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Fran Healy: The Elements of Song | INTERVIEW

Published 3 months ago on March 21, 2021

By Guitar Interactive Magazine

Fran Healy: The Elements of Song

Incredibly, it's now been over twenty-five years since the four members of Travis (Fran Healy, Andy Dunlop, Dougie Payne, Neil Primrose) first set foot in a Glaswegian rehearsal room together. At various points along the trajectory between then and now, the band has sold millions of albums, played sold-out shows across the globe and even been the subject of the award-winning feature-length documentary 'Almost Fashionable.' Marking another new chapter in the band's extraordinarily prolific and unflappable career is their latest album '10 Songs.' Yet another body of work that showcases Travis as one of the UK's finest songwriting exports. Guitar Interactive Magazine editor Jonathan Graham speaks with the band's frontman Fran Healy in this exclusive interview.

 

Jonathan: So, Fran, how have you been during this mad year?

Fran: Not bad. I have actually been really busy with the band, doing all the videos and the artwork for the album. Literally, all of the visual stuff and everything is just taking up all the time and concentration; it has kept me away from reading the news all the time.

Jonathan: Congratulations on '10 songs.' What a fantastic record. It is always a pleasure to hear new music from you guys.

Fran: This is a good one. I think you get a really good one every ten years if you stick at it that long. For the past 14 years, I have just been a dad, but about a year and a half ago, Clay, my son came up when I was doodling about on the piano, and he said 'Papa, I think you should do the band again, like, I'm good, you can go and do that now.' So, I was sort of able to concentrate back on the band again, and it shows, it really does.

Jonathan: Did it all come together quite quickly on this one?

Fran: No, it took four years just to write it all, and during that time, I was making the documentary about the band. We came off the last record and tour for 'Everything at Once,' and I went straight into editing the documentary, which took about two years. It took forever! I thought it would only take about eight months at most, but it went on and on and started eating into my writing time, and I can't really do two things at once. I was writing tiny bits and pieces along the way. The good thing about writing like that or having that amount of time is that you will come up with something and then come back to it six months later and listen to it again and think, oh, no that was rubbish, or if it's okay, what was maybe a little pulse is now a heartbeat with a life of its own. So, by four years you could have a lot of those. After that time, we still had ten songs that were all still good. The only song that I wasn't sure about because we didn't have enough time was "A Ghost," but that was so immediate when it popped out that I was like, well, let's just do that. It sounds great; let's take a punt with it.

Jonathan: It clearly paid off. In terms of your process of putting the records together, from the writing to the recording, has that changed over the years?

Fran: No, it is exactly the same. Each time I do it, I tend to sit down and often think, how am I doing this? I try and analyze the process a little bit and refine my thoughts about songwriting every time we do a new record, so this time around, I realized that everybody is able to do this. Everyone has a song or a really great melody in them. Everyone can do it. I think we all lose touch with it because when we are wee, that is when we are always singing and dancing and that sort of thing, but then that gets taught out of us. Looking at my process, it is not that creative, so you don't have to be arty to write a song. Most of it is just chipping away. You are digging and doodling, and eventually, with one of those wee doodles, you are like, oh, that is good. That's the bit of gold you are looking for, and getting that is about 95% of the process. You are just chipping and chipping away. Then for the last 5%, a producer can come in and help you with that.

Jonathan: So, the hard work really pays off?

Fran: Anyone can do it, and I would encourage everyone to try. Especially now because some people are going to have a lot of free time. Pick up a guitar, buy a keyboard or something or just try and write a tune. If you get any good ones, send them to me.

Jonathan: When was the first time you realized you had struck on to something great when writing a song?

Fran: I started writing songs when I was about 14. I remember writing this one song around that time and my pal going, oh, you wrote that? I said, yeah. I mean, it wasn't that good, but then when I turned 20, I wrote a song called 20, and that was the first major one. When I played that to another friend, he didn't believe that I'd written it. He was like, there is no way you wrote that. I kind of liked the song, and we used it as a B-side on "All I Want to Do is Rock." It actually became a sort of a constant in the set for a long time. I still play it from time to time. Although, it is pretty ironic now, playing a song about turning 20 when I'm 47. I should write one called 50.

Jonathan: You should! If you're looking at a four-year turnaround on the records though, you best be getting started on that now. A big part of the band's career are the fantastic live shows. I've had the pleasure of seeing you guys many times over the years, including the celebration of 'The Man Who' a couple of years back. It's been a little while since the last tour; you must be itching to get back playing live with this new material?

Fran: When we were on the last tour, at the end of it, I thought, I don't know if I can do this much more. Doing the live thing, the best part of the whole process for me and I think for everyone maybe? Maybe not everyone, but definitely for me, is being in the studio and recording, because that's your own little moment to make things as good as you can get them. Going on the road, especially this last 14 years, it has been tricky because I have to leave my son, and I really don't like going away from home. So much so, that on this trip to London where we are doing some promo and whatnot, it ends up quite long because you have to quarantine for 14 days on the way in and 14 days on the way out, so I brought my son with me, so I don't have to be away from him for so many weeks. We are having a bit of a boys trip. Going away and leaving him, that is hard, plus, I've never really enjoyed all the pressures that go with it, because everyone has a great time, everyone is getting pissed and muggsy here can't drink because I've got to sing the next day. It is just a pain in the butt. So, at the end of 'The Man Who' tour, I was like, oh, I'm sick of this, I don't know how much longer I can do this, but obviously, I get a few years off and then make this record, and of course, I've had a really nice break and was actually really looking forward to taking all these new songs out on the road and incorporating them in with all the old ones, and now this, so I'm like, oh, be careful what you wish for, