"Standing courageously at the intersection of rock and soul music, influenced equally by Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson, Stewart Francke possesses all the tools: A sweet voice, a vision that’s grand without being grandiose and undying love of sound for its own sake, and an equally passionate engagement with everyday life and the people who live it. This music isn’t classic anything only because, like every real artist, Francke takes the world as he knows it and moves on his own course."
- Dave Marsh, America’s most widely read music writer
Heartless World Nominated For Best Rock/Pop Album in DMAs
If you do have a vote in the Detroit Music Awards, or if you still can register, my album Heartless world is
nominated for best album in the rock/pop category. Featuring Bruce
Springsteen, Mitch Ryder, Thornetta Davis, Amp Fiddler, Johnny Bee, Jimmie Bones, Bobby Murray, Paul Warren,
Gia Warner & Beth Griffith, The record sold out, received some real
fine international reviews and finished in the top 60 in the Grammy
nominating process. So if you can give us a vote, I'd be much obliged,
and I think the record earned it. Recorded, mixed and mastered in
Detroit by Bryan Reilly, Mark Pastoria, Miko Mader, Jim Kissling and Adrian Carr. The awards are on April 27, 2012
|[ Detroit Music Awards ]|
REVIEWS & COMMENTARY ON STEWART'S NEW CD, HEARTLESS WORLD
From Village Records Newsletter:
STEWART FRANCKE - HEARTLESS WORLD
Detroit legend Francke releases his first new music since
2002. That’s quite a break, but he waited until he had an
album full of great new music, and this is the result.
Detroit is a hard town and known for it’s soul and gritty
rock. Francke has both genres running through his veins and
delivers a stunner. Mitch Ryder and Bruce Springsteen even
get in some vocals on these compelling new songs. Old school
rock for a new generation.
Stewart Francke / Heartless World (Blue Boundary, 2011) -- Counterpunch
Call Stewart Francke a regional treasure, if you like. But what a
region! The Detroit-based singer/songwriter/guitar-slinger grew up awash
in the deep grooves of the Chicago blues and Motown R&B during what
may well be the most creative era of American popular music. Francke
has a richly textured voice, a rocker’s Sam Cooke. He spent his early
years as a bassist in blues bands and it was evidently a bountiful
apprenticeship. Franke’s music seamlessly weaves blues and funk strands
into infectious pop songs. I mean pop in the best sense, as in his 1995
hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” In 1998, Francke was diagnosed with
leukemia. He waged a successful battle against the disease and became a
vital voice in the movement for cancer awareness and a sane health care
policy. The music deepened, too, as revealed in his CDs Swimming With Mercury and What We Talk Of … When We Talk.
Francke’s latest release is his most accomplished yet. Sure, the voice
has some road miles on it, but that only enriches the music, which
shifts from blue-eyed soul to hard-driving rock. These are brave songs
about love in a time of war, about loss and survival amid the ruins of a
once mighty city. Bruce Springsteen lends a gritty gravitas to “Summer
Soldiers,” Francke’s song about alienated young soldiers caught in an
inexplicable, faraway war. This is humane music, music with a soul. -- Jeffrey St. Clair
The songwriter on working with the Boss, overcoming tragedy and the real reality
Stewart Francke's new album is called Heartless World.
Published: July 6, 2011 Metro Times
When singer-songwriter Stewart Francke sent
a song to Bruce Springsteen's people in the hopes that the Boss would
add some vocals, he knew the odds were slim that he'd get anything back.
One can only imagine how many similar requests Springsteen receives,
and what he could charge if he so chose.
But what do you frickin' know, the song came back, all Bruced up.
Francke is a man who deserves a spot of good fortune. For starters,
he's a sweet guy. Humble and soft-spoken, he cringes when complimented,
but will quite happily often offer praise. He's that sort of dude.
Between '95 and '98, Francke put an album out every year, each more
introspective than the last. In '98, Francke was diagnosed with leukemia
and he spent the next few years of his life battling the disease, which
involved a bone marrow transplant and years of crippling complications.
But he kept writing. Had to. "I even put out a record, Wheel of Life, in the middle of it all. That was tough, but therapeutic."
Francke wouldn't be beaten, and, in 2004, his doctor gave him the
all-clear, but he barely had a chance to exhale when both his parents
and his wife's parents died over four years beginning in 2005.
He took a break. It was the strain. Lord knows, he needed a vacation.
"I had to take a step back and take care of my kids," Francke says.
"They were very young at the time, and they were exposed to too much too
soon. It was important that I be there for them."
So here we are, nine years after his last full-length studio album, and Francke has just released Heartless World. It's an apt title considering the 13 years the songwriter has endured.
"Heartless World is a bleak title 'cause it's been a bleak fuckin' time," Francke says.
"Although I don't write many songs about the corrosion of optimism, I
am interested in the inevitable loss of illusions and, more
importantly, the 'now-what?' that comes after tragedy. The fall. What
you gonna do now? How you gonna live after your world falls apart? After
cancer? After 9/11? After we've lost all our money? What's going on?
After death of friends and family? Can you maintain any romantic ideals
at all today?"
Francke can certainly tell sincere stories of loss and ache, but that's not to say Heartless World
isn't devoid of hope and declarations of determination ("Faith in Faith
Itself," "Soul Survivor"). Francke's songs move and pop in that
singer-songwriter tradition of Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens — with
tinges of Springsteen and Seger's blue-collar-hero-is-something-to-be
'tude. The Boss makes his appearance on the opener, "Summer Soldier
(Holler if ya Hear Me)." In fact, the lyrics are unironic and sobering
in a Springsteen social-commentary kind of way. "'Summer Soldier' is,"
Francke says, "about the military men and women who signed up for the
limited tours or for the promised years of school, or even the reserves
who signed back up for National Guard duty only to be called into a full
rotation over in the Middle East. ... Often more than once. It seemed
like another ruse by the 'masters of war.' So the lyric was a way to
damn the war but have the troops' back, always. And military people have
responded, as conservative as they are. They get the humanity of the
So how did he get Springsteen involved? "From a creative standpoint, I
always heard Bruce's voice in the call-and-response 'holla' part. I
thought just the tone of his harder voice would work so well. Although
Bruce and I had met a few times and he had said some very good things
about my music, I, of course, still considered the chances of getting
Bruce to sing on it very distant. We saw each other last summer at a
social event and had a nice talk and he's always very nice to my family,
so I just sent a demo to Bruce's management.
A lot of time went by and I forgot about it and worked on other
things. Then Toby Scott [Springsteen's producer-mixer-engineer] e-mailed
one day and asked for lyrics and Pro Tools sessions and I was knocked
out. A couple of months later, the vocal arrived. Of course, it's
exciting, but I'm most proud of it because it works musically."
Elsewhere, hometown hero Mitch Ryder appears on "Boo Yah/ Take My Mother Home."
"Back when I was writing for the Metro Times 15 or 16 years ago, Francke says, "I interviewed Mitch. The owner [of Metro Times]
at the time was Ron Williams, and I told him that I thought we were
taking Mitch for granted. He was releasing new stuff in Europe and doing
really well, and in Detroit we only knew him for 'Devil With a Blue
Dress On'. We've been friends ever since."
For Francke, after years of pain, his music's a healer of sorts.
He explains: "The record is about re-forming a thought process, a new
belief system. The romantic aspects in my music come from trying to
find what's heroic when faced with this unrelenting reality. The things
to hide from are permanent and obvious — fear, professional
disappointment, the drift of time, the death of people we love. Yet
reasons for optimism are everywhere too. When I first heard certain
Motown artists, Mitch Ryder or the Beatles as a young kid, it completely
turned my head around about new ways to think, dress and live. The
styles I'm working in, rock and soul, are both a very human,
rolling-ball-of-glue kind of art. They pick up everything in their path,
and roll backward and forward, collecting fingerprints, signs, emotions
and echoes ... of angels, ancestors, shamans, showmen, the dark, the
light, everything. Music at its best should compel those that hear it
toward some kind of physical change: learn more, have more compassion,
become interested in its shared ideals, open up, dance your ass off,
have some fun. I've seen this in action — the individual dramatically
waking up to the community and a community alive and aware enough to
welcome him or her to it."
Francke pauses, then adds, "Everyone has their moment of unchanging
reality, where they see who they are and what their life is really
worth. One of the abiding principles of recovering cancer patients and
hardworking songwriters is learning to accept that other people will
never know, understand or care in a way you'd expect them to. Life goes
Heartless World is out now via Blue Boundary Records.
