Interview: Francis Jocky - Songs For The Soul
As anyone who has done any amount of interviews with professional performers will know they usually follow a pretty cut and dried formula. You're told what time to phone the person, and how long - usually twenty minutes - that you have to talk to them, and you know that you're one of about forty people that they are going to be talking to that day as they play "promote my product". Sometimes though you get lucky and have the chance to just talk to somebody - have a real conversation instead of feeding them questions which they respond to with stock answers.
When I was told that I could spend some time talking to Francis Jocky about his new release, Sanctified and his career I wasn't sure what to expect. He had just released his first disc domestically in North America and he had been spending the week filming television shows and doing radio spots promoting it, which made it pretty likely that the interview could end up being the typical question and answer deal.
Thankfully that wasn't the case, in fact we went all over the place, and the list of questions I had prepared to ask him became gradually more and more irrelevant. One way or another we covered all the ground I wanted to cover with them, but it came out through the course of conversation as we talked about music in general, his music in particular, and about the new disc, Sanctified as well. I did start off by asking him to talk about himself, but we were soon diverted by his dropping quite the surprise on me.
So sit back and enjoy eavesdropping on my conversation with an extraordinary musician and artist, Francis Jocky.
It's always a good sign that an interview will go well when the first words out of the person's mouth that you're going to interview are along the lines of "I'm so glad to speak to you". I was rather taken aback by that as its not the usual reaction one expects from an interviewee. If that surprised me, the next words out of Francis' mouth took me even more aback.
"When I read the review you wrote of me two years ago (for Mr.Pain) it was like you had known me for twenty years" Francis continued.
Well, so much for any pretence at maintaining a professional attitude, because I spent the first ten minutes listening to this wonderful voice at the other end of the phone piling me with some of the nicest compliments I've ever had. Yet I also realized as I listened to him that it was more than just him complimenting me, it was the voice of a person who was frustrated by the music industry's attempts to pigeon hole him as an African musician. "They don't understand that I love all styles of music - that it doesn't matter to me whether its a country song or anything else - if I like the melody I like the song. A good song is a good song no matter what it is."
Now you hear this a lot from people, but not often with the same sort of intense passion that I could hear in Francis' voice, and it made me curious as to where this came from. He had already told me that he had been born in the Cameroon, central West Africa, not a country I'd ever associated with being a hot spot for international music.
"When I was younger my parents used to travel to Europe and they brought back many types of music for us to listen to. I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne."
Okay wait a minute - Bob Marley, sure - but Randy Newman and Jackson Browne. An eight year old kid in the Cameroon even knowing who Jackson Browne is let alone listening to and appreciating his music stopped me cold. Hell most people I know in North America don't know the name Jackson Browne. When I passed this along to Francis he laughed.
"I know it's funny. I went to see Jackson play in New York - he has a new CD out now, (Time The Conqueror) and is playing shows - and I went backstage to see him and ask him to sign a copy of my CD. I talked to him for thirty minutes. He was surprised too when I told him that I was a musician and that Late For The Sky (one of Browne's early releases) was what inspired me to become a musician. I was nine when I first heard it and I was just learning piano then, and there was something about his songs, even though the lyric are about many different things, even songs about cocaine, but still there was something very spiritual about them. They are songs that I can still listen to now years later and feel the same things that I felt then, enjoy the same way."
"You know", he continued, " When I'm trying to compose now - the songs they have to come from the heart - I want to be able to listen to them three years from now and still like them as much as I like them now - and this is what I learned listening to Jackson's music."
While we had a great time comparing notes about Jackson Browne's music and laughing about the songs we liked, like I said I don't know many people who listen to him so it was nice to talk to someone else who does, I attempted to get us back on course and talking about him instead. We had left him at eight years old listening to Jackson Browne -
"When we moved to Paris, I was about thirteen or fourteen when my family moved to France, I discovered Jazz music, people like Theolonius Monk - and although I had started learning piano in Cameroon, listening to this music pushed me to learn more and more and expand my talent.
I was really surprised though when I got there, you see I didn't know about Black radio and White radio. I quickly found that out though when I asked people about a Dolly Parton song that I had liked and they looked at me funny - like what was I listening to that for. But I listen to and learn from all types of music, and still do. Like when I was playing with Jon Anderson or when I had listened to Stevie Wonder's music... It was listening to Stevie's music that I learned that a great song has to say something - it can't just be a tune or a nice melody, but there has to be a heart to it."
