Up until recently, this was potentially the quickest interview I’d ever done. Your boy Sage wrapped things up about 7 minutes in and was straight on to the next interview. It was a timing mishap or something like that, but I certainly got all that I needed out of him. He’s a bizarre and often hilarious character, and one that I always have time for. In the spirit of keeping things brief, I’ll leave it here.
– DJY, October 2014
There’s something we have to clear up with Sage Francis before the interview begins. It’s not anything major, nor is it some long-winded and unnecessary rant about the conventions of live hip-hop. It’s simply a formality: how do you prefer to be addressed? Do you call him Francis? Sage? Mr. Francis? Paul, his real name?
The man in question pauses on the other end of the line to consider the question. “…can you call me Dirty Uncle Frank?” Gee, don’t see why not. How are you, Dirty Uncle Frank? The line cracks with Francis’ cackling laugh. “Ohh man, this is gonna be interesting.”
Francis – sorry, Dirty Uncle Frank – is on the line from his home in Rhode Island, New York. He’s in the midst of what he calls a “marathon” of phone interviews for publications all across the world. While the promotional aspect of music is a drag for some people, Francis describes the experience as “breezy.” “I feel like I’m taking a quiz where I know all the answers,” he says with a laugh. This, believe it or not, is his downtime – he’s currently getting to the tailend of a major world tour, which will end right here in Australia.
It’s all in support of his most recent album, entitled Li(f)e – and, even though he’s probably told the story countless times, he’s more than willing to explain just how those parentheses came into play. “There’s an old lyric of mine where I say ‘life is just a lie with an F in it/and death is definite,’” says Francis.
“That lyric, in particular, is something that my fanbase kinda flocked to and they just owned it. They created that spelling of life with the f in parentheses, representing that lyric, and people even started getting it tattooed on them. I kept getting sent these pictures of this tattoo, and it really made me step back and think. I was like ‘Wow, people have been really taken by this lyric and are adopting it to their own lives and what they’re going through, and the believe in it enough to the point where they get it permanently marked on them.’ So I titled the album like that as sort of a tribute to that. It’s an understanding that there is a lot of meaning behind the symbolism of that, and I elaborate a lot on that in the subject matter of the album.”
It’s an album of bleak storytelling, heartbreak, isolation and family – and appears to be simultaneously the most and least personal record Francis has done. This is in reference to the tandem of both first and third person perspectives mixed into varying degrees on Li(f)e. “I guess I find it easier to write in first person,” says Francis when questioned on which writing style works best for him; before adding: “It’s easy for people to talk about themselves, I find. I also really love to be able to adopt someone else’s story for my own voice. I think it gives both me and the listener a break from me – I’m sure most of my fans have heard enough about me by now.”
Indeed, Sage’s evidently dedicated fans have come to learn a lot about the man behind the music through a lot of dark, introspective works over the years. With Li(f)e, however, it’s interesting to note that it’s the music behind these stories is more of a change than ever before. Borrowing from contemporaries such as Canada’s Buck 65, Francis spends a lot of time on the record rapping over acoustic guitar, jazz brushes, strings and a whole world of instrumentation beyond a simple 808 beat and a sped-up soul sample. Although Sage understands it was definitely more of a risk, he also claims it was exciting to be working within this new territory.
“I was receiving music from people that don’t typically provide soundscapes for hip-hop lyrics,” he says about the challenges of thinking outside the square. “I had to adapt to their sounds, to their time signatures and their song structures- which is fine. I feel like I give rap lyrics a lot more respect than others, on account of the fact I think that it can work with this.”
He then goes on to philosophise on where hip-hop stands sonically in this day and age. “Hip-hop has a history of taking from other genres and making it its own. Now, in 2010, I feel like there’s been a similar sound in hip-hop for quite awhile – the wheel has been spinning,” he says. “It’s a typical sound, and it’s a sound that I like, but I also feel like that there are other things that can happen with hip-hop, and with rap. So for me to sit there and think about how my lyrics can work within, say, a country and western style or perhaps a bluegrass style, that’s fun for me. I know I can do it, it just takes a little bit of readjusting. It brings out other things in me, and it’s fun.”
So there’s still conventions left to break in the field of hip-hop? “There’s a million conventions to break,” Francis responds. “I’m one of a few people who will step outside the norm and piss off the core base of hip-hop…” – there’s a pause. He mumbles something to himself, before correcting himself. “Actually, that isn’t true. I’m not one of the few. I’m one of the many, but I’m one of the few that people know about. There’s a lot of people doing super out-there shit, doing things way out of the norm and breaking tonnes of conventions. But they’re not getting the exposure and they’re not getting the support, so most people won’t know about them. So I think it’s important that one tries to understand the foundations of hip-hop and know how to create traditionally before going out on a limb and being like ‘look how crazy and different this is!’ You have to prove yourself before you go too far.”