BACKSTREETS FREE DOWNLOAD: STEWART FRANCKE & BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Detroit's Stewart Francke has just released his eleventh album, Heartless World, which
features a vocal collaboration with Springsteen on "Summer Soldier
(Holler If Ya Hear Me"). In the liner notes, Francke writes, "it was
always [Bruce's] voice I heard in the call & response of the chorus
but I figured it would remain just a dream. So I asked, he said yeah,
and sang it as he sings everything — with great passion and emotional
clarity. A dream come true."
Thanks to Stewart, we're now able to offer this track as a free mp3 download.
In fact, we've just added two FREE mp3s from Heartless World to our Downloads page:
the album's lead single featuring Springsteen, as well as a hidden
bonus track, Francke's cover of Death Cab for Cutie's "I'll Follow You
Into the Dark" that he also wanted to share with Backstreets readers.For more on the album, and to order the full CD, visit stewartfrancke.com
- June 16, 2011
MIX MAGAZINE: Stewart Francke 'Heartless World'
Jun 30, 2011 1:43 PM,
By Barbara Schultz
Singer/songwriter Stewart Francke’s
Heartless World album leads off with “Summer Soldier,” a track that
would be almost too painful to listen to if it weren’t such a great-sounding
song. Francke fashioned the lyrics, written from the perspective of a soldier
serving in Afghanistan, using thoughts expressed in interviews with servicemen
(“Back home it’s springtime”… “I don’t regret it, but I miss my boys” … “We
dream at night, but never sleep”). But the guitar-based arrangement is strong
and soulful, with a rockin’ bridge and call-and-response vocals between Francke
and Bruce Springsteen. It sets the tone for an album where the themes are
emotional, heavy—expressed pointedly in the song “Heart of a Heartless
World”—but the music is bright and upbeat. Francke, who wrote and co-produced
all of the songs on the album, has a real appreciation for classic rock ’n’
soul; his first gig was actually at 19, playing bass with Chuck Berry! Today,
his music is thoughtful, well-crafted and always enjoyable.
Producers: Stewart Francke and
Bryan Reilly. Recording engineers: Reilly, Jim Kissling, Alan Tishik. Mixers:
Miko Mader, Mark Pastoria, Kissling. Studios: RMS (Birmingham, Mich.), Harmonie
Park (Detroit), Tempermill (Ferndale, Mich.), Upper Room (Huntington Woods,
Mich.). Mastering: Adrian Carr/AC Mastering (Champlain, N.Y.).
2011 Heartless World Publicity Links:
WEB MD Feature -- September 2011
AOL Spinner Feature
WXPN Blog on Heartless WorldAmerican Songwriter piece on I'll See You Into The Dark
People Magazine - 5/10/11
CBS News - 5/10/11
Top 40 Charts.com - 5/11/11
New Links to live 1997 footage with the Tri City Symphony Orchestra surfaced recently::
& His Band--Live Shows
Sept 3 -- Arts beats Eats @ 3:30pm National Stage
September 17 -- Twilight Award Gala
October 21 -- Trinity House, Livonia
More dates TBA
Stewart Francke Named 2011 Twilight Civic Honoree
Detroit singer-songwriter recognized by Twilight Benefit
Foundation for his work in cancer care and community presence.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 23, 2011 -
(Detroit, MI) – Michigan musician and bone marrow transplant survivor Stewart
Francke has been named one of this year’s Twilight Civic Honorees for his
continuing work in cancer care and fundraising. The Twilight Benefit Gala, a
black tie event held September 17 at the Renaissance Center Wintergarden Dock,
will award Francke, Brooks Patterson and five other community leaders. More than 300 people will celebrate the Twilight Foundation 2011
Community Leadership Awards at this year’s gala. Beginning at the Wintergarden Dock then sailing toward the
Ambassador Bridge on The Ovation, Detroit’s largest yacht, the 2011 Twilight
Awards Ball will be a night to remember.
