At the tender age of seventeen, Robert Francis dropped out of high school, faced the demise of the most serious romantic relationship of his young life, and then—like any aspiring musician dealing with a personal disaster—headed to the nearest recording studio. Over the next year and a half, he laid down the tracks that would become One By One, an elegantly haunting and fragile album of modern folk spurred on by heartache and loneliness. Four years later, on Before Nightfall (his major-label debut, out on Atlantic last fall), it seems his work is still fueled by those same raw emotions. Gone is his earlier acoustic fragility, though, replaced with an aggressive full-band sound and a newfound confidence in his rich, baritone vocals.
The recent changes are just another reminder of how young Francis still is. The 22-year-old laughs while discussing the ongoing transformation of his voice, but he’s also still discovering himself as an artist and a person. Before Nightfall documents that journey beautifully; on it he shows a remarkable maturity as a songwriter and bandleader, managing to evoke the sheer joy and terror of impending adulthood without ever sounding childish or self-indulgent. The rare moments of obvious naivete are all the more endearing for their sincerity. Paste recently caught up with Francis during a break from his spring U.S. Tour to talk about growing up with Ry Cooder, dropping out of school and taking off in Europe.
Before Nightfall seems to be getting a particularly great reaction over in Europe. Why do you think that is and what’s it been like touring over there?
Robert Francis: It’s been pretty amazing. ... For some reason, out of all places, it’s taken off in France first. In Paris, I’m doing a co-headline with John Butler when I go back, and I’m doing like a 6,000-seater. If I do my own headline show, I can sell out like a 3,000-seater. So it’s totally different than playing in the U.S. I don’t know why it’s taken off so much, but I think it’s just because the market seems like it’s not as over-saturated with so much music. I think in America, there’s so much all the time. And I think within like the mass majority of American culture there’s been a loss, maybe, of connecting with like roots music. ... I think in France, there’s a huge appreciation for the blues and soul music, and I think the live show has those characteristics much more than the record, too.
Paste: The record has a definite ‘70s feel to it. Is that something you were consciously going for? Were there any specific artists or records you were trying to evoke with the sound?
Francis: No, actually the weird thing about the record is that we did it so quickly … at no point did I have the luxury … to go in and second guess certain things and try to make it sound like, “Oh, this song is reminiscent of the ‘70s,” or whatnot. I think it just naturally happened because of the studio we were recording [in], Sunset Sound, where they did all those great records—Janis Joplin and The Doors and stuff. Every single piece of … equipment we used was pretty much from the ‘60s or ‘70s.
Paste: You can hear a big step forward in terms of lyrical and musical sophistication between One by One and Before Nightfall. Was there anything in your life that you think sparked the changes? Or are we simply hearing you grow up on record?
Francis: I think it’s just the sound of literally actually growing up. I was 19 when I put out that record One by One. ... I totally had lots of faith in people and was just like totally crazy, too, just like a little monster … causing trouble all the time. All this stuff sort of happened within my life—starting to tour a lot more, and starting to … recognize who I was a lot more. My voice just started changing and everything started changing [laughs], which is, like, pretty funny. When I did the new record I wanted to run the complete opposite direction from One by One. ... The way I recorded One by One, it took me so long, I wanted to do this record quickly. I wanted it to be a more confident record.
Paste: You produced your first album yourself and played most of the instruments on it. Was it difficult to step back a bit and cede some of that control to a producer and other musicians on this album?
Francis: It took me a long time to let that whole thing go. ... What happened was I started recording the record [but] I couldn’t seem to get it done. Every song was down tempo, and they were really sad, sad songs. I went to the next studio … and I know the owner so I got to have free studio time there, and he started letting me record, and I still couldn’t get it done. ... Finally I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to go with a producer,” and [Dave] Sardy was like the first person I could think of. ... I liked it not having to worry so much. You can sit in the studio and people will, like, bring you a coffee, and they’ll be engineering, making it sound good, and I don’t have to be running back and forth freaking out all the time.
Paste: How did you make the jump from indie release to major label? What’s the transition been like?
Francis: It was always like a scary thing I suppose. When I did One by One and I put it out, I didn’t want to look for any major label or even a proper indie label. Aeronaut was the smallest label I could really imagine putting the record out on. I just wanted to see the response. What happened was a lot of these labels started getting involved and becoming interested, indies and majors. I met with all of them and I had it narrowed down and finally Atlantic seemed the most steadfast in just like supporting the record and understanding the record.
Paste: You’ve got a special connection with Ry Cooder, who guests on this album. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?
Francis: He’s my sister’s husband’s father … so he’s been in my life since I was about five years old. I would always find myself being around him and sort of watching him play. My father’s only into classical music, so besides my sisters getting into rock and roll and giving me records, I really had no other way to find out about anything. My sisters loved Ry’s records as well, so they’d give me those records and a few others. So I started listening to them a lot and then just watching him play. I think at one point it started becoming a little bit more serious. I’d just go in and literally just sit there and watch him. ... Ry isn’t the sort of person to say, “Okay, put your hand here and you’re gonna do that.” I would sort of imbibe this sort of cosmic information. There’s no way to learn it other than really listening deeply, and that’s how I developed my ear.
Paste: You dropped out of school in 11th grade to pursue music. Were you that confident you’d make a career of it, or was it more that you were just fed up with school?
Francis: I think it was both. I mean, I was really fed up with school. I never did anything. I would wake up and just, like, cry. I hated school so much. Now, looking back on it, it may have been almost to a fault—I had this unmitigated self-confidence that no matter what, things would fall into place, that I would make it and do what I love and it would work out for me. I think partially it was because I was a crazy kid and maybe in a delusional drunken haze all the time. I dropped out of school [when] I had just turned 17 and started touring with my sister’s band, Hello Stranger. I just felt like things would fall into place, but I was also very motivated. When I made my first record, no one thought I could actually ever finish it, but I did, and when I got that done, things just started happening. It hasn’t been really fast for me, but it’s a consistent build. If I wasn’t doing this I wouldn’t be happy.
Paste: At 22, you’ve still got a lot of career ahead of you. Do you have a vision of where you’d like to be with your music in five or ten years?
Francis: I’d just like to put out a record consistently every year-and-a-half or so for the next ten years, to look back and have those records mark different points of my life so when I put on a song, it can take me back to this moment in time. My memory isn’t so great, and I remember a lot of things in music. ... Now, for the first time, I feel comfortable finally with what I want to create and my sound. I think I’m writing the best songs I’ve ever written that aren’t focused on a relationship anymore, that are focused more on this, like, self-sort-of-realization. Now I know how to go to do something like One By One and something as different as Before Nightfall and more, so I can finally combine everything into one record. I think the next one, if anything, will be the one. If, hopefully I am remembered, it will be the one that does it.