Phillip Cairns had so much fun talking on the phone with musician and storyteller David Francey that it seemed a pity to compress it all down into 500 words — so here you are: the full interview!
This phone interview was conducted on July 31st, 2006. It went on for about 25 minutes. When I called David Francey at his home in Southern Ontario, he’d just gotten through the door. I could hear dogs barking in the background from time to time, at which point he’d yell out a kindly "shut up" to them and get back to our conversation.
This was my first ever interview with anyone, so I was a bit nervous. But David Francey is a kind and friendly man, and after a while I found myself chatting with him between questions. Those portions of the interview, along with some inaudible parts of the recording, have been edited out.
Thanks to Amy Davie for setting up the interview.
So what are you doing this weekend at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in St. John’s? I know you’re performing on Sunday night. Do you have anything else on the go?
Yeah, we’re doing a pile of workshops as well. We’re going to be in workshops with people I totally admire like Jim Payne and, well, there’s a whole slew of them. If you look up on the web site, they’ll tell you what workshops we’re going to be in. I’m really looking forward to that.
I notice one of the workshops on the website is listed under the category of "Oral Traditions." What’s that all about?
It’s probably that sense of an oral history where you take a history of what’s common to you and you turn it into song, and then that song gets passed along, and then all of a sudden there’s that sort of link between the generations and between times and eras and everything else. It comes in the form of a song, and the song tells the story of the time that it was written. That’s certainly the case in Newfoundland. It’s phenomenal.
This isn’t your first time at the folk festival. How do you feel about coming back to St. John’s?
Couldn’t wait, man. Could not wait. I tell you, I left the first time and thought, "Why can’t I live here?" Every time I’ve been to Newfoundland, I’ve had a terrific time. I absolutely love the music. And I was really thrilled to get invited back. I know that the festival brings in different people at a time, and so I never got greedy about asking to be coming back. But I was hoping all along that we’d get invited at some point, and here it is. So I’m extremely happy.
Sounds like you had a good time the last time you were here.
I had a wonderful time, a really wonderful time, unforgettable. So I’m very much looking forward to going back. I like Jeanie Hewson‘s music very much, and Christina’s — and a lot of people I really like are going to be there. It’s one place where if somebody’s on the stage, I’m just sitting back listening; I’m just so enjoying myself. And Colleen Power is another one I just adore. She’s outstanding, man. That girl’s just great. She’s a huge talent. We’d sort of kept in touch since that first time I met her in St. John’s. She put on an incredible show at the festival, and that was the first time I’d ever heard her. And everything I’ve heard since I’ve just loved. So she’s a huge talent. But the place is full of talented people, so it’s a great place to go.
Is there any instrument that you can’t play that you wish you could?
Every one. I’m not much of an instrumentalist. I don’t write on an instrument. I write all my songs a cappella. That’s how they all start. I’ve never written a song on a instrument yet. Except once I got a really good idea from a mandolin somebody loaned me. I found the three chords I liked best and got the idea from that. But that’s the only time in my life I’ve ever had an instrument in my hand when a song came to me. So I would like to play piano and mandolin and fiddle and guitar and banjo and all of them, you know, bouzouki, every single instrument — like J.P. Cormier, essentially. I wouldn’t mind that at all. But there are a lot of great players in the world, and I do love to just stand there and sing, and I get to do that. This time I’m coming down with Terry Tufts, who’s an astonishing guitar player from Ottawa, just an outstanding musician, so we’re pretty thrilled to be coming down.
You know, I wasn’t expecting that answer, the way you write songs, but it makes sense now. When I listen to your songs, they’re so vocally melodic.
I’ve always been a slave to melody. I love melody. I love simplicity in music, too. That’s what always drives me, that’s what hauls me in every time. Jim Payne is a great example of that. There’s a guy who can put a melody and a lyric together as clear as a bell. That’s pretty great writing.
Is there any song out there you didn’t write but wish you had?
I can tell you one right off the bat, which I’m so hoping to hear when we go down. Jim’ll kill me, probably, for asking for it yet again. But he wrote a song called, "When We Was Boys." It’s from the Crowd of Bold Sharemen album. There’s a pile of us up here who just think that’s one of the finest songs ever written, and I’m not alone in that one. I know that’s prominent in my mind because we’re going to Newfoundland, but you can ask anybody, that CD is always in the car and that’s where I spend most of my time, and when that song comes up it’s always on repeat. It’s been years, but it’s just a timeless song, a beautiful thing.
Have you ever thought doing an album of traditional songs?
You know, when you hear them, you really think so, right? And the one thing I’ve always sort of batted around is I’d love to get the Sharemen and do an album with them. That’s always been in the back of my mind, something I’ve always thought would be an absolutely wonderful thing — for me, anyway. I hope it would be for them too! But I just adore they’re playing. They’re a cut above. I would really love to do sort of a traditional album, and I can’t think of a better band to do it with. It’s definitely something I’d consider down the road.
