Three years have slipped by since the last Michael Franks release--a risky lapse for an artist who continues to rely on radio airplay for exposure. But Franks is accustomed to tempting the specter of career failure. For starters, he offers a hybrid of jazz, R&B and pop that defies marketing categorization. What's more, he continues to break a cardinal rule of songwriting by filling his romantic music with angular lyrics with which the listener is not likely to directly relate: Franks will consider the reaction of Vincent van Gogh's love interest to receiving the painter's severed ear, or the prospects of wrestling with a "live" nude girl. Ponderings of this sort usually result in self-conscious novelty tunes and flash-in-the-pan careers.
But Michael Franks continues to seduce his stable of fans with each quirky release, with a point of view on often-odd subject matter that's more acute than cute.
"My parents always inculcated in me the eleventh commandment," says Franks during a phone interview from San Diego, "which is, always have a real job no matter what you want to do. I became a teacher of literature and I think it really did have an impact on what I was doing musically. Reading gave me a knowledge of the skills and techniques of writing poetry. I think I've been able to incorporate some of these skills in the writing of my lyrics without seeming as though I am trying to be highbrow or obviously attempting to function on both a literal and figurative level."
Classic influences on Franks' unique style reach beyond the world of poetry. "I grew up listening to my parents' record collection, which was full of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and George Gershwin--the Mount Rushmore of songwriters, you could say. I developed an interest in the composers who showed a real affinity for words. And some of my songs taking a humorous approach, some of the ones people have described as being unusual in a jazz way, were definitely influenced by pianist Thelonious Monk. Overall, one of the things I try for is a certain amount of poetic content not always apparent in every songwriter."
Blue Pacific, Michael Franks' recent release on Reprise Records, is not only attentive to the elements of poetry and American composers but of painting as well. "Woman in the Waves," "Vincent's Ear," and "On the Inside" are taken from an upcoming self-penned stage production based on the life of Paul Gauguin, an artist who left his career and family to paint in the South Pacific.
"I started work on this project after a tour of Australia when my wife and I stopped off at Tahiti. I had been reading a couple of biographies of Gauguin and thought it would be interesting to rent a car and see what could be discovered about him. There was almost none of his painting left in Tahiti but there was some of his island furnishings and sculpture still remaining.
"I had seen Evita and was really encouraged. Here was a musical without a book, a show about a historical person, that worked very well. I started to think about the possibilities of presenting Gauguin in this medium."
The Gauguin project is not the first time Franks has written music with artwork as inspiration.
"The painting `Sleeping Gypsy' was the source of my song of the same name. And after seeing the painting `Tropical Storm With a Tiger,' I wrote a song called `Tiger in the Rain' as a possible scenario for what the painting might be about. I think painting is like songwriting in that both function on several levels at the same time. Your immediate reaction is one perception, then the more you observe it over time the more you notice other elements. Hopefully that's what happens in any art form."
Franks' multilevel romantic lyrics invite repeated listenings. Songs like Blue Pacific's "Speak to Me" deftly convey emotion, in this case the frustrations of a would-be lover:
Legend says Michelangelo
Was moved to throw
His hammer at the statue's knee.
Resembling flesh and bone
Its mouth of stone
Was quiet company.
Hardly your average pop tune.
Michael Franks' continuing quest to best depict the substance of his music led him to employ Walter Becker of Steely Dan fame to produce some of Blue Pacific. Becker's group, like Franks, was known for its adventurous pop-jazz with lyrical emphasis.
"I wrote several songs with Walter in mind, thinking how he might relate to the rhythms. I wanted to turn Walter loose on some of the writing that was a little more mysterious and in some ways a little more problematic than the material I gave Jeff Lorber and Tommy LiPuma, producers of past albums, who also worked on this one. In the case of `Crayon Sun,' I used Becker because the song was very personal and seemed to be a tune that would be difficult to present in its best light. In the case of `Vincent's Ear,' I was trying to come up with something up-tempo and thought that Walter would be able to apply his Steely Danisms."
Becker's treatment of "Crayon Sun" and "All I Need" are unlike previous productions of Michael Franks, giving the songwriter a more somber setting than he tends to work in. Still, Franks uses other songs to showcase a breezy island sound that would be fitting in Gauguin's tropical paradise.
"I think it is a kind of a shared fantasy to live the island existence. I certainly haven't had to suffer any of the privations that Gauguin had to; I've been blessed with a group of faithful fans who have kept me employed all these years. I have been left to my own devices to pursue my own direction. It has been my fans who have created that condition."
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Franks is the one who created that audience by using his feel for classic songwriting, poetry and painting to add a rare and appealing dimension to his love songs. Pop-jazz and poetic ponderings may be a rare mix, but Franks pulls it off, wielding his musical palette with splashes of humorous, albeit quirky colors. Michael Franks will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Friday, October 12. Showtime is 8 p.m.
"One of the things I try for is a certain amount of poetic content not always apparent in every songwriter."
Franks continues to seduce his fans with a point of view on often-odd subject matter that's more acute than cute.