It’s not the least bit surprising that Maria Jacobson, who writes music under the name Fran, has an acting background. Every second of her debut record, A Private Picture, feels like a theatrical performance, her voice oscillating between melodramatic yelps and gorgeously crooned whispers. Cinematic strings and dramatic pauses dripping with irony (like the one on album opener ‘Now,” in which she sings, “It’s a solo to save the year” before waiting an extra couple bars to bring in some of the heaviest guitars on the record) occasionally pop up throughout this unflinchingly honest breakup album. It’s even easy to imagine these scenes actually happening in some melodramatic indie rom-com: “I want to be crooned in a venue of some renown / He’ll sing it straight to me so everyone sees / That the subject is holier somehow,” she sings on the peppy “So Surreal.” Though she’s now a fully-fledged musician, she’s still an actress at heart.
But without her fledgling acting career—which began in the Chicago theater scene and later took her to a repertory theater in rural Indiana—there would be no A Private Picture. It was in this turbulent time, which was also coupled with a handful of failed relationships, when she picked up a guitar in the first place and begin writing songs. Those experiences more than just inform the Chicago artist’s debut: They’re essential.
Take Jacobson’s lilting vocals on the alt-country “(I Don’t Want You to Think) I’ve Moved On,” for instance. Over rockabilly instrumentals, she delves deep into her post-breakup feelings, struggling to get over her ex while also trying to make him think she still cares. “I don’t want you to think I don’t love you,” she repeats at the song’s conclusion following verses that see her “kiss[ing] someone I barely knew,” despite “still see[ing] you everywhere.” It takes quite a bit of acting chops to pull that off.
“I feel that I am a songwriter for the same reason I wanted to be an actor,” she writes in the album’s bio. “I want to tell the truth. I want to challenge myself to get closer and closer to the core of an experience, an emotion—I want to say it, sing it, in a way that says exactly what it is.”
And when listening to A Private Picture, that push to tell the truth, both as a lyricist and an actor, is easily apparent. She holds nothing back throughout the record, even admitting on the quiet/loud dynamics of St. Vincent-meets-SASAMI lead single “Company,” “But if you want to know it / I will say it / I don’t care” between bursts of frenzied guitars. She addresses this idea of putting her life on full display on the slow-burning title track when Jacobson, in her gorgeous Dolores O’Riordan-esque breathy vocals, croons, “It is private in the public so it reaches out to no one saying nothing.” But that still doesn’t stop her from doing so anyways—she finishes the song repeatedly sighing, “I let you down / I’m sorry / I want you dead” as her backing band settles into a groove that threatens to swallow her whole.
Jacobson ends A Private Picture in a much different place than she started, contemplating the slow recovery from the breakup that sent her reeling at the album’s outset. On album opener “Now,” she confidently announces, “I am here,” over fuzzed out heavy guitars that attempt to stop her. But by the tail end of A Private Picture finale “Desert Wanderer,” a slow rumination over mournful strings and easily the prettiest song of the bunch, she asks, “But who is going to take care of me?” “The natural disaster you’ve incurred is nothing new to me,” she sings on the bridge as heavenly backup vocals prop her up, adding, “So I’ll watch as it happens and let time erode this mountain I can’t scale.” Maria Jacobson has gone through many abrupt life changes over the past few years, and she has emerged wounded but better than ever with some battle scars to show for it. And in due time, she’ll get over that breakup mountain, she so badly wants to move past, but in the meantime, it’s informing some pretty great songwriting and a debut to be proud of.