Name: Paul “Sage” Francis
Occupation: Rapper, wordsmith, head of indie hip-hop label Strange Famous Records
Hometown: Providence, R.I.
Latest project: “Li(f)e,” his fourth studio album; and a national tour with a full band
Sounds like: Smart, angsty hip-hop rhymes delivered over non-hip-hop arrangements
Official Web site: http://www.strangefamousrecords.com/life/
A vegetarian from Rhode Island with a penchant for self-deprecating lyrics and bushy beards, Sage Francis has never been much concerned with fitting in to the hip-hop mainstream. But even for him, “Li(f)e” represents a departure: an album recorded almost entirely with a rock band (Chicago’s Califone), featuring music written predominantly by rock musicians, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, members of Calexico, and the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who committed suicide this past March.
Based on initial response, Francis’ experiment has paid off. Response from fans and critics has been overwhelmingly positive, especially to the album’s most strikingly unusual track, a soul-searching piece called “The Best of Times” featuring music by French composer Yann Teirsen, best-known for his score for the film “Amelie.” Francis, a longtime Teirsen fan, was “ecstatic” when the music arrived two days before he was scheduled to finish recording the album.
Listen: “The Best of Times”
Metromix caught up with Francis via email to talk about the genesis of “Li(f)e,” the food in Chicago, and the splendid isolation of his life in Providence.
What led to the decision to work with so many non-hip-hop musicians and songwriters?
It's something I've intended on doing for a long time, working with various bands, but I didn't really have the opportunity to do that in a proper way until right now. This album was such a massive undertaking.… All things considered, it took three years to complete this album and that's not something up-and-coming artists usually have the luxury to take their time with. Thankfully Anti- [Francis' label] didn't rush me to deliver this album. I think that we had a mutual understanding that this was my final album with them according to our contract and we both wanted to make the most of it.
The first track on the album is called “Little Houdini” and you also have a song called “Escape Artist.” Were you a Houdini-type magician in a past life, maybe?
Hahaaa. I was very interested in magic as a kid. The more I learned about it and the more I did it the less gratifying it felt. It sucked learning that there wasn't any real magic.
How much of “Li(f)e” was a process of mailing tapes back and forth and how much of it actually involved getting into the studio with some of these guys? Like did you and Chris Walla, to take just one example, ever sit down face-to-face and work on music?
It's funny you mention Chris Walla because he is literally the only person I haven't communicated with directly. Yet, he is the one who sent me the most music. In the beginning I was receiving music from various musicians that we reached out to. I would record demos to their music in my home studio and then send it back to them. Once I went to Chicago to record the album I worked with Califone in the studio. We wrote a few songs together and they re-played most of the music to the demos I had recorded at my house. In some cases they completely switched up the feel and style of the music with the assistance of [producer] Brian Deck.
You recorded most of the album in Chicago. Did you discover any favorite new Chi-town hangouts while you were there? Any restaurants you’d like to give a shout-out to?
I love the food in Chicago. It definitely assisted in my current fat problem. Hahaa. Every day we'd have food delivered from various establishments.… But most importantly, we had our wrap party at a restaurant called Bad Apple which has a veggie burger named after me. Go there and get the Strange Famous burger when you get a chance. I thought it was funny how every single meal I got in Chicago came with a pickle.
Tell us something about your touring band, the Free Moral Agents, that will totally blow people’s minds.
Free Moral Agents is headed by Ikey Owens of the Mars Volta. They are a very talented six-piece band with a woman named Mendee on vocals. It's been determined that she is my temperament twin, which can either be taken as a compliment or an insult depending on what entertains you.
You’ve stayed based in Providence. What’s the best thing about living and running your label from there?
The best thing about living where I live is the seclusion. I work in my house most of the day and night. Sometimes I make a trip out to the office to check in on things. I have people I know and trust working for Strange Famous Records so I guess all of these things are the positives. Oh, and rent is cheap.
One of your collaborators on this album was the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. Can you talk about how (or if) you guys met and your experiences working with him?
Even though I had limited interactions with Mark, when he passed away I was obviously shocked and saddened. He was actually the first person I worked demos out with and those original demos were essential in getting the rest of the album made. Andy Kaulkin (the president of Epitaph/Anti-) was close to Mark and he's the one who put us in touch with one another. Mark was really nice and helpful throughout the whole process. I never got to meet him in person but I'm a fan of his work and I'm honored that we got to do a couple songs together. I didn't really know how to address his passing when it happened. I still don't I guess.