The opening concert in the series – Saturday, September 25, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus – will feature the sublime singer-songwriter David Francey. For tickets, series subscriptions or information, call Hello Darlin’ at 514-524-9225.
Below is a feature-length article I wrote about David for the Fall 2005 issue of Sing Out! Magazine.
|Photo: Denise Grant|
By Mike Regenstreif
Ayer's Cliff is a small village in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec that's about a 90 minute drive from Montreal where I live. About 10 years ago, I began to hear about a carpenter in Ayer's Cliff who was writing great songs. Evey Miller, a Montreal folkie who grew up in the Townships and spends a lot of time there, was the first person who told me about him. "You've got to hear David Francey," I remember her saying, "he doesn't even play guitar, but his songs are exceptional."
Over the next couple of years, I heard more glowing reports about David. Bill Garrett, a partner in Borealis Records and a fine performer himself, talked about him. So did Dave Clarke, a guitarist and songwriter in the Montreal band Steel Rail. Soon Dave started working out guitar arrangements to David's songs and they began working on a demo that would eventually evolve into a full length album, Torn Screen Door.
At some point in the recording process for that first album, Beth Girdler, David's wife, sent me a CD-R with a few of the songs that David and Dave were working on. Listening to the songs on that CD-R, with their timeless melodies and narrative lyrics rich in vivid imagery, it was immediately obvious to me that David Francey was going to emerge as a very significant singer-songwriter on the folk music scene.
David released Torn Screen Door on his own label, Laker Music, in 1999. Slowly, but surely, the CD picked up a lot of buzz on the folk circuit. With the buzz, David began performing, usually with Dave Clarke or Geoff Somers backing him up, at folk festivals and small clubs across Canada and the U.S. Audiences warmed quickly to his plain spoken, no-hype approach on stage, to his warm voice, and, of course, to his songs. At the age of 45, a career in folk music was launched.
In 2001, David released his second album, Far End of Summer, an even stronger, more confident set of songs, co-produced by David, Dave Clarke and Geoff Somers for David's own label and featuring arrangements built around David Francey's voice, Dave Clarke's shimmering guitar playing and Geoff''s contributions on fiddle, banjo and guitar. This time, the buzz was immediate and in April of 2002, David found himself in St. John's, Newfoundland at the Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, accepting the Juno for Best Roots and Traditional Album by a solo artist.
In 2003, David, Dave and Geoff co-produced Skating Rink, a third album of David's songs for Laker Music and it too garnered the Juno Award for Best Roots and Traditional Album by a solo artist. To record his fourth CD, David journeyed to Nashville and collaborated with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin of the Dead Reckoning collective of musicians and songwriters. Titled The Waking Hour, it was released late in 2004 in Canada by Jericho Beach Records and in February 2005 in the U.S. by Red House.
In his songs, David writes and sings about many things. Some songs, like "Border Line," in which he recalls his days driving a truck on overnight hauls between Canada and the U.S., bring back scenes from his working life. Scenes from small town life are captured in songs like "Far End of Summer," while in "Grim Cathedral," he reflects on the events of September 11, 2001 that he watched unfold on television. Many of David's most beautiful compositions are the love songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine" that are invariably inspired by his relationship with Beth.
With the recent release of The Waking Hour, it seemed like a good time to speak with David about his life, his unique and singular approach to songwriting and his late-blooming career as a performing singer-songwriter.
"I was born in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1954 and we emigrated to Canada when I was a boy. We moved to Cornwall [a small mill town in Eastern Ontario on the banks of the St. Lawrence River] in 1958, but went back to Scotland in 1963. Then, in 1968, we came back to Canada."
David has lived in Canada ever since, but still retains his distinctive, and quite charming, Scottish accent that you can hear in both his speaking and singing voices.
David's love of poetry and song has been with him since childhood. On outings, the Francey family would sing Robert Burns material and other old Scottish folk songs in the car.
