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Friday, April 17, 2009

New Q&A: Stewart Francke with Robert Martin, Review Magazine

This new interview, conducted by Review Magazine's Robert Martin, is the fourth time in their 25 year history that the two Saginaw natives have sat down together for a lengthy, all-encompassing interview. Instigating this latest conversation is the May 7 Saginaw Arts Commission Award Ceremony honoring Stewart Francke with a Special 20th Anniversary Arts Award for his music. This interview will appear in the April 22, 2009 issue of Review.

RM: Within this context, and apart from your semi-autobiographical 'Saginaw' material, you've also chronicled a lot about the trials, tribulations, and legacy of Detroit. When you look back at both Saginaw and Detroit over the past 20 years, what are the types of changes you notice? Apart from the obvious economic issues impacting both areas, are there any interior changes with the mindset of the people that populate these communities that have either inspired or give you pause for concern?

SF: The artist’s job is to clarify and share his own obsessions. To make people care about his obsessions, whatever they may be. Then find a context for them in the times he lives in. Then the music has a chance to transcend those earthly conditions. A big part of my job is to be an emotional alchemist. My obsessions have included the spiritual and physical well being of my primary and secondary hometowns in Michigan—Saginaw and Detroit. So what I'm trying to capture is what's going on in the minds and hearts of folks that live in this state. What is the real cost of living an engaged life? And what are the costs of isolation?

As you said, the changes in both towns have been many, but the biggest issue remains race.

Saginaw and Detroit have historically been segregated by physical boundaries. In Saginaw it’s the river and in Detroit it’s 8 Mile. And on either side of those physical boundaries come differences in lifestyle, health, education, income, opportunity and safety. And that is still cause for great stress and bewilderment—why there remains such economic disparity among people living three, four miles apart. There’s a moral obligation to care for each other. We’re dependent on each other regardless of whether we know each other’s name. As musicians we aren’t color blind—we recognize and glorify the differences in each tradition.

However, you asked about our collective mindset, and I think it’s one of prideful defeat right now. It's a very dark time right now. Coming from Detroit, we were like everyone’s drunk uncle to the great economic and political forces in New York and Washington.--big, loud, tough, crass and ill mannered but we did the back breaking, every day physical labor that allowed them to do what they do and be who they are, so we were tolerated.

Now we’re out of date and bankrupt of cash and ideas—that’s the perception anyway—so we get shat upon by New York and DC. They give the banks and insurance giants hundreds of billions of dollars as unaccounted for gifts, but break the balls of the car companies and the UAW when they ask for a loan ten times smaller. As a result of all of this, we’re filled with this civic paradox of self doubt vs. pride and fear vs. hope. So trying to capture this paradox in a song is both inspiring and very difficult to get right.

President Obama is the personification of the hope; the fact that all your friends are unemployed is the personification of the fear. We’re Midwesterners, and that carries a code like any other regional distinction. In the true Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to a few friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions, usually unions and churches, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us. We’re a lot more open to change than the rest of the country realizes when it’s clear the way we used to do it isn’t working any more. That was my point behind the song “That’s The Way We Do It In Detroit”—we have a lot of pride that we were the backbone to this country once and know we can do it again. Just don’t deal us out of the game.

RM: Your output has been considerable and consistent over the past two decades. For the record, how many albums, books, and articles have you published and where do you draw your inspiration to tackle age-old issues of the human heart and life in general with a fresh perspective?

SF: I’m a late bloomer. Because I was bucking so many established things to just be an artist in the first place, to try and function as a musician, I was uneducated in the arts and had a defiant street rock and roll attitude that was based on insecurity and anger. So I felt I needed an apprenticeship that was long and intense, to overcome my lack of formal musical education. I overpaid my dues in bars and clubs, learning how to play and perform, and didn’t make my first record for public distribution until I was 34, when my daughter was born. I just noticed that Leonard Cohen was the same age when he made his first record, and he’s now the toast of the town all over the world at 74—there’s my career arc right there.

After that. my aim was to make a record a year, which is what I did until leukemia came calling. Cancer is not a good career move. So I’ve made 11 since 1995, with a new one on the way this fall. I also worked as a freelance writer for several years and wrote countless reviews, interviews and features for a lot of publications—mostly the Detroit Metro Times--between 1983 and 1994. Many of those pieces were collected in a book called Between The Ground & God, which came out in 2004.

