JW Francis has followed up on We Share a Similar Joy with new album Wanderkid, which arrived on October 1st from Sunday Best Recording. It was an album that, for him, functioned in a kind of predictive way, since he fully intended to live up to the freedom-loving spirit of the record by quitting his job and hiking the entire Appalachian Trail after finishing it. Following through on his plan, he set off for four months of hiking, and returned to New York shortly before the album’s release. Now, JW Francis will be playing a live show in New York on October 8th at Elsewhere and embarking shortly on a UK headlining tour.
I spoke with JW Francis on release day from New York where he was thrilled to be reunited with his guitar after many miles without it. We talked about the pros and cons of the restlessness conveyed in title track “Wanderkid”, but also about his big experience of taking the Trail for months, his approach to live shows, and how he usually create songs with his signature “Low-Fi” approach.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Have you been working towards this album throughout this period following your last album release?
JW Francis: Yes, it was right when the first album came out that I started thinking about the second album. It’s kind of a safeguard for me, so I can think, “Who cares what they think of that album? I’ve got another one!” I don’t really put any eggs in the basket. So it was time for number two and luckily, we had recorded a lot of it before even the first lockdown. This one was already marinating for a long time. I had a huge vision for it. If you see my jacket in the “Wanderkid” video, that was supposed to be a full superhero costume. Me and my Dad were working on a comic book. It turns out, it costs a lot of money to make a superhero costume and takes a long time to make a superhero comic.
HMS: Don’t give up! Do a comic someday.
JWF: I’m not giving up. But I wrote a short story for this album and it’s going to be with some of the limited edition vinyl in the UK. I like doing a written piece for each album. This album is funny because it’s all about wanting to quit my job, leaving my life in New York, and going and doing something else. Because of that, I felt I had to live out the album in some way before it came out. That’s really what inspired this whole year for me, which was quitting my job and going to walk the Appalachian Trail.
HMS: Congratulations, since that’s clearly something you wanted to do, and you followed through. How long was the process of doing the Trail?
JWF: Four months. I was out there for 124 days. [Laughs] I still haven’t trimmed my beard, it’s so crazy. I was covered in mud.
HMS: The main reason I’ve never done the Trail is because I don’t think I’m physically up to it. Do you have to be really up to it? Did you train for it?
JWF: I tried to train a little bit, mostly stretching. The Trail was a dream, but music is still my number one, so I was worried about doing anything that might interfere with my big dream of music. But, honestly, no, there were people out there who had not trained at all, including a lot of retired people. There was a man out there who was 84 years old. It’s obviously a huge physical challenge, but it does not stop people.
HMS: What was the experience like for you as a person and as a musician?
JWF: The weirdest thing about it was that I didn’t have a guitar with me the whole time. That’s the first time, ever, in my life, that I haven’t had a guitar the whole time. I’m bursting right now! Every time I sit down, I play. Right now, I’m couch surfing with friends in New York, so I just show up on the couch and noodle with my guitar for hours.
HMS: You’re making up for lost time! I can imagine writing an album like this one after doing something like the Trail, but you anticipated it with the music. So now, though, you might have a musical reaction to that experience which is coming next.
JWF: Yes! Which is cool because I always plan way too far in advance. I have too much music written, and I don’t want to throw it all away. I also want to interact with my own life honestly. I have all these ideas now after doing the Trail that were not part of my plan at all. I already wanted to do a Post-Punk album. I already wanted to do a Folk album, going into the forest. But after this experience, I actually have a very specific album that I want to write called Sunshine, because that was my name on the Trail. Now I’m working on that. The album’s coming out, but all I want to do is write the next one.
HMS: You must be a musician. I’ve heard this before. This album has a lot of layers and electronic elements. On your upcoming UK tour, are you going to try to reproduce them in performance, or change things up?
JWF: I always change things up. I’m kind of an anti-perfectionist when it comes to performing the album live. I just think that’s way more fun for everybody. I used to do this thing whenever I would tour before having a label. I was very scrappy and DIY. For the tours I would do, I would just put out a call on Instagram and say, “Hey, if you play a guitar in this town, would you want to play in my band?” We’d just set up the band and we would rehearse at sound check!
HMS: Woah! That’s faith.
JWF: All my musician friends think I am not a serious musician or that I’m crazy. Everyone I know who is a solo musician, they are solo because they want it to sound a very specific way. I’m like that when it comes to recording, but when it comes to live. Bands can get trapped in a sound trying to recreate it every night and that can be a little sad. Sometimes it’s very impressive, but sometimes it’s sad. When I would do those shows, it would be crazy because one night you’d have a Jazz drummer, and another night you’d have a Heavy Metal drummer. The songs themselves would sound so different, and I’d introduce it that way. I’d say, “I just met these guys on Craigs List. We’re going to figure it out right now!”