"My dad had a great love of poetry. He was a terrific Burns man, and he instilled that in me. He had memorized umpteen of the songs and poems. In our house, it was a creditable thing to be a poet, so the poetry and the poet had worth. In lots of places, poetry is kind of shoved down your throat, so I was lucky to have had it explained early on that it's a worthwhile thing."
Over the years, David has moved around a bit.
"Cornwall was the first place in Canada that we lived. I've lived in Toronto, Peterborough, and Ayer's Cliff. Now we're living in Elphin, Ontario," a small village near Ottawa.
As a young man, David hitchhiked around the country several times, spending various periods of time working in a bunch of other places, as far north as the Yukon,
The roots of David's emergence as a songwriter are in a move that he made from Toronto to Ayer's Cliff after meeting Beth.
"I was working as a high rise laborer in Toronto. My first marriage had just gone under and it was a hard go. I had an opportunity to do some general carpentry and house building with Ian MacGregor in the Eastern Townships. I've known Ian since the Yukon, way back, so it was a good chance to get out of Toronto at a time when I needed to make a move. Ayer's Cliff was a great place to move to, and I was working with a really great bunch of guys."
He and Beth were married soon after the move.
For a long time, David had been writing songs just for himself or for family and friends, but "had no plans to do anything with them at all. Then, one day in the early 1990s, after we'd moved to the Townships, Beth and I were playing volleyball with this group of people and a couple of them were musicians. Beth said to them, 'David writes songs,' and they invited me to come to their practice on Tuesday night. So I went, sang my songs a cappella. They liked them, so I started singing them for other people. That was the first exposure the songs had, but they were really warmly received right away."
When David saw that other people were appreciating his songs he decided to put on a show.
"Ian MacGregor, the guy I was working construction for, had bought the Cliff House Hotel in Ayer's Cliff, so there was a venue to play."
David formed the band Sumach Street with Townships musicians Perry Beaton and Michelle Bourque and Sergio Abru, a Brazilian guitarist who was then living in the area.
"We practiced every week and did the show at the Cliff House. We packed the place to the rafters, the songs went well and we had a great night. The band lasted just for that show but we had a terrific time doing it."
While Sumach Street didn't last beyond that one gig, the response that he received as a performer and the appreciation that people were expressing for his songs encouraged him to keep working at his music.
"I kept working construction, and I kept writing. I had some good fortune after Sumach Street broke up when I ran into another band called Blue Moon with Ron Phendler, Dave and Elaine Vachon and Del Springate and I started playing with them for a little bit."
David and Blue Moon played at Townshippers Day, an annual celebration of the English-speaking community in the Eastern Townships.
"Someone from the CBC heard us at Townshippers Day and asked if we wanted to go on Art Talks, a province-wide radio broadcast with Shelly Pomerance. We did the radio show and had a terrific time. I really enjoyed being on the radio. Afterward, the producer asked me if I had an album. When I said no, he asked if I wanted to make a demo and told me about a studio in Quebec City that would give me a good rate."
That's where Dave Clarke came into the picture.
"I'd met Dave and his band Steel Rail and I thought they were the be all and end all. I also thought Dave was a great guy, so I called and asked him if he wanted to go up to Quebec City and make this demo. We ended up doing a whole album ... that was Torn Screen Door. I was working in the Townships, Dave was working in Montreal and the studio was in Quebec City, so it took us about two years to finish between the scheduling and everything."
After Torn Screen Door was released (in the fall of 1999), David started to get some gigs beyond his home, usually working with Geoff Somers, a guitarist and fiddler from Toronto.
"Geoff had heard the first album and knew it off by heart. We did some gigs including a couple of festivals: the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Wye Marsh Festival in Ontario that summer."
With the album out, and David starting to make his presence felt on the folk music scene, word started to spread about the singing carpenter from the Eastern Townships. Some of his biggest fans were other songwriters. Jesse Winchester, who was also then living in the Townships, told me how impressed he was with David and his songs. James Keelaghan recorded a version of "Red-Winged Blackbird" from Torn Screen Door, becoming one of the first artists to cover a David Francey song.
