Fran is the project of singer-songwriter Maria Jacobson, who learned how to play guitar while working as an actor at a summer theater in rural Indiana. After moving to a small city in Mexico to teach English, she eventually returned home to Chicago and assembled a band to perform the songs she had been privately working on. Following the 2017 EP More Enough, Fran released their debut album, A Private Picture, in 2019 via Fire Talk, which has now issued the band’s follow-up, Leaving. Co-produced with Brian Sulpizio, the LP finds Jacobson retaining the beguiling intimacy of their debut while allowing herself to play with its confessional style, oscillating between wonderfully layered and quietly simmering songs, solo acoustic cuts, and moments of sudden abrasion. Personal heartbreak serves as the backdrop for Jacobson to explore ideas around grief, isolation, and faith, a journey that leads her through unexpected pathways and onto a point of connectedness. “I get worried, what if we can’t let each other out?/ And we all say the same old things we always say,” she sings on ‘Limousine’, a burning fear she ultimately quenches with the most honest, compassionate declaration: “I know you.”
We caught up with Fran’s Maria Jacobson for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her background as an actor, honesty in songwriting, the philosophical ideas that inspired Leaving, and more.
I wanted to start by asking you about your background in acting. If you can go back to that time, what drew you to theater originally, and what did songwriting offer that acting perhaps didn’t?
Yeah, it is kind of like going back to being a child. I think it was just something about performing that you either are drawn to or you’re not. And I definitely was drawn to it. As a child, that certainly was an escape, which I think all children need. Also, what you need growing up is something that you can be interested in and get better at, and I followed that thread and wanted to learn more. I was really into acting as an exploration of what it means to be a human, which is kind of the ultimate question underneath all art, in my opinion. In acting, you explore what that means by playing different characters and exploring different scripts of writers who are focusing on one aspect of what this whole thing is.
The thing that became really tiresome as I got older and wanted to pursue it as an adult was that it was just so hard to find meaningful work. You had to do all of these unfulfilling projects just to be doing something. There’s a limited amount of things you can do as an actor that’s your own thing. I became really tired of trying to figure out what people wanted from me and failing at it, and found music to be this new way of exploring the same question, but really feeling like I had control and authorship. I just loved the process of songwriting and all the discoveries that come with that, which you can just do in your bedroom with the guitar or whatever you have. That was just amazing to me as a person who likes to dig deep into my inner life. I always am seeking that kind of outlet, whether it’s in writing or like a really good conversation with someone.
You said that it was hard to find meaningful work, but songwriting also creates the challenge of kind of having to create or find meaning yourself, almost out of thin air. Was that something you had to learn to be comfortable with?
Yeah, definitely. It is also so much more comfortable to be able to hide behind someone else’s work in a play or a film. I had to kind of accept what is coming out, what does this look like – and to borrow from the zeitgeist, a lot of it is very cringe. [laughs] And a lot of it sucks, a lot of it’s bad. But it’s like a mining process where, if you’re patient and you’re listening, something cool can come out of it. The will to write can be spurred on by big feelings, and I think songwriting is a useful tool to figure out what’s going on in those big feelings, because feelings like grief or anger – those are just huge things to carry around. So when you can dig through and focus on a specific event that caused that or a specific moment or a specific image, it makes it more manageable, and you can turn it into something beautiful.
A lot of your music feels to me not so much like an exercise in honesty, but honesty as an exercise, a form of play. I wonder if the years of practice leading up to Leaving have changed your approach to that kind of confessional songwriting; I was thinking about the line “the big mistakes that come with being honest” from ‘God’.
That’s a really interesting question, because I do struggle with it, the idea of being honest. Because that makes you vulnerable, and in the music industry, that’s a scary thing to be. I sometimes wish I could be more withholding and coy, but I just know no other way, in some ways. But I will say, as I’m writing now more, I feel more and more able to maybe distance myself a bit from what I’m talking about – I think in an interesting way, in a good way, not like I’m avoiding to be honest or something. When I first started songwriting, it was the raw nerve, and then with Leaving, it’s very personal, but also, I can play with it a little bit more. I think it used to be like, I have to write this song about this one thing or this one experience or this one person, and now I’ve just become more able to play with the possibilities. With what I’m writing now, as opposed to Leaving, I’m even more playing with how much I’m showing. But it always is me. I guess it goes back to acting, where you’re not turning into a character; you are you inside that character, which I think is a lot more interesting than trying to be something you’re not.
You’ve cited Alan Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity as an inspiration for the album. What did it bring up for you?
I was brought to it very early pandemic. I was kind of expecting a bit of self-help about my anxiety, because the question was like: Who are you when no one is there to validate your experience – when no one is telling you that you’re a musician or a writer, or even funny or upfront, just like, with whoever you’re living with? I was just scraping because I had just released my last record, and that was pretty heartbreaking, to then feel like, I’m not a musician, I can’t be a musician. What is left when our identities are taken from us?