It’s almost humorous to think about now, but when I was 19 and jamming in garages and basements, then in every shitty bar in Michigan for ten years, it was a real point of contention with my dad, who wanted me to cut my hair and work for GM. He worked for them; all my uncles and cousins worked for them or wanted to. Everyone I knew was associated with the auto trade in one form or another. I’d spent nearly 18 months bending transmission hoses at Steering Gear and putting water pumps on engine blocks on the assembly line at Oldsmobile in Lansing and knew I didn’t want to work for GM.

It’s important to remember that playing guitar in a band was once a thing of real rebellion—a loud ‘fuck you’ to the establishment and a rejection of some safer things in life. Now it’s a preferred career choice—parents sign their kids up for rock school and make sure they have the best gear and a home studio! My father and I have been given the gift of time to work things out and he’s seen me have some success, so we’ve been very very close for many years now.

My point is that I had to fight, hard, to carve out this life for myself. So there’s a weird irony when thinking that GM will have to declare bankruptcy before I will. I say that only as it relates to my own story--in the larger picture it’s of course heartbreaking to watch friends and family lose jobs, benefits and 401k money. But the ironic reality is astounding: Who would ever dreamed that being a musician was the wiser choice in the long run? It goes back to the age old thing of following your heart of hearts. There really was no choice. It chose me as much as I chose it.

As far as finding inspiration, I’ve been lucky. I always have a fresh title idea or a melody working in my head. You take it where you find it. It's my job, too. True inspiration lasts seconds, really. Just enough to glimpse the whole song or get the whisper of the melody and feel. Then you just grind the rest out with the tricks of the trade. There are a whole lot of things that you have to do to remain open to inspiration, and a lot of them can make you appear very strange and out of step with every day society as far as personal behavior. So folks—don’t judge your artists too harshly. We’re listening to satellite radio without a radio.

RM: Every artist has high points, low points, and breakthrough moments in his or her

career. What are some of those high and low points in your own career and can you recall those moments when you knew the work you were producing would take you to a different higher level? Also, what are the three favorite albums (discs) that stand out for you as representing your strongest work?

SF: Because I’m the kind of songwriter who uses his own life as both material and measuring stick, the high points in my every day life have also been high points in my artistic life. And vice versa. There’s a real right brain-left brain aspect to my survival. There’s the actual work, the conception of songs, the music, the arranging, recording and performing live. Then there’s the business and the general idea of “success.” We delude ourselves by re-defining the terms of success until we get closer to it.

I always feel optimistic and enthusiastic about the music and the songwriting and recording. It’s why I do all the other things. But as we all know, the music business is a brutal, bone crunching, heart stomping business. The low points, to be honest, have been many over the years—when the travel is long and low rent, when the phone doesn’t ring, when a gig isn’t done well, when you’re not given the respect or paid even half of what you’re worth, when I was sick and performed poorly, when you question devoting your life so completely to one thing. It’s not easy.

Yet you knew all this going in, as a young person who could and would survive anything to stay in touch with and true to the music. So there’s no complaining. Because the music is both the reward and an end in itself. And I am married to a woman who deeply understands the artistic struggle and its importance, and we love each other like the day we met.

Fortunately a lot of the real dark days are behind me for a little while, knock on wood. I have the respect of my colleagues and a real relationship with a loyal audience. I can call myself a success by my own stringent definition now, not by how the world sees me, or by how the entertainment industry hands it out. I never knew that the music I was making would matter, or take me to another level. I’ve always approached it with self doubt and a hopeful urgency.

The high points are too many to mention: so many great gigs, recording with The Funk Brothers, watching little sketches of songs become breathing documents of our condition. There’ve been a ton of amazing nights here in Saginaw, several at Bo White's place, several at Meinberg's, one with Leo Najar and the Symphony doing some of my songs, and then the 2007 show with Brian James for Dr. Fields Foundation at The Temple. The night the Detroit Music Awards honored me in the midst of the transplant with a special award and a lengthy standing ovation; that tore me up. So there’s just a general sense of satisfaction knowing I’m better than I was. I worked at it, found my voice and what inspired me, and in all areas I think I’m better than I was when I began.

Look at the way things were when I started—there was very little respect for the survival of the independent artist. You had the initial set of gatekeepers—the labels, run by A&R men and women who often got the job because an uncle was the promo man in Buffalo, then radio, with program directors that weren’t music people, making decisions about airplay based on a whole set of corrupt ideas. Then agents and promoters. And here I was, making music for my audience. Skipping over the gatekeepers and making music for a perceived group of like minded, well intentioned, emotionally involved people that I wanted to reach on both a very deep yet conversational level with my songs. I wasn’t playing to the gatekeepers. And it was very hard to get to the intended audience unless you got through the gatekeepers first.

