Artist Spotlight: Kathleen Frances

    Kathleen Frances is a singer-songwriter and producer hailing from Bristol, a city whose rich musical heritage and creative energy had an influence on her growing up. Since emerging with her debut single ‘Define’ last April, Frances was named a finalist in Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition, earned a spot on the inaugural Pitchfork Paris lineup, and contributed to Secretly Canadian’s 25th-anniversary celebrations with a cover of Electric Youth and College’s ‘A Real Hero’. Last week, she released her debut EP, Through the Blue, a mesmerizing collection of tracks that she created in collaboration with co-producer Ben Baptie (Moses Sumney, Little Simz, Cleo). While her music often zeroes in on themes of uncertainty and existential dread, she grounds her piano-based arrangements in moments of introspection and pure emotion and invites you to sink into them. Frances’ stirring melodies are mostly foregrounded by spare, intimate production, although the electronic flourishes on the percussive closer ‘Baby Blue’ hint at how her sound may evolve in the future. “Like the seasons you’ll be back/ But changed,” she sings.

    We caught up with Kathleen Frances for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing in Bristol, her first attempts at songwriting, her debut EP, and more.

    What sort of memories come to mind when you think about growing up in Bristol?

    Bristol was a great place to grow up. I think it was really easy to tap into creativity living in Bristol. I always thought that was the usual thing, like the fact that there’s street art everywhere, or you see lots of art being showcased and independent businesses really thrive. I just thought that was kind of the norm, and then realizing, actually, it’s not, and that’s a really special thing that Bristol has cultivated. Especially the music scene, there’s so many great artists that have come from Bristol, there’s so much going on, and that’s really inspiring. But I guess also on the other side of that, sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming because everybody’s creative and has something to offer.

    Do you remember it being more overwhelmed or inspiring early on?

    At first, I think it was a combination of both. I was like, this is so cool and I want to be able to do that, but I think I was quite shy as a child. I was always singing but I was quite scared to sing in front of people, so it was good for me in a sense because I could get involved with it and not feel like I had to expose myself. My school had a really strong performing arts department – I remember there was this lovely guy who ran the gospel choir and so I joined the gospel choir. It was so lovely to be a part of it, but I never would want to do a solo or sing in front of people. But just to be able to be engaged with that was really nice, and it also pushed me to come more out of my shell. It’s funny to think, like, if I didn’t grow up here, would I do what I do, and how would I do it?

    Have you thought about that quite a bit?

    I maybe haven’t thought about it so much in terms of music, but I think I’m just one of those people that’s always constantly overthinking things, like different scenarios. [laughs] And if I was born somewhere on the other side of the world, what kind of person would I be? What would I like, what would I not like? I definitely think your surroundings shape you massively, and I can hear that even when I listen to my music. I can hear the influence of Bristol in there, artists that have gone before, artists like Massive Attack and Portishead. There’s no way I can deny that has influenced my sound.

    Do you think the part of your personality that’s prone to overthinking is also what led you to want to write songs?

    Yeah, I guess it’s a way of expressing yourself in a way that is so close to how you really feel and think. For me, that’s when I feel like I’ve written my best lyrics, when I’ve genuinely tapped into what I really feel and what I really think. Sometimes you don’t even realize that’s how you were feeling, and that’s quite a nice thing to discover when you’re writing a song. But also, it’s hard to tap into it sometimes when you’re trying to write something that feels genuine and you’re like, “I just sound like an idiot. I need to take a break.” [laughs]

    Have you sort of learned to tap into those feelings more easily over time?

    Yeah, maybe I can read my mood a bit better now. I went through a period of time of really trying to force it out when I just wasn’t feeling it, I’d just try and listen to stuff to inspire me and then I’d be in a bit of a like circle of like, “Where am I going with this? What do I want to say?” And sometimes you’re just not in the right headspace to access that, and I think I’ve got better at acknowledging that and being like, “It’s OK, you’re not in this place. It’s fine. Just read yourself a little bit better. And don’t worry, tomorrow you’ll probably find something great.” I think it’s just knowing yourself and knowing how you work and what’s the best way for you to create, and I think that’s a really important thing as an artist.

    What were your first attempts at songwriting like?

    Oh god. [laughs] Like, just trying to rhyme. I think my really early attempts were probably quite shallow, one-dimensional lyrics. I think I was always trying to think about the melody before thinking about the lyrics. To be honest, I kind of still do that now, the melody will always come first, and sometimes good lyrics will follow quite soon after that. Early songwriting attempts were probably more exterior things that I was writing about, and I wasn’t  truly tapping into what I was really thinking and feeling myself. I was probably projecting stuff onto other people and I’d write about that more. As I’ve grown up into it, it’s definitely more of how I see things and how I feel about it all.

    I think that definitely comes through on your debut EP. On the subject of growing up, there’s the song ‘Grown’, where growing up almost brings with it a sense of melancholy. When writing that song, what kind of things did you feel nostalgic about?

