Q&A with Sage Francis

Sage Francis has become one of the most accomplished spoken word and hip hop lyricist over the last 10-15 years, standing for an advanced level of creativity and skill that goes far beyond the cheap tricks, trends and gimmicks that hold prominence in modern rap music. A poet of immense wordplay detailing his environments and state of perception in the rawest of processes, his works are as fiery and stark as they are elegant and beautiful. Politics, socialism, class wars, mental chains, media, the physical self, family, working relationships and every other pivotal aspect of life finds a place in his deeply interwoven lyricism. His vocal cadences, tone and rapid velocity rhyme meters offer an unlimited amount of canvas space for his stories to emerge with resonance and it’s always been a powerful channel to tap into since his beginnings. Sage’s state of independence with his self-owned Strange Famous Records reflects his uncompromising stance and stability with his art and lifestyle. Officially releasing his debut LP Personal Journals on the influential Anticon imprint in 2002, Sage has travelled the world many times over since and continues to release material that evolves from his past works. His voice is the singularity, bridging the variety of landscapes he raps over in a way few artists have retained creative longevity within. His lyricism has been at megalithic levels since his first album and there’s never been a dull moment in his career since. Taking a bit of silence from the demand of touring to fulfill paths of more personal nature in the last few years along with expanding his imprint, Sage surprisingly emerged this year with a brand new full length in Copper Gone. It’s yet another leap forward in his unique brand of musical flavor, subject matter and overall aesthetic in art. It’s the album that he has shaped in the engineering process the most, taking on duties he has no formal training in and bringing a high level of execution to the final product that tells a very different story. It’s incredible to hear an album like Copper Gone with a heavy state of sonic variety and passionate vocal deliveries unlike anyone else out. It comes from an artist who is over a decade into his career and shines far brighter then albums acclaimed in the biggest of publications. We were able to catch up with Sage this summer to talk about Copper Gone and where things have been going now that he’s in this new stretch of his life. Touching on track placement, work ethic, Strange Famous Records, Anticon, production features, long time music colleagues, lifestyle changes and much more, it brings us much joy to bring you this exclusive interview with one of hop hop’s most respected and talented individuals. If you are in Europe, Sage will but touring heavily through October and November. Full dates here. Erik: I’ve been absorbing your new record Copper Gone for a few weeks now and I truly feel it’s your best work to date both sonically and lyrically. Not to take anything way from your past works of course. Process is something I have always enjoyed getting a deeper window inside of. What experience or experiences first come to mind when you think about the time that you were creating Copper Gone? Sage Francis: I know what my motivating factors were for this album, but they’re not easy to explain. I was in a bad place and I wanted to get out of that place. When I think about the album now, I think about the desperation and stress I was feeling in regard to my personal life and professional life. As I was suffering from a chest infection, I remember the physical pain while recording in my house. I think about how I had to record some of these songs 100 times. Haha. Fuck, I remember not being able to record one of the songs for a long time because the words still hit too close to home. But at the tail end of album process, I was lucky enough to build a strong relationship with someone who is very important to me. I think it has helped me enjoy Copper Gone the way that I needed and deserved to. Erik: It was really nice to see the Buck 65 review of your album. I love that dudes work! When I hear the track you two put together (“Make Em Purr”), a lot of memories flood to mind about Anticon and the beginning era of the label. With Copper Gone representing an entirely new phase of your life, does the memories of your Anticon days become prevalent when working on new content? Sage Francis: Not really, but that’s mainly because my process hasn’t changed all that much from the early days. So it’s not like I’m ever wishing that things were like how they used to be “back in the good ole days.” It’s still almost exactly the same for me. I write in different types of ways, I collect different types of music, I build the concepts as I go and eventually I chisel a particular form out of the slab of rock. Since the late 90’s, the weight and responsibility has always been on me to produce and put together fully fleshed out albums. I did one album with Anticon, and I continue to work with Alias on a lot of stuff, but my relationship with them as an entity was more of a business dealing. What I do miss about the early 2000’s is how brand new it all felt. That brand new feelings makes for a nice feeling of community. It also felt like a consolidated effort on everyone’s end, which made things like Scribble Jam so fun. It’s a whole new era now where things are all spread out, so it’s tough to compare. Erik: You have been operating your own imprint Strange Famous Records for well over a decade and have a really strong crew now. Completely in a state of independence, what are some of the defining elements that makes your label what it is to you? Sage Francis: We have a built a strong, long lasting, direct relationship to the fans over the year. We are a very small team and each one of us has to juggle many tasks. I have no interest or desire to grow this label in a way that would compromise quality. Sometimes a staff will get so big that they have to release albums just for the sake of reliable income. Well, that’s not something I’m interested in. We’ll shut our doors before doing something like that. Also, I don’t actively seek out new artists. If they catch my ear and I trust that they’ll do what they need to do in order for all parties to benefit, then I’ll reach out and see what they might want to do. I’ll be honest though — at this point I don’t care to put my time, money, influence or energy into more artists. I’m fine with our roster as it is. In fact, I’d be more apt to shrink the roster than grow it from here on out. We’ll always be glad to host people’s music on our site and help them sell albums, but I don’t really care to take more time and energy away from my own work to develop other artists. I can barely stand to jump through the industry hoops for myself, nevermind doing all of that for a new artist who thinks that releasing half-baked music for free in order to get Facebook “likes” is a priority. Says Cranky Frank. Erik: How did it feel to get back the test pressings for the vinyl on Copper Gone and what does it mean for you to have your music on wax? Sage Francis: I can remember the first time my voice was on vinyl. It was a magical experience. I still refuse to look into the science of how vinyl records work because I’m trying to keep the last