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.
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"It was wonderful to have the chance to bring 100,000 people together over three days to learn, to be inspired, and to see if there's anything they can do to be of help," says Francis. "When Dispatch plays again, we'll find a cause we all want to get behind and support it. Also, then I don't feel like the band is totally broken up and gone."
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.
-Pete Francis on recording Iron Sea and the Cavalry
In his solo career, Francis tends to mimic the same types of self-marketing and grassroots efforts that helped build his former band's reputation. Where Napster and file-sharing within college networks helped to spread Dispatch, Francis has now turned to Facebook. A contest on his page encourages fans to play his songs on their profiles, promote his concerts when he comes to town and even learn to perform their own versions of his songs.
"We did a cover contest where the fans could vote, and in Baltimore I got to meet the guy who won. I think it's a great way to interact with fans," he says. "I really want the music to get out there, and I feel like touring and people buying a CD and sharing it with their friends is the way to go."
To that end, Francis ensures that his tours are a mixture of schools, clubs and out-of-the-ordinary performance venues. Sometimes he performs for a few thousand people, sometimes only a couple hundred, and he claims to enjoy them equally.
"There's a different sort of energy and vibe to playing a club in Charlottesville [Virginia] than there is to Madison Square Garden. I love the spontaneity of changing a setlist mid-show, and it's nice to know you can jump off the stage and talk to people afterwards and feel a connection. I'll never forget playing a morning assembly at a prep school. The kids were sleepy coming in, and the next thing you know they're all up on stage, hip to the rock show," says Francis. "I love the atmosphere at colleges. The kids are just open to talking to you - dancing around and being free. There's a freshness to it."
Although many of his best known songs like "Two Coins" and "Carry You" are gentle acoustic harmonies, Francis makes a point to play concerts people "can really jam to," drawing from a mix of his material to keep the crowd on their feet. He switches amongst a quiver of acoustic and electric guitars that includes a refinished '64 Stratocaster, Collings Dreadnaughts, a vintage blue Telecaster and a 1930s National steel resonator. And he's got no shortage of diverse material to draw from.
Francis describes his solo debut in 2001, So They Say, as a "raw" album of solely bass, guitar, drums and the occasional B-3 organ. He followed that up with Untold, a polished 2003 album produced by John Siket of Phish and Dave Matthews Band Crash fame.
For his last three releases - 2004's Good to Finally Know You, 2006's Everything is One and the most recent, Iron Sea and the Cavalry - Francis' has relied on old friend Jack Gauthier (Dispatch, State Radio, Ten Mile Tide) for production duties.
"Working with him is like a clubhouse - let's hang out with the guys - and the process just happens. He's not forcing anything, and he allows the music to evolve in a very organic way," says Francis.
The tracks to come out of Iron Sea may well be Francis' finest work to date. "Johnny Ocho's Lullaby" was written for his godson, born on the 8th of October. His wife, who also travels as his tour manager, sings back-up on the song, which opens the album.
"It's one of those tunes you can ride off into the sunset with, where the outro just goes on and on," he says. In "Case of Bad Love," Francis again displays his talent for indirect analogies.
It's Eiffel Towers in Rio de Janeiro
We're picking flowers in the land of the midnight sun
There are the times in the mind that you go looking
Waiting for the pot to boil but nothing's cooking
Telling big lies about how I survived my pirate days
In the same old ways
That's a case of bad love
"I don't know if you've ever had the experience where you're on a date with a girl and you're building it up in your mind, like 'This could be real, this girl could really be it,' and you talk to her about 'We could go here or there and travel together,'" says Francis. "The next thing you know the relationship goes on, and it could be a couple days or a couple weeks, but you realize you don't want to do any of that. So that's kind of a joke of it being a case of bad love."
Not that that imagery is clear from the lyrics. But that's what Pete Francis is hoping for.
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