“Plenty of young musicians show promise, but very few enjoy the sort of meteoric rise that pianist, songwriter and producer James Francies is currently experiencing. At 24, he’s already worked with the likes of artists such as Questlove, Mark Ronson, Childish Gambino, YEBBA, NAS, Anderson .Paak, and Common to name a few. Studying piano since age 4, Houston-Native James Francies has been immersed in music his whole life. Attending the prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and later the New School in New York, Francies has won numerous national competitions celebrating his piano and composition skills all while garnering experience in the both the Jazz world and hip hop/pop world.
Since moving to New York in 2013, Francies’ music and performances have gained raving reviews from publications such as NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, and others that continue to track James’ musical journey.”
We got a chance to sit down with James to chat about his career, and tips for up and coming producers and song-writers!
Most jazz pianists have a lot more years under their belt before they start seeing some of the spotlight, by 24 you had already played with The Roots and jazz headliners like Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Stefon Harris, Eric Harland, and Terrace Martin. How did all this come about?
Coming from Houston which has a strong lineage to New York, I was very fortunate to have a few folks looking out for me. People like fellow Houstonians Robert Glasper, Eric Harland and Jason Moran to name a few, really made sure I was cool. Robert was actually the person that introduced me to The Roots , thus that’s how I started working with them. Pat Metheny is someone who you never see out, but he knows about everyone. We met on a flight going from SF to NY and I went to introduce myself and he had already known about me, which was crazy.
Chris Potter, I met through Eric Harland. He wanted to try this new trio idea with no bassist and since me and Eric had already played a bunch together it all just worked from the first notes.
I met Jeff “Tain” Watts when I was 15 in Houston (I don’t think he remembers lol), but I officially connected with him when I was 18 when I first got to NYC. I started playing with him around that time; doing recordings and some gigs with him. He is such a brilliant mind and oh so cool of a person. He lives in a church that he bought so a lot of times I would just go up there to record and listen to music and watch sports. That’s my guru.
You have some incredible credits in hip-hop and R&B: from shows with Ms. Lauryn Hill, José James, Common, and NAS, to studio time for Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-winning hit “No Problem”, Mark Ronson , Childish Gambino, YEBBA, and Kodak Black.. Can you tell us a bit about some or all of these?
I spent the summer of 2018 doing some recording and some shows with Lauryn Hill. I was brought in by her musical director Igmar Thomas who is a friend of mine that I’ve worked with in his own projects.
I had met Common before through Robert Glasper and Questlove so the two of them recommended me for a couple of runs with him, super fun and such a genuine person.
YEBBA is one of my closest friends. We met a few years ago in NYC and we first collaborated on my first album for Blue Note Records. We realized how easily we worked together and the musical chemistry we had so since then we’ve been working and writing together almost nonstop. Usually at Electric Lady in NY. Her album that’s dropping soon is crazy amazing. I can’t wait for people to hear it. She is also the reason I have gotten to do stuff with Mark Ronson, who is a legend and such a brilliant producer, and also hilarious.
You also wrote and co-produced on some of the beautiful tracks on Childish Gambino’s latest album, “3.15.20”, specifically, ‘0.00’, ‘19.10’, ‘24.19’, ‘39.28’ and ‘53.49’. Can you tell us about how those sessions came about and any stories that stick out?
Working with Donald was incredible. He was so open to ideas no matter how crazy or farfetched they sounded. He knows about a lot of music so it was super easy for us to connect. Kurtis Mackenzie and DJ Dahi brought me in the mix and it was almost like I was helping complete a puzzle.
You started playing piano at age 4? How often did you play as a kid and when did you realize it was going to be such a massive part of your life?
I played (and still do) everyday; usually for at least 4-6 hours when I can. I’ve always known this was what I was going to do. Whether it would be me playing in some hotel or on some big stage or tv show I just knew this was what I wanted to do.
How does it feel to be part of the new generation of artists infusing jazz into the landscape of popular music?
I don’t really think of genres or trying to infuse anything I just love writing songs that are interesting and that hopefully day something that is meaningful.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Broadway show you’re working on with Black Thought?
Black Thought called me in when he first started working on it to help go through some of the music and to help with a few things at the beginning. It’s called “Black No More”. He’s such a crazy talented person who I call a big brother. He wrote a Broadway play all while taping Fallon Show and doing Roots shows and recording album all at the same time.
We’re big fans of Mark Ronson’s production, especially the albums people don’t even know about. You are featured on an official acoustic version of Ronson’s song, “Don’t Leave Me Alone”. Is that a song you wanted to perform or were you approached to do a stripped down version of it?
It was Mark’s idea for there to be an acoustic version so he figured since YEBBA and I had already been working together so much it would be easiest to just let us do our thing. It came out really well.
How do you approach song-writing? (music or lyrics)
For me the music is what shapes everything. Creating a whole world and manipulating it. For me, if the music is really strong the melody/lyrics almost give themselves away. I do everything from the piano first. I try not let all the technology and plug ins/vsts get in the way of the songwriting. Song first, the production is what works best for me.
Where do you get inspiration?
It varies.. Sometimes from people, smells, a feeling, old memory, athletes, other musicians, places.. All Depends
How do you deal with writers-block?
Sometimes you just have to suck but force yourself to power through and trust that you will find the treasure no matter how many hours, days, weeks, or months it takes to get out of.
What’s your process for finalizing songs/demos?
I do most of my demos at home first just to have the idea then I’ll re do it once I have a definitive form. I also like writing everything out for other musicians to read.
How do you know when a song is done?
I obsess over everything little thing when I’m writing something so when I come to the end I’m usually pretty satisfied because I’ve tried literally every pathway to get here.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written?
There’s a bunch of songs on YEBBA’s album that I’m super proud to have written with her. I’m excited for those to come out… The one we did on my album called “My Day Will Come” is super special so that’s definitely one of my favorites. All depends which mood I’m in. Some favor more than others all depending on the mood and context.
Do you have any tips for upcoming singers, producers, and song-writers?
I don’t have any universal tips because everyone has their own path, but something I always try to keep in mind are:
-Always be a student
-Who you are as a person is just as important as who you are musically.
-Always go that extra mile.
-Get to the point
How do you stay focused and productive?
I try to stick to a routine when I’m in town. There’s always something to get better at or learn. That’s the beauty of music..
Who are some of your biggest influences and why?
What are you listening to right now? The Shins, Jonathan Butler, Labi Siffre, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Meshell N’Degeocello, Debussy…
How do you feel about the current state of music?
There’s a lot of amazing music out there. You just have to find it sometimes and not always look for it in the same places.
What do you do for fun when you aren’t working on music?
I’m pretty boring.. I like working out.. Stand up comedy.. Walking for long distances in NYC, like walking from Harlem to Brooklyn is fun. Me and my wife love cooking and going to see independent films.
What’s a crazy experience you’ve had in the industry or a writing session?
I once was on tour Italy and Mark Ronson needed me to come back to NYC for a day to finish something in studio we were working on. I was in this small city that was a 3 hour drive away from the Milan airport. I had another show in 2 days in Italy so I had to leave my hotel at 3am after playing a show the previous night, 3 hour car ride, 9 hour flight, go straight to the studio with Mark all night, then fly back to Italy the next evening and arrive that morning to play a show that night in Italy then off to another city to continue the tour. That was a pretty crazy couple days that I pulled off.