remaining bits of magic in my life. When you release something on vinyl, it shows a fair amount of investment and dedication in your work. Most people will never know all the pain-in-the-ass elements involved with releasing music on vinyl. And good for them…because that’s the magic they should keep in their life. However, when I received the test pressing, all I could think of was, “This better fucking sound good because we’ve already lost a lot of time and money trying to get this fucker available to the public in a reasonable timeframe.” Magic! I must say though, a relief washed over me when I listened to it. Everything worked out perfectly. And when I finally received the official copies I was taken aback by how gorgeous they looked. Big, big salute to Irena for the overall design, Inkymole for the illustrations and Storm for facilitating everything with the vinyl pressing plant. No small task. Erik: Touring is just as critical of a process as the creation and release of an album to us. How is the new material translating live and how much room do you leave for improvisation and deviation around the new material? Sage Francis: It’s always daunting to put together a performance full of new material. You never know how it will work live, so you prepare as much as you can and leave a fair amount of room for improvisation and growth. I’m still learning how to perform this new material in just the right way, but I’m proud to say that these new songs came the fuck off on stage. It helped a lot that I had a visual display and people doing back up vocals, but I can’t always rely on that. What I truly love is when the crowds decide for themselves what lines they are going to shout out. I get a sense of it just as they’re figuring it out, and then I tweak my performance. THAT is a great perk of being an artist with fans who love and actually listen to the music. They become participants, and most of the time it’s unprompted. But, again, there’s no way to expect that or prepare for it when the songs are brand new. I’m developing a sense for it right now. Erik: When did you first realize your gift for wordplay and rapping and how did that start to translate into being able to create your own songs? Sage Francis: Now that you mention it, I’m not entirely sure when wordplay found its way into my writing. I think it just eased into my writing style over a number of years since my earliest raps weren’t especially…clever. Maybe for my age and at the time they were, I don’t know. But I’ve been writing songs since 4th or 5th grade with no one to judge me but myself. And, as the cliché goes, I’ve always been my own worst critic. I think I made a major leap in writing quality around 10th grade, and then I found my own voice around 1996. I wasn’t just emulating my favorite rappers anymore, I was finding my own style, subject matter and deliveries. Soon after that I started focusing on full albums and projects rather than just compiling random verses. Erik: There’s an ominous and weight inducing vibe on Copper Gone that puts me in a very special mood. All of your albums evoke a poetic sense of mystery and intrigue that makes me go back for repeated listen after another, canvasing specific lyrics and picking out new tones and relationships of every kind. Copper Gone is just as important in that sense to me. I am a firm believer that track placement is just much of a skill as mastering or raw song creating and plays into the emotional fabric of the whole unlike anything else. Was track selecting and placement difficult for the album or was that a natural and seamless process? Sage Francis: Album arrangement is important to me and I put a lot of effort into making sure the order of songs works well. It has to make sense as far as content, energy, tone, and a lot of intangible items are concerned go. I’m not so sure how important that is now as it once was, considering how easily people can (and do) cherry pick songs to make their own playlists, but I’m too neurotic to overlook this part of album making. Also, something that might bug people a bit, is the way I often meld songs into one another. My albums aren’t just a collection of songs that begin and end on their own. Whatever the case, by the time all of the songs are finished, I typically have a very good idea of what their relationship is with one another. Sometimes I have to separate sibling songs and they cry to me in the night. Erik: The body of hip hop is expanding in many different directions right now. If you were to give hip hop a progress report in these times, what type of notes would be left? Sage Francis: I don’t listen to enough hip-hop to give a well informed report. But every time I check out a new artist who’s getting significant blog buzz, I’m always left feeling like they’re purposely rapping poorly…and somehow rapping like you don’t know how to really rap is cool. If it’s not that, they rap on point but they sound exactly like another emcee, which absolutely enrages me. My physician has suggested that I stop giving a shit. Cold turkey. Focus on my own work, let the rest make sense of it however they wish. Erik: Outside of the music culture that you are deeply embedded into, what makes you most happy right now? Sage Francis: Late night coffee and preparing for a world tour with my partner. Erik: What’s the most beautiful piece of music you have heard this week or lately? Sage Francis: It’s not new, but “Orobroy” by David Pena Dorantes has been my song of 2014. Erik: What were the biggest challenges in manifesting Copper Gone and breaking your touring silence? Sage Francis: I had to do virtually everything on my own as far as recording goes. Even more so than with previous albums. I used to record in a studio with an engineer, but he moved to California. I’m not the most tech savvy person, so it’s a modern miracle that I was able to get done all that I did with the equipment that I have in my house. It would only make sense for me to actually record this type of album in my house though. Beyond the physical challenge of delivering the vocals while dealing with walking pneumonia, the very act of getting good takes, saving the good takes, organizing the recordings, editing everything, getting the music stems from each producer, reworking material when need be, and on and on…into the whole mixing, mastering, and album art process. It was a motherfucker. Haha. I love it though. As for touring, I just had to get back in the saddle, prepare to build this whole thing from the ground up once again. I’m part road, so it wasn’t too difficult. Erik: What can we expect from Strange Famous Records this year and next? Sage Francis: This year I will be doing 37 shows through the UK and Europe I’m hoping to follow that up with tours in Australia, Japan and South Africa, but I’m still trying to lock things down. A couple more videos from Copper Gone will be released before year’s end, but I don’t know when I’ll start working on a new album just yet. B. Dolan’s new album will come out in 2015, which is something he’s been working on for the better part of 4 years. It’s hard as hell. The Metermaids will have an album called We Brought Knives, which will drop around October or November of this year. It’s heavy, heartfelt stuff and the production is gorgeous. Both of those albums are definitely something to get excited about.