But then there’s this secondary set of gatekeepers—the rock press, the record stores, regional booking agents and promoters and TV licensing companies. And that’s really where I caught a break. My work was validated and understood by some very insightful and influential writers. Then the people at the Palace and what is now Live Nation put me on tons of shows with national acts, and that spread to other agencies and promoters, and I worked and worked and all of a sudden had a real career because I had finally reached a portion of that mythological audience—without being crowned by the first rung of gatekeepers.

Now, in 2009, the first rung gatekeepers—the labels, commercial radio, monopolized promoters—are not as relevant to my ability to make music, increase my audience and make a living. The digital realm for music changes everything. There’s never been a middle class for creative artists—it’s either been very very famous and rich or very very broke—but that reality has shifted in the last 10 years. There’s more power in the hands of the creators themselves, and your ability to reach people is based on the emotional reach of your music, the reaction it engenders via word of mouth, and its accessibility. Recorded music will soon be free to all—I don’t see any other way that can go. The option to pay for music and support an artist you love will be one way of subsidizing careers, along with live work, which has always been the staple and always will be.

The three records that I’ve made that I think work well are Where The River Meets The Bay, my first one, that really is a realized daydream about this part of Michigan and its fictional characters. The lyrics were influenced by three things—the poetry of Theodore Roethke and James Wright, my youth in the Saginaw area, and my talks with you about it all. Then House Of Lights, which is a poetic examination of family life and the fragility that domestic life brings. The last is What We Talk Of… When We Talk, my homage to the Funk Brothers and Marvin Gaye that really helped me find my adult voice as a singer, musician and songwriter working in the soul idiom. I have to add to that the single “Motor City Serenade,” which is an extension of What We Talk Of, and the record I started to really sing well on. My inner Sam Cooke/Rod Stewart/Frankie Miller voice. And Sunflower Soul Serenade taught me how to use the studio as an instrument—A lot of fans and friends tell me they love that record best.

RM: Does music feel as 'strong' to you today - not only in terms of being a motivating force personally and professionally - but in terms of its significance and importance to audiences, as it did back when you first started out?

SF: The slightly cynical part of me says that it’s not as important and self defining as it was when we came of age in the 70s, or how it’s depicted in Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Almost Famous. But my daughter is now 15, and her love of her bands and their songs is every bit as intense as mine was, if not more so. I could argue that she’s not hearing music as good as ours—by good I mean inspired, mystical, nuanced, vibrantly alive, evocative, well written, well sung, and life affirming. But that would sound like every father in every generation since 1920. As I said earlier, it’s now a very viable career choice for these kids. Their dads all manage them. I think my dad wanted to strangle me.

So the answer that trumps my cynicism is yes, it’s even more important today for people, for two reasons. First is its ubiquity. It’s everywhere, whether we want it or not. We’ve grown up and grown old with this music. The tradition has borne its own fruit and lasted as a real art form, with a worldwide commercial apparatus to support it. So yes yes yes, a song can still quite literally change a life, save a life, heal a broken heart, and see a person through the best and worst parts of their life. If I didn’t believe that, my adult life would be a hollow act. I think it’s generational conceit to think “our” music was any more important than the music is today.

RM: What is the best advice you received from any of the famous (or not so famous) musicians you've worked with over the decades - or any individuals apart from the music business - that you feel made a pivotal impact in your life and career?

There are many aspects to answering this question, and I’ll try and hit on each of them briefly. When I was 19, I had two once-in-a-lifetime mentors. First was Boogie Bob Baldori of The Woolies, who put me in his band when I was greener than green—I couldn’t play a lick and didn’t know my fucking name. My hip quotient was zero. He taught me everything--how to work an audience, how to wrap a cord after a gig, how to listen to each other, how to write a business plan for budgets. He taught me about keeping tempo, dynamics, how something quiet can kill an audience, how soul and R&B music remains primarily a vocal music, and how a band should work with and around the singer. He taught me where the back of the beat is. He turned me on to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Henry Adams and Luis Bunuel. He took me to Chicago repeatedly to see the best blues acts—James Cotton and Luther Allison—and meet these shady characters deep inside the music business.

Through Bob and his band I was soon playing bass on some dates with Chuck Berry, who taught me about guitar playing (duh), syncopation, feel and vocal clarity. Here I was working with the guy who literally wrote the book. Listen to Chuck sing—he enunciates every syllable, like the King’s English. Chuck always said, "Ain’t no such thing as a dumb artist.” Chuck was way out front on the whole DIY thing. Don’t get ripped off, don’t be na├»ve, stupid and trusting. Be an artist, but do things yourself. Chuck is a brilliant man. Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch the shit outta that basket. Chuck Berry music probably remains my favorite kind of music.

