Sage Francis just wrapped up his US tour dates in support of the new record 'A Healthy Distrust'. Back in his home state of Rhode Island, The Providence Phoenix interviewed Sage and placed him on the cover of their latest issue! Read the following article and go to href='http://www.providencephoenix.com/music/top/documents/04553791.asp' target='_blank'>providencephoenix.com to see the cover.
Words of wisdom
Sage Francis breaks out with A Healthy Distrust
This is a public service announcement from your friendly local arts and music paper: Sage Francis is now, in what must be considered an official capacity, the Next Big Thing to emerge from Rhode Island. It's been some time since folks here have had a real breakthrough --- though it sure ain't for lack of tryin'. Armed with a recording contract with punk institution Epitaph (Bad Religion, the Offspring, et al.), his music appearing on ABC, ESPN, and the Winter X-Games, and an upcoming full-band performance at the Coachella festival, our wordsmith from Providence is the first act in many years to make the hometown folks proud.
And he deserves every shred of success he's attained. As the vegan-inclined, straight-edged front man of such famously verbose local outfits groups as Art Official Intelligence and Non-Prophets, Sage Francis made a name for himself as a square peg in a round rap scene. Starting out as a poet at local slams, his dramatic, free-flowing rhymes and expansive worldview turned heads early on. There was deftness to his wordplay, keenness in his sentiment, and a depth to his intellect that separated him from so many of his aspiring mike dudes.
My mind is a profound universe filled with curse words
My rhyme is a release of peace thought as I disperse verbs
Design a plan of escape into oblivion
Seriously I can't withstand the land that we're both living in
Is he a poet in rapper's clothes, or a rapper cloaked like a poet? Few on the rap scene have blurred the line between rap and poetry with such mad skillz. And to up the ante, he's informed, even politically active --- but not so political as to be single-minded. The fact is Sage Francis refuses to be categorized. "If you're gonna put a label on me," he says, "make sure it's vague because there is no well-defined box that my shape fits into. That's just the truth. I have many directions and I don't like feeling like people expect one kind of thing from me."
What you can expect is a unique view of things. For example, on his rap "The Time of My Life," he watches his own birth:
Consider me to be a fly on the wall with a bird's eye view
I stare, as my birth time drew near
The only Earth I knew reared me in a world I grew to fear
I do appear quite nude and warm
I'm like, "What's up with the lights and the white uniforms?"
You're damn right you're truly wrong when a hand strikes the newly born
"I can't fight," I'm cruelly scorned. In a man's life, the beauty's gone
And it's not just that the guy has a distinct perspective. It's that he can also drape that perspective with dazzling wordplay that never seems gratuitous. His near-rhymes and inner rhymes and alliteration and unpredictable twists make listening to Sage a bonanza for fans of cheeky dueling and stimulating verbiage. He says he'd take on any of today's commercial rappers face to face, word for word. But that wouldn't be a fair fight. If words could slay, Sage Francis would be a serial killer.
And so he proves on his new record, A Healthy Distrust, his first set of rhymes for the Epitaph label and the punk label's first hip-hop signing. We spoke on Tuesday.
Q: You've come a long way since your early days. When the networks started calling to use your stuff, what were you feeling?
A: I was living off of crumbs, sleeping on the floor of an apartment at the time, so I was willing to bend over a little bit in order to get a paycheck and some exposure. No one knew who I was, so it didn't feel like they were pimping my image or name. It was a fun experience too, taught me some things about the industry. It's all been a great learning experience, and I'm here today because of it.
Q: When did it occur to you that you really wanted to turn your poetry into rapping and showmanship?
A: I always knew that. I followed my ambition. I guess rap was my main escape. There was never a doubt that I would continue to do it whether people liked it or not. There was nothing stopping me. All you need to rap is a voice and a brain.
Q: Even when you were unsigned and without a record you were attracting a cult following. How did you manage that?
