Robert Francis has spent his share of time on the road. But this time out, the touring life has a new meaning for the 26-year-old singer/songwriter. Back on the road with a new band, the Night Tide, to support his fourth album, Heaven (Aeronaut Records), Francis is making his peace with the process. But it’s not been easy.
“If you’re doing the grass roots approach, you have to devote your life to it,” he says by phone a van from somewhere – he’s not sure exactly where – in Kansas. “In the last few days, we’ve driven halfway across the country, and you play for 20-30 people, and you hope it will grow, but…it’s an extremely time-consuming project.”
Francis, who plays Williamsburg’s Rough Trade Records on Thursday (June 19) and downtown Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge on Saturday (June 21), began touring young. Playing bass with his sister’s band, Francis tour up and down California’s Highway 101 from their home in Los Angeles, in the process discovering some of the many places that show up in his songs, including the prison town of Susanville and the town that gives its name to the song “Ukiah.”
“That was the first time I saw these rural beach towns like Crescent City and Point Arena, all those spots that I fell in love with when I first left home to tour,” he says. “Those places have a place in my heart. They remind me of when I first felt free.”
But the limitless freedom of the road can quickly become its own form of bondage, and toward the end of his last tour, in 2012, Francis says he cracked. The causes were many, from the pressures of the road and struggles with his record company to the many indulgences available to break up the monotony of the road. But the result was a young singer-songwriter who’d convinced himself he was in love, who grabbed that girl he hardly knew, broke into a record store just for fun, and ultimately ran to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There he shaved his head, fired his manager and, eventually, realized that he was running away from something he couldn’t outrun.
“It’s so easy to escape into someone to get away from yourself, distracting yourself,” he says now. “I’ve always had a penchant for being on the edge a little bit, and I’ve always liked experimenting because I liked to get far out, to see the other side.”
But having seen the other side, Francis ultimately came to the realization that he had no idea who this beautiful stranger beside him was. He had to get back to the only work he’d ever known, to writing and playing his songs.
Since releasing his first album in 2007, Francis’ songs have alternated between dark, soulful ballads and breezy, even poppy mid-tempo rockers, which is true of the songs on Heaven. Several deal with the breakdown and its aftermath, most obviously the cold, detached “Wasted On You,” Francis’ stark voice detailing some the uncomfortable feelings of that time, and the dark, regretful “I’ve Been Meaning to Call.” Even the upbeat, jangle-rock single, “Love is Just a Chemical” seems to recall that time.
It’s a fresh start, but even with four albums and thousands of miles under his belt, Francis says he still feels vague on what, exactly, is driving him forward. But it drives him nonetheless.
“There are so many things I thought would make me happy – hook up with this person, sell this many records, play this show – but no matter how much I checked off, I still wanted more.
“I have a lot that I want to prove to myself,” he adds, now just a bit closer to Kansas City. “I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished what what I want to accomplish yet. There’s something I’m searching for and I need to get there. But I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it yet. I think I just need to keep creating until I can create no more.”
In the meanwhile, he’s enjoying the road in a new way, with fewer drugs, and fewer fantasies about life on the edge – but with a better grip on the process itself.
“I kind of like being in this van – being on this path, in this van,” he says quietly. “Going out and doing this life, with a new band, that’s what I’m in it for. If you can get the hair to stand up on people’s arms, that’s a great thing for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. But that’s the magic, you know?”