"David Francey," Keelaghan said at the time "is the best Canadian folk writer that I have heard in 20 years. Quite simply, almost every song I've heard so far I wished I'd written. I think that he is going to be a voice in this country for a long time and that his songs will be sung by my great, great, great grandchildren."
Kieran Kane, with whom David would eventually collaborate on a recording project, heard David at that first Winnipeg Folk Festival appearance.
"I sat on a workshop stage, and a scruffy man in shorts and work boots stood up to take his turn. What I heard were words of eloquence, beauty and charm, hung on a jewel of a voice," recalls Kane.
Despite the acclaim, making music for a living was still far from David's mind.
"I was still working full-time at construction. I was lucky because I could get a Monday off when I needed it. I was hammering nails, or doing whatever we were doing, roofing, renovating or whatever, and then on the weekend I'd fly off to a festival. Monday or Tuesday morning I'd be back at it hammering nails again."
David gives his co-workers on the construction jobs a lot of credit for his being able to get his music career going.
"The boys were great, they'd give me the big star treatment, just for fun, but they were so supportive it was ridiculous. I couldn't have done any of it without them, because when I wasn't there on a Monday, they were there covering for me. Without their help it would have been immensely difficult."
With all of the positive response to Torn Screen Door, David continued doing as many gigs as he could while continuing to work in construction and carpentry. He also recorded a second album, collaborating again with Dave Clarke, and adding Geoff Somers to the mix.
The second album, Far End of Summer, was released in time for the 2001 festivals. By now, David was getting more gigs and was spending time away from the construction sites. Depending on their individual schedules, either Dave Clarke or Geoff Somers would provide beautifully crafted accompaniments to David's singing. Occasionally, the three would work together as a trio. David and his songs were the talk of the folk circuit in Canada, and, increasingly, south of the border as well.
In April of 2002, Far End of Summer was recognized with a Juno. On the journey home from the eastern far end of Canada in St. John's, Newfoundland (where the awards ceremony was held that year), David and Beth talked about the future.
"I'm very cautious, but what really sold me on the possibility of an actual career as a performing songwriter was the success the first album was getting across the country on its own. Because of the sporadic nature of construction work, you're not working half the winter so it's always been tight to the bone. I just looked at Beth on the drive home from Newfoundland after we'd won the thing and said, 'You know, maybe it's time we went full time with this, how much worse can it be?' We decided to put all our effort into the music instead of just trying to scrape by on both things."
So, in 2002, at the age of 48, David Francey became a full-time singer-songwriter.
"It was just as tough in the beginning as it was when I had a construction job. They're both seasonal jobs and there wasn't that much difference economically. But it was much easier on my body than doing construction work. After we got up and running, we were doing okay."
With the decision to go full-time, David (and Dave) began doing longer tours. Instead of going out for a weekend gig, they were gone for three or four weeks at a time bringing David's songs to audiences all across Canada, from big cities to small towns, and more and more, in the United States and in Europe. Between tours, they recorded a third album, Skating Rink, released in the spring of 2003. And just a year later, David was back at the Juno Awards, again winning the trophy for best roots and traditional album by a solo artist.
David has a unique approach to writing songs. As someone who doesn't really play guitar or piano, he makes the tunes up in his head as he writes the lyrics.
"I was in high school when I started writing songs. They were awful, I guess. I was writing poetry even before I got to high school and they turned into songs around the time that Neil Young's After the Gold Rush came out. I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriters at the time. The songs always come the same way, with the melody and the lyric at the same time. So they've all evolved out of the poetry, I guess. I'd make up the tune and the lyric and I'd just keep them in my head, just locked there like glue until I'd write them down in a journal. Then, if I looked at the page, I could sing the song for you."
While some of David's songs have been written quickly, sometimes a song will get started, be put aside, and finished later.
"I've got so many started and they all take their own time to get finished. I'll be walking down the road and a little snippet of a song will pop into my head. Maybe I'll finish the song that day, maybe it'll be years after I first wrote the snippet. I never know, exactly, when they're going to come out."
