Michael Franks has pursued a career path as distinctly individual as his preternaturally mellow and insinuating vocals.
Born in La Jolla, Franks turned to songwriting and performing only after earning a master’s degree in English and launching a teaching career at UCLA. He composed songs for minor Hollywood productions and the blues duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry before releasing his eponymous debut album in 1973.
The decades since have seen Franks emerge as one of the world’s leading pop-jazz stylists, a singer-songwriter whose work evokes an earnest yet easygoing romanticism.
To listen to Franks is to realize he understands and admires the pleasures of every day, from “When I Give My Love to You” to “Popsicle Toes” and “Tiger in the Rain.” His songs have been covered by such acts as Manhattan Transfer, Patti Labelle, Carpenters and Diana Krall.
Franks recorded for Warner Bros. through most of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, decades in which major labels saw profit potential in the singer’s brand of crossover jazz. His latest album by contrast, “Time Together,” was released last month on the independent Shanachie label.
The disc’s 11 songs stand as a blend of travelogue and voyage of discovery with such titles as “One Day in San Tropez,” “Summer in New York,” “Samba Blue” and “If I Could Make September Stay.” They all convey the singer’s near-Zen approach to life, an impression buttressed by the fact Franks pursues a music career from the relative wilds of rural Upstate New York.
That bucolic setting helps explain why Franks rarely tours, even in support of a new studio project. Indeed, his website lists only one gig for the entire month of July – his dates this weekend at Yoshi’s in Oakland.
I asked Franks about that and his overall approach to music in the following interview.
Question: The place to start is to note that, while you’re touring less these days, you are coming to the Bay Area. Why do you tour so sparingly and what can you tell us about the fan base here?
Franks: I started touring a little bit in 1973 in support of a record I made for an independent label. In 1975, when I signed with Warner Bros., where I remained happily ensconced for the next 24 years, my touring activity increased considerably.
Lately, after all these (active) intervening years, I’ve been very happy to spend more time at home with my wife and family, where I can concentrate on writing. For so many years, I could elaborate on the relative merits of tour bus suspension and describe how vegetarians can subsist in a hostile environment. I’ve performed on every continent but Antarctica, so I guess I’m much more circumspect about accepting dates. I love to be home is the short answer.
I used to live in San Francisco (even taught a class one term at UC Extension) so I’m always happy to be invited back. I’m always afraid to bring Claudia, my wife, with me because I know she’ll want to buy a house in the Bay Area. Who knows?
Question: The array of musicians featured on “Time Together” is impressive:Chuck Loeb, Mike Manieri, David Spinozza, Romero Lubambo, Eric Marienthal. How do you go about “casting” players for each track? To what degree do the arrangements evolve in the studio?
Franks: I’ve always enjoyed the enthusiasm of the best studio musicians and, over the years, have collected so many inspired contributions from them. For my entire career I’ve had the luxury of casting players for particular compositions and sometimes have even written tunes with soloists in mind ahead of time (as in the case of the late Michael Brecker and a song called “Dr. Sax”). Usually by the time I’ve recorded demos at home (lately with Garage Band) I have an idea who should produce and arrange them.
All of the arrangements for “Time Together” were written beforehand. There’s a certain amount of file sharing back and forth between me and the arrangers before we hit the studio, so most of the charts are refined well in advance of the recording sessions. But, to my ears, the whole process succeeds because of the personal comments the musicians make.
Question: I have always been struck not only by the sound of your voice but also the fact you’re pursuing a successful music career from Upstate New York. How has that bucolic setting influenced your take on the business?
Franks: People often ask me how I developed my vocal sound and the answer usually disappoints them: “It’s just the way I sound when I sing.” But I will admit that as a listener I’ve always been attracted to vocalists like Astrud Gilberto and Peggy Lee (both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of recording with), Chet Baker, Mose Allison and similar such singers.
I grew up in La Jolla, so when I moved to New York City in 1977 everyone I knew was appalled. The migration jetstream was supposed to flow in the opposite direction. But I was always attracted to New York, mainly because of all the music it then supported. My wife and I lived in (NYC) then and frequented all the clubs where we could see and hear our heroes. I remember one such night hearing Joe Pass at one club, cabbing to another to hear Stephane Grappelli, then visiting a late recording session to hear Gerry Mulligan.
Eventually, we moved to Woodstock and commuted. Country life has been wonderful. It hasn’t so much influenced my take on the music business as it has reduced its “image size.”
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