David Francey - There's no stopping late starter
An idea for a song came to David Francey as he was driving to work. All day as the building he was working on as a carpenter showed slow progress he kept refining the words and music to himself.
This happened often and Francey didn’t think too much of it. He certainly didn’t imagine that this latest effort would join a catalogue that has now won him three Junos (the Canadian equivalent of America’s Grammys) as well as an armload of other awards. He couldn’t have imagined either that, one day, he’d be turning on the radio and hearing bluegrass icon Del McCoury singing one of his songs or that folk musicians back in Scotland would be covering his material and talking about his talents with reverence.
“I took songwriting seriously insofar as I was doing it for myself and for my own satisfaction,” says Francey down the line from his home in Ontario, in Lanark Mountains aptly enough for an exiled Scot. “But I certainly never thought about it as something I could do for a living or that I’d be travelling around the country singing to audiences.”
By today’s music industry standards, Francey is a late-starter. He didn’t make his first album until he was forty-five, in 1999, and he only turned professional full-time six years ago. By that time, though, he had amassed a drawerful of songs, so many in fact that on his first-ever gig, he recalls with an accent that still has strong tones of the Ayrshire he left in 1966, he sang almost three dozen of them. Well, he didn’t know any better then and he’s since learned a lot about performing.
He always loved music. Growing up in Kilmaurs, he sang in the local church and school choirs and his dad was a big Burns fan, so those songs made an early impression that stayed with him. In his teens, by this time having emigrated to Canada, he wrote poetry and listened to the Beatles and the Who until the Canadians – The Band, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bruce Cockburn – opened a big door for him.
“The Band’s Music from Big Pink was something I’d never heard before,” he says. “It was storytelling essentially and it led me to the singer-songwriters, people – poets, really - who could get a whole story across in a few verses. John Prine was – and still is – a great example. I loved him. But there was another record that was a milestone for me, the first Planxty album. A friend of mine brought that back from Ireland and I remember it so well because we went camping in Alaska and were playing the tape all the time. Those traditional songs really nailed the art of storytelling.”
As he worked in a succession of outdoor jobs – running bush camps in the Yukon, in the Toronto railyards and on building sites – Francey’s own songwriting developed. Sometimes he’d hear a news item on the radio over breakfast and get fired up by a politician’s comment and work on his reaction, or he might just describe what he saw from his cab window. He kept the results to himself, though, until he met his wife, Beth, who’s an artist. She listened as he sang a couple of songs he’d written for her, discovered there were more and decided he should reach an audience wider than one.
“There was a woman in our volleyball team who played in a band and Beth mentioned my songs to her,” he says. “I went along to their next rehearsal and sang a couple of things a cappella and then played with them a couple of times, which gave me a taste for performing. But the real breakthrough came when a guy from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation heard me at this celebration of English culture in Quebec, where we were living at the time. He said, You don’t have a CD? I said, Why would I? He offered me cheap studio time and produced a demo of three songs, and it started rolling from there.”
Francey’s first album, Torn Screen Door, quickly found its way onto radio programmes across Canada and as he began to get gigs and meet fellow musicians at folk festivals, his songs were taken up and sung by prominent singers on both sides of the Atlantic. Steve Byrne, of Scots folk band Malinky, was an early champion, spreading the word about this Scot living in Canada with a stash of strong, narrative songs, and would go on to record Francey’s Flowers of Saskatchewan on Malinky’s The Unseen Hours album. More recently, Edinburgh-based duo Claire Mann and Aaron Jones recorded a version of Saints and Sinners that made Francey cry when he first heard it.
Music and the day job eventually began to conflict, although they did provide stories such as the occasion when Francey and his building team completed work on a new bar just in time for Francey and his musical team – he doesn’t play an instrument onstage, although he knows his way around a guitar well enough to put chords to his songs – to become the first attraction to perform there. When his second album, Far End of Summer, won a Juno in 2002, Francey decided to take the plunge into music full-time.
“I wasn’t unhappy working in construction. I had a great bunch of mates I’d been working with for eleven years, although my body was beginning ache for something less strenuous by then,” he says. “But what summed it up for me was, in December 2001 I was throwing trash into a skip on a building site and four months later, I was picking up a Juno and thinking, maybe I could make a go of this.”
The downside of that decision is the length of time spent away from Beth and their three children but the upside is in doing something he loves and in getting appreciation for it.
“There’s satisfaction when you finish a building job but that just doesn’t compare to the buzz of hearing someone like Del McCoury singing Mill Towns or just turning on the radio and hearing something you’ve worked on maybe for a few days but maybe for anything up to a year,” says Francey, who returns to Scotland with his accompanist, multi-instrumentalist Craig Werth next week. “I remember the first time I heard one of my songs on the radio, Beth and me were driving down the road and I could hardly keep control of the car. I’m yelling to everyone, Hey, I’m on the radio, and they’re probably thinking, Yeah, and you’ll be on the news in a minute.”
Aside from his songwriting talent, much of Francey’s success as a live performer has resulted from his natural onstage personality and his ability to thread his songs together with entertaining stories. This, unlike his songwriting, wasn’t a light he’d previously been hiding under a bushel so much as an accidental discovery.
“I was so naïve when I played my first gig that I hadn’t even thought about what would happen after the first song and as the guys tuned up I just launched into this stuff about what was coming next. It seemed to go pretty well, so I kept doing it, introducing another song, then another one until we played, I think, thirty-five songs,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot since then and although I still like to tell stories between songs and people still seem to like to hear them, I realise now that they don’t want to sit there all night.”
From The Herald, October 23, 2008.