I asked David if working with the excellent musicians he's collaborated with in recent years has had an effect on his songwriting.
"In the arrangements, certainly, but I'm very singular in the writing. I don't share that at all. I don't even know how. I don't take anybody else's ideas into consideration, and I don't ask for them. I feel very isolated when I'm writing, and that's a good place for me to be. I'm not a big believer in forcing anything, I don't know that I could go out and force myself to write, to look for the bolt of lightning to strike."
As for the arrangements, "I hear in my head what has to happen with the music and working with brilliant musicians like Dave Clarke I usually just sit down and sing them the song and the chords just come out. The only time I balk is if I hear a chord that seems like it's wandering away from the melody, I'm kind of a slave to the melody, but I've had good luck that way with people that I've played with."
With David's working class family background, and the fact that he'd written songs about his own long history as a working man, I wondered if he felt his work was connected to the traditions of working class poetry and songs.
"I think so. If you look at Burns's work, he was a ploughman and wrote about things going on around him. He was an excise man and he wrote about that as well. He went and did all these normal jobs, what you'd consider working class jobs, and he wrote about them. And I've been doing all these jobs like construction and carpentry as long as I've been writing seriously. I'm just trying to chronicle what's going on in my life, so given the fact that I was doing that kind of manual labor I think you'd have to correlate my work to the traditions."
David went to Nashville to record The Waking Hour with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin.
"I'd met Kieran and Kevin years ago at Winnipeg Folk Festival, and they wanted to record then, but I said no. I told them I've got a couple that I want to do in Canada first and after that I'll give you a shout. We kept in touch and I gave them a shout after Skating Rink and said 'I'm ready to record, boys.' Anyway, I went down to Nashville and we rented a little studio there and recorded live off the floor. Those boys have this innate kind of rhythm or groove that they throw into the music and I was really hoping to come out with that kind of feel. We just played the songs until we got a good take and then moved to the next song. It evolved very easily, very naturally."
I told David that when I heard he was going to go to Nashville to make a record, I was worried that he'd be doing something more slickly produced than his earlier releases, and that on hearing The Waking Hour, I was happy to hear how consistent the feel was with his first three albums.
"I like the recording format that we've always taken. Right from the very first album, I've thought that less is more. That was a struggle on the first album because people bring to it what they think is going to be good for you. Fair enough, there's nothing wrong with that. But for myself, I was happier with less. 'Less, less, less,' became the mantra. I don't think everybody agreed with that, but I think the end result was really good. I think it was the right way to go so I've kept that format."
I also wondered if by spending time in Nashville and working with artists like Kane and Welch who have been part of that scene for a long time, he felt at all pressured to take up co-writing with other songwriters as a commercial pursuit.
"We did sit down and co-write one song. It was late at night and we'd done all the work we were going to do and I was leaving the next day. So I said 'Let's write a song the way you would do it here, just so I can see what it's all about.' So we sat up until three o'clock in the morning writing a tune, and it was just a fabricated tune. Kieran said 'What do you want to write about?' I told him the Cumberland River runs through Nashville and I like the name and everything so we created a story and wrote around it. It was an interesting exercise, but it's far, far removed from how I write and it wasn't very fulfilling for me as a songwriter."
For now, David is out on the road singing his songs to appreciative audiences. Despite an increasingly busy schedule and critical acclaim, David continues to build his audience one gig at a time on the folk music circuit playing in all kinds of settings, from small house concerts and clubs to big halls and festivals. And with Dave Clarke busy with Steel Rail, his solo career and other projects, David is currently working with Ottawa guitarist Shane Simpson and occasionally with Terry Tufts.
After releasing four albums in just six years, David is planning to take a bit more time before doing his next one.
"I wouldn't have put The Waking Hour out so soon after the last one, but Jericho Beach really wanted to get it out. I would have been happy to wait another year. So, the next one won't be out until 2007. I have some ideas about where I want to go with it but I want to think about them some more before I get down to it. It'll be well into next year before I even start to think about it. I've got tons of songs written, so coming up with the material is not a problem."