It is difficult to describe in a few words exactly what field Ryan Francesconi runs through. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger, computer programmer, media artist; the list runs on and on. There is one fact that cannot be argued : Ryan Francesconi is one seriously talented individual and this undoubtable talent will be on display in the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork on July 22nd.
Although playing, composing and recording for many years (including 2001 release Ruupert Dances in Fins with The Toids), Francesconi's name has seen a bit more of the limelight recently for his critically acclaimed work with Joanna Newsom on her album Have One On Me. The Portland-based musician's stamp is all over the triple-LP, seen by many (including myself) as a modern classic and Newom's magnum opus, with Francesconi arranging the album as well as playing on the record itself.
'One of the most awe-inspiring musicians I've known... This is solo music that sounds like an ensemble... it is nearly impossible to believe he's picking those strings with one hand'Joanna Newsom
July will see the gifted musician wow the people of Cork with the solo guitar abilities displayed on his 2010 solo release, Parables. The album was recorded live using no overdubs with a solitary acoustic guitar (which is difficult to believe at times there is so much going on simultaneously) his weapon of choice when calling on his love of Balkan folk, American bluegrass and various other styles of improvised music.
The above is only the tip of the iceberg concerning Ryan Francesoni's musical career which has seen him collaborate with various different artists (including Lili De La Mora on the 2006 Eleven Continents and Kane Mathis on Songs From The Cedar House) and explore the world of electronics (the man actually developed his own software to help create the specific sounds he wanted) when releasing material under the RF moniker.
Fortunately Ryan was able to fit in an interview with The G-Man somewhere between a two-week cycling trip and a stint at a Balkan music camp.
Q1. Your latest album Parables is just you and a solitary acoustic guitar. Did this place any extra pressure on you as a musician, especially seeing as there was no overdubbing involved, to get that ultimate, perfect take?
Yes, definitely. In general, a solo piece needs to be near perfect in order to be successful for me. Not just the notes, but the phrasing, dynamics and overall feeling. That being said, there came a point in the recording process where I had to accept that for that moment I wasn't able to play it better. This type of internal compromise helped identify for myself what my own limitations were as well as help direct myself to improve on the weaknesses in the future. Performing the music has also taught me much about it and informs new pieces that have come after the Parables record.
Q2. Was there any stage during the recording process at which you were tempted to overdub even just an extra guitar line to add a little emphasis to a specific piece?
No. The pieces were complete before the recording process began. It was a matter of recording them as best I could. What took longer was understanding that I didn't need to sing as well.
Q3. Earlier albums such as Interno involved a lot of production work (such as on the sound of the guitars) and added effects. How would you compare what you got out of recording those earlier RF albums compared to what you have fulfilled with Parables?
Well - those earlier electronic pieces explored a lot of color and subtle changes. This element hasn't really changed. The genre has changed. I haven't had any desire to listen to those albums in years now so I am out of touch with what I made then. What ultimately told me I should abandon that direction of music was the feeling I got by performing it. It fell flat and was lifeless. It made using a computer on stage necessary and this was a huge crutch for me. I overdosed on the electronics and have returned to a simpler means. I find a solo acoustic performance hugely rewarding.
Q4. Did you find the recording of Parables a lonely experience? I ask as much of your recent work has involved collaborating with talented artists such as Lili De La Mora on Eleven Continents, Mirabai Peart, Kane Mathis on Songs From The Cedar House and Joanna Newsom.
Not at all. The music is about self-sufficiency and limitation. Exploring that is very rewarding an even in non music life I require tons of space and time alone. Playing solo feels natural in that regard.
Q5. Is there any particular artist that you would love to work with in the future?
Tzvetanka Varimezova, Robin Pecknold, and Mirabai Peart. Mirabai will be playing violin with me at the Cork show so you may hear some of these new duets I am writing for us. I'll also be doing some more Bulgarian and Greek influenced pieces in this concert.
Q6. Is there a specific piece on Parables that you enjoy playing live more than the others? Why is that do you think?
I enjoy playing the piece "parables". It is challenging and covers the main concepts that I developed for the record. The current set has a lot of new music in it now as well.
Q7. If money, time, resources etc. were no object what kind of project do you think you would attempt to tackle?
A large scale orchestral album and series of performances. However, solo guitar is a touch more affordable so...
Q8. You are booked to play Cork this July in the Triskel Art Centre's newly refurbished Christ Church. I have been to a few shows there so far and must admit it is a truly beautiful venue. Have you played many (or any) churches before? What venues have struck a positive chord with you personally over the years and why so?
Yes, I've played a few churches. I think it will work nice for the guitar. Silence and space is a vital part of this music, so more formal type venues work best for me. If a devotional aspect is part of the space - even better as the space itself has been more saturated in a respectful peaceful energy. Well... Hopefully!
