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INTERVIEW: Stewart Francke

Hi Stewart, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve been very well, thank you.  I’m very excited about this new compilation of some of my best songs getting out there and introducing me and my music or maybe re-introducing it to some folks.  And I’ve been writing and demoing new songs for a new release that I hope will maybe even be the end of this year.  And my oldest daughter is about to graduate from Central Michigan University, so things are darn good.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Summer Soldier (Holler If You Hear Me)”?

I knew I wanted to write about the illicit, politically motivated wars of the last several years, particularly the Iraq War. Just as I was working on it, I was asked to send some cds and signed posters over to deployed soldiers from Michigan in Iraq or Afghanistan, to just cheer them up and remind them that we were back here thinking of them. So I got to thinking about the part-time soldiers, people in the reserves or in the National Guard who never ever expected to be fighting a land and air war in the deserts of the Middle East. Part time military people–Summer soldiers. So I wrote in the first person. It’s written  in the eyes of a soldier that’s just been gravely wounded, and he knows it.  He pictures life back home as lovely and peaceful and briefly describes how he got here-to this point where he’s bleeding and dying in the desert and he suddenly realizes he doesn’t have any idea as to why. He has great love for and allegiance to his fellow soldiers, men and women who are his brothers and sisters. He envisions a heaven of sorts in the form of a train arriving as he’s dying and hears his name called. And he prays that someday, one day, we’ll have a better understanding of it all. And then he dies–that’s the narrative very briefly. But the choruses are in the words of the onlookers, the rest of us, knowing it’s all so cursed and wrong and immoral.  And so I say “Holler if ya hear me” — let your voice be heard if you agree, or you’ve seen this man dying for nothing and feel unempowered, or pissed or both. You know–who’s with me?  So I had the lyric and basic track and sent it through his management to Bruce Springsteen because I just heard his voice as the answering voice in the call and response of the chorus.  His voice is so raw and honest and real, of course.  I was lucky that I’d met him a couple times through some very close mutual friends, and he’d been complimentary about my music.  But I knew that kind of request had to be handled openly, through the normal channels.  And he heard it and agreed to sing on it with me.  That was a brilliant day when I heard that he’d do it.  So we swapped files of the music, Michigan to Jersey and back, and he killed it.  Of course he killed it!  He’s Bruce! I do like the song and the record of it quite a lot, because it’s a lyrical story that resolves, with a beginning, middle and end and because it rocks and it’s remaining relevant and politically pertinent.  Unfortunately.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

Again, unfortunately, many events that appeared daily on our screens during those years.  Those events plus the lack of outrage  in this country regarding how these wars had begun–with endless duplicity–and how these violent events began to seem interminable. And then having some correspondence with a couple Michigan soldiers who really missed home distilled and clarified the personal human emotion of it all   I really like President Obama, and I’m very much in agreement with the bulk of his decisions, but I remain unhappy and impatient that we continue to bomb with drones etc.  But all this political talk on a single song of mine is misleading a bit. It’s actually very specific, all of this political opinion and recording a protest song, because I  very rarely write overtly political lyrics. I’m far more interested in the singular despair or joy of one person or a pair of people in this fallen age.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

There has been talk with a couple different directors about some kind of visual imagery for the song but we’ve shot nothing yet due to me not being affiliated with a large label and the other small fact of  not personally having  $50,000 for a music video laying around!  But I think it’d really bring the whole thing home–the song itself, what it says, Bruce’s involvement, and how  this very volatile subject is again front and center because of the current campaigns.  Maybe we can do something cool on the cheap. Oh and that Bruce kid seems kinda busy–might be hard to get him again,

The single comes off your new self-titled album – why naming this record after you? Is it because it’s a personal album or you were running out of names?

