The musical mastermind behind Francis and the Lights is a man of few words with a love for Strunk & White
It is deeply bizarre to meet an artist in New York disinterested in hearing himself speak, and Francis Farewell Starlite, the enigmatic musician behind Francis and the Lights, is such a person.
On an overcast morning, Starlite was on a Hudson-side basketball court with little to say and much to do. He changed from black leather oxfords into basketball shoes, set up a tripod holding his iPhone and shimmied up the post to replace a ratty net. Presumably, this was so everything would be perfect for the filming of his daily basketball routine: a series of precisely timed lay-ups, free throws, various dribbling exercises and other sunk baskets. Rarely did Starlite miss a shot.
"I don’t want...to talk...that much."
When asked what he’d use the footage for, his reasons were vague. When asked if filming his practice was a normal start to his day, he thought for a while, as if genuinely unsure, then gently nodded and said, “Lately.” He packed up his tripod, wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “I’m going to sit on that bench for a little while.”
“I don’t want…to talk…that much,” he said, true to his reputation of long silences during interviews and a reluctance to break them. The silence continued into a walk through lower Manhattan, unbroken until he said, “I’m going to buy a carrot juice.”
Francis and the Lights has produced tracks for Drake, Das Racist and Inc, toured with Ke$ha, MGMT and Drake, performed at the Kennedy Center, Radio City, Coachella and South by Southwest, built up a cult following through several stunning music videos and three EPs, and received wide praise (even from Kanye) for both his explosive stage presence and soulful, exacting songs. Not that he’d ever mention it.
However, if you were a fly on the wall during his daily rehearsal of piano scales, and vocal and dance exercises (the latter being methodical repetitions of individual moves to the beat of a metronome) you might assume Francis to be a downtown performance artist practicing a piece no one will understand. And if you were to witness him moving through the city, chewing the ice from his coffee, an idle hand running repeatedly through his hair or taking two steps at a time up subway stairs, you might guess him to be a nervous art student. Or if you overheard him at La Columbe quoting The Elements of Style as if it was his personal holy book (and it is), you might shrug him off as an excitable writing adjunct from NYU.
“Prefer the standard to the offbeat,” he said, quoting a line from Strunk & White’s famed manual on brevity and concision. “I love that book. I just love that book.” He was smiling for what seemed like the first time all day.
But to really see Francis Starlite is to see him working in his studio, a live-work space in Chinatown consistent with the black and white aesthetic of his album covers and music videos: white walls, black floor, not a useless object in sight. A black rotary phone on a white shelf rang. Starlite answered with a bewildered hello, but it seemed no one was on the other side. Just as well — it was time to work. He descended a black staircase through the trap door beside his bed and entered a workspace filled with pianos and keyboards, some solid white, others solid black.
"Prefer the standard to the offbeat, Starlite said, quoting a line from Strunk & White’s famed manual on brevity and concision."
Francis played a new track until he found some kind of snag, made some adjustments, replayed the same three seconds, adjusted again, replayed and so on. Later, he listened to the two complete versions of an unnamed track that will be on his next album. One was slightly more stripped down, but both were rich and leanly layered, though there was a discernable but not drastic difference. He listened intently to both versions, his brow scrunched and his jaw crunching a mouthful of ice, as if waiting on an epiphany. “We’re trying to figure out which version should be on the album,” he explained. He’s going to print both versions and listen to them on a different set of speakers with a friend who’s helping him with the album.
If the rest of the artists, musicians and writers in the city had half the work ethic that Francis has, there would be a massive spike in the volume and quality of work being produced here. Perhaps more importantly, if they adopted some of his reticence to speak about themselves or make explanations of their work, the city would be much quieter.