Romance & Realism • Stewart Francke

An Exclusive Interview with Saginaw's Award Winning Artist About His 14th Studio Release and Keeping the Music Fresh While Dancing Around the Heat of A Familiar Fire

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 789   By: Robert E Martin

17th April, 2014     0

.A Familiar Fire is the title of Saginaw bred and Detroit based musician, songwriter, and author Stewart Francke’s latest CD of original material and marks his 14th release since 1995, when he made his debut on the now defunct Schoolkids Records with When the River Meets the Bay. Produced with partner Bryan Reilly at Birmingham’s RMS Studios, apart from being his third release in a 3-year time span, musically & lyrically this latest release represents Stewart’s most stylistically varied and topically evolved works to date.

Replete with songs that take fundamental topics of love, loss, success, and struggles commonly shared in the socio-economic realities of our time, Francke’s forte as an artist centers upon his abilities to lend a poetic sense of hope and survival to the magical realization of dreams in a world with roads that may lead to freedom, but also contain potholes either filled with possibility, or that drop into the abyss, depending upon the direction one takes plotting the route.

A Familiar Fire also follows fast on the heels of Stewart’s recently published memoir, What Don’t Kill Me Just Makes Me Strong, published by Untreed Reads in San Francisco, which chronicles his battle with leukemia and stem cell transplant that has sold well. Indeed, if anybody has weathered the unpredictable obstacle course that the various roads of life may lead us upon and assimilated the authority to write knowledgeably and truthfully about it, Stewart would have to be at the top of my list.

Stewart’s work has been steadily recognized by his peers over the years through numerous Detroit Music Awards, including ‘Best Artist, Songwriter & Album’ totaling 13 awards; and in 2004 he received an Artist Grant by Artserve Michigan in 2004. He has successfully used the crowd-funding service Kickstarter on his three most recent records, raising a total of $60,000 and is distributed and promoted internationally through the innovative use of the Internet and the meticulous cultivation of his audience over the years.

Perhaps his good friend and noted rock critic Dave Marsh sums up Stewart’s work best when he notes how Stewart has “all the tools: a great voice, a vision that’s grand without being grandiose, an undying love of sound for its own sake…this music isn’t classic anything only because, like every real artist, he takes the world as he knows it and moves on his own course.”

Each of Stewart’s musical excursions that populate the lexicon of his catalog have shimmered with their own distinct lyrical and musical textures, but with A Familiar Fire he has constructed a new and fresh level of achievement, working with a wide palate of instrumentation to color the weight of his material with up-beat tempos and jangling infectious guitar-driven melodic hooks that lift the spirit, while simultaneously exploring shifting musical sands of tenderness and healing with the ballads.  Taken together as a complete work, A Familiar Fire breaks complex topics and emotions down to combustible elements that each listener will digest and walk away from feeling warmer and richer for the experience. 

In the end what more can one ask from life or art?

Review: The title of this new work ‘A Familiar Fire’ is perfect in the sense the energy that drives not only the creative process, but the desire to pursue whatever goals that we have in life – professional, romantic, or recreational – stems from a familiarity or zeitgeist, if you will, that is both universal yet unique to each of us.  How does the title frame this latest work? 

Stewart: The title came from being on close terms, to some extent, with the creative impetus - the fire inside us - that keeps us creating, or loving, or working.  At this point in life and career, I know pretty well what moves me and inspires me, although you are surprised from time to time.  And it's generally things that are happening now - not from the past - new songs, new dramas, new human scenarios, new political situations.  So yes, the "Familiar Fire" is the drive and a desire - the muse you're quite close to that's never really let you down. 

And it does apply to all walks of life, not just an artistic life - a lawyer or a guy that works on the line has to find that thing - that fire - no matter how difficult that gets him through the day with some sense of accomplishment and satisfaction...even if it's just survival.  It IS a universal concept, applying itself to everyone from Sufis to doctors to politicians to minimum wage workers at Wal Mart. What is the notion, the drive that gets you through with some kind of self-respect and, hopefully an idea of mankind in your heart?