HMS: That is incredibly Punk. I have a huge respect for that. That’s real flexibility! Your video for “Wanderkid” has been released and the song gives me some different reactions. I feel like the song has a lot of positivity, but then there are also questions about whether this idea of wandering is entirely a positive thing. There’s a whole idea that you can change your location, but you might not be changing yourself when you travel, for instance.
JWF: Yes, it’s like, “What am I running from? What do I want? And why do I have to keep running to find it?” “Wanderkid” is about having that driving urge to move, go, get out, go onto the next thing, but also not knowing anything specific. All you know is that you want to get out. That’s a big reason that I wanted to walk the Trail, it’s just constant movement. You’re never sleeping in the same place, but it’s also not wandering around aimlessly. You always know what you’re doing. It kind of lets you slip into being nobody and doing nothing.
HMS: All these things about identity aren’t there either, right? You don’t even have to tell anyone you’re a musician.
JWF: Nobody has any expectations of you. Sometimes I didn’t even tell people that I was a musician. Sometimes when I did, people said, “Wow, that’s so cool! What kind of music?” You get a lot of questions and sometimes you don’t want any questions. There are no e-mails out there. It’s pretty heavenly.
HMS: The worlds of technology and that world of the Trail don’t really go too well together.
JWF: They don’t. And when I got back to New York, I acted like, “A wanderer has no preferences. I don’t schedule. I don’t calendar.” That does not fly here! People get annoyed really quickly. [Laughs]
HMS: To put a final note on the “Wanderkid” restlessness idea, the song did remind me that sometimes that feeling can be very useful. Because it tells you that you haven’t found something that you are, possibly, moving towards. It doesn’t let you get too comfortable, I guess.
JWF: That’s it! That’s exactly it. That’s the whole point of the album. When I was with my best friend, Joe Fusco, and did that first album, it’s way more of a blanket and cocoon, telling you that everything is okay. Me and my friend had this kind of idea life with a great apartment and great jobs. Then we decided to blow it up because it was too comfortable. I don’t want to be too comfy.
HMS: I feel like some of the songs on this album are about human connection. Also, a lot of the songs on the album are very upbeat. Is that a conscious thing for you, or do you just find that’s what happens?
JWF: Yes, that’s just what happens. I’m very hard-wired to be positive, as a person, but people listen to the music and say, “Something else is going on. You’re not all happy.” For sure. If you listen to songs like “Cars”, “Don’t Fall Apart”, or “I’m Probably a Ghost”, and there are definitely some undertones of sadness. But I think songs just kind of come out that way. I just end up wanting to shake my hips.
HMS: I did notice on the song “Maybe” that things were a little more low-key and questioning. But that was a little refreshing that it was a bit different.
JWF: That one was a little bit more delving into anxiety for sure, asking, “Will I? Won’t I? What will I do? Should we meet up? I don’t know.”
HMS: I also wanted to call out “John, Take Me With You” as a really great song. And the video is so sweet, too. That’s what I meant about some of the songs being about human connection, though that song and video are as much about a feeling or a mood, I think.
JWF: Yes. I really wanted it to be the first song because it kind of sets the tone for the rest of the album of, “Get me out of here.”
HMS: It reminded me of being a teenager and not having my own transport, and hearing that some friend was going somewhere and saying, “Oh my God, I have to go with you.” That becomes your salvation.
JWF: [Laughs] Exactly.
HMS: What do you usually do when you’re creating sounds for a song? Do you write to go with lyrics?
JWF: The way I usually do it is that I’ll make a demo in my room. I’ll almost always start with music. For “I Love You”, it started with a little Casio keyboard that I bought on eBay. I just started playing the chords for that. Then I came up with the baseline. And it’s a weird song because I’m just singing the bass line. I have yet to write a song lyrics-first. I’m excited to try that someday, but so far it’s always been music-first. Then I try to get the best sonic snapshot I can of what I’m thinking in terms of the mixing and whatnot.
Then I’ll send that to my Producer, Sahil [Ansari], and he is a genius, alchemist sound-man. It’s often his idea to put all these little bits of percussion. He’s really the one who makes the whole thing drip and ooze with warmth. I’m always saying, “I want it to sound more warrrrm! I want it to sound more real!” He’s the only person who “gets it”. Every time I’ve worked with somebody else, it sounds too polished. I say, “I want it to sound bad!” They won’t do that for you because it looks bad for them. Sahil knows how to do it bad but good.
HMS: I totally get what you’re saying there. If you are working with both analog and digital, you really have to have a producer who knows how to do that.
JWF: Exactly, or it just sounds generic. I’m doing as much physically as possible, playing the guitar and bass, but when it comes to percussion, Sawhill has a room full of toys. We like to have a mic in a room full of toys.