So I started reading it, and it was really not what I expected. It talked a lot about faith – the most striking thing was the difference between faith and belief, which is the difference between letting go and holding on, is how I interpret that. It talked about how all of these religions are trying to get at the same thing, but no heaven can be achieved if you’re holding on, which also is a very Buddhist idea. So it started me on this journey both of personally learning to let go, and what does that look like in this world and in my life, and then also a lot of curiosity about how people have made meaning throughout time, how they’ve dealt with the problem of being alive, which is philosophy. It really gave me a project, a line of inquiry at a time when I needed it.
Did that inquiry coincide with personal introspection?
I think definitely it was a personal inquiry as well, because during that time, for me, mental health was a huge struggle that needed to be attended to each day. I was during quarantine meditating more and writing more, which to me feels like a spiritual practice. Journaling has always been really important to me. Some people will ask, was I was looking for a religious practice, and not necessarily, but it made me more curious and open to different possibilities. I think it was cultivating a new compassion for everyone. Pre-quarantine, I had the privilege of being like, “Music is my passion. This is who I am.” Which is still true. But it opened me up to seeing that everyone is trying to do that. Everyone is trying to make sense of their situation, and that can come in the form of a religion, it can come in the form of substance abuse, it can in the form of a really strong family unit. It can come in the form of being in a silent retreat for three years, or grinding to become a pop star. But everyone is doing the same thing. They’re all just ways of getting to the same thing, which is making sense and making meaning.
Did you come out of that exploration with more confidence in why being a musician is the form that suits you?
I would say both totally yes and totally no. The path of being a musician practically, as a job, is so volatile and difficult – and that was revealed through everything that happened with the pandemic and with streaming services, and literally being quarantined and kind of losing that drive to really get out there and be the thing. So that’s maybe the no side. And then the yes side is like, well, if I don’t focus on that, I can do whatever I want. I can really dive so deep into the the practice of what I’m doing. I don’t have to worry about if it will get me world tours and whatever. That’s kind of where I’m at right now, day before my release, is kind of hinged between those two things. I’m a part of the music industry, I’m releasing a vinyl record into the world, and yet I feel really proud of my work and genuinely want people to hear it. I don’t think I had that clear of a view of it with the last record. I’m just trying to hold on to the reason, the why, the intention behind it.
I wanted to ask you about the songs ‘How Did We’ and ‘How Did I’, which are clearly interconnected, yet they also sound like they each came from a completely different headspace.
Yeah, those were written very far apart. When I was finishing ‘How Did We’, I liked that vamp on the last chord, and I thought it might be cool to blend that into another song. I remember trying to write the second song for a long time, and it wasn’t really happening. I think maybe ‘How Did I’ was the last song I wrote for the record, which was very much where I was at at that moment, which was a completely different place – headspace and physically, different apartments. Mostly I write all my songs alone with the acoustic guitar, but that one felt exactly as it’s supposed to be. And that’s how it was recorded too, just one take.
Can you talk about those different places, the shift that happened between the two songs?
One was living with someone through the quarantine in a relationship. And then the second one was not living with them, post-quarantine, dealing with what happened and how it happened. It was almost like the first is sort of like imagining it or something, and then the second one is deep into the aftermath.
Looking at the album as a whole, were you surprised by how much you ended up letting out and letting go by the end of the process?
Yeah. I think it’s the same process that I talked about from Alan Watts, where it’s not trying to control it. It’s doing what you can so that the song reveals itself to you. Sometimes I will say that it already existed, and you just have to find it. It’s sort of a religious idea a little bit, which is, if you’re quiet and listening, you will receive it. Not to be like “This album was a gift from God” or something [laughs], but just that you have to be patient and trust yourself to know when to push on certain things and when to lay off. Because it’s also a collaboration, so you have to trust other people, you have to let them explore. And you have to let go of maybe what you thought it would be. I’m starting at the album cover right now because I just got them in the mail, and the album cover is a fire, sort of for that reason – it’s this unruly, unknown process that you just have to trust.
One of the takeaways of Leaving for me is that old habits or the stories we tell ourselves can often get in the way of connection. Going off that line from ‘Limousine’, what sort of things do you wish we could tell each other more, instead of sayinf “the same old things”?
Oh, this one makes me emotional. [pauses] There’s two important quotes that I think about in thinking about this question, which is, Jesus: “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” And also, Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s kind of like, we’re all just toddlers with a bunch of shit forced upon us, so we’re having tantrums and we just want to be told: “It’s okay. Of course you feel this way. This doesn’t make any sense.” It’s like, “I understand. I forgive you.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.