When asked about their inspirations, most, if not all, musicians will often list other artists, especially significant songs or records, or family members who introduced them to particular kinds of music via vinyl LPs from their youth. Francis and the Lights, better known as Francis Farewell Starlite offstage, is not one of these musicians. He credits a single revelation that has influenced all of his work: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Used as a grammar manual in academic institutions, The Elements of Style has an undertone of a minimalist handbook. Using the text as his dogma, Francis and the Lights only performs, writes and creates what he deems absolutely necessary -- excess is not part of his aesthetic.
That being said, Francis has toured with the likes of Ke$ha and other overtly exaggerated pop artists. His sultry, soulful tracks and erratic, yet pure dancing complement the pop performances in a subtle manner.
Out caught up with with Francis at Cochella earlier this year to chat about failure, music, and his fear of Twitter.
Out: Where are you based?
Francis Farewell Starlite: New York City. What publication is this for?
Out? I am so excited!
It's good to have the gays on your side.
Exactly! Makes you look even better.
How did you get involved in lighting? Do you have a technology background, or do you just like the aesthetic?
It's the sound of the word. The idea of extremes: black and white. Black and white could be dark and light. I like that idea. Also in The Last Waltz, Van Morrison is the standout performance when he sings "Caravan." He sings, 'Turn on those electric lights!' I fucking feel that. I am fucking about that.
Your dancing is very unique. Who taught you how to dance?
This fellow named Russell Light. I would watch him dance hip-hop every morning. I think that affected me. Other than that, I think it is the thing I need to work on the most.
Why do you think that?
It's the thing I want do the most. Music makes me want to dance, but it's the thing I work on the least. I have a more casual attitude toward dancing, as opposed to writing songs. This is why I need to work on dancing the most.
At least it's accessible. All you need are your own two feet.
That's true. I can do it right now.
What's your songwriting process like?
Let me think about that for a second. I heard a response from Chromeo three years ago that was so good that I always wanted to answer this question the right way! It was even asked to them in the same way!
Well then, music or lyrics first?
Oh yes, that is always the question. For me, it is music first. It's the melody first. The song for me comes from a melodic upbeat. Everything is attached to that instant.
Do you write in a particular room or location?
I am trying to find one. I don't know where to find one.
Unlike most artists, you credit all of your work to one inspiration: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.
To be honest, my mother gave me that book as a gift. It was surprising to me and unexpected. When it was released, she gave it to me. I think it was a curiosity to her, but it changed my life absolutely. The first time I started to read it, it changed my life completely. It was like a light beam had switched on. It was night and day. It was the beginning of everything that I care about.
Tell me more about it.
It has three parts. The first part is an instruction by E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte's Web, about what the manual is going to be about. The story revolves around a class he took taught by Mr. Strunk. There was a little book that went along with the course. It was a grammar guide. He describes Mr. Strunk's demeanor and style of teaching and the power of this little book. What follows is the music, which is very clinical. It is punctuation and grammar. The book is a writing guide -- when to use a comma and other information. There is so much more to it. It is basically a work of minimalism and human brevity. The other thing that it is, is an argument for doing things the right way, the best way you can, the standard way. One of the rules that I love the most is, 'Prefer the standard to the offbeat.' That is the second part. The third is An Approach to Style. It is E.B. White being a bit freer-flowing. He gives a few rules and there are some longer paragraphs on how to express yourself. His argument is that if you do things correctly, then your style will come through. If you do things succinctly and you say only things that need to be said, that's when style happens. That is when your self comes through. When you try and be something -- that is when it is contrived and confusing. I feel that.
How does that translate into the day-to-day?
I tell myself that instead of writing a book, I am writing a song. Before a performance, I tell myself to only say and play what is important. Ultimately, it's just to do less, do less, do less. It's as hard as it gets. I fail at it more than I succeed. I say to myself, 'Try harder to do less. Just do the thing -- the real thing -- the heart of what it is. Get to that and fuck the extra shit. Do the real thing.' That is what all that is.
You use a lot of jargon associated with visual artists. Many musicians don't talk about failure as much as they should.
I totally agree!
When do you know you have failed?
I think everything I have done has been a failure. I am waiting for the success. I know that once I get that, things will change.
Is that emotional success, creative success, or financial success?
Everything all in one. You know what I mean? You will know it when it happens.
Do you think you are on the right path?
I hope so. I don't know. For me the song is the unit. Once the song is there and the recording is successful, that will be the spark of everything else. I am working on that.
Your work seems very personal. Does that alienate you from collaboration?
You have toured with many pop stars, but I don't think many pop stars come from this kind of literary background. How do your world and their worlds combine?
The bigger, the better! That is all I have to say about that.
Your website is a Tumblr account, which also adds to that visual artist aesthetic you have. What are your thoughts on social media, music, and the Internet?
I am so confused by it. I feel like I am not doing it very well to be honest. The thing is, a great Twitter is someone being themselves publicly. I don't think I can do that.
No diss on Twitter or anybody who uses it. I am scared of how that will leave me out.
There seems to be a movement afoot to return to more traditional forms of communication. Maybe you don't have to be on the Internet.
Right, you don't have to be on the Internet. That would be crazy.
Of course, who knows if you would be at Coachella!
It would be so exciting, though! Right now, in my mind, I am struggling with the question you asked me. I am struggling with it. I don't know! I probably think about it too much. Most people don't think about it because it is life and the world.
Many are facing that issue: What does it mean to be yourself online?
When you want to be minimal and you want everything to count -- that seems anti-Twitter. I love reading peoples Tweets. I loved when Kanye West had something every hour. It was so enjoyable and exciting. As a fan, that is what I want. I know that I can't give that and do that. Hopefully, I will be able to sort it out so I can do it some way, in the way that I want to do things.
Do you have any hobbies? Does anything outside of music exist in your life?
As for Elements of Style, is there a community who also uses the text as a minimalist handbook?
It's an insanely popular book. I think it is one of the most popular books of all time.
But do most use it as a writing guide? Or do others also uphold this ethos?
I would have to assume that others uphold the ethos. I feel like I am jumping on the bandwagon with that. It is nothing new to say that Strunk & White is a great book. All I know is that it really affected me emotionally and personally. So I like talking about it because it is real. It is more real than talking about other bands or anything else. This is the most real shit for me. I feel it. I love it. I read it every night.
Has it become your dogma?
It is my religion. If I feel lost, I come back to it. That last line of that book is the most beautiful thing I have ever read. It quotes a passage of Robert Louis Stevenson talking about a cow in a field. It is so well-written. It is stated so perfectly. This is what I think about it -- you have to do a good job. It reads, 'One cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality. Like the steadfast writer, she is at home in the wind and the rain; and, thanks to one moment of felicity, she will live on and on and on.'
For more info on Francis and the Lights and upcoming tour dates, click here.