“You sound like a policeman,” rising British songstress Frances jokes backstage at Joe’s Pub in New York City, in response to me telling her, “I just have a few questions for you.”
At only 23 years of age, the UK native has been making serious sonic waves with songs like “Grow” and “Don’t Worry About Me.” Now, the singer, songwriter and keyboardist is out with a new album entitled Things I’ve Never Said featuring songs of her own as well as collaborations with hit makers like Greg Kurstin (Adele), Jimmy Napes (Sam Smith, Alicia Keys) and Howard Lawrence (Disclosure). She’s toured with James Bay, been nominated for both the BBC Sound of 2016 and BRITs Critics Choice awards, played festivals like Coachella, SXSW, Lollapalooza, and Glastonbury, and is surely headed for even wider, worldwide acclaim.
Just minutes before taking the stage behind a microphone and a Yamaha grand piano, Frances made time to talk about her still-evolving musical journey.
I must tell you that I first heard your song “Don’t Worry About Me” while running on a treadmill a number of months ago. [Radio presenter] Zane Lowe played it on Apple Beats 1, and I immediately bought it played it for everyone I know.
Oh, thank you. When Zane Lowe was in the U.K., he was the first person to ever play my music on BBC Radio One. It was when I had just one song out on SoundCloud!
When that song came-out, were you still working on your new album Things I’ve Never Said?
Yeah. I had nearly finished recording it.
If you were to pick one song from your new album that encapsulates what you do, would it be that one?
I think so, yeah. Just because that song sums-up what I’m all about, in that the track is just my voice and the piano. That’s how I write songs, and how I started writing songs. There’s also a track called “The Last Word” which does a similar job. But I think because “Don’t Worry About Me” starts with the a capella and it’s so bare, it gives a good idea of what I’m all about.
When you were growing-up, who were some of the musical beacons that set you on your way?
Carole King. My mum was really into Motown and Ska music, but she also played me a lot of Carole King. And my Dad was really into indie stuff, so he was playing me Radiohead and Beck, and also Faithless and Fatboy Slim. There was a real variety of things, but I was always drawn to the stuff that was just piano and voice.
It’s interesting that you say that, because I was making notes while listening through some of the songs on your album and for “Love Me Again” I wrote, “Elton John meets Radiohead.” It has the swagger and simplicity of a great Elton tune, but then you’ll play a totally unexpected chord change that takes the listener on a ride.
Thank you. I love that song. It’s so short, and it’s always really popular with men, which I never understood why. When I wrote it, I just wanted the chorus to almost not feel too much like a chorus. I wanted to mark it with that weird chord change that you’re talking about. I wrote it with a really young writer named Ollie Green. He’s an amazing musician, and we sort of wrote the arrangement as we were writing the song. I was jamming on the piano and he was playing bass.
Did you do a lot of co-writing on the album?
Yes. Half of it is co-written, and the other half I just wrote myself.
Do you find that you get to places in a song when you are co-writing that you otherwise couldn’t have found on your own?
Yes, but I probably on a whole prefer the songs that I write on my own. All the ones that seem to have connected with people are the ones that I’ve written on my own. The best songs seem to come out very quickly and very naturally, and the lyrics are literally thoughts that I’ve had in my head that I just put down. So, a lot of the lyrics are things that other people could say, “Oh, I’ve actually said that before.” At the same time, when I’m writing with other people, I get things musically that I wouldn’t get on my own. So that’s the kind of cool balance.
Was there one producer for the entire album?
Yeah. Me! [She laughs]. When I was working on the first EPs, my label said to me, “We’ve been talking about putting you with producers, but we don’t feel like we need to do that.” That was really nice for them to say that, because I think a lot of artists just get shoved in with certain producers. Having them say that really gave me the confidence to do things on my own. Luckily, my A&R’s husband is an incredible mixing engineer named Steven Fitzmaurice. He’s worked with Sam Smith and Seal, and he’s amazing. We basically produced the record together, in that I would produce it and make bits of music at home, and he would mix it and make my voice sound amazing.
I love the organic piano sound on your song “Cloud 9.” I also notice that unlike a lot of songwriters, you seem to really like diminished chords!
I do! I have a few kind of favorite chords that I just always go back to.
You like passing chords?
What do use at home to write songs on? Do you have a real piano?
I have a Nord keyboard at home. It’s sad that I just can’t have a real piano in my flat. My neighbors would kill me! But it’s really nice when I play live, because I use an upright piano on tour.
Another touchstone of your sound is the use of lush, multi-tracked vocal harmonies, like on the song “Let It Out,” which immediately reminded me of [New Age singer/songwriter] Enya. Are all of those vocal parts you?
Yeah. I always go into the studio and Steven’s assistant will say, “Okay. Harmony 1 – take one, GO! Harmony 1 – take two!” [She laughs]. We’ll do four or five tracks of each part.
And then he picks which ones to use?
No, I pick! [She laughs].
Another song of yours that stuck out to me was “Drifting,” with its repeated “Coldplay meets Philip Glass” sort of keyboard part. It’s very pop and it’s also kind of abstract at the same time.
Oh, thank you! Yeah.
If someone looked on your iPhone, what would they see you have been listening to lately?
I really love this artist called Sampha. He’s got this song called “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” The words go, “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.” I’m a big re-player of old things – it takes a long time to convince me to listen to someone new, so I’m always listening to Carole King and Radiohead.
I hear some Wurlitzer on your album too. Besides your Nord and a grand piano, what other keyboards do you gravitate to?
When I recorded the album, we had a beautiful grand piano, a new upright piano, and an old “honky-tonk” kind of upright as well. We also had a Wurly, a Rhodes, and a Hammond [organ]. I had little kind of spinny chair that I used to go back and forth between them all.
There you go. What else do you need?
That’s all you need!
To find out more about Frances, visit http://francesmusic.com