By: Stratton Lawrence
Most songwriters take their lyrics from personal experience: love, loss, drunken debauchery, maybe their beat-up Chevy. It's clear what they're trying to say, and if they do it well, you understand the emotion conveyed and find yourself relating to it. The approach Pete Francis takes is a bit more round-the-way. Take, for example, the title track from Iron Sea and the Cavalry, his fifth solo record, released in March on Scrapper Records.
"I was in Los Angeles and had the idea for a fun experiment. I don't know why I was inspired to do this, but I went to all these different drug stores, Sav-On or whatever, and I would buy up as many black-and-white disposable cameras as I could find," recalls Francis. "I took pictures of people and moments in different neighborhoods in L.A., without setting up the shot - like a dog or from behind someone driving a car. In the studio, I had the images in my head and a chorus, but I didn't write them down. The song was completely improvised once we hit 'record.' I knew poetically what I wanted to say, but I let the words come out as I sang the song."
Sunrise is flooding me now
Someone told me about it
She said I could handle the cactus
I said I'd be fine
Man got so scared he called the police
I stared at the hawk in the sky and watched a man sweep
Wait, wait, wait, I'm more than me
I'm the iron sea and the cavalry
"The black-and-white really strips everything of its wild colors and gets down to the essence of the figure," he says. "I guess those images are what floats around in our mind, like the imagination looking through the world."
Francis' knack for words and poetry, combined with a flowing tenor voice and skilled guitar playing, have lifted him to virtual rock-stardom. His former group Dispatch attracted over 100,000 people to a 2004 farewell show in Boston and they sold out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row last summer — all as an independent band.
But even the wild success of Dispatch wasn't enough to convince Francis to settle down and enjoy a free ride. Instead, he's forged out on his own, remaining a prolific songwriter and continuing the tradition of playing intimate venues and finding creative new uses of technology to spread his sound.
Francis caught up with JamBase on the phone from his apartment in New York City, where the 32-year-old lives with his wife, Katie (they wed last August). Growing up the youngest of four children, his older siblings made a point to turn him on to songwriters like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Paul Simon. He learned bass from his brother, but was more interested in playing soccer when he went off to Middlebury College in Vermont. An ankle injury kept him grounded, so he took to writing poetry, the words of which eventually became song lyrics.
"When you read a poem or look at a painting, even if it's representational or abstract, it evokes a feeling. I like to present images or ideas and let the listener go with that, so it's not just, 'That's what it means and that's what it's about,'" says Francis. "I like it to be an interaction between what I'm creating and the person who's listening."
Songs that Francis hopes endure in his legacy include "Bridges," "Carry You" and "Bullet Holes" from his Dispatch days. One particular song from his solo career, "Burning the River," from the album Untold, contributed directly to Dispatch's dissolution.
"Brad [Corrigan] didn't want to record that song, and of course that bugged me because it was a song I was proud of," says Francis. "I think when a band doesn't want to share creatively, it obviously leads to rifts and problems."
The members of Dispatch remain friends, despite past artistic disagreements. Corrigan and Francis played several gigs together this spring, with more booked for the summer. Last year, they reunited for the Madison Square Garden shows as a benefit for the impoverished people of Zimbabwe.
"I'm so saddened by this situation [in Zimbabwe]. They're just stripping people of their freedoms, denying them food and education, and not taking care of people in dire need of medical assistance," says Francis. "Just to buy bread is a ridiculous amount of money, and it's largely due to a very selfish and cruel dictator in Robert Mugabe. I don't understand how he could drive his people into the ground."
For Francis, a large part of making music is to help people, either with finding their own strengths and happiness or on a much grander scale.
Continue reading for more on Pete Francis...