Since then, I’ve learned a little something from everyone I’ve played with. Warren Zevon once emphasized to me, over a vat of pureed garlic, that show business was all about the coming and going—the entrances and exits. Make a splash coming out—start on fire---then leave them wanting more.

One thing that really pushed me ahead as far as my own songs was a letter I received from Dave Marsh on Christmas Eve, 1990. I had read Dave since the 70s, in Creem and Rolling Stone etc, but we were just getting to know each other. I’ve been as influenced by the great rock critics and historians as much as I have by the music itself. Marsh, Greil Marcus, Craig Werner, Ben Edmonds, Daniel Wolff, Lester Bangs, David Ritz, Eric Rasmussen, Thom Jurek, Sue Whitall and Jaan Uhelvski—all those people made me feel I wasn’t crazy, that other people sought as much and found as much in a song or concert as I did.

I had made a couple cassettes at home with many of the songs that would appear on Where The River Meets The Bay, and Dave wrote me an incredibly honest and encouraging note about the nature of my own talent, the sacrifice an artistic life calls for, and the kind of difference I could make. It validated my desires. He was the first person I called when I was told I had leukemia, for many reasons. I needed the words to tell my wife and Dave had unfortunately been through the cancer experience and is also one of the most compassionate, learned people on the planet. Dave has become a very close friend over time.

I learned a lot about staying fresh with takes in the studio from the Funk Brothers. They also completed the lessons I learned from Beach Boys’ records—how each player and each part forms a miniature schematic making up the whole engine. Visualize what you hear and put it together backward like that, and always try and hire the best players.

I’ve had the great luck and joy to work with so many people I admire and respect. I once opened for Mick Taylor at the Bottom Line in New York and he was very encouraging about my songs and helpful with arranging ideas. And then as a journalist myself I was able to interview Johnny Cash or Sting or Yoko or Seger, or spend a couple days with George Clinton in the studio, and ask them the questions I found most important. You find after awhile that you already knew what you needed to know--that your initial instincts were true and that you could and should trust yourself.

The working principles of rock and soul music are all shared and repeated by the best people. Over the years I guess I’ve gleaned them down to this trio of rules: Less truly is more; content dictates form; and then of course lastly comes the rule that there are no rules!

That’s the best part about this however—this job comes complete with a very precise and inspired set of instructions and road maps. It’s all right there on the records you love, on the songs that gave you goose bumps, or in the books that changed you. The whole history of recorded music is a map. There it is…get your own music so it sounds close to the best stuff without sacrificing your own individuality and story.

Mitch Ryder and I have become good friends over the last few years, and we play new things for each other before they’re released. He’s an incredible artist and friend and among the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He’s been very supportive. Growing up in Saginaw when I did, with WTAC in the 60s & 70s and FM rock later, Mitch Ryder was a God. Sometimes I think to myself, “I’m just a kid from Saginaw and Mitch Ryder’s my friend.” Blows my mind sometimes.

My editor at the Metro Times, Thom Jurek, opened my eyes, mind and soul up to the possibilities of art and the concept of the creative connection, how Louis Armstrong begot Jay McShann begot Count Basie begot Ike Turner begot Booker T & The MGs begot CCR begot Pearl Jam begot The Hold Steady. There's an online group called Strat I'm a part of--writers, musicians, academics, critics--and it's made up of people I've become very close to. Strat is like a mentoring social/activist group, for all concerned.

I obviously learned a tremendous amount from both my parents about the simple joy found in work and friendship—that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. They were often surrounded by people, by friends and family. Have some fun man. My family’s always been close—my sisters and my parents and I—and that’s been something you don’t fully appreciate until even just a part of it is gone. I miss my Mother more than I can express. My dad is a bona fide great man—caring, smart and larger than life in many ways. The best listener I’ve ever known, and a lifelong advocate of Saginaw. His example made it impossible to settle for anything less than all I could muster.

I can’t think of anyone I haven’t learned something from. My wife is incredibly wise, and is always reminding me about brevity and levity and is easily the person I listen to the most. And of course one’s kids are always reminding you to shut the fuck up and stop embarrassing them. Not bad advice.

RM: What are some of your future goals and how do you view the architecture on this next stage of your career?

SF: I feel like I’m just starting anew, after a merciless period of illness, death and hard growth. Starting anew, but doing my best work now. I’m as excited about making music as I’ve ever been. My most immediate goals are to finish recording this new record and get it out by October of this year. Then I’d like to finish the book about the bone marrow transplant and aspects of survival. At some point I’d like to do a live recording of the entire What We Talk Of…album, with strings and all, not unlike what Van just did with Astral Weeks. I’d also like to write a musical around my songs and their attendant themes. I’ve talked about this with my friend Brian d’arcy James, who is now playing Shrek on Broadway and probably will be for some time to come. But I’d like to write it with him.

