Angelique Francis In Conversation – In Blues I Trust!
The musical soul of this Ottawa-based singer/guitarist/bassist is deeply rooted in the blues. In this interview she discusses that passion, her creative inspirations, appearing on Oprah, musical studies at Carleton, her busy summer ahead, and much more.
By Bill King
I get some 300 applications for the Beaches International Jazz Festival each season – this being year 31. A good portion comes from afar and is no more than mass spam I dismiss as more nuisance than fact. Then I get those inquiries that come from up and down the road a piece that pique my curiosity – this time, Ottawa. It’s a young people’s game now, and with the rise of YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, and other streaming services, the quality of talent is at an astronomical high.
Blues has a reserved section in my heart along with Americana, so when an artist floats by and lands squarely in my sights and smacks of authenticity, I put my investigative skills to good use. Is the artist mimicking or masquerading as a journeyman or are they connected in someway with their ancestors?
Singer/guitarist/bassist Angelique Francis stopped me in my online surfing tracks. Music runs like a positive current from the socks on her feet out the roof of her head like one massive electrical jolt.
“Angelique Francis is a star waiting for the world to catch up.” Richard Flohil.
Raised in Ottawa and on stage at age seven then debuting on Oprah Network at 13 and composing an original theme song for the Gayle King Show is heady stuff. The years between education and recently graduating with honors from Carleton University were spent touring the planet. The voice is one tethered to the past – Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and is backed by her superb skills on acoustic bass and guitars. I caught up with the ambitious artist early week and here’s that conversation.
When you sing, it seems every pore in your body is absorbing and recycling the wind, the rain, the sunshine, the soul of the earth - singing its praises and moments of discomfort.
Thank you. It’s something that comes naturally to me. It engulfs me. To many, it may seem like I have a special technique, but to me passion is something that comes as easy as breathing.
Ottawa isn’t the Old South. Where did this connection between the old world and present-day come from?
This is the music I grew up listening to. I would hear a variety of music being played around the house. I gravitated towards the blues and started playing it even though my peers listened to other forms of music. This is the music I got my inspiration from. This is the music that I felt in my soul when I was growing up, and therefore every time I sang this music or played this music, I felt a huge connection to it.
Plenty of singers call themselves blues singers and then there are a rare few who without saying, hit the tones in between where humanity struggles with itself. How did you find this region of the soul?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s really difficult to explain how I found this region. It’s just something that I feel when I perform, something that resides deep within my soul.
For me, it comes as instinctually as breathing. But I do know that whenever I am going through a rough time or a difficult/challenging situation, I tend to turn towards the blues as my outlet. I use it as a medium to channel all my soul into an emotionally concentrated piece of music. I’ve had many people tell me I was born in the wrong generation or century, but I disagree. I think I was born in the right century, with a love for this genre of music.
Most young people have never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe or ever seen the iconic footage of her performing in a rain-drenched rail station. Did the exploration for you all begin online?
Not really. I grew up listening to a rich variety of music as a child, so I have my incredible parents to thank for the majority of my blues music education. I began listening to incredible blues women like Sister Rosetta, Koko Taylor, and Big Mama Thornton at a young age. I may not have known about the specific details of their upbringing or seen live footage of their concerts. But I knew- No, felt their music; like they were speaking directly to the soul. I felt like we formed a bond forged through music and passion, and that was enough for me (until we got a faster computer). However, we are very fortunate to have the internet to be able to access and learn about music and their makers at an exponential rate. Rare footage is no longer rare when it’s available for everyone to see. These little tidbits of history are a blessing I’m fortunate enough to witness.
From Bessie Smith to Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton to Aretha Franklin, there are thousands of miles of history and road travel. How has that journey been for you?
I’ve been carving out my own road, and I’m very exited about where that road has and will lead me. I have taken my band – The Angelique Francis Band – across the globe playing some of the biggest international music festivals and venues. From opening for Gary Clark Jr., to travelling as far as Transylvania, Romania to headline the Sighisoara Blues Festival. My journey has also included many kinds of music exploration and learning.
Education has been a very important part of my life, and I am very glad that two of my loves (music and learning) were able to come together so beautifully within this journey. I have just completed my Undergraduate Degree at Carleton University with the highest honour, earning a senate medal and a Bachelor of music degree with high distinction for achieving the highest grades in my program. My university career was wonderful; I was also able to pursue teaching. During my final year I was employed at the university as a teaching assistant, teaching second-year Jazz Theory.
What were your first big breaks?
