At 22, Robert Francis evokes the wayward spirit of a much older soul.
The impression is one Francis first made with his strikingly mature 2007 debut album, One By One (Aeronaut Records), on which his skills as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist crystallized in songs and themes that belied his youth. In addition to the critical praise that came his way, his pensive narratives and overall craftsmanship earned Francis comparisons to hardcore troubadours Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
Having signed with Atlantic Records, Francis ups the ante with his current sophomore effort, Before Nightfall. Available now on iTunes and everywhere else on Tuesday (October 20), the album courses with a feral intensity through moments both sobering and soulfully uplifting.
Also on Tuesday, Francis will embark on a national tour—supporting indie band Noah and the Whale—at the Roxy in Hollywood. In preparation for the release of Before Nightfall, Robert Francis spoke to Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine about the making of the album as well as his expectations for himself down the road.
Now that you’re on a major label, was there any major difference in how you approached this album in comparison to your first one?
There were subtle differences. For a while, I was making my best effort to produce the record myself, which the label supported, but was also a little bit hesitant to follow through with given my reputation for starting projects and never finishing them. We started it off by [going] to Palm Springs. The label gave us money. We had to go out there and set up a studio in the desert, tried to record there. And I was feeling like the songs were never coming across the way I felt they should have. But then I got a call from Dave Sardy [producer, Before Nightfall] and I met him in London about two years ago when he was working on the Oasis record [Don’t Believe the Truth]. I don’t think he’s known for being the easiest person to work with or the nicest guy, but I think he’s great. He’s really serious; and I am too. [For] the vocal approach, he got a little more out of me than I had ever expected. As far as the record, it’s just the band playing; it’s pretty stripped down. Minimal overdubs, cut pretty quickly, and in about three weeks it was finished.
How have you grown creatively since One By One?
With One By One, I had all the time in the world to go down every avenue, to see what worked and what didn’t. That’s why that record took me about a year to make. I tried doing different things. With this record, with my songwriting, I knew exactly what I should be doing. This record was really about capturing the place I was right at those moments—not so much looking back in time or capturing nostalgia. That was the way I felt at those exact moments when we got it on tape.
Did it end up how you hoped it would?
Nothing ever ends up the way I hope it will… I’d sort of gotten used to singing with subtle affectations in my voice, used to layering, like, strings and reverbs. What I kind of came to terms with was that I was hiding. Hiding behind a lot of different idiosyncrasies and nuances. What happened here [was] at first I was worried, [but] then the more I listened to it, I became a bit more confident. Now I think it’s the best thing I could’ve done.
When you say you were hiding, are you saying it as far as imparting emotions or as far as a vocalist?
Everything. Lyrically. Emotionally. On this record the vocals are so up front; they’re very personal. It’s easy to take away from the message by adding other things, other instruments, focusing on that more than what is really at the core.
How do you see yourself evolving as an artist over the years?
My main goal would be to look back, when I’m 35 or 40, and have an album set out for me for every year of my life that I can look back on. Where I can listen to this record or this song and pinpoint the way I felt at that moment in time. That’s my goal. And also to never really repeat myself.
You’ve already been compared to Townes Van Zandt, Jeff Buckley, Steve Earle. Do these comparisons inspire you or intimidate you? How do you even process something like that at this stage?
To be honest, I never really think about it. I remember when One By One came out, that’s when most of the Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle comparisons came. And I can understand. It was exciting to hear when I’d just turned 19…
And you get compared to these bad-ass icons.
Yeah, that wasn’t so bad. After a while [though], there’s only so much you can do. I was writing in a similar vein, then. It’s more difficult for me to put a finger on who’s influencing me [now] because it’s sort of becoming a more natural sound. I can’t tell where the influences are coming from; I think everything is just coming in line.