music in the park san jose

.Frances8 Music as Therapy

Oakland band works through life’s traumas and joys

music in the park san jose

The songs Nicole Laby writes for her band, Frances8, deal with real-life situations in a literary manner that’s one step removed from the usual pop music approach. “I like to dig beneath the surface,” Laby said. “I’ve been a therapist for 30 years. I work with a lot of people who are dealing with family dysfunction, so I see music as a vehicle to work through my own traumas and issues.”

She added, “After we play a show, people often come up and tell me that our songs speak to their own troubled history. It’s gratifying to help others who are struggling and connect with them through the music.”

The Oakland-based band’s latest album, I Know the Sparrow’s Song, deals with the subjects of love and romance, but also touches on sibling rivalry, homelessness, aging and death. The players—Revi Airborne-Williams on violin, viola and backing vocals; Mark Fassett on lead electric and acoustic guitars, and backing vocals; Jason Roberts on upright bass; Michael Tornatore on drums; and Laby on rhythm guitar and lead vocals—embrace elements of folk, rock, R&B, Americana, jazz and subtle international rhythms to get the message across.

Laby said the songs usually come to her in a flash of inspiration. “Years ago, I used to tell myself, ‘I’m going to sit down and write a song,’” she said. “These days, they seem to materialize while I’m doing the dishes, or out hiking with my dog. Then, I go flesh them out on the guitar and structure them. I use my iPhone to make a voice memo of the melody, then I send the lyrics to my Dropbox file and share them with the band. In rehearsals, they all write their own instrumental parts.”

I Know the Sparrow’s Song was recorded in three days, in a studio the band set up in a friend’s home. Everything had been planned out and rehearsed in advance, at the practice space Laby maintains in her home. Airborne-Williams, Tornatore and Fassett have played in various projects with Laby for decades, so the process unfolded smoothly.

“We keep at it until we get everything right, and we laugh a lot,” Laby said. “We really like each other and, if issues arise, we work them out. There’s no drama.”

The songs on the album showcase the band’s eclectic mix of electric and acoustic instruments, and the depth of Laby’s lyrical approach. Fassett plays long, sustained notes on the electric guitar, mimicking the sound of pedal steel to open “Oh Sister.” Airborne-Williams adds forlorn violin textures to compliment Lady’s vocals. She sings sadly of the distance she felt when she left her sister in the family home to pursue her own interests.

“Even When It Rains” is a love song to Laby’s husband and family. A country backbeat and delightful hoedown-like ornamentations from the fiddle of Airborne-Williams kick it along. There’s a hint of Dolly Parton in Laby’s singing as she describes the joy she finds in her marriage.  

“Lion in the Grasslands” is a straightforward country tune. It describes a troubled relationship, with Fassett playing fills that suggest the sound of a trumpet. “Mark [Fassett] is the best guitarist I’ve ever worked with,” Laby said. “We’ve played in many projects together.

“He captures unusual sounds and voicings with his guitar, like the cry of a whale,” she continued. “He can communicate loneliness through the sound of his instrument. He can transform what I’m writing about into emotional music. He’s central to the sound of the band.”  

The title track is a meditation on loss that was inspired by her mother’s long illness. It opens with a jaunty rhythm that blends Cuban and French Romani elements, suggestive of the Hot Club de Paris. Things quiet down as Laby flexes her vocal cords for three wordless stanzas, backed by the viola of Airborne-Williams. The band comes back in, then fades back, as Laby quietly delivers the tagline: “I know the sparrow’s song, I hear it now, I hope I’m wrong.”

“I’m mindful about having too much verbiage in a song, so I err on the side of being concise,” Laby said. “This song came to me when my mom was staying with me and my family. She had a stroke a while back and, one morning, I went in to check on her. I thought she’d passed. Turned out she was just asleep, but that got me thinking about what comes next. In European folklore, the sparrow is a harbinger of mortality, so I chose that image to express my concern for my mother and what might unfold beyond our knowing.

“The theme of the album overall is about endings,” Laby said. “We touch on death, but not in a macabre way. It’s more about the curiosities of things ending, the natural rhythms of life and how the ending of a relationship is not unlike a death. The songs on this record have a dark edge to them and the new album we’re doing has an even darker, more minimal edge to it. It’s much closer to the bone.”

‘I Know the Sparrow’s Song’ can be heard on the usual digital platforms, YouTube and the band’s website: Frances8.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear j poet….You have captured the spirit of Frances8’s songs in your insightful and warm article Their music is very personal….and demonstrates their great musical abilities and Laby’s deeply personal songs as well as the varied sounds of her voice.

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  2. Tica Wedge is my mother! Thanks Mom, and again, thank you, J.Poet!

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