November 11, 2004
Interview by Bonnie Schendell
SmoothViews (SV):We are here today speaking with one of the smoothest vocalists. A true founder of the genre… Michael Franks… how are you?
Michael Franks (MF): I’m fine thanks.
SV: You’ve had such a long career. Would you tell us how it all got started?
MF: I started as a songwriter when I was teaching part-time at UCLA, where I had gone to school as an undergraduate. I got out of graduate school and got this part-time job… A friend of mine helped me get this job at UCLA. And I always wanted to write songs, and always hoped I would become a musician and actually make my living at it, but it seemed pretty far-fetched at the time. I was teaching a class at the extension at night at UCLA, where they were very liberal with the curriculum, and I came up with a couple of ideas which they liked. So I started teaching the History of Popular song in America, which was pretty exciting thing for me to do since I didn’t know that much about the history of popular song, (laughs) so I got to learn a lot as I prepared for it. And I actually had quite a few musicians take the class. It was being offered by the music department, so I met some interesting musicians. Then through a tenuous set of connections, I heard about a record that was going to be made over at A&M Records with two old blues musicians that I really admired, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. And I ended up writing some tunes for them.
SV: At what point after teaching and songwriting did you finally realize that this was going to be a profession for you rather than a hobby?
MF: I had written a bunch of songs, written them as spec and sent them to a bunch of people, which was kind of a shotgun technique. And after I did a short little tour with Sonny and Brownie, I worked on the record quite a bit and with teaching, I had a lot of time to be with them when they made this record. And, I spent a lot of time with them. Sonny’s wife called me one day, maybe six months after their record was released, and said there were these young people that want to start a record company in New York and were looking for talent. She gave them a demo tape I had given her at some time, and said they wanted to talk to me. So, ironically through Sonny and Brownie…I made a record before I was on Warner Bros. on a little company.
SV: Was that the Previously Unreleased CD?
MF: Yes, Previously Unavailable.
SV: Which I have!
MF: You’re one of the few! (laughs) It was a great experience making that record. There was only one other artist that this company had...the comedian, Robert Klein. I actually went out on the road with him... did a tour... which was the first time I was doing all of my own music. I guess it was about then that I realized that I might be able to make a living!
SV: How did you feel the first time you heard your music being played on the radio?
MF: It was really amazing. I used to live in LA. I grew up in the San Diego area. I lived out near the beach in Venice, CA and my son, who was very young at the time… maybe 4… we were out walking out on the beach and heard one of the songs I had written for Sonny and Brownie’s record called “White Boy Lost in the Blues.” We heard that coming off of somebody’s transistor radio!
SV: What does performing live in front of an audience feel like to you? What does the audience give you to help you during a performance?
MF: I guess that when I started I really hadn’t thought much about being a performer. I started working… well, when I got to Warners, they were very insistent upon the idea of going out and working and particularly for a new release. And that was when I sort of found myself on a nationwide tour, after the release of The Art of Tea. That was very successful for a first record on the AM side of the dial! “Popsicle Toes” climbed up on the low end of the Top 40, about 38, and I actually did Casey Kasem’s show and then found myself touring in clubs. And I sort of realized that I enjoyed it, I guess, and that I was suddenly out there doing it. I liked it. But the audience and my fans have always been terrific and so encouraging, so appreciative and attentive.
SV: Do you watch the reactions of the audience when you are up there performing? I personally remember seeing a very enthusiastic fan at the Capital Jazz Festival this summer, sitting directly in front of you and almost out of control with enthusiasm. I remember wondering if you were watching him.
MF: I do see that some of the time, but when you are concentrating, a lot of the times you miss that. I probably don’t get to see as much as Veronica (Nunn) does. But that is such a great thing… that kind of enthusiasm and whether you see it or not, you certainly feel it. I have been so blessed through all these years with fans like those.
SV: I know you have performed at small intimate venues and at large outdoor festivals. Are either of those more inviting to you, as a performer?
MF: You know, it depends. Sometimes you get into a pretty, little performing arts theater, like a 1500-2500 seat theater and the sound is really great. Sometimes those are just ideal, especially for the more quiet material. Those kinds of venues are more appropriate, you know. But, it is hard to say. I played the Newport Jazz Festival and was surprised at how well the more quiet things went over, which I really didn’t expect them to. I think we added a couple of things we hadn’t planned on doing. And Wolf Trap is really great.
SV: That’s an outstanding venue.
MF: And it’s not totally outdoors so you still have a sense that there is some way in which the music is sort of confined. It just depends, though. Sometimes the little environments are great and things happen in a small venue that…we hardly play clubs anymore. We did just come back from Japan where we did play the Blue Note, which is a beautiful club. And sometimes those shows are memorable, kind of, each situation is different and it sort of includes its own …it’s got its own graph-like pattern of good and bad.
SV: Let’s talk about your latest release, Watching the Snow. It was actually released last year through your website and recently to retail. How did the concept of this winter-themed album come about?
MF: This is something that I had always wanted to do and over the years had written a couple of things. I thought it would be interesting to sit down and write holiday music, not all Christmas music, but kind of New Years music and winter music. It’s kind of an isolated little genre. Of course it’s all the things we listened to as children, all the obvious things are right there and don’t need to be duplicated or imitated, or further developed. But I thought there were a few compositions that felt kind of like jazz standards. One that really comes to mind is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which is really a beautiful song and really feels like it might be a jazz standard. And a couple of songs that Sammy Cahn collaborated on like "Let It Snow" and I guess of the real, sort of popular ones, like Mel Torme’s "The Christmas Song." So, kind of thought I’d like to write in this style and just sort of exist in the genre for a while, perhaps. It’s kind of how it happened. I was too late for a U.S. release last year and I was stunned that Columbia Records in Japan was able to release it. We sent them the masters September 1st and they got the record out on November 1st. In Japan…they still are a bit more energetic than we. About everything. They wanted to do it and they did it.
SV: It seems like sales through the website went pretty well.
MF: It went very well. And what my main goal with that was to see if I could raise the money for Hearts United for Animals, an organization I like a whole lot. And, boy, we really helped them tremendously. I was really so grateful that everyone bought it online like that. It’s also great to have it available in retail because a lot of people still don’t buy things that way. It is kind of ironical that I spent most of my life at Warner Bros… 24 years… it’s great to have it connected to Warners, on an imprint of Warners, which is what Rhino is.
SV: You were once with a major label that has now pretty much done away with its jazz department. Where do you see smooth jazz now, and in your opinion, where is it headed?
MF: I am not really sure that I am the most obvious person to answer that question. I was stunned… I walked away from Warner, and after awhile wondered about the logic in that. Of course, the people with whom I signed and ran the company had long since left, and it felt very different there. I had been there so long. I don’t think anybody that had signed around the same period of time, like Dave Sanborn or Al Jarreau, and people like that - none of them were still there. I was like the oldest living Confederate widow! (both laughing) I went out there and met the new CEO and he was a good business man, I’m sure. But it was so depressing to see what they were interested in. There was literally only one person in the company whom I knew from before, and she was about to retire, so it was a very different place. I had met these people from Wyndham Hill Jazz and they were enthusiastic. So I went to Warners and said is there any chance you guys could let me go?! They were very sweet about it, and said well, okay. So I made Barefoot on the Beach for Wyndham Hill and then they got gobbled up by, I think by RCA, and they all kind of disappeared.
SV: There are all of these independent record labels popping up now and you have people within the industry starting their own record labels.
MF: In effect I kind of did that with this record. I licensed it to Rhino through Warner Strategic Marketing, and I licensed it to Columbia Japan. I am not sure what I’ll do next, but there is a lot to be said for that.
SV: With the state of the industry these days, do you see marketing CDs through websites as something that will take hold in the future?
MF: I guess it could. I didn’t really want to go through hoops to try to make more out of what happened with my site. We started very late. We bought a couple of ads, like in JazzTimes and Jazziz. I mean, they were very nice, but I have a feeling they had no impact on it at all. It was just people going to my site…checking out the site. But I certainly wouldn’t want to do that myself. I mean, the guy who runs my site, Dan Beach, was always trying to get me to be more timely with the information I donate to the site. It has always been hard for me to do that. It’s not that I dislike doing that, it’s just that I kind of live in my own little world. It’s been almost a year since I put anything new on the site. I don’t think the marketing would work out for me. But I think that it is certainly true… but I don’t know to what extent Rhino does that. I think they are more of a retail presence. One thing I notice myself is I really enjoy buying things, and first I was really skeptical, but I go to the iTunes store and buy things and it is fascinating.
SV: The way technology is moving ahead is amazing.
MF: It is. There is something great about it. I mean, it’s not the Library of Congress yet. It isn’t exactly indexed quite that great, and it doesn’t really include that much yet. I think they are constantly adding to what they have. But, when I am out on the road and have a good connection… I’m here in Woodstock where we are sort of in this dead zone of dial-up. One thing about going on the road is getting a high-speed connection.
SV: So many artists have studio musicians and touring musicians. You have primarily the same group with you in the studio on and off the road. Do you see that as an advantage?
MF: I think it is a real advantage. That’s only been done for the last couple of records, I guess. I think Barefoot on the Beach still had a lot of studio people on it even though Charles Blenzig and Chris Hunter also played on that record. So, there were members of the band who appeared on it. On Watching the Snow it was really ideal to sit down, know the personnel, know what they liked to do, and what they are especially good at. And Charles (Blenzig) wrote the most beautiful arrangements and we had a few guests, like on trumpet/flugelhorn we had Alex Sipiagin, a Russian guy who was really great. But it is an advantage because when you go out and everybody with you knows the material and you can evolve a little bit in a live performance. And there is a lot to be said for continuity.
SV: You have played with so many great artists. What are some of your favorite moments?
MF: It’s really so difficult to chose any particular one. I think of every recording experience with such affection and they are all so different. It has been like a journey where you don’t really dislike any places you’ve spent the night. You like every place you were at and every place you visited. It was amazing to make the first couple of records with, at the time, who were basically The Crusaders. People like Dave Sanborn, and Michael Brecker, who I think was 19 when he played on The Art of Tea. I went to Brazil and recorded Sleeping Gypsy and Jobim invited me down there. Every other record I have had such an affection for, that it is hard to choose.
SV: I’d like to take a minute, if you will, to talk about some of your passions outside of music. You are an ambassador for Hearts United for Animals and a guardian to several animals in your home. What can you tell us about your work here?
MF: We adopted all the pets we own, you know, strays, others we have come across. With Hearts United for Animals (HUA), well, when I was a kid, my Aunt had always had daschunds and I always loved daschunds. But I didn’t really feel like going through a breeder when there are so many dogs that need homes. So, somebody said that I should try the breed rescue organizations online, and I never knew that such a thing existed. So I got online and looked up daschunds and I looked at the breed rescue organizations and came across HUA. Their main focus is to restrict the puppy mills and they had just acquired a lot of daschunds that were rescued from a puppy mill. So, I looked at the photos, like little daschund porn shots! You know…choose your daschund! Then they had this great Underground Railroad type of network including pilots who would fly the dog pretty close to where you live and they have fairly strict procedures. They call your vet to find out how you treat your other pets. They are located in the Midwest, and do really terrific work. So, I was just so thrilled to get our dog that way and we wanted to see how we could encourage other people, or turn other people on to it. We also wanted to find a way to raise some money for them. That was how that started.
SV: I know that you are also an avid photographer and I have enjoyed your photos on your website. Do you ever see photography as another avenue for you?
MF: Not really. I am in awe of real photographers and certainly enjoy being an amateur. I have the luxury of shoving my pictures down everyone’s throat! (laughing) But, when I see what a professional photographer does, someone great like Kurt Vonnegut's wife, Jill Krementz, it's very humbling. I really enjoy it. Like others, I started with 35mm and have recently switched to digital.
SV: I know that a lot of the photos on the cover of Watching the Snow were yours. Were they taken around Woodstock?
MF: Yes, actually around our old farmhouse we live in.
SV: What’s on the burner for you now? Are you working on anything new? What can we look forward to?
MF: I am working on writing new tunes now. I think I have about half of a record and I am pretty happy with it. And I am also recording some programs for XM Satellite Radio. That’s pretty interesting and something that I have never done before… never imagined myself doing. It is really kind of exciting and, of course, I am doing things I am interested in. Like the first program is about the influence of Brazilian music on American jazz. I hope I don’t run out of ideas! (both laughing) I am happy with the ideas I have come up with so far. I am also doing it all with software on the computer, so it’s kind of fun playing DJ.
SV: It seems like you are getting pulled into that computer age!
MF: I dragged my feet. I was one of the last people, but it has made making demos much easier.
SV: We know that you have a website, and that it is updated fairly often.
MF: The latest installment, which should be up soon, is mostly about the big foreign trips we were on this year. We were in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in June and South Africa and Japan. The fans in South Africa were amazing.
SV: You have had such a great run and I hope it all continues. You have a great fan base and lots of people who are just thrilled when you come out on the road. I want to thank you for spending so much time this evening. Your most recent release, again, is Watching the Snow and it has just been great talking to you. Hope to see you again soon.
MF: My pleasure, Bonnie. See you again soon.
For more information about Michael Franks visit: www.michaelfranks.com
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