So you're probably all ready getting the picture that Francis isn't your ordinary pop musician, what with his wide range of musical influences, but even more unusual is the fact that he holds a PHD from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Since we had made it to Paris I couldn't resist asking him about it. He laughed, as if it were not really any big thing
"Well you see, when I told my mother I wanted to be a musician, she said fine but finish your education first. So there I was going to university during the day and playing in clubs at night. The PHD was easier because you don't really have to go to school too much - you just have work for three years on a thesis. Now my teachers wanted me to do something on American Policy, but I wasn't really interested, and I wanted to do it on Zimbabwe and South Africa. This was in the nineties and there was still apartheid in South Africa while Zimbabwe had Black rule. Well they weren't that interested in that, but compromised and said why not do something about the UN, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
They weren't too happy with the result because I wrote mainly about South Africa and Zimbabwe, and very little about the UN, but they had to accept what I had done because of all the work I did. Of course all the time I was working on it (the PHD) I was continuing to play music too."
As you can tell, Francis hasn't taken everybody's idea of the normal route in pursuing a pop music career, and that has included having to deal with challenges that have sprung up because of his background and where he has been living. Early on in his career he elected to sing his music in English - I assume because so many of the people he listened to growing up were singing in that language. Living in Paris that decision created a problem for him.
"In France seventy per cent of the music on the radio has to have French lyrics which meant the chances of me getting my music heard on the radio there weren't very great considering all the other people in the world who are more well known than me who sing in English. I think because they are a small country surrounded by so many other languages that they are scared of losing their culture. But at the same time that makes them lose track of the big picture beyond their borders. So a record company might not want to sign me to their label because I sing in English and they don't think they'll get much radio play in France, but they don't stop to think about international performances and radio.
I have to be able to write in the language I want to for me to be able to believe in my lyrics properly. It's like Nina Simone, you listen to her and she's living in her lyrics. She gives you what she has inside. You hear her sing only one note and its so powerful - because she sounds like she is going to die in that note - surrender herself completely. I want to be able to do that with my songs, and you can't do that if you're not doing things in exactly the way that's most right for you."
Earlier on Francis had mentioned that he had worked with Jon Anderson of Yes. This was another way in which his career has been different from others as he has chosen to do collaborations with others instead of merely focusing on his own work - I was curious as to why he made the decision to work with others.
"I love their music - there's no way I would say no" Implying what kind of fool would say no at the opportunity to work with people like Bono, Jon Anderson, and others who Francis has worked with in the past.
The funny thing about working with Jon Anderson was that he wanted me to play keyboards - I said Jon, Yes has songs that are twenty minutes long - I don't know half the songs - how am I going to do them. He said don't worry you'll be fine. We were also going to be doing new material and I had some specific ideas on what I would like to see happen with Jon's voice. A lot of the time on Yes's songs his voice gets lost among all the other things going on, so I wanted to put it up front - keeping the music simple with a solid groove and let the world see what his voice sounded like in the foreground.
I learned a lot about improvising from that time - especially playing keyboards (laughs) but Jon liked what I was doing so much that he wanted me to be composing all the time, so I was writing ten songs a day and we were working with them. At times I would just improvise on the piano and he would start to sing and we created songs that way. It was one of the best learning experiences I had as a musician and working in a studio."
That seemed like a good cue for asking about the production of his most recent release Sanctified as I had noticed quite a number of differences between it and his first record Mr. Pain. I had also been curious to find out about the inclusion of Andrew Blakemore as a co-lyricist and how that worked.
"With Sanctified I composed all the songs at once, which was different from Mr. Pain because it contained songs that I had written from various points in my career. I wanted the production to be much simpler - I wanted it to be almost naked - no production at all if possible. That honesty I mentioned hearing in Nina Simone's voice was my inspiration. Emotion is real - I'm looking for integrity when I make music - that's my goal in everything. You don't do music to make money - you do it because you are inspired to do it, are moved to do it, and the only way you can be true to that is by ensuring that you're as honest as possible with everything that you do.