It’s an introduction to and through you guys in the music media, potentially to new folks who may become fans after hearing the songs.  Or possibly a re-introduction to people in what remains of the music business and any opportunities that might conjure up.  So it’s essentially a selection of my better songs from a larger selection of my better songs that came out last year, a Best Of record.  As you know, it requires quite a lot of fuss, or promotion, or an event–or something extraordinary–to let people know you have new music out these days.  So it seemed appropriate to keep is simple and just call this release Stewart Francke.  Which also happens to be my name!  So it worked out nicely.

How was the recording and writing process?

Well these songs are from a couple different recent periods, so the writing and recording was varied a bit.  Not that it ever really changes all that much.  I write alone, without a co-writer or collaborator, from a title first, then the lyrics, and whatever melody and arrangement the muse deigns to grant me.  Always have my antennae up!  And  i take whatever I can get musically!  The lyric writing is less spiritual and more academic, even more journalistic,  I guess. It’s at the arranging and recording stages that the songs become what music should be–a collaborative effort with other players, opinions and skills. That’s the fun part, relatively.  My entire creative process is emotional alchemy. New songs and recordings always come from combining these disparate, mercurial components–the nature of the subject, the tone of my influences, the array of instruments at play, the talent of collaborators, understanding the changing recording technology, and primarily what I then hear in my head and heart.

What role does Detroit plays in your music?

Well it’s sometimes hard to generalize about such a large city, but I think an artist does soak up the vibe and feel and light of a place, any place, wherever you find yourself working.  For me, Detroit is my longtime home and it means so many intrinsic things that ultimately infuse and inform my music.  The killer musical history, both black and white, and the feeling that gives you–that you’re working in a strong tradition whether you realize it or not, and that there’s a qualitative level to adhere to or just go away.  And mostly, of course, the attitudes and postures of the people you know, love and make music with. There’s also.the general feeling of work and overcoming and continued struggle that’s such a part of Detroit. You gotta be tough and lucky to survive winters in Detroit.  But overall, I think that modern songwriting at its best should compel fans that hear it toward some kind of physical or emotional shift: awake to the notion of the Other, learn more, increase compassion, become interested in our shared social ideals, recognize your own isolation or fear, dance all night, get further out into the world or deeper into one’s self...whatever! In that sense it’s a very useful, purposeful art form.

How has your personal struggles have influence your music?

When I’ve written directly about actual events or literal feelings, then my struggles have directly influenced the writing and recording and intended meaning of what I wanted to say to people, obviously and directly. I’ve written songs very specifically about having cancer, or about the fear of dying from cancer and hoping your children know and remember you.  I’ve also written and recorded very spiritual and amorphous songs about the very worldly emotions of alienation, love, community, despair, family, desire, sex and loneliness. So it’s a combination of drawing literally from your own life and its very real troubles and then observing and seeing poetically–putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and creating an empathetic world around them.  So yea–I’m a leukemia and bone marrow transplant survivor who is also a musician, an artist who is a cancer survivor. Despite the difficulties of going through treatment and transplant, the years it took from me and the lingering complications, I’ve tried to keep my heart and ears and eyes open, aware that I was going through something valuable and unique to the human spirit if I could survive it and describe it with detail, beauty and vitality. As a result, I now try to write and sing survival songs, music that sustains and describes our lives.  It ain’t curing cancer or rocket science. (smile)

Have you learned anything in particular from your 20 years career?