While Mr. Francke’s soulful songs about common people in
good times and bad have been well celebrated, it’s his continuous work in Cancer
care, Leukemia funding and bone marrow donation awareness that awards him a
2011 Twilight Civic Honoree Award.
A leukemia and bone marrow transplant survivor of 12 years,
Francke regularly plays benefit concerts and donates his time to cancer patient
support efforts. To date he and the foundation bearing his name (Stewart
Francke Leukemia Foundation) has raised more than $200,000, which has been
donated to organizations such as Karmanos Cancer Institute, the Children's
Leukemia Foundation, The National Bone Marrow Transplant Link, The Leukemia
& Lymphoma Society and Gilda's Club. The priority mission of the foundation
is to fund low income patients and increase marrow donation in minority
In 2008, Francke and his fellow Saginaw native and friend,
Broadway star Brian d’arcy James, recently raised $92,000 for the Fields
Neurological Institute in their hometown of Saginaw, MI. His music has won numerous Detroit music
awards, Hour Detroit's most popular musician 2002-2004, five straight ASCAP
writer's awards–-and a prestigious Point of Light Award for his work in cancer
care. The Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation was also presented the
Partnership In Humanity Award by the Detroit Newspapers, and he was awarded a
Creative Artist Grant by Artserve Michigan in 2003. In May, 2009, Stewart was
awarded a Lifetime Achievement Awarded by his hometown of Saginaw, for the
"insight and joy his songs have brought to so many in his hometown, home
state, and beyond."
Funding raised by the Twilight Benefit Foundation endows
The Charlie Porter Research Grant. The
CPRG will award a goal of $50,000 to one research scientist (possessing an
M.D., D.O. or Ph.D). The purpose of this grant is to support experienced
investigators with a promising new research approach relating to the etiology,
treatment and cure of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) in children. This Grant
represents an important step in understanding leukemia and associated cancers.
* The Twilight Benefit Gala is one of Michigan’s finest and
most exclusive formal events. Rub elbows with some of Southeast Michigan’s most
prominent and up and coming professionals at this years twilight awards gala!
Join us on the Detroit river for amazing entertainment including live bands,
outstanding food, spirits and a great time... all for a worthy cause.
For much of the last month, my commute companion has been Stewart Francke's new album, Heartless World
. "Heartless World" was funded in part by a kickstarter
campaign, in which fans who ponied up small amounts of money were
promised an advance copy of the CD, and those who ponied up especially
large sums were promised, "name it, we'll do it." I don't have much
history contributing to things that don't have "501 (c)" next to them,
and this definitely wasn't one of those. But then, I've also heard
Stew's past releases. As Stew wrote in his kickstarter announcement,
"These are exciting times for independent artists, musicians, and music
business entrepreneurs." It was a no-brainer. More than 200 people
chipped in, and happily, the album was fully funded.
because this is the best album I have heard in a long, long time. Over
repeated listening during my daily commute to downtown Detroit, I never
once considered skipping a track. The weakest thing about this album
must be the cover art, because there are no weak tracks here, and each
listen seemed to reveal a part, a lyric, or even a lyricist I hadn't
noticed before. On most days, I'd get through just more than half of
the album getting to my parking spot at the Millender Center, and hear
the rest on the way home. But if the Lodge was particularly backed up, I
might be fortunate enough to make it through the entire album on the
"Heartless World," to me, is an album defined by its
sense of places. Physical places, in particular in and around Detroit.
Seasonal places. Places in time. Places in our past and present
lives. Places within ourselves, and places for ourselves. If, not so
long ago, we could talk of surviving the good times while dreaming of
better days, now we can talk about simply surviving... while dreaming of
are plenty of musical references here, from Motown to Stax to P-Funk to
Jackson Browne to Van Morrison -- at least, those are some that I think
I've heard -- and I'm sure, many more. The trick, of course, is to
make them work as something new. "Sam Cooke's On the Radio," the third
track on the album, seems to come right out of the Steely Dan
songbook... the best part of the Steely Dan songbook. With a groove.
With the backup singers kicking off the song, and then adding one of my
favorite lines of the album, "singin' fa fa fa fa fa fa," a line so good
it just made me smile all over. Times might be bad, but this is no sad
Stew has every reason to be down. He lives in metro
Detroit, which has been especially hard hit by the recent economic
downturn -- not that times were good here for many years before that.
Since his last record, Stew's gone through the loss of both of his
parents. Those scars mark several of the songs on the album, from the
declaration in "Heart of a Heartless World" that "I've said farewell to
my mama, and said goodbye to my dad," until the imperfect but necessary
resolution of "Boo Yah / Take My Mother Home": "Ain't gonna grieve my
mother no more, ain't gonna grieve my father no more." But from that
sadness, comes a sense of joy and celebration. That last song features a
searing vocal by Mitch Ryder, declaring, "feeling mighty joyful,
feeling mighty high." It fits.
