Above all else, Stewart Francke is an 'Artist' (which one either is, or is not). An artist is not something one becomes; it is something that one is gifted with from birth. We can study to become more proficient at our artistry; but we do not study to be artists - it is a compulsion for creation that is equally transcendent as it is infuriating, because it is not an easy task to overcome the daily and often mundane routines of existence, which artists are not immune from; and create something of value that will endure the ravages of time.
For his 13th studio album entitled Love Implied, the Saginaw born & Detroit based singer-songwriter has created a work laden with familiar themes involved with love, such as marriage, family, and the complications that often ensue when two hearts become entangled by expectation & attachment; but it also takes deep explorations into the ravaged roads of spiritual malaise and societal disparity that none of us whom live along the I-75 corridor (or any great industrial city in America) are immune from.
That Francke manages to explore such weighty matters and create an equally upbeat Rock 'n Roll album is not only a testament to his own hard-fought artistry, which has been shaped by its own unique challenges; but a tribute to perseverance - something I have had the pleasure to witness, share, consort, and share thoughts with Stewart about for close to 25 years now.
The weight of realism notwithstanding, to be an artist is to be a dreamer; and dreams usually come within the embrace of solitude. As Anais Nin once wrote: “With action came anxiety and the sense of insuperable effort made to match the dream, and with it came weariness, discouragement, and the flight into solitude again. And then in solitude, in the opium den of remembrance, the possibility of pleasure again.”
So it is with these thoughts in mind that I sat down for an in-depth exchange with Stewart about new material, familiar topics, and fresh successes. Indeed, the recording & promotion of Love Implied was made possible by Stew's second successful Kickstarter campaign, where his fans supported this latest vision by pledging $25,000 in small donations.
Additionally, since the last time we sat down for an extensive interview, Francke and his band performed 2011 tour dates with Bob Seger, witnessed his last album Heartless World receive numerous award nominations, in addition to featuring a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen, and open his music to ever expanding international audiences.
Francke will also be holding a live hometown concert appearance and CD Release Party at Saginaw's Pit & Balcony Theatre on Saturday, January 19th. Doors open at 7 PM, showtime is 8 PM, and tickets are only $15.00 and available at Pit & Balcony or by phoning 989-754-6587.
Review: I'd like to approach this latest musical excursion of yours from musical, lyrical, and personal perspectives, seeing as to my mind each forms a leg of the tripod that contributes to make this new collection of songs so powerful and effective. So to start out, why don't you tell me a bit about the genesis of 'love implied'. How did you gather the threads of material that went into constructing this tapestry; and what were you attempting to do with this latest effort that expands upon your previous outings?
Francke: Well I felt it was important to make a new album detailing the changes in thought and emotion from the last 18 months because it felt like they had value and lasting merit; I had something to say.
I didn't want to make Heartless World Part 2, and I wanted to write about love as a force - not necessarily silly love songs but songs about love as a theme, as something we experience as adults, how it binds, molds, changes, decays, saves us and even falls apart but never dies.
The title suggests that Love is implicit in all of our dealings with each other, no matter the nature. It's even implicit by its absence quite often. I wanted to write about love as something real and non-attached, something substantial and without fear, out of the realm of kiddie-pop, out of the little teenage scenarios of Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber.
“All you need is love” is not the total answer--you need love amongst many other things with love being the most ethereal, the most inexplicable, and the most binding. Love is our most important emotion but the hardest to communicate quite often.
Review: The album kicks off with 'Love is Bliss', which is a great opener that sets one of the pivotal themes of embracing new possibilities and realizing them by forging fresh vistas and new directions for the future. In your liner notes on this song you mention how playing with a Beatles cover band as a side project helped make your songwriting less cumbersome. Was this the first song that you wrote for this collection; and did you feel that you needed to rethink the process by which you were writing and creating new material?
Francke: It's funny because “Love Is Bliss” is the last thing I wrote for the record, because I needed both a rocker and a forum to comment on love in its most healthy incarnation--without ego, without attachment, without a sense of possessiveness, without fear of losing what you don't “own” to begin with.