    One of the thoughts that really popped into my head was, when I was a kid, thinking about all the things I was going to get to do when I was allowed to do them and nobody could tell me what to do. I feel like lots of people probably had that memory from when they were a child, like, “I can’t wait for no one to tell me what to eat or when to go to sleep, it’s going to be so great.” I wanted to capture that feeling, but almost kind of in reverse. When you’re a child, sometimes you don’t see all the freedoms that you do have. And even being that young and how you experience the world, everything is new and you see everything through such an exciting lens that dulls as you get older.

    There’s moments that I feel like we can get that back when we’re adults, and I tried to capture that as well – going out, dancing, forgetting about all the responsibilities. I feel like that is when you feel your most free and potentially your most happy. Those moments are really valuable to me, and especially with the whole last couple of years of the pandemic, it just had really halted a lot of those experiences that we get to have as adults and don’t get to happen every day. I think I was kind of yearning for those as well.

    Do you think that craving for freedom looks different as a child or as a teenager than as an adult?

    Yeah. I think the freedom that you crave as an adult is feeling like you don’t have to have any responsibilities some days. You’re just like, “I just want to be able to not have to pay my rent, not have to pay my bills, not have to answer my emails. I just want to be able to go and do what I want to do.” And I think your perspective as a child is that when you get to be an adult, you don’t even think about those things. You think you can just go and do whatever you want, and you kind of can’t. But also, the things that come with adulthood – you learn so much more about yourself, and within that, feel a sense of freedom.

    But then sometimes I think about my child self, as in like five years old, and sometimes I think back to that person and I’m like, “You actually did know what you wanted and how you wanted to express yourself.” And sometimes I find it useful to think about my five-year-old self and what she liked because there’s so many things that you can do that it gets a bit overwhelming. And sometimes the simplicity of being a child – you just make really simple choices and it doesn’t seem overwhelming. I remember that my five-year-old self basically didn’t want to wear anything that was considered girly, hated pink, and I just wanted to wear tracksuit bottoms, play football. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. And when I went through my teenage years was when I was so confused about what I wanted to be or what was my identity.

    Do you find yourself also tapping into that when you’re making music, the simplicity and playfulness of being a child?

    Yeah, definitely. Life can be so serious and there’s so many big, crazy things going on that trying to tackle those things is kind of overwhelming – like, what is the meaning of it all? And to me, I think it always gets brought back to the simple moments in life that made you feel a certain way or those things that really connect you to living and connect you to being a person. And I think that’s always what I’m trying to capture in the music that I make. I think that’s what makes music so wonderful for people, is that it’s so easy to listen to music and feel a connection, feel an emotion, feel something. I try and capture that within the lyrics as well, so rather than it being about trying to solve something or trying to say something, it’s more about trying to feel something.

    This ties into ‘Shout Love’, which is my favourite song on the EP. I love how it opens the record with this beautifully existential image of lying in the dark and “counting stars to feel how small we really are.” How often do you find yourself having these moments of inspiration that make you feel human?

    Yeah, that’s a really interesting question because I think it’s partly something that I want to feel a lot of the time. Sometimes you try and chase those feelings and actually, it’s in more unexpected times that they kind of happen. When I start to feel disconnected from life or feeling low, it’s those moments that really make you feel alive. What I like about ‘Shout Love’ and what you said about the opening line is that it’s like, you feel the scale of the world and the universe and everything, but then you’re also brought right back into a moment and how you feel and it feels so visceral. Those moments are really special, and I really feel like you know when they’re happening. That song was written in a time where it was such a yo-yo because it was the first lockdown, so I just feel like everybody’s emotions was just this up and down, up and down, up and down. And it was a way of navigating that up-and-down feeling, and the only thing we could do was go to the park. [laughs] So that became the setting of the song.

    You didn’t expect to feel that yearning kind of fulfilled in those moments, but you did.

    Yeah, exactly. It’s wonderful when those things happen, especially in the mundane of a lockdown.

    Can you share a moment like that where you recently felt alive and free that maybe didn’t make it into any of the songs?

    Yeah. This moment, I’ve just been writing about it actually. It was just a really simple moment. I was sat on the floor with my boyfriend in his bedroom, and we were cross-legged like you do when you sit on the carpet when you’re at school. And I don’t know how we ended up cross-legged on the floor, I think I just sat down cross-legged and he came and sat opposite me. And we were just chatting. It was such a simple, innocent moment, and I ended up with my head just in his hands like this, the whole weight of my head was in his hands. We were just talking about random stuff, and I just felt that feeling of like, being in the moment with somebody, you’re sat so innocently on the floor, and somebody’s holding you, supporting you. Everything about that moment felt really beautiful, and I felt that feeling again, of this warmth, this aliveness. Also, finding that within human connection – this EP has been so much about my feelings and my own life, all relating to me, and I feel since the EP, I’ve been noticing my connections with other people more and the importance of that.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Kathleen Frances’ Through the Blue EP is out now.

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