And that's just scratching the
surface. I suppose I could go on about the use of the various
instruments. Or the song "Givin' It Up," which features a melody that
could make it in the Paul McCartney songbook, but with lyrical
confessionals ("I was a fool, so smart and so smug") that seem to me
beyond anything I can imagine from Sir Paul... Or of the horns. Are
they out of tune at the end of "Snowin' in Detroit"? Well, yeah, maybe.
But, goodness, I wouldn't change 'em if they are.
My two word summation for Heartless World
is this: Buy it. (You can use the link, or get it from Stew's site
. This is a record that deserves to get wide recognition, to be heard, and to be enjoyed.
night Lori and I went to the release concert for "Heartless World" at
Callahan's, a local music cafe. When we got there, Stew was hanging out
near the front door, ready to greet. Of course, though Stew had his
beautiful wife and daughter in the room -- and, I'm sure, plenty of
other friends and relatives there as well -- the first thing he asked me
was how my
children were doing. Somehow, that didn't surprise
me. He also let on that "Heartless World" is about as good as he can
do... to which I had no idea how to respond. Except to say that it's
better than the best of many artists that I admire. I didn't think to
say that last night, of course. but I get to fix that a bit now.
concert was a blast, of course, featuring about half of the new album.
During "You Want What You Don't Got," the dance floor filled... and it was all women.
Stew did not look disappointed. Later, during "My Old School" (a
Steely Dan song that's been a staple of Stew's live shows for some
time), Lori got an extended private solo on the dance floor. She did
not look disappointed.
SCRATCHED INTO OUR SOULS by Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen
I first met Stewart Francke back in 1999, at Bruce Springsteen and the E
Street Band's Detroit stop during their reunion tour. I shared that
evening with other friends, old and new, but Stewart left a deep
impression on me, in no small part thanks to the fact that he'd just
come out the other side of a stem cell treatment for leukemia,
the same disease that killed my dad back when I was five. I knew Stew
had two small kids of his own, and I felt a kinship with both him and
the little ones who were lucky enough to still have them in their lives.
His sweet smile and gentle voice—his demeanor has always reminded me of
Jackson Browne's—didn't hurt, either. I had no idea then what that
voice was capable of.
I'd met him in cyberspace before that; we were and are both members
of a small email list of folks who share common bonds of politics,
culture, and family. But I hadn't heard a note of his music until he
sent me a copy of Swimming in Mercury,
the first album he made after his illness and treatment. It was, not
surprisingly, steeped in themes of mortality, family, and love, and it's
still my favorite of all his albums. He'd made a half-dozen records
before then, and he's made almost as many since—better ones, by most
accounts, and ones that expanded his musical palette from
singer-songwriter and California rock to blue-eyed soul. But Swimming in Mercury is
still the one closest to my heart—the best record Brian Wilson and Todd
Rundgren never made. It was also full of songs I could imagine my dad
singing, if only he would have lived to sing "Keep Your Faith, Darling"
to my mom, or written "Letter from Ten Green" to me and my sister.
That personal connection means that Swimming in Mercury is unlikely to drop from the top spot in my own Stewart Francke canon, but his latest, Heartless World,
has quickly moved into second place, and is (if I try to be objective)
the best thing he's ever done. His singing—always strong—has never been
better, nor has his songwriting. More importantly, the arrangements and
the production are the best he's ever achieved, making for seamless
transition among different sounds and textures. For instance, the
slashing guitars on the roadhouse rocker "Born in a Fever" sit
side-by-side with the sweet horns on the reflective soul ballad "Snowin'
in Detroit," with its sophisticated chord changes, and the transition
between the two is both seamless and natural.
And it may be the first album on which he's fully achieved his goal
of "making music that sounds something like if Jackson and James
Brown(e) were brothers." Jackson is most clearly found in "Sidewalk
Dimes"and "Givin' it Up;" James is all over "You Want What You Don't Got
(And You Don't Want What You Got)" (which features Amp Fiddler
on clavinet). I could be all circumspect and politically correct about
it, but fuck it, let's call it what it is: the white and the black, the
non-funky alongside the funky. But lack of funk isn't the same as d'voidoffunk, nor is the funky merely
funky, you know? Francke understands, plays, and sings not so much as
if there is no difference (which would be foolish), but as if there need
not be any opposition (which is righteous).