Andrew writes songs for Janet Jackson and I've always admired and respected his work. I write the lyrics first and then have Andrew look them over to see how they can be made into a better song. I trust him to understand what it is I'm trying to say and I don't have any ego about them, because all I care about is them being a good song. So even if Andrew says start over again from the beginning I will. It's great to work with someone who understands what it is you want to do and doesn't try to impose something else on you."
" I was going to sign with (I'm leaving out the name of the label to save them from looking like assholes), a label I had really admired for the people who had recorded with them in the past, and they had been happy with what I was doing. Then all of a sudden they want me to do African music, they say they want me to become the next Hugh Masekela (South African jazz trumpeter). I was very confused, I mean I like jazz but I don't play it. Then they started worrying about the lyrical content of songs on Mr. Pain, that "Tell Me Why" was too political because it questioned Mr. Bush about the invasion of Iraq. This was a couple of years ago, before it was as popular today to be critical about the war, and they didn't think anybody would play it on the radio.
"All these people say to me - Why don't you do African music - well why don't African music do me? Why don't you sing in the language of your own country? You know, there are over two hundred different dialects spoken in the Cameroon - which language do they want me to sing in?"
Well, I said interjecting, the problem is that many people over here seem to forget that Africa is a continent not a single country, and they don't realize that there's no such thing as "African music". Asking you to sing African is a stupid as asking Bruce Springstien to sing North American or Bono to sing European, but people don't get that.
"I don't care where a song comes from, I listen to the soul in it. I do music for all people to listen to, not just people from here or there, so this makes no sense to me when they say do African music."
I could almost see him shaking his head at the other end of the line, and remembered what he had said at the beginning of our conversation about how happy he had been reading my review, that I had understood what he was trying to do, and hadn't cared about anything about the music. I wondered what he would like people to take away after having listened to his music
"When I listen to music I want it to fill my soul, I want it to speak to my soul. When it comes down to it all we really have our souls and sometimes you need to feed your soul. If my music can speak to one soul, that would be great, that's what I've wanted to do right from the time I first heard Jackson Browne's songs and they spoke to that place in me. It doesn't matter what language they're in."
Talking about souls naturally led me into asking about the title of the newest disc, Sanctified. It's not normally a word you hear associated with pop music, outside of gospel circles, so I wondered what it meant to Francis within the context of his disc.
"My daddy was a preacher, so I have a lot of respect for people's religions and beliefs and I don't want to offend anybody with that title or the way I use it. But I'm using it as a metaphor for passion - the emotional power that happens when you love for instance. It's not specific to any belief, but it comes back to my desire for music to fill the soul."
"Some people have questioned me about the picture on the cover of the disc (Francis is wearing Angel wings and playing guitar) and wonder what it signifies. The truth is that it was from a campaign to raise money for the fight against cancer in France, and all of us who took part were considered as angels for donating our time so we all had our pictures taken with wings, and then the pictures were sold to raise more money. I thought the picture worked with the title so that's why we put it on.
I believe that God is everywhere, even when you love, and music, no matter what the subject, lets me express that belief."
One of the things that I had felt when listening to Francis' music this time, was that there was a spiritual quality to what he was doing similar to the connection between Indian musicians and their music. When I mentioned that to him he agreed that it was the "same feeling" and added how peaceful it was for him to be doing music.
We were both starting to wind down by then, as we had been talking for nearly two hours, but I think he summed up a lot about himself and his music in his final few sentences.
"They call me an enigma (There's worse things they can call you Francis) (laughs)"That's true, but it's because all my songs are different, and my music comes from all over. I can't just play one type of song or I get bored and I won't be true to what I want to do."
Francis Jocky is going to be very busy now, as aside from promoting his new disc Sanctified (The release party is this Sunday, December 21st/08 at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St. NYC starting at 7:15 pm) he's also just become the cultural ambassador for a new charity, All For Africa, and his first duties will be performing at the All For Africa Barack Obama Inauguration Party this January in Washington DC. He'll also be popping up on your television quite a bit over the next little while as he just did a recording for Fearless Music that will be shown on Fox TV and LC2 International TV has just finished a documentary on him and the disc Sanctified.
I hope you enjoyed listening in on my conversation with Francis, he really is as unique an individual as he sounds in this interview, and his music is a reflection of those qualities that distinguish him from others. The industry may think of him as an enigma because he doesn't fit into one of their neat boxes for easy packaging, but there's nothing puzzling about the quality of his music and the depth of his passion for what he does.