And in that state, with either romantic love or human platonic love where you're working without those chains of ego attachment and true hope for the person you're dealing with, love is bliss. Or what Vishnu called the state of timeless awareness. Bliss. Attainable state of being. I like the song and the lyric because it can be an affirmation for lovers or for thinkers. And it's full of harmonies and modulating melodies--a nice piece of music unafraid of going anywhere, changing keys, what I mentioned about the Beatles being fearless in ignoring the rules. I learned to play slide over the last year or so, so I played a lot of it on this record, with it being the closest instrument to the voice in many ways. So the melody echoes the voice with the slide on this and many other songs.
Review: 'Leave a Light On', as well as 'By Your Side' and several other songs on this release reflect the blend of your R&B & Soul influences, which even seeps through into the ballads & on the rockers. But listening to this album I hear a definite richness of range and depth to your voice, Stew. Is it maturity and the roadwork of life and all the crap that you've confronted and navigated around that life has brought along the way over the past 10 years that has contributed to this; or have you been taking vocal lessons? Seriously, I definitely hear a broader and stronger range to your vocal renderings.
Francke: Well thank you--in fact I did study for a couple years with a woman named Ariella Vaccarino. She has a great system that's just 45 minutes a day and it improves range, diction, pitch and sibilance. But after enough discipline her program mostly makes you fall in love with your own voice and employ your own voice, instead of running from what it is or trying to forever emulate someone else, so the honesty and what I can only call a humble pride in your singing also comes through. Very perceptive of you Roberto!
Add to that formal kind of vocal training all of the human experiences you endure--loss, illness, heartache, betrayal, hope, faith, love, joy, crushing disappointment, empathy--seeing the world for what it is--and you have a mature instrument that can phrase and sing a lyric like it's right out of life and not some confection where it just needs to “sound good” like a beer ad.
My favorite singers are weathered singers--Rod Stewart, Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Bruce, Frankie Miller, Tom Waits, Bettye LaVette, Seger to some degree. You have to have your ass handed to you about a dozen times to sing the way I do now. I love singing, and I'm deeply satisfied with the way I sing now, because it's hard won in every way.
Review: 'Looking Forward to the Past' is easily one of the most poignant meditations upon the seemingly invisible veil of nostalgia that comes to hinder all of us in realizing our potential when caught in the embrace and comfort of memories from 'better days', before circumstance and the challenges posed by change knock us down a few notches. I'd like to focus upon this for a bit, seeing as it also contains the lyric: 'Nothing is certain but love implied' that forms the title for the album.
One of the reasons I like this song so much is because it deals with the false security of the familiar; and how that can impact us personally, professionally, and as a society. Plus 'I'm not looking forward to the past' is simply a great line.
But I'm interested in how you feel people can best get beyond the 'familiar' and the security that it represents, whether achieved through diligence, hard work, compassion, belief - especially when the ravages of poverty, growing insecurity of whether the middle class will be thrown off the fiscal cliff; and all variety of non-perceived challenges constantly berate people and society at all levels of life.
Given this milieu of factors that is making the walls crumble down all around us, doesn't this drive us further into a need to embrace all the factors and verities of life that informed us and gave us confidence about the way we approached the world and its challenges?'
Francke: We're a deeply nostalgic people. From Christmas to baseball, it's all about affirming and honoring things that were, or things that continue from a deep reservoir of comfort. Maybe things were better in the past, maybe worse--we don't care; we just keep repeating the ritual. Which is in part necessary and vital but also a death of sorts.
Nevertheless, we forever return to places we've known and maybe loved both emotionally and literally; we maintain old relationships even when they're not so great for us. So nostalgia can be a trap; it can be a series of deaths we keep reliving when rebirth might be right around the corner. But we never turn the corner. You've got to press on to a breakthrough - a spiritual and emotional breakthrough that allows nostalgia to be a choice, not a compulsion. That's a form of freedom. Pure nostalgia is a chained life.
Now having said that, I love tradition and honor tradition myself. I seek out and live in hallowed, sacred places I've known all my life. I don't want the places I love to change and it angers me when they do change just for the sake of change. But I try not to keep the same mindset; I try and shed my skin as often as I can and embrace thoughts and tendencies that pull me out of my comfort zone almost violently, things that scare me and make all details uncertain. Because this is the way things are!