I don’t think I have had any big breaks because I consider everything I do to be another step along the ladder of my growth. No matter how small the undertaking may be, regardless of how large, I still consider it a step forward in my journey. I cherish every moment that I get to do what I love, especially the quality time I can share with my family along the way. It is such a wonderful thing to be able to tour with my family alongside me; in the band my younger sister, Kharincia Francis, plays baritone, tenor, and alto sax, my sister, Kira Francis, plays trombone and keys, and my father plays drums. Though my band may range from a three to a ten-piece, my family is at the core of everything I do. It’s simply phenomenal.
You made your American national television debut on the Oprah Network when you were 13. What did that appearance do for you?
It was a great time and place for me at age 13 because it showed many sides of my musicianship: my compositional ability, my writing skills, instrumental ability, etc. This exposure helped me to reach a broader audience, expanding my fan base and led to a multitude of performances at music festivals.
In your various YouTube videos, you roll between upright acoustic bass and electric guitar. Which do you feel most comfortable with?
As a multi-instrumentalist, I am comfortable with all my instruments. In my live performances and studio recordings, I often switch between my instruments; sometimes playing multiple instruments simultaneously. My main instruments also include harmonica, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and keys. Whether I gravitate towards an instrument is dependent on several factors: What the song demands, what the audience/ venue calls for, and what I wish to represent and communicate. Deciding factors can include; tempo, groove, genre, audience, feel, message/ lyrics, emotion, etc. However, another limiting factor is the size of our tour van. With six people, three horns, a drum kit, an upright bass, a guitar, and 20 harmonicas, there isn’t room for much else.
Esperanza Spalding added the cool factor pushing the big bass out front. Has she impacted the way you present yourself on stage?
Miss Spalding is an incredible musician, and I greatly admire her work. She’s one Kool Kat! How could I not want to exude such coolness! Over the years many comparisons have been made between me and her; however, my major influences for upright bass are more along the lines of Willie Dixon, Charles Mingus, and Miles Mosely.
Even with a guitar in hand – there’s a roots element in your playing. Who are you listening to to develop technique?
Ah, you’re quite sharp! I am versed in many kinds of guitar styles, but one of my all-time favourites are what I consider to be acoustic “folk blues” (encompassing subcategories at the roots of the blues; like prison blues, Delta blues, ragtime blues, early down-home, etc.). I have many influences that I use as a guide to formulate my own fingerstyle-style, such as Blind Blake, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins, and especially Skip James.
Most of all, it’s about the voice. There are moments when it seems Ruthie Foster is in the room, at others – Rhiannon Giddens. Would you consider these role models?
Definitely. I’ve been listening to Ruthie Foster since I was a child, and she has been a significant influence on me growing up. As well, I was introduced to Rhiannon Giddens’ music by one of my mentors Shakura S’Aida and have started to listen to her more recently. When I first heard her, I was simply blown away!
Americana is a specific genre which genuinely captures the essence of folk and country blues. How did you land here? Most prefer the middle ground shuffle or hard rock take on the blues.
Blues isn’t one colour. It’s a rainbow. And just like skittles, I like to taste every flavour. I play a variety of different genres in and out of the blues. It isn’t something I chose; it was simply the way I was raised and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The instrument I’m playing at the time, and the message I wish to convey can significantly affect the style I choose. I tend to play in more of a folk blues/Americana style when I play an acoustic guitar, slide guitar, or a resonator.
Are you a fan of music docs? If so, which have impacted you?
Yes! I am a huge fan of music documentaries. I watch them every chance I get, from the tearjerkers to the more playful ones. I particularly enjoy ones that focus on the classic blues and jazz legends; documenting what they had to overcome to achieve success and great innovation. Those really resonate with me. I also enjoy the more frivolous and humours ones, such as HBO’s Tales from the Tour Bus.
What’s in your current playlist?
Every day my playlist is different. There are far too many to name, as I listen to a diverse range of music. I am a huge supporter of Canadian musicians, so you will often find artists such as Shakura S’Aida, Kellylee Evans, and Monkey Junk on my playlist. I also love artists like Al Green, James Carr, Koko Taylor, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Sugar Ray Rayford, Marvin Gaye, Gary Clark, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, James Brown, Nina Simone, Sly and Robbie, and the list goes on and on and on. Additionally, I listen to the radio quite frequently. I love being exposed to new and different kinds of music. Learning about music is a passion of mine.
How’s the summer concert season looking?
Super busy, but in a good way. Some of the concerts The Angelique Francis Band will be playing this summer are: The Montreal Blues Fest, Ottawa Jazz Fest, Live at the Falls Blues festival, Southside Shuffle, Union Summer, Harvest Jazz and Blues festival, and Joy fest, to name a few. But one of the performances I’m looking forward to the most is the Beaches Blues and Jazz festival.
What’s the long-range plan?
My long-term plan is to continue to do what I do. To keep learning, growing, carving out my path, and loving every minute of it.