Valerie Francis: Slow burner
Nowadays, most kids who dream of a career in the music business think the only way to achieve their ambition is to audition for The X Factor.
But most working musicians know the traditional routes are as important as they ever were. Indeed, making the grade nowadays means you have to put in the same hard graft and sacrifice, but you also have to plug yourself relentlessly because the industry is teeming with self-made musicians who have discovered ever-easier ways of creating records, yet are all competing for public attention.
In this mix, the annual Choice Music Prize gives Irish artists with albums that deserve time in the spotlight an opportunity to shine and progress. The Divine Comedy and Julie Feeney are past winners.
This year, Feeney's second album, Pages, is competing with the likes of soul diva Laura Izibor's Let The Truth Be Told and Bell X1's massively successful Blue Lights on the Runway, but all eyes are on Dublin's Valerie Francis, whose intricate, melodic and idiosyncratic Slow Dynamo is currently running with odds of 9/2 at Paddy Power.
Francis is typical of the new music generation. Self-taught in almost every aspect of making a record, she went into the studio to make Slow Dynamo self-financed through part-time jobs. Today she's taking a break from her work in a city centre café, while someone else takes over the coffee machine. The album is on the shelves, it's been nominated for a Choice Award, but being a full-time musician is a dream yet to be fulfilled.
"I made the album as a kind of musical CV, to try and get a job as a musician," she says with a smile. "That's been my life-long ambition, ever since I was a small child listening to my mother's ABBA and Elvis albums on our old record player."
In fact, Francis' brother evokes an ABBA lyric talking about his sister. "He's always saying I could sing before I could talk, annoying everyone in the house," she laughs. "When I was seven, I begged for a keyboard for Christmas and from there on in, music was all I wanted to do."
After leaving school, Francis studied sound engineering because she wanted to learn how to record music. "It seemed to be the only way I could access doing it myself," she says. "But then I accidentally got into doing sound for live gigs. I asked one of the guys in Whelan's if I could sit in on a gig and ended up getting a job there for four years. I've worked in the Sugar Club for six years and I do some sound at Vicar Street, too. It's been a huge help to me."
Her knowledge of sound could have been the source of conflict between Francis and her co-producer on Slow Dynamo, Jimmy Eadie, who has worked with David Kitt and previous Choice winners Jape, but it was a case of leaving her ego at the door and getting down to business.
"Jimmy was like, 'You're working now, Valerie. Do your job'. Being in the studio is a very different thing to being a sound engineer at live gigs. I had to learn whole new sound programmes. It wasn't about just going in, doing my bit and leaving it all to someone else to finish. I was involved in every part of it, bringing in all the little sound effects, every little thing you hear on the record."
Francis also played the myriad of instruments that appear on the album, bar drums, horns and cello. "I never thought of it as a whole album that says something in particular," she says. "The songs all fit together, but the only thing I wanted to do was make them all a little different to each other. I like to think each song has its own identity."
Francis cites Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac and Kate Bush as strong influences from her teenage years, particularly the latter. "I love the way Kate Bush put sounds into the music that are very odd and striking. Lots of people do things like that to be quirky... but she does it because it works, it fits. I'd like to think that I'm doing the same thing with the different sounds and instruments that appear on the album."
There's an attractive mix of quiet determination and self-deprecation about Francis. One minute she's talking about the methodical steps she took towards being her own woman in the recording studio, the next she's laughing about the "bizarre" notion that Kanye West might post the video for her debut single on his blog, bringing her to international attention. Which is exactly what happened last April, the day after her video director Eoghan Kidney put it up online.
"All of a sudden people were saying, 'Who is that?' And I hadn't even released the album. I was thrilled."
Francis is also thrilled about being shortlisted for the Choice award, but her enthusiasm bubbles over for her good friend and fellow nominee Adrian Crowley (The Season of the Sparks). "When the list was announced I was jumping up and down because I heard his name. I was so excited, I didn't realise I had been shortlisted myself. We were hoping both of us would be shortlisted because it wouldn't have felt right if one of us was left out. The hard work has paid off." HQ
Slow Dynamo is out now. The winner of the Choice Music Award is announced on 3rd March