Interview: Franka De Mille
Parisian-educated, London-based singer-songwriter Franka’s compared to Kate Bush and Patti Smith, but she’s unique and yes, that’s her real name
ondon is a cosmopolitan city – a heady blend of different cultures, influences and sounds that makes for a very interesting sensory experience. The same could be said for singer-songwriter Franka De Mille – daughter of an Italian-American mother and whose father’s family are a mix of Flemish, French and Canadian – whose music is equally diverse and bursting with multi-national flavours.
Suitably Franka’s home is London, where she’s been writing, recording and performing live whilst creating her debut album Bridge The Roads which was released in March of this year. Already gathering critical acclaim and some significant radio airplay across the UK and Europe, we wanted to catch up with Ms De Mille to find out what influenced the making of this record, with its curious blend of rootsy folk, chamber music and Americana, and how the songs were born. It turns out comparing songwriting to child-birth would be a very apt analogy, but not how you’d expect…
You have an interesting mix of cultures in your family. Did your parents influence you with different music?
“My dad used to have a big collection of records from around the world – a lot of South American music, mariachi music, lots of British and American music and, in that sense, I was from a musical family – we used to listen to music all the time. He played the banjo a little bit, but not really proficiently enough to be a real musician.”
There’s a strong North American sound in your music. Have you spent time over there?
“No I haven’t really spent time out there. But there is a big American influence – I went to a half-French half-American school in Paris. I came to England in my late-teens and spent most of my life in London.”
When did music start playing a strong part in your life?
“Since I was in my mother’s tummy really! My mother used to sing a lot as well – not professionally, but she used to have singing lessons and sing opera.”
Do you play any instruments?
“I’m not a great musician as such, my main instrument is the voice. I use the keyboard to compose the songs using MIDI and then I get other musicians, with ability that’s much better than mine, to play the parts afterwards. I play a bit of guitar, but I’m working mostly on my voice. I can hum a melody and we can just produce it with the sound of an instrument I’ve chosen. I can hear it in my head – I would just think about a melody or a counter-melody in my head.”[cc_blockquote_right] SONGS SEEM TO COME OUT FULLY FORMED… LIKE A BABY! [/cc_blockquote_right]Do you hear the arrangement at a really early stages of writing a new song?
“Oh yes, absolutely. The music always comes first. That’s what I really enjoy. I don’t enjoy writing lyrics as such. Sometimes the bass-line comes first and then I’ll hear a violin and then I’ll work my way back to the bass. It depends, the songs come in different ways.”
Where do you write? On your own or in the studio with the band?
“I write on my own on the piano and then I go to the studio and get the producer to understand what I’m trying to do. I love working with Christian Fontana – he’s very open and he never crushes my creativity. He’s very attentive and sensitive to the songs. If you were to interview Christian he’d tell you how difficult I am to work with! Not in a nasty way, you know I’m very meticulous. I’m a perfectionist.”
How do you let your creativity flow?
“Really the songs seem to come out fully-formed, somehow. It’s a weird thing. It’s got a life of its own and when it’s ready, it’s like a baby. For example, I’ll have a melody linger in my mind for a while – it just brews and then one day it just comes. I don’t tend to experiment very much. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t really flow.”
Do you see it on a spirit or religious level?
“Spiritual, yes definitely. I wouldn’t say religious – that’s too strong a word. I don’t think it’s coming from outside. It comes from inside, from the depths of the unconscious. Things that need to be addressed and experiences that need to come out. Afterwards songs tend to take on a life of their own. You’re in the studio and sometimes you’re thinking why is it not working, but have to really listen to the song – they’ll tell you where you need to go.”
That’s sounds like melody flows very easily for you, but you said you find lyrics more tricky. Does it always work in that order?
“Yes the music comes first and then the lyrics afterwards. Because the thing comes from deep inside and I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be about. I never sit down and think I’m going to write a song about that. I’ll have the melody and the music and then suddenly a couple of lines come up and I’ll know the song is going to be about an apology, or about an experience, or about my dad, or you know? So afterwards I have to think about what I want to say in that song. For example, Birds is a song I wrote about my dad when he passed away. It’s the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had, when he said goodbye to me. Because I spent quite a while mourning him, I had difficulty writing that song. I needed to put all the experiences and important moments in, and that was quite a tricky thing because I didn’t want to leave anything out.”
Do you have a more disciplined approach once you’ve identified the theme of the song, or do you still just let things flow organically?
“Birds is the only song where I did that with. I said ‘I’ve got an afternoon and I want to finish this song’. This is the only song I’ve ever approached that way. The others just came pretty easily and it was the right moment. There wasn’t the urgency for some of them.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I REALLY LIKE WRITING BY THE SEA… IT SORT OF CLEANS MY SOUL [/cc_blockquote_right] Is this debut album your first recorded music?
“I recorded music previously years and years ago with a Swiss musician. I don’t know where the recording is – we were just jamming and I was writing songs. I don’t know if I’ll ever listen to them again. But, officially, yes this is the only album I’ve ever recorded and I was never signed to a record label before this. I’ve always been making music but my life had taken me on a different path and I’d never really considered having a career in music. Then I got very ill for a long time and I met people who remembered me and asked me why I’d given up making music. They’d brought back a box of my lyrics that I wrote when I was a teenager and I was reading all this stuff and remembering a time when I was so passionate about music. And I thought, well, life is too short and I could be dead tomorrow, so I decided that I’m going to give this a shot again, which led me to record this album.”
You listed your musical influence as ‘the sea’. What did you mean by that?
“Because I really like writing by the sea. If I can go to the seaside, I find the sound of the waves and the atmosphere very capricious. It sort of cleans my soul. There are so many influences, I could give you a list as big as Africa, but if there’s one thing that comes to mind that gives me joy and puts my heart at rest, it’s the sea. I go to Brighton, Southend, Tenerife and the south of France. I’ve been to Normandy – they’ve got vast sandy beaches and dunes. It’s the drama of the sea that I like – I’ve got an English temperament now, so I don’t mind and can enjoy myself on the beach in the wind!”
How do you physically like to write songs? Do you just use a notepad and pencil, or do you like to use any technology?
“In the first instance I’d have a little recording device that I’ll hum melodies into and then I’ll listen to them again and write some lyrics. Then at home I’ll get on the piano and work on the melody and sing along and work on them a little bit. Then when I’ve got something I think is finished as far as the song is concerned, I’ll go on the computer and build the different layers.”
Do you do the production yourself, or is that down to Christian?
“I’m with him all the time, so I’m always guiding him as to what I want. But he can play the guitar, bass and drums, and he can programme much better than I can. He’ll guide me for the vocals and he’s very good at helping me to sing the song properly and to get the right emotions out. If it’s not quite sincere enough, he’ll say ‘You need to go back and let go and have a glass of wine!’ Then he’ll do the mix.”
Does he have any input in the actual songwriting?
“No, that’s my message. It’s all down to me.”
Have you got long-term plans after this album? Do you know what you do next?
“Well the second album is quite a big endeavour, so I’m going to do that. Then I would like to tour Europe and I’d like to go to America. Then I’m not sure. I think at some point I’d like to write an opera. I’d love to work with an orchestra and a choir as well, but these things are very expensive and it’ll take time. It’s only a dream at the moment, but it doesn’t matter. It’s good to have projects and ideas.”
Interview: Alex Miles
The debut album Bridge The Roads from Franka De Mille is out now on Chi Wara Music and is available to buy from iTunes, Amazon, or her website: www.frankademille.com. In the meantime, you can watch the official animated video for the album’s opening track Come On below…