I know very well that no one is promised tomorrow, so I hope I get a chance to try and fulfill some of these dreams. You need dreams at every age—maybe more so as you get older. But physically I don’t really feel any different than I did at 30 while I’m on stage, and that’s saying something after the torture my body’s been through. I’d also like to make a record of all Chuck Berry covers—there’s a responsibility to keep that kind of music alive and out of the hands of bad country acts.

RM: I love those 'Proust Questionnaires' that they publish in Vanity Fair, so given the nature of this pending All Area honor, feel a few of them are appropriate:

a) What is your idea of perfect happiness?

SF: The minute right before you are introduced to go on stage is a moment of perfect happiness. Carnal moments create perfect happiness—clean sheets and a beautiful woman. God, that last sentence sounds like Himmler’s dying wish. It doesn’t take much to make me happy…hmmm… I love late night, listening to Marvin Gaye with a bottle of Tavel. Or when a song comes through and I realize the melody is something new, I still tear up every time that happens.

b) What is your greatest fear?

That’s easy, as it’s my only fear. I don’t even want to give it voice, but it involves my children and is the worst thought for any parent. Everything else I was afraid of has happened.

c) What living person do you most admire?

My wife.

d) What is your greatest extravagance?

I have 22 guitars. That’s my only extravagance. But my life has been extravagant in an empirical, dramatic way, not in material rewards. I drive a ten year old Jeep and live in an 86 year old house and have many of the same friends I had when I was 12.

e) What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Patience is over-rated. I almost died, and there ain’t no yellow light or warning shot to let you know it’s comin’. The clock ain’t just ticking; it’s exploding. I often feel like I’m running a relay race against time, but I’ve lost my shoes, and I just dropped the baton, and the rest of my team is white.

f) What words or phrases do you most overuse?

I probably tell people I love them too often, or that I’m impressed or excited by something they’ve done. That’s all due to leukemia and the bmt and the specter of death and the brevity of life. Why wait, and why hold back? Being unable to express love, pay a compliment or encourage is a character flaw. Stoicism is about seeking attention and narcissism as much as fawning is. Look at me, look at me!—I never comment, compliment, explain or complain. I’m John Fucking Wayne, American Male stoic. Hemingway had a motto that went, “Praise to the face is a form of disgrace,” and a lot of men of his generation lived by that. Probably why one of his sons cross dressed, then killed himself. It’s bullshit. Say it now, what you feel, while you’re alive, and say it often.

g) When and where were you the happiest?

My childhood from birth to age 11 was very very happy, in school at Chester Miller, summers at Hoyt Park and on Lake Huron. Then the shit hit the fan. Then there was a period between 26 and 30 when I discovered this certain strain of arcane music and singers. It was the longest time I ever lived alone, before I was married, and I was finally starting to write some good songs. My Little Willie John and Roy Orbison period--very moody in a good way. Then the shit hit the fan again. But I have to say that this is the happiest time of my life, despite the recent loss of my Mom, my in-laws and a couple friends. I have a deeper understanding of who I am, what I can do, why I want to do it, how I can be of help to others, and I no longer have the frantic compulsion that comes with the longing for more. I am of course always waiting for the shit to hit the fan again.

h) What do you most value in your friends?

That they are at my constant beck and call and serve me with blind loyalty. (smile) Oh I’d have to say a sense of humor toward themselves and everything else is what I value most in my friends. I guess I value the fact that my friends find something in me worth loving, something worth befriending me for.

i) What is your greatest regret?

I’ve lived my life with the singular aim of having no regrets. But still, here they are, although numbered just a few and not totally debilitating. I regret not befriending more people, sooner. Being full of hubris in my youth. Letting some relationships wither. Addiction was highly destructive to everything I loved—that's a real regret.

When it comes to cancer care, I feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of that movie—how he’s distraught that simply buying more Nazi pins would’ve saved more Jewish lives. I lose sleep over this every night—how I could do more for those with cancer, play more fundraisers, go see more people, try to help on every level. Just wish I had more time and money to go toward it.

j) What is your motto?

1. What goes ‘round comes ‘round. Karma is very real and quite immediate.

2. At the end, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did. Life’s short. Get busy.

3. Assume positive intent. It reduces paranoia.

4. If one’s good, ten are better (which got me into a lot of trouble).

5. If you’re walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.