Q9. Two days later you are pencilled in to play Marley Park in Dublin with Joanna Newsom to thousands of people. What does it feel like to jump from smaller venues, such as Cork's Christ Church with a 250/300 capacity, to venues that hold thousands?
Smaller concerts are always better in every respect except financial. What tends to be the case in the large concerts is that you are divided too much from the audience and are unable to interact with them on a personal level. I prefer making personal connections with people. It sounds like the cork church is a very nice size. I only hope it isn't too empty! That's a big enough capacity to feel lonely if no one comes. :)
Q10. The month of May saw Hauschka performing a live soundtrack (also in the Triskel) to Carl Dreyer's 1932 silent masterpiece Vampyr. Have you ever been approached to do something similar? If you could choose a movie to soundtrack what would it be and how would you approach it?
No, no one has asked for anything like that. I enjoy scoring films, so a live rendition wouldn't be unnatural for me. If I could score a film live I'd prefer it to be shots of nature. Someday soonish I may make the film I have in mind as well.
Q11. How would you compare the experience of playing live with Joanna Newsom and co. to your own solo shows?
Playing with Joanna is a real pleasure. However, she holds it all down most of the time so there isn't all that much pressure on me. It's a very relaxing gig. Playing solo can be a tremendous amount of pressure. I love that challenge. I also enjoy the focus of it. All the energy from an audience has a single point of attention. This is a different feeling than playing in a band where 80% of the attention is placed on the singer and the rest is smattered around. It's a huge challenge for musicians to create a listenable piece of solo music. I would recommend everyone explore it regardless of whether it is to be performed.
Q12. Your paths crossed when Joanna arrived to lay down some tracks for Eleven Continents. If not then but something obviously clicked as the two of you have been working together for a number of years now. What do you think it was and do you think you will continue to work together in the future?
We connected before that project via a shared love of folk music*. The first things we did together was actually lots of improvisations out of that context.
Q13. It is difficult to find any sort of bio, interview, description etc. of you these days that does not mention "traditional Bulgarian folk", "Baroque", "jazz improvisation" etc. Is there any tagline that has followed you around that particularly puzzles or even annoys you and you would like to put the record straight?
I seem to be getting a lot of kora comparisons. That seems a little inaccurate to me but I take it as a compliment. Also there is a much deeper parallel with Turkish Sufi music than Michael Hedges for example. I don't mind what people want to say about it unless it is said with malice. Oddly a few reviews really had some unfriendly remarks. That seems a bit odd to me as at least I feel I'm not all that offensive!
Q14. Last month Steve Reich described his epiphany moment to The Guardian
"At 14 years old, I heard Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and that was the moment I decided that I had to be a composer. It was like the world had gone from black and white into Technicolor."
Was there a particular lightning bolt moment in your life or childhood when you thought "Yes, this is what I was born to do"?
Hmm, good question. I quickly realized as a guitar major in college that I preferred to be a composer rather than a guitarist. That sentiment has played out in interesting ways over the years. I'm afraid as a kid I didn't have anything as high browed as Stravinsky to think about. It was more about Jimi Hendrix and Ozzy Osbourne. Randy Rhodes made me want to learn classical guitar not Segovia. However, once at college I can safely say that both Stravinsky and Bartok were massive massive influences on me. But, the biggest epiphany came when I discovered the folk musics of eastern Europe. Nothing else in my life has near the lasting imprint that this created now and since.
Q15. Besides the obvious tour dates what does the future hold for Ryan Francesconi?
Right now I'm working on two new solo records. One comes out of Parables, the other is more Balkan based. I'm still writing, but hoping to finish the bulk of that by the end of the year. I also hope to come back to Europe in November for more solo dates.
Q16. Ever played the animal game before? (Basically you begin with one letter, eg. 'A', and everyone has to name an animal beginning with this letter. The person who cannot name an animal beginning with 'A' loses one life).
The easy animals such as 'Horse' are always taken quite early so can ye give me a rare animal beginning with 'H' that I can use as back up for the next time I play the game myself? A description of the animal would also be helpful as people tend to try and make up names as well as using mythological beasts! The Wilderness of Manitoba said 'Degu' (a small rat) to 'D' which was far more imaginative than Megafaun's 'Cougar'.
Hydra, the multiple headed sea dragon.+
Ryan Francesconi will play the Triskel Arts Centre's Christchurch on July 22nd. Tickets are priced at €12 and are available online from the official Triskel website, the Triskel box office (located on Tobin Street) and also from Plugd Records (also located on Tobin Street).
*Apparently Ryan and Joanna actually met at a Balkan Music Camp. Obviously...
+Possibly mythological but not confirmed as of yet...