A new release from the great Michael Franks is a highlight of any musical year but the advent of the sublime ‘Time Together’ has been rendered that much more special by the fact it has been five years since his previous project, ‘Rendezvous In Rio’, first hit the streets,. When recently I talked with Michael from his home in New York State the topics ranged from the weather, the autobiographic nature of ‘Time Together’, his passion for British television crime drama and many things in between.
“It was in 2006 that ‘Rendezvous In Rio’ was released” Michael confirmed. “Much like always, in the intervening time, musical ideas had been running through my head. They had kind of built up over time. I often come up with small snippets of melody, grooves really, that I keep and go back to when I think the time is right. It’s surprising when I do that how some of them fit right in with what I’m doing. I always start with the music. Then I add the lyrics later. I started to write the songs over a year ago and everything really flowed from there. “Yes, the ideas behind some of the songs are often autobiographical. They do come from experiences I have had but”, he added wryly, “they are often tempered with a little poetic licence.”
I had noted that four of the tracks from ‘Time Together’ had been recorded and produced by Chuck Loeb. He also plays guitars and keyboards on both of them. I wondered how this collaboration had come about.
“Chuck and I go along way back”, Michael explained. “In fact he was in my band at one time and most recently produced, and performed on, two songs from the ‘Rendezvous In Rio’ album. When it comes to the music, Chuck’s first thought is often the best and I value that a lot. These days it’s the norm to work virtually. We tend to e-mail musical ideas back and forth but this time around we even grabbed some studio time. Using technology makes a lot of things possible and in terms of budgets is very cost effective but being in the same place at the same time is hard to beat.”
One of my favourite tracks from ‘Time Together’ is the whimsical but totally beautiful ‘Mice’. It features vibraphone from Mike Mainieri and I was curious to know what the thought process had been in using this particular instrument.
“That’s easy” Michael told me with a smile in his voice. “It was good luck. I happened to be in a studio at the same time as Mike and it seemed a great idea to include him. We had worked together before, in fact as far back as 1979 on my ‘Tiger In The Rain’ CD and I had always enjoyed his performances with his own band Steps Ahead. I’m pleased that people seem to like ‘Mice’. They have started to ask for it when we play live. I also love the way the vocal by Beth Nielson Chapman turned out. It adds so much to the entire piece.”
A common strand in the music of Michael Franks has been the changing seasons. One need look no further than ‘Time Together’ and songs such as ‘Summer In New York’, ‘Now That Summer’s Here’ and ‘If I Could Make September Stay’ for examples of a recurring theme. In fact, as far back as 1993, the title cut from ‘Dragonfly Summer’ provided further evidence of this familiar premise. It was also endorsed by the mesmerizing ‘How I Remember You’ from the same collection and I was eager to understand why it was that this particular subject provided such a rich vein of musical inspiration.
“Its true that I am intrigued by the changing of the seasons” he said. “There is something artificial in the way it happens. There is something about being indoors in winter or collecting logs for the fire in late fall.” I recalled the classic line ‘the silence of snowfall in winter…’ from ‘How I Remember You’ and Michael reminded me that in 2004 he had released ‘Watching The Snow’ which, with nine seasonal originals, was based entirely around that same idea.
I was aware that Michael was born in San Diego and had gone to college in Los Angeles. Given the difference in winter temperature I asked him how it was that he was now living in upstate New York where last year an ice storm had resulted in a power outage and only the previous week he had again been without power (this time for eight days) as Hurricane Irene tracked its way north east.
“The weather wasn’t the main reason I ended up here” Michael commented “although we are now quite adept in handling three feet of snow when the situation arises. I first moved to New York Cityin 1977. In a way I was drawn to it by the jazz scene that is such a part of the place. My wife is from New York too. We lived in the city and at the weekend would go up to Woodstock where we had what was not much more than a tiny cabin. That was in 1979 and sometime later we got to thinking that it might be nice to do the commute in reverse. In other words, live up there and come back to the city as and when. So we did it. We found a place and that’s where we are.”
One vivid image of ‘Time Together’ is that drawn by the title cut and the fact it is dedicated to Michael’s recently deceased dachshund Flora. I also knew of his work in support of animal charities and I enquired if there was now a new dog in Michael’s life.
“They are all so very different so it’s not a matter of getting another as a replacement.” he elaborated. “Each of them has their own unique personality. We do have another dachshund at home and several cats as well. My wife helps out at an animal shelter in the nearest town to us.” Was there a temptation to bring home more animals I wondered? “Always” he conceded, “but we try to resist. I’m donating the royalties from this song to Hearts United for Animals which is the rescue organization from which we adopted Flora.”
Finally I asked Michael about his current US tour in support of ‘Time Together’. Dates in Seattle and Houston have already been scheduled for early October and he will be on the east coast during November.
“The Jazz Alley in Seattle is a great little atmospheric jazz club Michael enthused. “It has terrific sight lines for those watching. “As well as ‘Mice’ we have also added ‘Now That The Summer’s Here’ to the live shows. Its great that people are taking to it so well.”
Are there any plans to tour in EuropeI asked? “We would love to. Both my wife and I are great fans of British television crime drama. We have the boxed sets of shows such as ‘Inspector Morse’, A Touch Of Frost’ and Inspector George Gently’. I have never been a great coffee drinker and we even buy loose tea on the internet. I did some shows in Russia and stopped off in the United Kingdom on the way back. We had hoped that maybe some performances could be worked out but it wasn’t to be. Who knows, maybe one day?”
Whatever Michael Franks does next, and wherever his music takes him, it is certain that eighteen albums in, his mellifluous meanderings on life and the things he holds most dear will continue to delight. ‘Time Together’ is a consummate example of his art and comes highly recommended.