Stewart Francke: Seeking Musical & Spiritual Sustenance in a ‘Heartless World’
A Conversation with Saginaw’s Prodigal Son in Advance of His August 12th Pit & Balcony Appearance
From Issue 729 (Published July 21st, 2011)
Written By Robert E Martin
Stewart Francke has been through the mill and over the hill and survived personal and professional pitfalls and challenges of such a nature that if not having the power to distract most people from realizing their true potential, would cut us to the quick. Apart from releasing 11 albums and three out-of-print Indie cassettes, Stewart has written a book entitled Between the Ground & God: Lyrics, Essays & Interviews (1990-2005) and survived the vagaries of the music business, shaping a viable career out of it for the past 20 years.
In 1998 Stewart was diagnosed with leukemia and survived both cancer and a bone marrow transplant, continuing to write & record a consecutive series of albums, each profound and shimmering with distinct lyrical and musical texture – as if only through the strength of a romantic vision can we transcend the vortex of negative obstacles life has a tendency to deal our way and aspire towards greatness; and only through a consciousness that appreciates the fragility of life can we hope to reinforce the foundations that we find peace, solace, and security from.
Or as noted music critic Dave Marsh notes: “Stewart Francke is one of a kind. A talent that encompasses both songwriting and prose writing appears rarely. How much rarer then is a songwriter whose sensibility includes Johnny Cash and Gore Vidal, Yoko Ono and The Funk Brothers, marriage, mortality, race relations and cancer treatment? Standing courageously at the intersection of rock and soul music, Francke possesses all the tools: a sweet voice, a vision that’s grand without being grandiose, and an undying love of sound for its own sake.”
On Saturday, August 12th, Stew will return to his hometown of Saginaw for a special CD Release Party at Pit & Balcony Theatre for his new album, Heartless World, which is his first new release since 2002. Built upon a convergence between his gift for melody and fondness for R&B, the passionate songwriting and lyrical urgency for summoning an existence built upon higher ground have never been more lushly rendered.
With an output that used to register a new album a year, the long hiatus from recording resulted from each of his parents and in-laws becoming ill, culminating in August 2010, with the passing of his father, Stewart Francke, Sr. Consequently, much of the material on Heartless World summarizes a span of time where Stewart experienced great sadness, change, and personal challenge, having lost his parents in a four-year period, as well as two friends he’d grown close to. Plus he says the songs were colored by the tremendously tumultuous period of time this country has gone through in recent years.
“This whole album is about trying to find a place to make a stand in the world after all of your foundational pillars have gone to dust. It’s through these songs that I’m trying to construct a world that I want to live in – a world where I remember the best things about the people who are gone, a world where we look out for each other, and where the only currency that matters is being real, finding hope, common ground, and having faith in each other. These are the things I was thinking about while writing these songs.”
Stewart was recently featured in People Magazine, and with opening tour slots for Bob Seger and Earth Wind & Fire this summer, coupled with a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen on the cut Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me, the release of Heartless World is finally shooting Stewart to an entirely new level of critical and popular acclaim.
In advance of his August 12th appearance at Pit & Balcony, I caught up with Stewart recently in the midst of his hectic summer touring schedule to discuss both his new work and the ongoing climb up the mountain in an uncertain world.
Review: Stylistically, the material on Heartless World is as focused and meticulously crafted as ever, yet is colored by a maturity that covers more topical and foreboding undercurrents that permeate the texture with a tentative uncertainly, opening new depths of nuance largely through a willingness to confront the temporal and fragile nature of existence at the same time it celebrates the strength one must summon in order to get through it.
Francke: All this difficulty didn’t just give me a theme for this batch of songs. It imposed itself on the songs. We don’t need to look for uncertainty or death as a subject in life; it’s always with us. And while my reflections on mortality inform many of the songs on Heartless World, there are also several tracks that are the most rocking and humorous I’ve ever written.
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 or work 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.
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.
Review: How did the collaboration with Bruce Springsteen come about?
Francke: Bruce is a true gentleman and we were at a social function this summer where we had a nice brief talk. So then I sent a mix of the song to him, got word back he was into it; he cut his vocals in Jersey, we swapped pro tools sessions, and voila…it was what it is. I love the tune and the way our voices shift and move together, and the story means a lot to me. We can abhor the war but support the troops fighting it.
Review: How’s the summer panning out with all this newfound activity? Are you going to have any time to kick back up at Point Lookout and recharge the proverbial batteries?
Francke: This summer I want to play as often as possible—as many shows, gigs, fairs, festivals, because I love playing and I have all this new music that I want people to hear. So yeah, we’ll be playing all over Michigan. Don’t think I’ll be up at the Point as much. It’s not the same since my dad died.
Review: You have a great knack for writing engaging melodic hooks yet also fusing them with solid R&B fundamentals. Sidewalk Dimes is a great example on the new CD. How has your approach to songwriting evolved or changed since you started 20 years ago, or has it? Do the fundamental strengths and skills that develop early on stick with you, or do you replace them with new approaches and experiments to avoid the bane of repetition.