The tradition, the hallowed places, the nostalgic maneuvers repeated again and again--these are an illusion! Life is changing and growing right before our eyes while we try and keep the past alive. Saginaw and Detroit are mired in stagnation. Tradition is all we have; innovation has run the other way. So I have to approach the challenges of the world in their most raw and penetrating way because it's the truth. And my job is to always look for the truth, not merely celebrate nostalgia. And I'm a traditionalist at heart, so it's a painful but necessary process.
Review: 'Breaking Under it All' - Again, this song is about depression and loss of direction and finding a way home. Yet I sense that creating this song helped you find a way up out of the smoke and into the fresh air of possibility. What were some of the things or factors that you realized through writing this song; or over this period of the last several years that helped rekindle your perspective on the direction that you wanted to focus your life and career?
Francke: Well number one it rocks very hard and very simply, so that's always a good start---strip the artifice of “progressive” songwriting away and just say what you're feeling without pretension or fancy language. The other thing in that song is that while you might be breaking under it all--really breaking down and having trouble functioning, it's again the way things are. It's not the end of anything; it's not irreversible; it's not how it will be forever; it's just a very rough go right now.
And I've learned that things that are down do go back up and things that are up do come down and that Karma and Dharma are very real, very powerful principles in this world. You reap what you sow rather quickly in this life--if I'm an asshole in the morning I fall down the stairs that night. I'm not kidding--my karma is very immediate. But if I keep these principles in mind and always think, “How does this affect others I love and others all around me rather than just myself?” I should shake out of my trouble soon enough.
Dharma is just all-purpose and possibility--pure potentiality, and it often follows heartache. Dharma, of course, refers to the journey of a man or woman's action from exploitation to empathy. We all, in our most basic state, have an animal instinct to exploit as others would exploit us. Dharma refers to the overcoming of the fear of being exploited to exhibit empathy towards the weaker or even the weakest among us.
I had to pay a hell of a price for this knowledge; I had to really suffer to understand it. Other, more evolved souls know it coming in maybe. It therefore puts primary importance on the welfare of others. All actions that benefit others are a step towards dharma, or a realized purpose in life. Mine is music; music is healing and can lead to other, more altruistic things. But I fall down all the time towards this ideal. It's contrary to half of our society at least. The more the benefit to the weakest sections of the society, the closer you are to the path of Dharma. But we as Americans look at that as weakness.
Karma on the other hand is the knowledge of the fact that every action has a reaction and there are multiple lives ahead in which one has to face the consequences of their actions--not really that far of a departure from Christianity. Or maybe you don't have to wait--a lot of us are the products of our karma in a more instantaneous way, good and bad, right here in this life. All I wanted to do was learn to play slide guitar like George Harrison and I found myself knee-deep in Indian mysticism and religious learning. It's been a good trip.
Review: 'Dirty Old Town' is another powerful song that really hit home to me (for obvious reasons). I like the fact that rather than doing a cover of it, you decided to write your own. And I remember running into you at the gas station last spring before you did that Country Club gig and can't help but think that trip formed the inspiration behind this one. In the last line of this song you sing 'Good things are gone, ain't no retrieving'. Yet, as you touch upon and thematically cover over the expanse of the entire album, while there may be solace in clinging to the past, there is little if any solutions presented through the remembrance of it. Plus this song could be about any manufacturing town in America that had its future exported to the Chinese through NAFTA and globalization and is grappling with finding its way out of the decay. What are your thoughts about this?
Francke: “Dirty Old Town” grew directly out of our conversation in May of 2012. I was very interested in how you portrayed Saginaw as sort of a beloved, slumbering, wounded old bear--wounded, trying to heal, but its future truly in doubt.
In the lyrics I tried to get at the vast disparity of income in Saginaw, from the freewheeling joy of the Country Club set down to the cold dark pub where men don't talk or even look up at each other. How can such profound styles of life co-exist literally in the same moment in the same place?
There is nothing but solace in clinging to a better time, to an All American city--but there is no hope, or progress, or even an ideation of how things could be or where we should be going. It's all about rich man got his; what's the poor man to do? Period. Same way everywhere, not just Saginaw.
So all we can live with if we're not rich, and I'm not rich, is the best we can these days. We do the best for our children the best way we can; we protect ourselves the best we can; we figure out how to relieve stress the best way we can. And many of these selective lodestars ARE nostalgic--we take our children where our fathers took us; we do what we did when. We are what we were when.