But how the term best applies to me, making my 14th record without obviously repeating myself, is to admit the fire is a close part of me, and a part of my drive, but it doesn't consume me.  I wanted people to think I was mining a similar vein to the past, because there needs to be a continuity to the work, with familiar touchstones and lodestars that long time listeners can identify and hold on to.  It can apply to anyone: "Ah this is what makes me still tick."  Whether they have a name for it or not.  Having a name for it and illuminating what it is and what it means is my job.

Now conversely, look at the times we live in, where so many people are just surviving with their fire completely extinguished.  You used to have a shot to get to that next rung on the ladder and the ladder was the fire.  Now, with the capital and means of production owned by so few and the average middle class to lower middle class not having any kind of shot toward upward mobility, ya gotta ask--where is their fire?  Where is their drive?  Sooner or later it's going to be funneled into revolt, with the disparity in income and ownership so imbalanced.  So the whole concept of "Fire" or "drive" is a fragile one and needs to be personally directed toward humanism and altruism, but it's getting harder and harder.

Review: As you went into this project of writing, recording, and creating a sound for this new material that would comprise your 14th CD, what were the qualities that you were searching for to help distinguish it from your earlier outings and also advance it to a level beyond what you’ve achieved with your previous work?

Stewart: Well I knew I wanted it to be very direct and also display a compendium of styles that I've worked with over the years while not being a thematic work where everything is linked by a common thread.  And I knew I wanted to make a guitar record, where everything is written, recorded and mixed with the guitar being paramount in the songs, just behind the voices. And I always want to make rock'n'roll with a sense of soaring beauty - so it rocks but it also has an essential grace to it, and on this one I think I succeeded more than I failed. 

Lyrically I wanted to tell somewhat oblique stories with real characters and real situations and let my audience take it and run with it.  I also wanted a minimalism to run through the songs, again keeping the guitar as the main centerpiece, holding together an interesting rhythm section.  Look at the first three songs -- Wave, Pylons and Love's Very Marrow.  The first is about a very distinct memory of Saginaw on the 4th of July when I was 17 and a whole new world was opening up to me.  It then turns into the present where the girl from back then has lost her faith and love and believes in nothing but the "Wave", which represents a new opportunity at every turn if you're ready to ride it. 

Pylons is a lovely little song about meeting a woman down by the shore, by the pylons, on our way to determining just who we are.  The ukulele is a nice touch in it.  Love's Very Marrow is about a divorce, and how there may be a pre-determined line for us to follow in our lives where there may be little choice after all...I don't know.  That’s what the song alludes to, but the guy in the song is determined to mine the essence of his fading love: "I'll follow it down to love's very marrow, where the heart grown thorned and narrow."  The insertion of the word "Marrow" makes it all so fragile and familial and full of destiny.

But to answer your question in quotidian terms, I wrote more songs, and spent a lot more time on the songs I knew were going to make the cut.  I worked harder on arrangements than ever before, figuring what to leave out rather than what to add - adding a part is easy. Being discerning and sparse and demanding as far as what's left out is the hard part, so there's space, and the listener can fill in what's not there.  But you've gotta know precisely what you're leaving out and why.  Hopefully, you just get better at all this if you're paying attention and staying keenly interested.

Review: In a similar vein, an ancillary question is how do you approach the task of creating lyrics & music that take fundamental themes of love, loss, achievement, family, power, emotional & physical bankruptcy, hope, promise, inspiration, and the political pot they’re all mixed in, and come up with something fresh to say about them?

Stewart: Wow...did you forget anything?  You forgot sex. I don't know if you can encompass all those themes in a song or even a couple records.  If trying to comment on all those things under one umbrella of a single song or single album, you better write narratives rich with detail and actively approach each of those things as subjects you want to address.  If a song is really strong, you can maybe hit on a couple of those things.  It all comes down to giving it your personal take on all these subjects - your own experience, and then it's new and fresh.  Love and loss are usually attendant to one another; achievement, family and power are its own little subtext; emotional and physical bankruptcy go with hope, promise and inspiration as the other side of the coin, and so on.  If you're writing specifically about any one of those subjects you're tacitly writing about its opposite. 