But what do you expect from a cat from Detroit if not making sense of
contradictions both real and assumed? Detroit is the home of Marvin
Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Mitch Ryder, the MC5, the Stooges, P-Funk, Alice
Cooper, Bob Seger, Madonna (don't you tell me she's all New York, now),
Eminem, Kid Rock, and about a zillion more, and Francke embraces and
embodies and contains those multitudes as well as anybody. Which is to
say he makes those multitudes, and more, his own. The breezy "Sam Cooke
on the Radio" brings together everything from its inspiration's gospel
soul to the best of Chicago's early 1970s jazz-rock, along with a bunch
of sounds in between that I can feel but can't quite put my finger on.
"Heart of a Heartless World" brings together the earnestness of
mid-1980s Springsteen with the lightness of the Boss's later output,
along with a subtle dose of arena rock (presuming that "subtle" and
"arena rock" aren't mutually exclusive; if you hear this song, you'll
realize they're not).
Speaking of subtle, Springsteen himself shows up on the album's
opening track, "Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me)," but you wouldn't
notice unless you pay close attention. Francke and Springsteen's voices
are so simpatico that you might not notice the difference, but once you
do, the song—from the perspective of a dying soldier in Iraq or
Afghanistan—takes on a weight it wouldn't without Bruce's presence. The
Gulf and Afghan War soldier lives and breathes (and dies) in the the
shadow of the Vietnam soldier; a "summer soldier" alongside the Winter Soldier
of 40 years ago, and a song that would be plenty heavy without
Springsteen's voice gains added impact, both historical and emotional,
For my money, though, the best track here is "Boo Yah/Take My Mother
Home," a roaring one-chord vamp featuring Amp Fiddler and the great Mitch Ryder
that, as Francke writes in his liner notes, "condenses a couple years
of pain and confusion into about 32 bars." It's a microcosm of the whole
album: a white kid from Saginaw, who's lived in the Motor City for more
than a decade, dives deep into the experience of losing his mom and dad
over the course of a few years, swims in the funky stew of rock and
soul, and embraces the whole messy, funky, painful, and joyous thing.
Show me another song in which a man promises he's not gonna grieve his
mother and father no more, with backup vocals hollering "if I had me
some fuck you money, I wouldn't have to talk to you," and I'll show you a
map of Detroit.
I'm hollerin' backatcha, Stew. Hope you can hear me.
Stewart Francke: Seeking Musical & Spiritual Sustenance in a 'Heartless World'
A Conversation with Saginaw's Prodigal Son in Advance of His August 12th Pit & Balcony Appearance
From Issue 729 (Published July 21st, 2011)
Written By Robert E Martin
Stewart Francke has been through the mill and over the hill and survived personal and professional pitfalls and challenges of such a nature that if not having the power to distract most people from realizing their true potential, would cut us to the quick. Apart from releasing 11 albums and three out-of-print Indie cassettes, Stewart has written a book entitled Between the Ground & God: Lyrics, Essays & Interviews (1990-2005) and survived the vagaries of the music business, shaping a viable career out of it for the past 20 years.
In 1998 Stewart was diagnosed with leukemia and survived both cancer and a bone marrow transplant, continuing to write & record a consecutive series of albums, each profound and shimmering with distinct lyrical and musical texture – as if only through the strength of a romantic vision can we transcend the vortex of negative obstacles life has a tendency to deal our way and aspire towards greatness; and only through a consciousness that appreciates the fragility of life can we hope to reinforce the foundations that we find peace, solace, and security from.
Or as noted music critic Dave Marsh notes: “Stewart Francke is one of a kind. A talent that encompasses both songwriting and prose writing appears rarely. How much rarer then is a songwriter whose sensibility includes Johnny Cash and Gore Vidal, Yoko Ono and The Funk Brothers, marriage, mortality, race relations and cancer treatment? Standing courageously at the intersection of rock and soul music, Francke possesses all the tools: a sweet voice, a vision that’s grand without being grandiose, and an undying love of sound for its own sake.”
On Saturday, August 12th, Stew will return to his hometown of Saginaw for a special CD Release Party at Pit & Balcony Theatre for his new album, Heartless World, which is his first new release since 2002. Built upon a convergence between his gift for melody and fondness for R&B, the passionate songwriting and lyrical urgency for summoning an existence built upon higher ground have never been more lushly rendered.
With an output that used to register a new album a year, the long hiatus from recording resulted from each of his parents and in-laws becoming ill, culminating in August 2010, with the passing of his father, Stewart Francke, Sr. Consequently, much of the material on Heartless World summarizes a span of time where Stewart experienced great sadness, change, and personal challenge, having lost his parents in a four-year period, as well as two friends he’d grown close to. Plus he says the songs were colored by the tremendously tumultuous period of time this country has gone through in recent years.
