I’m gonna make a masterpiece
Get out of the city, find someone to love me
The charcoal sky, naked water
Settle down with a good man’s daughter
And hope that she don’t run when she sees
That I try to be good, but my mind’s a dangerous neighborhood
‘Dangerous Neighborhood’ by Robert Francis
Robert Francis began taking piano lessons before his toes could reach the foot pedals. When he was seven years old, his mother encouraged him to learn guitar so he could play the traditional ranchera songs she’d grown up singing with her sisters. Two years later, Ry Cooder gave him his first guitar, a vintage National Steel. In his teens Red Hot Chili Pepper’s John Frusciante took him on as his only student and a few years later, he released his first album One by One – at nineteen. His second album Before Nightfall, included the song ‘Junebug’ which became a commercial success in Europe. Strangers in the First Place, his new release and first for Vanguard Records, represents a breathtaking artistic leap for the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Strangers in the First Place was recorded in a rented mansion perched high above the Pacific Ocean in the Malibu hills. Francis went there to capture the feeling of expansiveness that lies at the heart of Los Angeles, where he was born and has always lived. The album embraces that feeling in every song, using a cinematically vivid imagery to tell a story of love and loss, but one that always offers hope as an underlying constant. In order to reconnect with the emotions he wanted to express, Francis radically altered his songwriting methodology for the new album to find his way forward.
“What was different about this album is that it started with the lyrics,” Francis says. “Typically I’d write the lyrics and wait for melodies to come that would rhythmically fit with them. And when those two worlds collide and become one, it was as if they were meant to be a song at some point. That was an interesting process for me, because I would constantly surprise myself.”
That strong element of self-surprise runs through the dozen songs, like a buried emotional thread. Also evident is another inspiration: poetry. “I was becoming frustrated with the idea of writing a traditional song,” he says. “At that point I started reading a lot of poetry—Stanley Kunitz, Conrad Aiken, W.H. Auden—and I was trying to work with different meters. There’s a Yale Series of Younger Poets, and I wanted to compile enough work to submit my poems into their competition. ‘Alibi,’ ‘It First Occurred to Me,’ ‘Closest Exit,’ ‘I Sail Ships’—those are poems. Going about it as poetry opened up my mind and released me from the pressure to come up with choruses and melodies. Kunitz said that when you sit down to write something, your mind should be clear enough that you’re not writing about something, you write, and if you’re clear enough or if you’re lucky, it is something. That inspired me.”
Francis’ newly-penned poems were dancing in his consciousness when, after his band mates flew from Seattle to L.A, he drove his van down the coast—in total silence. “During the drive I started hearing melodies,” he recalls, “and that’s when I wrote a lot of the … Read More