So I approach that task of writing about these profound subjects by constructing a narrative that encompasses some of these things.  Telling stories is the only way to do it as opposed to addressing them head on.  Then you're preaching and screeching if you write about these subjects head on.  Take "Wave" for instance--it's about aging, loss, love, personal power, emotional bankruptcy, hope and inspiration but it's just me telling a story about Suzanne and myself until I address her directly with words of hope and promise.  So it's all in there, but it's gotta be a story.

Review: As you get older & wiser in life does the job of being an artist of merit with something viable to say become easier or more difficult?

Stewart: Well so far it's become both harder and easier in the sense that you get better at all the things that encompass "craft" - singing, arranging, playing different instruments - but you worry about repeating yourself or moving into an area that seems completely out there and untenable, only to be misunderstood in your exploration. 

You never really run out of viable things to say, but it's easy to run out of ways to say it.  That's why on this record there are different grooves, songs with ukuleles, huge anthems and soft songs with plenty of ambiguity and I sang 99% of the harmonies myself.  Ya know, it's my job, and we all have to find innovative ways to stay interested in our jobs. And if you run out of viable things to say you're in trouble; it means you've lost interest in life. 

To quote my friend Dave Marsh, "If Kurt Cobain had grown up in the ’50s or ’60s or even the early ’70s his early encounters with rock & roll almost certainly would have represented a glorious possibility, a chance to communicate across all the gaps in our society - gaps of class, race, region, gender, generation, education, you name it. Used this way, rock ’n’ roll became not just a "way out" of impoverished working class or straight-jacketed middle class existence but a method of absolutely transforming yourself, a means of becoming who you’d always dreamed of being, confronting your fears with the power to transmute them into assets, a chance to be a hero not only to others but in your own life; to articulate out loud a vision of the world you’d previously have been terrified to whisper into the mirror. Of such things is freedom constructed." 

And that's when I grew up and that's what I believe. If the right psychological mindset can be located, then I can write songs of meaning forever. Kinda my raison d'etre.  I still believe in rock 'n' roll as glorious possibility.

Review: There’s a healthy mix of melodically driven material on this new release fueled with hope, an up-tempo beat, and the buoyant slice of jangling guitars to cut through blankets of loneliness & uncertainty – something you share with Springsteen, Mellencamp, and any ‘serious’ songwriter worth his salt.    How did you approach the task of creating the music that would accompany the suite of lyrics for this set?  

Stewart: I tried to take archetypical rock forms and throw little twists in them - key changes, major to minor to major on the same chord, unusual progressions, so it still had a touchstone with basic rock 'n' roll but was interesting and romantic in its approach.  And of course the lyric greatly determines the music - again take a song like Wave - I wanted it to roll and crest and crash just like a wave, like an opportunity.  Or take Horton's Quarry - I wanted it to be loose and nostalgic, with jangly, campfire guitars and a really thick melodic chorus that implied good times and youth, with Horton's Quarry standing in for wherever you gathered as a kid and drank and danced and sang. 

Review: I suppose an ancillary question would be Is it harder to write simple 3-minute upbeat pop songs like ‘You’ve Really Got Me’, ‘Louie, Louie’, or ‘Hang on Sloopy’ than it is to compose weightier material with deeper lyrical content?

Stewart: I don't know whether it's harder to write 3 minute 3 chord upbeat rock songs, but I know my own attempts at it have been abysmal.  It's all hard. You've gotta have a true hook that just digs in and rhythm section that drives the hook home.  I've always wanted to make rock, or music, that was elegant narrative and somewhat soaring and graceful, so I've stayed away from the 3-minute hooky rock single, for better or worse.

Review: Before we get to a few of the songs, tell me about the musicians that performed on the CD, how people can purchase it, and any performances that you have coming up within the next 6- to 8 weeks.

Stewart: This was a bit unusual in that we didn't bring in a bunch of studio guys. I wanted it real organic and representative of me and what I can do, so I played all the bass and rhythm guitars while Bryan Reilly played drums, Bob Mervac played keys and Pete Peltier played lead guitar on a couple songs.  I sang most of the close harmonies, except where you hear women, then it's Gia and Beth. It was mixed by Bryan Reilly and mastered by Jim Kissling. 

