Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Interview: Frances England

After listening to Frances England's debut album Fascinating Creatures, I thought she would be a great artist to kick off an occasional series of interviews here on the website. I wanted to find out more about one of the most unique children's music albums I've heard in quite some time and the artist behind it.

England graciously agreed to the interview, even admitting that it was a "great excuse to stop studying." (Hey, anything I can do to help. I remember my own graduate school days.) Thank you very much, Frances.

This is a long interview, but worth your time.


What sort of musical background or experience did you have prior to recording the CD?
I started playing the violin when I was young but slowly gave it up as I hit my teens and started playing guitar in college. I’ve never been in a formal band but have always enjoyed sitting around singing and playing music with people (mostly around campfires or at small parties and get-togethers).

What led you to recording Fascinating Creatures?
A couple of different things. After my son was born I started collecting kid’s music and for the most part was pretty disappointed in what I was finding (this is of course before I knew about cool blogs like yours that shine a bright, guiding light on this genre of music). [Ed. note: I swear, I made no request for such a comment.] Slowly, I started replacing the stuff I loved listening to – indie artists and bands like the Postal Service, Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward – with the Wiggles and Raffi. Don’t get me wrong, I know there is value in some of that stuff and Liam is a huge Wiggles fan but it wasn’t the type of music we could genuinely enjoy together. So I started writing songs that I hoped would appeal to both of us.

The other thing that led to me recording Fascinating Creatures was the fact that Liam goes to a cooperative preschool, which is a nonprofit and counts on its member families to raise a certain amount of money each year. Rather than ask friends and family for donations I decided to make a cd and sell it as my fundraiser.

Did you write the songs with your son in mind?  Were there particular songs that grew out of your experiences with him?
Most of the songs on the album definitely have Liam’s name written all over them – Tricycle, Busy As A Bee, Charlie Parker, Books I like to Read, and Blueberry Pancakes come to mind immediately. I also wrote the last song, Little Bright Star, as a love song to him. Liam definitely inspired the themes, but I also think the things he’s interested in as a 3 year old are pretty universal at this age – what 3 or 4 year old doesn’t like digging in the dirt or spinning around on a trike?

Does Liam have a favorite song on the album
It’s a toss up between Charlie Parker and The Books I like to Read.

You mention (among others) Cat Power and Yo La Tengo as artists you enjoy listening to.  Did you have particular artists or songs in mind as you recorded the album?
As I was writing the songs, I wasn’t consciously thinking about wanting to sound like any particular artist or band. As we began recording though, I did catch myself thinking that I wanted the title track to have a sort of Yo La Tengo feel and wanted Galaxie 500-like guitars on “Books I like to Read.” Also, I am a huge Gillian Welch fan and was listening to her a lot when I wrote some of the more folksy songs like “Paint a Picture,” “Where Do They Go” and “Blue Canoe.”

One of the songs I really like on the CD is "Charlie Parker" -- do you have a favorite jazz artist or three?
My husband’s parents are big-time jazz lovers so they’ve turned us on to some great music. Aside from the four masters I mention in the song – Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, I also really love Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and lesser known jazz violinist, Eddie South.

What are your (and your son's) favorite books to read?
I’m in graduate school studying library science so, unfortunately, the only adult books I get to read these days are textbooks. But Liam and I read lots of great books together everyday. At the moment, the top five picture books at our house include: 1.Man On the Moon, A Day in the Life of Bob, by Simon Bartram (superb!), 2. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, 3. Polka Dot Bats and Octopus Slacks by Calef Brown 4. Richard Scarry’s Cars, Trucks and Things That Go, and 5. Children Just Like Me by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley.

All 13 songs on the album are originals -- did you consciously decide that you didn't want to record traditional songs (or songs by other artists)?
Although I love traditional songs, I didn’t cover any because I had a lot of my own songs to choose from. When we started recording, I’d probably written 20 or so songs but because of the limited time I had to record, I decided to narrow it down to the 13 that appear on the album.

Was there any particular reason why the songs that made the album got picked over the rest?
For the most part, they were the first batch of children’s songs I’d written so I’d spent more time practicing them then some of the others.

Which is harder for you to write -- music or lyrics?  Why?
I tend to come up with chord progressions and melodies first and then add lyrics on top of them. Often a song just spills out…I think I wrote Tricycle in about 30 minutes. I don’t really have a hard time writing these kinds of songs…It’s a lot more difficult for me to find the alone-time that is sometimes necessary to get into a creative space and mindset (I think every parent can relate to that!).

So when did you find the time to write?
Funny enough, a lot of these songs were written in our bathroom as Liam was taking his night-time baths. Maybe because of the acoustics of the bathroom, Liam has always really enjoyed me playing music to him there while he soaks and splashes in suds. I love it too as it’s a great way to wind down the day for both of us. I also got some time to myself to polish up the lyrics when my husband took Liam on a couple of overnight trips - camping and to Grandma’s house.

I'm assuming this was your first recording experience.  What did you like about it?  What didn't you like?  What took you by surprise?
I recorded Fascinating Creatures with my husband’s cousin, Billy Riggs. We met 6 or 7 times and did it all from his apartment in San Francisco. For the most part it was really fun and Billy was really great to work with. The thing that probably most surprised and disappointed me was how technical and computer-driven so much of it is. Maybe from watching clips from old Sun Studio recordings, I think I had this romantic vision of what the whole recording process looked and felt like. But in reality there’s a lot of sitting in front of computers. Of course I say this knowing that I would have never been able to afford to make this album were it not for this kind of home-use technology.

You mention being "slowly driven mad" by your son's music collection.  Are there any children's or family musicians that you do like?
I think Dan Zanes ROCKS! I really love him – not only his music, which I think is fabulous, but also his whole emphasis on strengthening community through song, dance and music. I’m also a really big Elizabeth Mitchell and Ralph Covert fan. Through sites like Zooglobble I’ve just recently discovered more kids music artists that I’m looking forward to checking out.

How much of your music collection do you play in front of your son?  Is there anything you won't let him listen to?
Liam listens to pretty much everything we do but definitely let’s us know when he’s not happy with our selection. Also, if I know there are bad words in certain songs, we skip those when he’s around.

What are his favorites ("kids" or otherwise)?
Liam loves Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell and Ralph Covert as much as I do. In terms of adult music, M. Ward is tops with Liam, but the Magnetic Fields, A.C. Newman, and the Old 97’s are close behind. He’s also really into Nat King Cole, the Carter Family, and Gene Autry’s cowboy songs.

What's next for you and the album?
Well, I’m having a baby this summer so I’m looking forward to slowing down a bit and helping this new, little person grow into our family. In terms of this album, who knows. I’m honestly really surprised at how well it’s doing and am still shocked when I find out complete strangers are buying and listening to it. Word of mouth has been huge in helping spread the word so I’m hoping that friends will keep telling friends to give it a listen and check it out. Since I released Fascinating Creatures I’ve written quite a few songs so I’d love to put out another album in the next year or two.

Any interest in performing publicly?
I play every week at Liam’s school and also do occasional birthday parties for friends, which for now is enough. I’d love to get into doing more performances but with Liam, a new baby fast on the way, and trying to wrap up grad school, I feel like my plate is full. In the next year or so though, I’d love to devote a lot more time to the performance side of things.


Again, thank you to Frances for sitting down with me (in a virtual manner) and setting the interview bar very high for this website. Again, check out Frances' website for more info.

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