Thursday, September 30, 2010

David Francey: Recognition was all he needed

First Juno award gave the singer-songwriter the courage to jump headfirst into his music career

One would assume that after winning Canada's biggest music award, a singer-songwriter might quit the day job without a second thought. But David Francey, Juno in hand, still considered whether he wanted to say goodbye to construction and carpentry work.

Francey's second album, Far End of Summer, was named best solo album in the roots and traditional category in 2002. On the way home to Ayer's Cliff in the Eastern Townships from the awards ceremony in St. John's, Nfld., Francey and his wife, Beth, did some soul searching.

"I was happy with my job. I really enjoyed the guys I was working with. I had been with the same crew for 11 years," the singer remembered during a telephone interview in advance of his Saturday Petit Campus concert, which opens this season's Wintergreen folk music series. "But I was throwing crap in a bin in December and in April I'm collecting a Juno in St. John's. It seemed incredible. I looked at Beth and said, 'Maybe we should go into music. We've just won a Juno, for crying out loud.' "

The slow but steady buzz around Francey's 1999 debut, Torn Screen Door, had already opened the door to an increasingly busy folk festival schedule. A supportive boss on the construction crew, Francey said, had been patient with the growing demands of his musical life.

But with the awards ceremony, the time had finally come for Francey, then 48. Since that fateful car ride, two more Junos and several other honours have taken their place on the household piano.

Francey, who was born in Scotland and came to Canada with his family as a boy, said he got early exposure to writing through his father's love of poetry. "He was a huge admirer of Robert Burns," Francey said. "He was a factory worker, but he could recite, off the top of his head, any number of poems. I listened seriously, enjoyed it and appreciated it. A lot of kids have it rammed down their throats with a two-by-four."

Francey dates his own first stabs at poetry from when he was 10. Some primitive songs, which he assesses as "dreadful and very derivative," came in high school, but the good news was that they acquainted him with the writing process.

At 16, Francey began hitchhiking across the country, an experience that would draw him back to the road every year for some time. "A lot of songs came out of different aspects of those trips," he said. "It's something we should all get to see. We can go the length and breadth of this country and anywhere we stop can be ours. Everything's so diverse and so beautiful in its own way. The idea of being a part of it made me feel great."

A love of his adopted country, its land and its people would stay in Francey's songwriting. But what has also distinguished his songs from those of many contemporaries is the economy of his lyrics. Lives are lived and backstories told in very few words. The Ballad of Bowser MacRae and The Chief Engineer, from Seaway, his recent collaboration with Mike Ford, are fine examples. And there's always the simple image of the torn screen door on a farmhouse, which in Francey's hands speaks volumes about the economy.

If Francey has an equivalent word craftsman in the non-folk world, it might be Ray Davies -- if Davies were less black smoke and more open spaces.

"It's what I strive for," Francey said of lyrical simplicity. "The biggest problem people have in songwriting is overwriting. It's apparent everywhere you look. I've always enjoyed people who were economical with their words, who just said what they had to say and got out. It didn't matter whether it was two minutes long or eight."

Francey's melodies, like his words, are unadorned and instantly memorable. His writing process has something to do with that: the tunes come fully formed from his head, with musical collaborators formalizing the chords. The melodies, he said, generally come naturally with the lyrics. Francey cited Red Wing Blackbird as an example. The song came when he heard one while driving, he explained, humming the tune that came to him in the car.

Not relying on an instrument, he said, frees him up to write anywhere. "It makes the songs singable," he suggested, "because they start out as sung songs before an instrument even gets near them. Maybe that's why the melodies are easily accessible."

Francey said he always knows when the final arrangement matches his tune, and when a chord shouldn't be there. "I'm a slave to melody," he said.

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