I read this anecdote where Neil Young went to visit his long time producer David Briggs, who had just days to live from cancer.  And Neil was somewhat panicked, asking how to do it, what to do in order to produce records that carried Briggs’ touch in terms of the sound.  And Briggs said "Make sure there's a lot of you in there."  And I thought, for a solo singer-songwriter-rocker, I thought that was prescient.  So I've adopted that a bit, playing my own instruments a lot more, and doing my own backing vocals, and trusting when a take is right, even if it's a first take.  It shouldn't take three days to get a drum sound and five to cut a track 0 you can finish a whole song in a day.

Review: My favorite song out of the new batch is Final Fandango. In my opinion it’s one of the most uniquely sounding tracks – love the compression & sound of the guitars and one of your stronger melody lines. This song definitely rocks. Great backing vocals as well.  Tell me the genesis of this track.

Stewart: It started with my love of the word Fandango - like a wild ride, an exquisite adventure into the unknown, or a frenetic dance in triple time between a man and a woman, So the story line is a bit Bondish and so is the music with the baritone guitar and dramatic funky chord changes.  The couple are on a honeymoon in an exotic part of the world and the shit hits the fan with the army and the rebels, and they're the only blondes within a thousand miles, so they hole up in their room, everything's on fire, they drink, and wait until they can catch a west bound plane, all the while thinking it's their final fandango - their final go around.  I like the story and I like the track - it has some humor and some history.  Whether they get out or not, I don't know.  It's a bit about American hubris too - if Google says it's a nice hotel, Let's Go!!  No sense of territory and local custom or research.

Review: I also like Pylons.  I love the uke and the shuffling beat – again a musical buoyancy to counterbalance the lyrical motifs.  Is all this material new, or does it come from a backlog?  Do you have a large backlog of material; and do you have a goal for writing ‘x’ number of songs in ‘x’ amount of time?

Stewart: I try and write 4 hours a day and then use the other 8 hours promoting and publicizing and booking and all the other banal crap you gotta do in this line of work.  I seem to have a half an album always sketched out, so I'm lucky in my prolific nature. But prolific doesn't necessarily mean good. So you've gotta prune, prune, prune.  But to then write a full album and truly flesh it out and really write and arrange it takes the better part of a year, so I'm proud we've worked so hard and released three albums in three years. 

I have a large backlog of ideas and little snippets, but not a huge backlog of finished songs...I will have that again once I get writing again. Pylons is my favorite song on the record because of the inside-out groove and the ukulele and accordion and the vocal.  I've just been singing in my natural raspy voice, not trying to clear it up or sing from the throat and it's really produced the best vocals of my career.  Pylons by the shore is such a romantic image on a summer night, meeting someone in the low tide, at last light, where we determine the price of our souls. That is, we find out who we are and what we mean to each other.  What we're worth and what we have to share.

Review:  ‘Wave’ and ‘Raining in Saginaw’ – both beautifully rendered and emotionally rich songs colored with autobiographical & local references, which you always do so well.  Although what about that lyric: ‘It’s raining in Saginaw but the sun is shining in Detroit’?  We got it bad here, Stew; but at least we haven’t had 363 car-jackings thus far in the new year.   Speaking of which, do you know when the DVD film we shot last year is coming out?

Stewart: The DVD is on hold due to a lack of funding. It's a shame. As far as Wave and Raining In Saginaw, they do reference hometown touchpoints, but Raining in Saginaw is not a diss on Saginaw, I was driving on 75 and it was raining in Saginaw then it turned sunny in Detroit as I drove further south - that was the extent of it, so it's about the random nature of where and when we are when things happen.  It was really just a way of recalling Saginaw, rain or no rain, and then running down a series of aphorisms for my kids to maybe pay attention to. 

So it's an interesting song about living fully, spending it all, and uses Saginaw as a reference point.  Detroit too - believe me it ain’t no picnic down here.  Coulda gone either way, but Raining In Saginaw sang better.   I love Saginaw and always will.  It's my youth; it's my poetic background; it's my hometown; it's my will.

‘A Familiar Fire’ is available by going to or visiting


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