“This whole album is about trying to find a place to make a stand in the world after all of your foundational pillars have gone to dust. It’s through these songs that I’m trying to construct a world that I want to live in – a world where I remember the best things about the people who are gone, a world where we look out for each other, and where the only currency that matters is being real, finding hope, common ground, and having faith in each other. These are the things I was thinking about while writing these songs.”
Stewart was recently featured in People Magazine, and with opening tour slots for Bob Seger and Earth Wind & Fire this summer, coupled with a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen on the cut Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me, the release of Heartless World is finally shooting Stewart to an entirely new level of critical and popular acclaim.
In advance of his August 12th appearance at Pit & Balcony, I caught up with Stewart recently in the midst of his hectic summer touring schedule to discuss both his new work and the ongoing climb up the mountain in an uncertain world.
Review: Stylistically, the material on Heartless World is as focused and meticulously crafted as ever, yet is colored by a maturity that covers more topical and foreboding undercurrents that permeate the texture with a tentative uncertainly, opening new depths of nuance largely through a willingness to confront the temporal and fragile nature of existence at the same time it celebrates the strength one must summon in order to get through it.
Francke: All this difficulty didn’t just give me a theme for this batch of songs. It imposed itself on the songs. We don’t need to look for uncertainty or death as a subject in life; it’s always with us. And while my reflections on mortality inform many of the songs on Heartless World, there are also several tracks that are the most rocking and humorous I’ve ever written.
Because I’m the kind of songwriter who uses his own life as both material and measuring stick, the high points in my every day life have also been high points in my artistic or work life. And vice versa. There’s a real right brain-left brain aspect to my survival. There’s the actual work, the conception of songs, the music, the arranging, recording and performing live. Then there’s the business and the general idea of “success.” We delude ourselves by re-defining the terms of success until we get closer to it.
Fortunately, a lot of the real dark days are behind me for a little while, knock on wood. I have the respect of my colleagues and a real relationship with a loyal audience. I can call myself a success by my own stringent definition now, not by how the world sees me, or by how the entertainment industry hands it out.
Review: How did the collaboration with Bruce Springsteen come about?
Francke: Bruce is a true gentleman and we were at a social function this summer where we had a nice brief talk. So then I sent a mix of the song to him, got word back he was into it; he cut his vocals in Jersey, we swapped pro tools sessions, and voila…it was what it is. I love the tune and the way our voices shift and move together, and the story means a lot to me. We can abhor the war but support the troops fighting it.
Review: How’s the summer panning out with all this newfound activity? Are you going to have any time to kick back up at Point Lookout and recharge the proverbial batteries?
Francke: This summer I want to play as often as possible—as many shows, gigs, fairs, festivals, because I love playing and I have all this new music that I want people to hear. So yeah, we’ll be playing all over Michigan. Don’t think I’ll be up at the Point as much. It’s not the same since my dad died.
Review: You have a great knack for writing engaging melodic hooks yet also fusing them with solid R&B fundamentals. Sidewalk Dimes is a great example on the new CD. How has your approach to songwriting evolved or changed since you started 20 years ago, or has it? Do the fundamental strengths and skills that develop early on stick with you, or do you replace them with new approaches and experiments to avoid the bane of repetition.
Francke: I think I’ve built a discernable style that’s recognizable and has some qualities people look to for enjoyment or maybe something they can’t find elsewhere. I’d much rather collaborate on music now than work alone, so I guess that’s a sign of maturation or total appeasement—I don’t know which.
With Pro Tools, we all cut and paste so much—you can build just a verse as a little contained piece of music, then build a hook that’s the chorus and edit them together. So now I start with rhythmic elements rather than just strumming a guitar, but other times I’ll do that too. It’s wide open as to how the music is made, as no one way works all the time.
I think I’ve started to pay closer attention to internal rhyme and musical motif—small inner melodies and three note intervals that repeat and can be beautiful but have little to do with the main melody or hook. I think I’ve learned to leave more out when it comes to arranging, but I need to make my songs even more austere. This record is still a big sounding record, but it can be played live with a band—the next one I want to do I want to be able o play it live with a small band, maybe make an acoustic record. It’s time. Economics dictate that you have to have a band you can afford.
