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Robert Francis: A Young Man with an Old Soul

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Robert Francis: A Young Man with an Old Soul

Music

Robert Francis: A Young Man with an Old Soul

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Teen angst can be pretty tedious, unless you're a singer-songwriter with some actual talent.

Robert Francis is a 19-year-old from Los Angeles who just released his first CD. It's called "One by One." The album's emotional darkness and musicality peaked our interest, so music journalist Christian Bordal invited Robert Francis down to our studios at NPR West to talk about his album, and Robert Francis performed a few tunes for us.

(Soundbite of song, "Mama Don't Come")

Mr. ROBERT FRANCIS (Singer; Songwriter): (Singing) Blood on the horizon, the moon is half and full, the city lights (unintelligible) late coming home from school.

I was given that the soundtrack to "Paris, Texas" by my sisters when I was really young and so I'd fall asleep with hearing that every day. And I fell in love with that because it calmed me and my mind is pretty crazy, let's say, and so, you know, it'd be nice to fall asleep to that.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Young singer-songwriter Robert Francis says the songs on his first CD, "One by One," all come out of the emotional turmoil he suffered after a failed relationship. He says he struggles to keep his mind from going into dark places, but there's a haunting darkness that pervades his songs musically and lyrically.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCIS: (Singing) And we were kids playing games in the dark, underneath the castles that shelter us from the loneliness (unintelligible) ever been apart. Eventually, the love turned (unintelligible).

BORDAL: Though as a child, he fell asleep listening to Ry Cooder's Texas border music, it's Townes Van Zandt, the iconoclastic, itinerant Texas country folkie that has turned out to be Francis' musical and spiritual soul mate. Van Zandt who was a diagnosed manic-depressive and alcoholic died 10 years ago at age 52 when Francis was only nine.

Mr. FRANCIS: And I have almost every record of his. There are some there pretty hard to find. I've made, like, a list and I just check them off. But I mean there's nothing more, I mean, you know, it doesn't go beyond that for me.

BORDAL: What is it about his music that you think moves you so much?

Mr. FRANCIS: Because the only - it's like the only real thing ever. He's not hiding anything, but he's not pertaining to be anything and I love that about him, yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCIS: (Singing) I want to kill it all just to kill the pain. But then I know you're feeling like you're the only one to blame. You're just too young, just too smart. Probably the myth (unintelligible) for a broken heart.

BORDAL: Robert Francis was raised in a community of musicians. His father is a classical music producer. And Francis grew up listening to his older sisters' indie rock bands playing clubs around L.A. Both of them provide backing vocals on his new record and his sister Juliet's significant other Joachim Cooder drums on some of the tracks, and his father Ry Cooder, also appears.

In fact, when Francis was only nine, Ry Cooder gave him a national steel guitar which he says he's only now learning to use and appreciate, but he may never have become a guitar player if not for his mom.

Mr. FRANCIS: My mother is from Mexico so, I mean, I never had really considered the guitar because my dad he's a classical record producer. Since a young age, it's always piano, piano, piano and then she was like, you should learn the guitar, you know, so you can play canciones(ph) together and then we can have, you know, a great time and all my sisters come over and I was like the guitar, I'm like, okay, I'll learn the guitar for you, mom.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Girl") (unintelligible)

BORDAL: Francis' songwriting hero, Townes Van Zandt, is well known for the almost painful honesty and lack of artifice in his songs. And at the age of only 19, despite as teenager occasional detours into purple prose, Francis on his first record has laid himself out in song and created some incredibly moving and beautifully musical moments.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCIS: (Singing) I loved a girl since she was very young. Every day, I wonder what I could have done.

BORDAL: It's interesting to me how artists who work from such a personal source as they strip away the exterior layers of themselves somehow also start to strip away the layers of musical convention, so that the music also feels like it's coming from a place of freedom and essential truths.

Not many people can manage to do that. It's a rare gift. And of those artists who do work that way, many like Townes Van Zandt, or Nick Drake, or Joni Mitchell, many suffer terribly dealing with their personal demons and either learned coping mechanisms with age or just don't make it out.

Mr. FRANCIS: I would say, the record, sure. It's about being in those dark spots, basically, trying to get out of them.

BORDAL: And does the music help with that?

Mr. FRANCIS: At times, not as much as I'd like it to because I know a lot of people, oh, you know, music is this therapy and music get all these things out. And you're lucky because you have, you know, you have an outlet but I think music is just a way of taking myself from completely losing my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCIS: It's supposed to really like helping.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.

(Soundbite of song, "One by One")

Mr. FRANCIS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) we all wonder what we could have done (unintelligible) one by one.

BRAND: Robert Francis' new album "One by One" is in stores now.

(Soundbite of song, "One by One")

Mr. FRANCIS: (Singing) One by One.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

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