If we could all bind together and try and address our problems it would be an improvement, working toward a collective Dharma. I can only point it out as a songwriter--I wish I had more answers. I know bringing more guns into schools and school events is not only not the answer--its anathema to sanity. I mean, by writing these songs about dying American cities I sometimes feel like I'm piling on, when in fact I'm just trying to wake people up as to what it is, and how another 20 years like the last 12 will find us with a lot of Midwestern ghost towns.
Review: Feel free to touch upon anything else regarding the album that I failed to mention or formulate; but here I'd like to move onto other areas such as the roll-out for 'love implied': Where is it available, how can people get it, and what was your reaction to the Kick-Starter response that allowed you to fund the project? Also, how is the video doing and when will that be available?
Francke: I'm happy to say that Love Implied is in every digital store in the world, as I have a very good distribution deal. Vinyl and physical cds will be sold at shows as well as physical record stores--any that are left. We decided to do vinyl with this because my cousin Dave Rummel lives down in Dallas and has started a little vinyl record label, so that's a whole different thing. Folks can also buy the cd from my website--stewartfrancke.com--or, you know, itunes and Amazon etc.
I was very humbled and gratified that my fans have funded new albums through kickstarter for two years running now. It seems a great way to go--essentially pre-selling the record while at the same time validating the artist's career as a necessary and legitimate pursuit.
The video is the next thing on tap--we've found a great director, Jordan Krause out of Kansas City, and we're looking at venues and compiling camera operators and going through reams of old footage, from JB Meinberg's up through Pine Knob. It's a much bigger undertaking than I thought, and we're of course low on bread after doing the cd the right way, so there's a lot of work to do. It's going to be a documentary of my journey as much as it is just a live concert film, so there's a lot of ancillary things that go into that--interviews with principals, a chronological view, plus the straight up performance of all the songs captured appropriately.
Review: What are your performance plans over the next few months. Are you going to be doing a lot of CD release shows and are there any plans for larger scale touring?
Francke: Yea, we'll be doing a lot of shows right through summer. I'm in the process of aligning myself with a really quality booking agent so we're playing more and more places. I need to play more often and want to, so that's one of the goals for 2013.
Review: How do you feel about the overall progress of your career? Are you optimistic about breaking into even larger markets; and how has the response been in terms of interest around the country and globe? What are your strongest markets and have you seen any inroads into new markets?
Francke: I feel both gratified that I'm better than I was musically and artistically, making better records, playing better shows, getting better at this as I get older (as you should in any field outside of athletics), and we're always looking to continue building the fan base with all of the new social marketing, independent musician marketing--there's so much out there.
But then my wife reminds me I had leukemia and a transplant and lost about 5 years to recovery and then another bunch of years to rapid-fire familial death. But I never look at myself as a victim--it all is what it is. My audience has tripled in the last couple years, primarily because of the Springsteen connection on the last record, and will continue to grow if folks can hear the music or see a show.
Because I'm trying to give people something they can't buy--trying to provide a certain kind of entertainment that harbors an irreligious kind of faith and hope, lay my soul right out there, sing about things that run the gamut of our interests and emotions. All a musician or an entertainer can really do is plop a tiny seed of thought out there--people come hear rock&roll to have a good time and forget all the bullshit they live with--and I never forget that. But if you can plant that seed of thought as well…
The audience I do have is so wonderful and responsive and loving about the material that I just stop and feel blessed when I take the whole picture in. I set out to do this when I was 19 and I'm doing it--I'm no household name nor am I playing stadiums, but I play with fantastic musicians to appreciative audiences, play 'em my own songs. They support me financially when I ask them to help me make another record. It's far better than what I had in mind when I was 19.
I just want to keep playing and recording and keep this cycle going til I die, and a larger, more dispersed audience would help consolidate that idea. Strongest markets remain Midwestern cities and also the UK--we've done real well over there with reviews, radio and sales. I'd love to go over and tour there for awhile--that's a very real goal I want to make happen, along with playing as many fairs, festivals and headlining shows as possible here in the Midwest.
I love playing Saginaw, cuz it's where everything started and it's my hometown, and there's something very special about that.