Your songs remind me of the music of Townes Van Zandt, Greg Brown and Guy Clark — people who I think of as not just songwriters, but real down-to-earth storytellers. How important is storytelling to your music?
Well, they are what they are. I tell whatever stories interest me at the time, and they’re all based in truth, and they’re basically just things that have happened to me that I’ve noticed happen around me — things like that. So I’d say it’s integral to what I do as far as the storytelling. I don’t like songwriters who start out telling you something and then forget how to tell you the rest of it. That really annoys me. Or they just take too long to tell you anything. I like things as skinned down as possible, including the lyrics. So when I’m writing something, I tend to try to write the story as succinct as possible, but absolutely not leaving any important stuff out. If I manage to do that, I’m really happy. To be compared to those guys, well, that’s very generous.
Do you think of yourself as storyteller or a songwriter?
I just write songs. They come out the way they come. And I know people say I’m a storyteller and everything, and I do tell a story of how the song came about and why, but you know, I started late in life. I was in construction for 20 years, writing songs with no plan to do anything with them. Then when I actually finally stepped on a stage and did a song, after the first song, there was this dreadful silence. I thought, jesus, if I don’t talk or something, nothing is going to happen until the next song. So I started introducing the songs and they turned into stories, and now some people come for the stories. But the song is the important thing, the song tells the story itself. I wouldn’t have to say a word about it, and I think you’d still understand what was going on in it, and I think that’s maybe the strength of it — I hope so.
You were about 45 when your first album, Torn Screen Door, was released in 1999. After 45 years of living, what was it that made you decide to get into music as a profession?
I don’t know why. I had all these songs… I was still in construction, happy as a clam doing that to tell you the truth. I wasn’t making much money, but I was happy. Anyway, my wife, Beth said, "These songs are really good, David. You need to start playing them for people." And I just fought it every inch of the way. But when I did finally play them for people, the response was undeniable, and I just thought to myself, "Oh, my, maybe they are good to somebody. And the more I played, the more I found the response was really good, and then I was writing a lot anyway, so more were coming, and I thought, "Well, I’ll try it." But I did both jobs for the longest time. When we won that Juno in the Newfoundland, the first one [in 2002], I was still working construction. I won it in April and that December I’d gone back for my last month of construction work, and it was pretty long and hard to tell you the truth, and I wasn’t getting any younger. So when we won the Juno, I just said, "Well, maybe we should try music full-time." So we both sort of said, "Yeah, let’s do that." So we did. And we’re still doing it, so it must have worked out pretty good. I’m away from home a lot, but if you work construction and go up to the Yukon for three months, there’s no real difference, is there? You’re away from your family and you’re making money, and you’re providing for them, and that’s what music does for me too. Only I have a lot fun doing it, and I get to go to some pretty nice places.
Oh, Esther. Yeah, I met them. They do the webcast. I just gave them my CDs. They’ve been really good to me. I was doing a songwriters workshop… and we played a festival, like a one-day thing in Anchorage, called I think it was the Ocean Festival in Anchorage, Alaska. Then we were off to a place called Seldovia for the Seldovia Summer Solstice Festival. And somewhere in there, I met her, because she said Whole Wheat Radio and I recognized it right away, and I was pleased to give her the CDs. And I know from other musicians she’s really highly thought of. She really does play the stuff you give her.
Yeah, Esther and Jim are great. Esther mentioned that during a songwriters workshop in Alaska, you asked everyone to write a song around something they’d read in the newspaper. Why?
Because I sometimes write songs from things I read in the newspaper. And the one thing about the newspaper is, it gives you this huge variety of topics, and so what I told them was, "I want you to go look at the newspaper and find something to write about. You can write two lines, four lines, anything you like. You don’t have to write a whole song or anything like that. But I want you to just look at the newspaper and turn something you’re reading into a song that’s important to you, that moves you in some way." I’d never tried that before. I just sort of thought, well, that may be a good thing to do, and it was really quite remarkable, I gotta say.
Are you going to try anything like that at the folk festival here in St. John’s?
Well, the last time I was down, I think I was there playing the Arts Centre. But Jeanie Hewson organized a songwriters workshop for me. We did it at the big Masonic Hall there in St. John’s. Oh, man, that was fun. Talk about talented people. It was pretty packed. There were a lot of good writers and players there. That was a really good time.
You’ve released 4 studio albums and a live album since 1999. So what’s next?
Another album. I’ve got all the songs picked out. I’m just working on I guess what you’d call the pre-production now, determining where it’s going to go and what songs are going to make the cut. And there should be one out by the new year. A new project is always what’s really caught your heart at that particular moment, and that’s what it’s like for me. When I gotta new project on the go, I’m pretty happy.