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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why Black Francis Isn't So Weird Anymore

The Pixies Singer Explains How He Learned to Open Up

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Frank Black’s decision to begin recording under his Pixies-era stage name Black Francis after a 15-year hiatus was largely a show-business move, a way of rousing extra interest in his solo career following the enthusiastic response to his recent Pixies reunion. But it was also a challenge, a means of riling up his songwriting again.

“Part of me had this hope that it might help me tap into something a little artier, a little more in your face or extreme,” Black explains.

The name change did its job. Black’s first album as Black Francis, 2007’s Bluefinger, arrived to greater press than any of his records had in years, and its follow-up, last year’s Svn Fngrs, proved one of the liveliest, most vital releases of Black’s 15-year solo career. To be sure, though, nobody would mistake either for The Pixies. With its low-key, live-to-tape aesthetic, even Svn Fngrs sounds more like a traditional Frank Black solo effort, and that surely frustrates the many listeners who continue to believe that Black is stubbornly sitting on some great, lost Pixies album that he refuses to record.

“I wish I could at will just conjure up whatever it is that’s a Pixies record every four years,” Black insists. “That would be nice, or at least convenient for my bank account. But it doesn’t work like that. I have a hard time explaining this to the people who say to me, ‘Hey man, just do that thing, just write one of those songs like you used to.’ If I could do that, I would, at least every few years, so I’d be extra wealthy. But it doesn’t work like that. It truly, truly doesn’t work like that.”

That’s because, regardless of how he bills himself, he isn’t Black Francis anymore, at least not the same enigmatic, screaming Black Francis who mystified Pixies listeners while shrouding his lyrics in morose imagery and dark humor. These days he’s an open book, more apt to sing from the heart than he is to code his songs in esoteric references.

“That probably comes from having done so many interviews,” Black speculates. “The first few times I did them with The Pixies, I was a giant question mark to everyone I spoke with. They didn’t know much about my band, and they didn’t even know what name to call me. But now I’ve done interviews for almost every record I’ve made, which means I talk ad nauseam about myself every year. You combine all those interviews with being photographed and filmed so often, and you start to feel very defined, very identified. I certainly don’t feel mysterious.

“I think that, probably without being aware of it, that influenced my songwriting,” Black continues. “It allowed me to be a little more naked, to write songs that were a little more universal, without having to do stuff that’s quirky and weird … The truth is, I think I probably got bored with being weird and innovative, because you start to feel fake thinking, ‘Oh, I gotta do that weird thing I do.’ It gets boring, and you start to feel like your own innovation is becoming a shtick.”

And so as his solo career progressed, Black began to indulge his love of more traditional influences, from blues, folk and country to pop. Some accused Black of taming with age, but he maintains these records aren’t as straight-laced as they may seem on the surface.

“Even with my so-called ‘rootsy music,’ which may sound a lot like traditional Americana, I would say that upon analysis you’ll discover something else going on there, that the music isn’t as square as it sounds,” he says. “There’s a lot of square music, and I can tell you that most of my music isn’t square. I’m not saying it’s Frank Zappa or anything, but if you break up the songs that sound formulaic, you’ll find that they’re not.
Analyze the song structure or the meter, and there’s usually something oddball there. And if the music itself isn’t oddball, then the lyrics are.

“I’m not looking for credit for that,” Black says. “In fact, sometimes I think I’m secretly satisfied that I’ve fooled so many people.”

Black Francis plays an 8 p.m. solo acoustic show at Shank Hall on Sunday, July 12.

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