If you were expecting this particular Fran to be a person called Fran, then we’re afraid you may be disappointed. Fran is instead a Chicago based band, formed around the songwriting of actor turned musician Maria Jacobson. Music came to Maria at something of a low point in her life, as a difficult attempt to ingratiate herself into the Chicago theatre scene and a series of failed relationships collided headfirst into her buying a guitar. The instrument became a form of therapy of Maria, a way for her to simultaneously express herself and process the struggles she was going through at the time. Landing a job teaching English in Mexico gave Maria time to work on her craft, and on returning to Chicago the result was the debut Fran album, A Private Picture.
With band in place, Maria has created a record that seems to revel in its truthfulness, Maria pouring her words out in the pursuit of some sort of human connection. The record takes in an eclectic array of influences and genres, yet at the forefront throughout is Maria’s vocal delivery. Whether it’s a grungy howl, a country lilt or, as on the closing track Desert Wanderer, an operatic shimmer, her ability to find the right delivery for the right song, is stunning.
A Private Picture is a record littered with highlights, from the driving slacker-rock of Company, to the Howling Bells-like smouldering indie-pop of (I Don’t Want You To Think) I’ve Moved On. Possibly best of all is the title track, it fizzes with a blend of 60’s rock and lilting alt-country, while Maria’s vocal has a lightness of touch that belies its huge emotional impact, “in the corner of your mouth there’s a word, I don’t understand”.
Fran’s music seems to come from an array of sources, the theatrical flourish of an actor, colliding with the emotional honesty of a singer-songwriter and the creativity of true artist. A Private Picture is an always compelling record demanding the attention it so richly deserves. Following its recent release, Maria was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions discussing future plans, her aspirations for Fran and the amazing women who influence her work.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who is/are Fran?
Fran is the name of my band/songwriting project that is based in Chicago. The live band is me (Maria Jacobson), Ashley Guerrero, Bret Koontz, and Jake Acosta.
FTR: Your debut album, A Private Picture is just about to come out, what can you tell us about recording it?
I recorded it with my dear friend/engineer Luke Otwell. It was all recorded in a studio he shares in Humboldt Park. We did basic tracking in a few sessions, and then spent a few days a week over a few months doing everything else. I did a fair bit of writing and demoing outside of the studio and then we brought in musicians and played some stuff ourselves- doing overdubs of organ, flute, guitar, strings, lap steel, vocals, etc. The album ultimately has 2 different drummers and like 7 or 8 musicians on it total. It was a really challenging and fun process that probably took the better part of a year to complete. I’m glad I worked on it with Luke.
FTR: How did you approach writing the album? How did that differ from writing a single track?
Many of these songs are some of the earliest songs I’ve written, so I think when I was writing them, I didn’t know I was writing an album. It wasn’t until we started recording that I started to shape it into a cohesive album. I like to approach it that way so that I’m not limiting myself in the songwriting process— I can do the editing once I have a body of work to pull from and see what the through lines and themes are.
FTR: You’ve described the album as being like therapy? Is that for yourself or for the listener? Or both?
I definitely feel that songwriting is very therapeutic for me. I get relief and pleasure from working my ideas or feelings out into a song. I can’t speak for the listener, but I hope it provides some of that relief or understanding that I seek from the music I listen to.
FTR: The album’s coming out via Fire Talk Records, how did that come about?
Last year, Trevor (from Fire Talk) reached out and asked us to play a show in Chicago with a Fire Talk band. We weren’t available to play the show, but he asked if I was working on anything new. So when the album was finished I sent it to him, and here we are!
FTR: What track on the record are you most proud of?
I love all my tracks equally, but one that I am really proud of is Desert Wanderer. That one has a long history and also a few recording attempts under its belt. It was one of the earliest songs I wrote, and we tried to record it for the EP, but it wasn’t right. We finally got the chance to give it its time in the studio, which did also include re-tracking drums, and a lot of work on my part writing and demo-ing the string and vocal parts to achieve the build that we wanted. The final touch was the chorus-like vocals in the bridge, and when we played it in the studio, I burst into tears because it had been such a long time coming, and I felt like it was finally fully realized.
FTR: What are your aspirations for this record? Do you see music as a viable career?
My main hope is that people will listen to the record all the way through. I do hope this records lays the groundwork for a music career. I try to be realistic about the possibility of that, which is very unlikely with how the music industry is set up. So I hope to tour and play shows and make more records, and maybe eventually not have to work at a bar as much.
FTR: Who are your influences? What were you listening to when you wrote A Private Picture?
I was/am/always will be influenced by women. Back then it was a collection of 90’s songwriters like Liz Phair, Aimee Mann, Hole, Kristen Hersh, Stereolab. More recently I’ve been looking to my contemporaries for guidance: Weyes Blood, Circuit Des Yeux, Jenny Lewis, Angel Olsen, Ruth Garbus, Caroline Polachek, Speedy Ortiz. Also Luke (the engineer) and I got obsessed with Sheryl Crow during the recording process, which was inspiring because her records are near-perfectly produced.
FTR: We read you were an actor before you took up music, how do the two art-forms compare? Do you think your acting influences your songwriting?
Acting challenges you to find the emotional truth, to find yourself in a character and the character in you. I feel that songwriting is a similar excavation process. Also acting is about making strong choices that move the scene. Songwriting is all about making choices: trying things to achieve a build, convey a mood, or say something in a poignant way. They’re both exploratory and playful in that way. It’s all the same!
FTR: What can people expect from the Fran live show?
A good time! Ashley, Bret, and Jake are extremely skilled and smart musicians who rip, so you can expect that. I’m also really excited for our Chicago release show because we are adding strings and vocalists, so that will be a special experience.
FTR: What’s next for Fran?
We are about to head out on an east coast tour for the record release. Next year we have some exciting stuff lined up which will be revealed in due time, some touring, etc. And then I hope to get back in the studio soon!! Repeat the music cycle.
A Private Picture is out now via Fire Talk Records. Click HERE for more information on Fran.