I think the only other thing I may have improved at is just trusting what comes to me both melodically and lyrically, and trust that a song can hold elements of black and white music, soul and rock, white and black harmonic structure. It’s so simple—I’m an entertainer and a songwriter. I want people to think and dance and dig their little moment on the planet. My job hasn’t changed all that much over the years—tell ‘em what an apple is by telling ‘em what an orange isn’t—and make it rhyme with Delaware.”
Review: All inquiring minds in Saginaw and beyond want to know what was it really like working with Bob Seger and how did that come about and why didn’t he have you open for him in Saginaw?
Francke: There’s a ton of competition for those shows, and they’re trying out a lot of people. I was flattered he chose us for Toledo and we also did Cleveland. Bob himself was a beautiful guy with about 3000 top 40 hits and a top-notch organization that treated us with great respect.
Review: Has your sense of what music represents in your life and your role in the canon of the Michigan Music scene changed over the years, and if so, how? Do you hope to retire some day or is this something you see yourself doing until ‘the End’ – in the Jim Morrison sense of the word.
Francke: Retire!?! Artists just die, they don’t get to quit. And I have two kids going into college soon so I’ll be working for at least another 30 years. But I still love the music a lot, although the ancillary bullshit has gotten old. And my situation as far as quality of records, shows played, sales, career opportunities – all these things keep improving, so I don’t question; I just do. I’m not wealthy but I am healthy. I feel 29, not 52, and could keep playing really high-energy shows for a long time to come.
But the whole enterprise of raising money, casting a band, writing the songs, recording the songs, mixing, mastering, then 10 months of non-stop promotion—well that really takes the piss outta ya. But I really truly do feel I’m getting better at everything, not standing still or going through the motion. And when I look at the last ten years—leukemia, bone marrow transplant, personal issues, death of younger parents—I feel lucky to even be standing, let alone making music that might matter to someone.
Review: ‘Heartless World’ was funded entirely by fans. Can you tell me about that?
Francke: That was the most interesting part of doing this record—because we used the online crowd funding tool Kickstarter, and rose about $17,000 just to record it. I felt this immense pressure to make the songs so they mattered deeply to everyone else—way more to them than to me. And the beauty of the cd booklet, and the lyrics—it wasn’t for me at all—it was for my fans that supported me. I wanted to do nothing other than please them, make them feel a part of this creative entity, have a part of themselves invested in what these songs mean and how they sound.
But I guess I’m like 88% of the rest of all the everybodies out there—scared shitless part of the day, feeling strong a smaller part of the day, relying on hope and trying to find a place to put my faith the rest of the day. And then try to sleep through at least one night a week. This is a rough business, life. Things hit you that you didn’t even see comin.’
Review: Well, that’s about it my friend. I’m glad you’re still moving forward and showing us how the pursuit of a dream can still be a viable endeavor in this day and age.
Francke: Well, for you to have held Review together for 30 plus years and done the Music Awards for 25 is a mind blowing testimonial to one guy’s sense of duty and civic perseverance. I’m very proud to know you; I honor you and consider you one of my living heroes because there’s been a hell of a lot of sacrifice for you. Whenever I think of my own commitment to cancer care or other things I’m involved in I have a simple question: What are you gonna do about it?” There’s endless problems, endless fear, endless trials. What are you gonna do about it? And you’ve answered the bell every day, year in and year out.
Review: Thanks, Stewart. Such words mean a lot coming from somebody that I respect so deeply. I remember something you said to me a few years ago when you received your Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saginaw Enrichment Commission – at the end, you regret the things you don’t do, not the things you’ve done, so get busy. And when I asked your motto in life, you said, ‘If you’re walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.’ The truth holds its own over time, doesn’t it?
To purchase tickets for Stewart Francke’s CD Release Show for Heartless World at Pit & Balcony on August 12th, please call 989-754-2085 or visit pitandbalconytheatre.com
Artist's Statement (What I'm Trying To Do):
A critic somewhere once described what I’m doing musically as sounding like “Jackson and James Brown(e) were brothers.” While I’m not sure if I belong in their exalted company, it’s an accurate assessment--I am trying to combine a narrative lyrical approach with the rhythmic elements of soul and funk. But labels are often worthless when it comes to music, where literally everything you see and hear influences what you may write or sing next. Since I’m as much a singer as I am a songwriter, I’m always trying to write melodies that are fresh and interesting to sing.