ry Cooder along with Joaquim Cooder is on the album too.

RF: Yes, he is on the album. Ry was my mentor growing up, he sort of taught me all the important things I know about music. Ry was real happy to play on "Dangerous Neighborhood," he likes that song a lot. Joaquim is also playing on a song called "I Sail Ships," and Mike Campbell, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, he played on "Heroin Lovers," and Jim Keltner, the legendary drummer who played on "Knocking On Heaven's Door" and "All Things Must Pass," he was on "It First Occurred To Me," so there's a real strong group of musicians on the album.

MR: John Frusciante from Red Hot Chili Peppers, was also in your childhood, right?

RF: Yes. He was my guitar teacher when I had just turned sixteen. He'd send an assistant in a car to come pick me up at my folks' house and I'd go to his house in the Hollywood Hills. He'd teach me mostly prog music and theory.

MR: Prog music and theory. What more does one need to live on.

RF: Exactly.

MR: Can you give us a little Harry Dean Stanton birthday story?

RF: Sure. My sisters are ten years older than me, and they brought me to this club called The Mint in LA when I was a child -- maybe nine or ten, I can't remember. I was outside, noodling on a guitar and Harry Dean Stanton was playing that night. It was his birthday, and he had this blues band and his guitar player saw me and so when they were doing their encore, he motioned for me to come up on stage. I got up there and he dropped this big ES-335 huge guitar over my shoulders and I started soloing and I looked up at Harry Dean Stanton and he's standing there in a three-piece white suit with a highball glass of scotch, and Chaka Khan came on stage and she started singing and that was my first proper jam session.

MR: Pretty cool first jam session. Robert, she wasn't just singing to the audience, she was singing to a certain ten-year-old, wasn't she?

RF: She was. She was down on her knees looking me in the eye and her hair was everywhere.

MR: What a cool thing to have happened. Okay, let's get to Paris, Texas, which is an important movie to you, huh?

RF: It is. It's sort of what inspired me to travel and to not be afraid of traveling and sort of to accept the wandering lifestyle and to embrace it. That movie just instilled those images of the open road in my head when I was a little kid, so I had no fear when I decided to drop out of school and get in the car and start touring.

MR: Now, this album was recorded a little differently than the last one.

RF: I rented this mansion in Malibu and it overlooked the ocean and had sprawling views of the coast and we built a crazy studio. I lived there for months and I made most of the record, and then I sort of came back and finished and did a few songs later on in a lead room in Chatsworth, in the valley of LA. It was sort of two polar opposites of places where you could record. But it's beautiful, you know? You look out the window and there are dolphins swimming in the water. It was a really nice place to make an album, and really inspiring.

MR: You're on your third album now. What do you think looking at where you've come from and where you are now, and what's the major difference to you?

RF: Well, it all came together completely unlike the way I thought it would. You know, if someone told me when I was first setting out to do this, "Oh, you're going to have a massive number one single in France and you're going to spend eight months in Paris and maybe you're going to come to the US and you'll play for a bar full of people fighting," and the juxtaposition between the two--of how it is overseas and how it is over here -- and just the weird way that it's sort of happening, and the process... I just never would have imagined it could be this way, but it's just been a long road of constant touring and traveling, and it's built character. The road breathes new inspiration and life into you and also can suck it away, so it's dangerous but exciting, and now I have a story for every city and state and place in the US and now overseas and it's exciting. It's crazy. It's tiresome but also, it's the only thing I can do and feel happy about doing at the end of the day. Otherwise, I'd just be restless.

MR: That's the story with most true musicians, isn't it. There's just nothing else you could do that makes you happy.

RF: I think so. I think all musicians fantasize about being able to do something else, but when it really comes down to it you're only truly fulfilled doing music, I guess.

MR: You mentioned Europe before. There's a song that's one of my favorites from your last album, Junebug.

RF: That's right.

MR: That was an overseas hit for you.

RF: Yeah, it was a #1 song in France. It was "Junebug," and then below it would be like Rihanna and Lady Gaga, so it was really interesting. And then, you know, in Germany, it was Top Ten, and in Switzerland, it also was #1, so we did a lot of touring over there.

MR: It should have been a hit here.

RF: I always thought as an artist, it's just more important to keep creating music and making records and not get hung up on singles and things like this. I think at the end of the day, that's what your fan base wants, and that's what makes you happy as a songwriter.

MR: Any touring for this album?

RF: Yeah. June, I'll be doing my first US headlining tour, so hopefully, that'll go well, and then off to Europe for a bunch of festivals, and then I'm going to come back and do a co-headlining tour with Scars On 45.

MR: When you were on Atlantic, you made pals with some label mates. I remember there were shots of you with Jason Mraz and other Atlantic folks at the time.

RF: Yeah. I had a couple friends. I made friends with a lot of people over there. Mraz is managed by the same manager, so we always just end up seeing each other, and he took me out on the road too, which is nice.

MR: Robert, what advice do you have for new artists?

RF: Just make sure that you're doing it for the right reasons and that you love the craft and the art of music primarily before anything else. If that's your number one thing and you can say that you'd suffer or die for a song, then by all means, go out and pursue music as your career. It's a dangerous industry, but it's like The Wild West. It's crazy. If it's what you love, be fearless and do it.

MR: How heavily do you participate in social networking?

RF: I am not the best social networker. My label... everyone is always trying to get me to do social networking. Constantly. But it's hard for me to wrap my head around it. I think the internet, even though it has all these great things to offer, I think it has destroyed the collective unconscious of human beings. So it's hard for me to sit there on the computer trying to advertise my music, or self, or represent myself that way. But I'm getting better at it, so stay tuned.

MR: Any words of wisdom?

RF: Wisdom? I have no words of wisdom. I'm seeking some words of wisdom myself. I don't know. Stay tuned. Stay tuned for this record and then the next.

MR: Robert, as always, all the best, I appreciate your time.

RF: Thank you.

Tracks:
1. Tunnels
2. Some Things Never Change
3. Perfectly Yours
4. Alibi
5. Eighteen
6. Star Crossed Memories
7. It First Occurred to Me
8. Heroin Lovers
9. I Sail Ships
10. The Closest Exit
11. Wild Thing
12. Dangerous Neighborhood

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne