Musician, lyricist and entrepreneur Sage Francis draws from his experiences in everyday life to create snapshots through both song and storytelling. His journey began on the floor of his Providence apartment in the early 2000s where he created mixtapes based on his reflections on loneliness, love, the struggles of growing up and being an artist. With his primary inspiration coming from a deeply personal place, Francis uses his family life — including his cats — as fodder for lyrics.
Dubbed the "forefather of indie-hop" Francis' raw lyrics and range in emotional scope can be sampled in this video:
Francis released his fifth studio album, "Copper Gone," in 2014 and since then, he's embarked on a two-year tour, sharing his music and stories around the country. Now, he’s coming to Oberon March 24 in a a new kind of staging as he'll be performing a mixture of storytelling, songs and anecdotes called "Uncle Sage and Chill," as part of the American Repertory Theater's Glowberon Festival.
How do his experiences intersect with his life as an artist and storyteller? Gearing up for his Oberon performance, Francis shared his thoughts with The ARTery.
Phaedra Scott: What inspires you most as an artist?
Sage Francis: I’m inspired by daily interactions and the culmination of feelings and thoughts that happen throughout every day. Sometimes they reach a boiling point, and turn into words. That can be the starting point, and the way the language is used becomes another point of inspiration, a certain combination of words fit together just right. It gives me a buzz, to keep it moving.
Why have you decided to switch to a one-man musical storytelling show instead of your traditional concert-style performance?
Over the past two years since I released my last album called "Copper Gone," I did 163 shows. As much as I love those music shows, I kind of hate having to change things up, if I do things right I don’t mind doing it over and over, and finding the nuance in that framework. I’m already eyeing next year, and my next project, I have to think into that hamster wheel and figure out something different, play with it, and see how it feels.
When I was offered the opportunity to play in a theater, I knew it was something where I didn’t want to do a regular show. Especially a seated theater. I’ve played enough of those to know I shouldn’t expect the same kind of audience involvement in a typical musical venue. I just played a seated theater in Toronto, and it was a full spoken word show, a sold out theater, and the show was incredible — it took a lot out of me.
I want to incorporate music into the Boston show, but I have to figure out how to do that in a classy way and not have it be a wonky piecemeal type performance. I love tying songs into one another, and poems, and stories and having a full experience, rather than just bits and pieces strung together.
Will we be hearing exclusively new work, or unrecorded work?
It’s both. I like to have some surprises for the super fans who have consumed every recorded material.
What do you think is the importance of growing alongside your music?
It’s just what I do. I’ve always documented my life ever since I was a kid, writing and recording in my room. It’s something I still do to this day, 30 years later. It’s not something I’m overly conscious of, because it’s been my life, but it is kind of strange that I use these as picture books of my life. When I go back and listen to certain albums or mixtapes, I remember all that I was going through, what inspired — each song or lyric, and what came of it, the good and the bad for every tour that supported the album. It’s literally my life. It’s like if you had kept a scrapbook for every year of your life.
You created your first album with little funding. What advice would you give to emerging artists today?
If you intend to live off of your art, expect a lot of obstacles at every turn, and don’t think it’s going to be easy or fun. Don’t expect fun. If you feel rewarded by being an artist, by sharing your art, and creating your art, that is the ultimate reward. Sometimes, if you play your cards right, you’ll be financially well off, but that’s very rare though. I’m intimately aware how it is for all types of artists, because I run a record label, and I’ve been around the block for so long. I’ve seen people come and go. I’ve seen passion. I’ve seen it go well for some people. Sometimes, they’re the type of artist who can maintain a family life and still be a touring artist, and it does work out for some of them. Not for me. I feel like I’ve sacrificed significant areas of my life to make sure I could live off of my art, and I think everyone should expect that when they get into this.
If you could go back in time 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Ten years ago, in 2006, that’s exactly when I feel like things started to become increasingly difficult. Our economy collapsed. People didn’t have money to buy albums all the time, gas prices skyrocketed. It was the struggle that got worse and worse. We had to figure out ways to make do. It kept me very busy and stressed. I’m not sure the advice I would give myself. I could tell myself “Leave now! Get out!” but I also don’t think I could ever jump ship, I think that I’m a lifer. The road I’ve chosen for myself, and I have to travel it.
Now you’re finishing a two-year-long tour, what’s next for you?
So much! So much with the label, so much with my career and side projects I’m interested in completing. It’s almost like I’m downloading a lot of projects all at once, so the bar’s moving really slow for everything. With the record label, we’re taking on new artists, and we’re creating a sub-label so we can take on new artists without having as many financial risks. We’re doing a digital sub-label.
I’m working on beats for the first time, I never focus too much on that. I’ve been mainly the writer and voice person, but it’s been a meditation of sorts for me, and I wish I had gotten into this sooner. Sometimes I feel like I could just disappear for a couple years, and emerge back again with a new album.
If you had to pick three words to describe your Oberon show, what would you use?
Entertaining, is rule number one for me when doing a show. Engaging, and surprising.
Phaedra Scott is a writer, dramaturg and director in Boston with a focus on sharing diverse, socially conscious stories. She is the literary apprentice at Huntington Theatre Company and the assistant to the artistic director at Company One Theatre.