Francke: I think I’ve built a discernable style that’s recognizable and has some qualities people look to for enjoyment or maybe something they can’t find elsewhere. I’d much rather collaborate on music now than work alone, so I guess that’s a sign of maturation or total appeasement—I don’t know which.
With Pro Tools, we all cut and paste so much—you can build just a verse as a little contained piece of music, then build a hook that’s the chorus and edit them together. So now I start with rhythmic elements rather than just strumming a guitar, but other times I’ll do that too. It’s wide open as to how the music is made, as no one way works all the time.
I think I’ve started to pay closer attention to internal rhyme and musical motif—small inner melodies and three note intervals that repeat and can be beautiful but have little to do with the main melody or hook. I think I’ve learned to leave more out when it comes to arranging, but I need to make my songs even more austere. This record is still a big sounding record, but it can be played live with a band—the next one I want to do I want to be able o play it live with a small band, maybe make an acoustic record. It’s time. Economics dictate that you have to have a band you can afford.
I think the only other thing I may have improved at is just trusting what comes to me both melodically and lyrically, and trust that a song can hold elements of black and white music, soul and rock, white and black harmonic structure. It’s so simple—I’m an entertainer and a songwriter. I want people to think and dance and dig their little moment on the planet. My job hasn’t changed all that much over the years—tell ‘em what an apple is by telling ‘em what an orange isn’t—and make it rhyme with Delaware.”
Review: All inquiring minds in Saginaw and beyond want to know what was it really like working with Bob Seger and how did that come about and why didn’t he have you open for him in Saginaw?
Francke: There’s a ton of competition for those shows, and they’re trying out a lot of people. I was flattered he chose us for Toledo and we also did Cleveland. Bob himself was a beautiful guy with about 3000 top 40 hits and a top-notch organization that treated us with great respect.
Review: Has your sense of what music represents in your life and your role in the canon of the Michigan Music scene changed over the years, and if so, how? Do you hope to retire some day or is this something you see yourself doing until ‘the End’ – in the Jim Morrison sense of the word.
Francke: Retire!?! Artists just die, they don’t get to quit. And I have two kids going into college soon so I’ll be working for at least another 30 years. But I still love the music a lot, although the ancillary bullshit has gotten old. And my situation as far as quality of records, shows played, sales, career opportunities – all these things keep improving, so I don’t question; I just do. I’m not wealthy but I am healthy. I feel 29, not 52, and could keep playing really high-energy shows for a long time to come.
But the whole enterprise of raising money, casting a band, writing the songs, recording the songs, mixing, mastering, then 10 months of non-stop promotion—well that really takes the piss outta ya. But I really truly do feel I’m getting better at everything, not standing still or going through the motion. And when I look at the last ten years—leukemia, bone marrow transplant, personal issues, death of younger parents—I feel lucky to even be standing, let alone making music that might matter to someone.
Review: ‘Heartless World’ was funded entirely by fans. Can you tell me about that?
Francke: That was the most interesting part of doing this record—because we used the online crowd funding tool Kickstarter, and rose about $17,000 just to record it. I felt this immense pressure to make the songs so they mattered deeply to everyone else—way more to them than to me. And the beauty of the cd booklet, and the lyrics—it wasn’t for me at all—it was for my fans that supported me. I wanted to do nothing other than please them, make them feel a part of this creative entity, have a part of themselves invested in what these songs mean and how they sound.
But I guess I’m like 88% of the rest of all the everybodies out there—scared shitless part of the day, feeling strong a smaller part of the day, relying on hope and trying to find a place to put my faith the rest of the day. And then try to sleep through at least one night a week. This is a rough business, life. Things hit you that you didn’t even see comin.’
Review: Well, that’s about it my friend. I’m glad you’re still moving forward and showing us how the pursuit of a dream can still be a viable endeavor in this day and age.
Francke: Well, for you to have held Review together for 30 plus years and done the Music Awards for 25 is a mind blowing testimonial to one guy’s sense of duty and civic perseverance. I’m very proud to know you; I honor you and consider you one of my living heroes because there’s been a hell of a lot of sacrifice for you. Whenever I think of my own commitment to cancer care or other things I’m involved in I have a simple question: What are you gonna do about it?” There’s endless problems, endless fear, endless trials. What are you gonna do about it? And you’ve answered the bell every day, year in and year out.
Review: Thanks, Stewart. Such words mean a lot coming from somebody that I respect so deeply. I remember something you said to me a few years ago when you received your Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saginaw Enrichment Commission – at the end, you regret the things you don’t do, not the things you’ve done, so get busy. And when I asked your motto in life, you said, ‘If you’re walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.’ The truth holds its own over time, doesn’t it?
To purchase tickets for Stewart Francke’s CD Release Show for Heartless World at Pit & Balcony on August 12th, please call 989-754-2085 or visit pitandbalconytheatre.com