I guess I’ve actively been recording and releasing my own records/cds/whatever you wanna call them for 20 years but I actually began this pursuit with enormous passion and ambition when I was 19!  So I’ve been writing, recording, playing live shows and learning the business for about 37 years or so.  Making music has been all I’ve really wanted to do, what I set out to do and what I’ve done.  For better or worse.  I mean, I’ve also written extensively–columns, features and books–and been a father with an extremely blessed and happy family life, because I actually did want it all at one time.  That’s ridiculous of course, unless you’re Oprah I guess–no one can have everything.  I also felt it was very important to first have a real life, with real events and ups and downs and heartbreak and illness and death and love and joy and birth. Because I wanted something to write about and not just be the musician who’s an outside observer, forever imagining scenarios and looking in on what I needed to borrow to write.  That person’s just a social cliche.  Far better to have a real life to write about.  I’ve noticed several musicians ( a few friends too) who felt they needed to remain free and autonomous so as not to compromise their art with distraction.  And they’ve been fucking miserable.  So that’s been a lesson.  I also feel it’s still essential to have a pronounced apprenticeship when you’re just approaching this as a life or career,  where you learn everything from how to play guitar arpeggios to how to wrap a cord properly to how to mix a song well to how to travel and perform to how to rehearse effectively to how to read a contract.  You can’t know too much and you can’t have enough quiet and deep belief in yourself and who you are as a person and artist. And lastly, you HAVE to be able to laugh at yourself and others, and just say “fuck em” quite often in this business.  Cuz you know what I really know now?  NOBODY FUCKING KNOWS!!  Nobody!  What’s good, what’s bad, what works, what doesn’t, what will hit, what won’t, what you should do or not do as the best course for yourself.  Nobody knows.  There are certainly no rules and few absolutes in the music game.  Apply a solid truth and I’ll give you ten examples where the opposite worked.  Trust your own emotional, visceral reaction to music. Trust your instincts. Life is brief and unfair.  Apply that times 1000 in the music thing.  I’ve devoted my entire life to this musical pursuit and its ancillary lifestyle terms. I’m a lifer. I’m continuing to earn the privilege to contribute to this unending river of songs that can illuminate what needs to be said about the human condition in the times we live in. That’s about it!

Any plans to hit the road?

Man we’d love to, but as of now we’re just going to play some shows in and around Detroit or maybe the midwest a bit.  When we play here in town I have this wonderful band…but it’s rather large.  Totally unfeasible for an artist in my position to try and take out on the road.  We have a horn section and singers to accompany the 6 piece band and rhythm section.  For a total of 10 or 11 up on stage quite often.  It’s fantastic and I think very entertaining–men and women, black and white, people that have known one another quite a long time and actually love and care about each other singing and playing together. And I think that extends quite quickly and thoroughly to the audience.  But if I did go do some dates here or in Europe, I’d have to consider either breaking the band down to a 4 or 5 piece or even playing some shows as a duo or solo performer.  Very reductive for me and my songs, and it’s hard to represent the music in full bloom while alone with an acoustic guitar or something.  Even though I’ve opened for many , many big bands and stars as a duo or single.  But I’m no Joni Mitchell or Ani DiFranco or Bob Dylan while alone on stage. I play off others and need a band and would greatly miss my band.

What else is happening next in Stewart Francke’s world?

More listening to what’s good out there now and more writing and recording myself.  There are so many great new bands and records in rock and Roll and Soul out now but they aren’t on the Billboard charts.  Everything’s readily available –all the brilliant 70s soul like Al Green and Bobby Womack right up through D’Angelo and Anthony Hamilton working today. In rock, all of the wonderful early English glam up on through the Flaming Lips.  But not much on the radio other than the AAA chart a bit.  I think this might be the first extended period since rock and roll or modern music began that the most popular music is also not the best music being made.  Absolute crap on the radio now; thank God for Sirius and Spotify and itunes.  It’s true that streaming services don’t pay artists or songwriters yet but it is a wonderful consumer service.  That paradigm has got to change, and somebody’s gotta go to bat for the creators in this scenario.  Not sure how it will resolve itself.  Music will always be this enormous emotional impetus for human beings, and there will always be an worldwide demand for it. Wow…how’d I get here and how does that have anything to do with your question??–sorry.   Anyway, yes, for me there will be  more absorption of music and ideas through reading, more live shows, more writing and recording very soon (maybe we can get another batch of songs out yet this year) and just more living with those I love.   I’m very grateful to be alive.  Everything starts there for me–wife and kids, extended friends and family…is everyone all right and if not, how can I help?  I’m weird that way, very Virgo–all my ducks gotta be in a row before I can comfortably create. They say out of chaos comes order, but for me out of order comes musical chaos.  Then we record and release it!  Very fun.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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