A: Battles, poetry slams, mix tapes, 12-inches and, most importantly, shows. All of these things gave my name some buzz, so people then checked out my stuff on file-sharing programs. It's at that point that the music sold itself. I was able to tour the world without a single real album to my name. It took a lot of work and that's fine with me. It was either that or nothing. There were no labels that had the vision or understanding I had. They're still looking for the next Eminem and for some reason they just don't understand that that's not where it's at.
Q: What is the significance of your new album's title, A Healthy Distrust?
A: I think people should have a healthy distrust and a healthy skepticism of any authority, especially in a world that has been repeatedly screwed by abusers of power. It is important that post-9/11 generations understand this, even though they've been systematically convinced by government and media that dissent is bad. Dissent is essential. I mean, look at the things around you and figure out why they are the way they are. Who is responsible for putting these institutions into place and how do they affect you and the quality of your life? Don't accept everything at face value, basically. Question why the media is telling you what they're telling you and what ulterior motives there may be behind that information. Who owns what? Government, relationships, music, religion, friendships, schools --- give them all a long, hard look. If we plan on breaking the pattern of lies and deceit that the masses have been brought up into, it is incredibly important. We have truth and rationale on our side, but it's going to take a good amount of work to raise awareness in areas where people have become numb to such things.
Q: The production on your albums is definitely unique. What philosophy did you follow putting together the new record?
A: When I put this album together I picked the beats that I thought fit the mood I wanted most for this album. The beats were done by Danger Mouse, Joe Beats, Reanimator, Alias, Sixtoo, Controller 7, Daddy Kev, Varick Pyr, and there's a lot of live instrumentation. There's a good variety of sounds and styles, but I recorded and mixed all the songs in the same place to give the album as much of a cohesive feel as possible. Some of the beats on A Healthy Distrust are an homage to producers of the classic hip-hop era. But I wasn't overly concerned with sticking to any traditional sound. I wanted an aggressive punch with the sound of the album, but mostly I just let it develop naturally. As I recorded the songs I followed the flow of things and tried to capture the most natural progression of sonics.
Q: What did Epitaph offer to you that you couldn't get on a smaller label or on a major?
A: Hip-hop and punk have a lot in common, but don't tell the purists of each respective genre that. As for me signing to Epitaph, the hip-hop labels that are big enough to handle the demand of my music put out shitty rap records and I don't want anything to do with that. Epitaph showed a genuine interest in what I talk about and how I do my music, whereas the hip-hop labels poked around to see what kind of molding they could fit me into. It is an honor to be on the same label as the Rhymesayers, the Coup, Quannum, and Looptroop, not to mention Bad Religion, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland, and Noam Chomski. It took a punk rock label to treat hip-hop with a little respect and dignity in the 2000s. Irony is not dead.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your live show these days? Do you plan anything special for Coachella?
A: Currently, I have Tom Inhaler on guitar and a group called Sol.iLLaquists of Sound backing me up. DaVinci is the DJ but instead of turntables he played two MPCs (beat machines). Swamburger is an emcee that helps me on vocals and there are also two female backup singers named Alexandra and Tanya. It's an intense show with lots of interaction between us and some silly choreography. The shows were so crazy that I blew my vocal cords out. I get totally carried away and end up with scratches and bruises all over my head and body. There are things that I feel on stage that I don't feel anywhere else. It is a complete release and it keeps my fire burning. I have severe health issues because of how I perform actually.
Q: What album has been the most intense experience for you?
A: All three of them beat the shit out of me. There isn't one particular album that took more soul or time to create. I allocated a few years of my life to each project and I let their theme simmer in my conscience well before completing it. Personal Journals has me addressing a lot of personal issues, which was liberating. HOPE has me paying tribute to the hip hop I loved while growing up, which is liberating. A Healthy Distrust is more social commentary than anything, and I've been waiting for my chance to do something like that. I keep learning more and more about making albums as I go, so maybe someday I will have a favorite album filled with my most intense and intimate experiences, but I doubt it.
Sage Francis plays at the Living Room on Thursday and Friday, March 24 and 25. His Coachella date, in case you'd like to make plans to head out to the California desert to see him alongside Coldplay and the Pixies, is April 30.
BY BOB GULLA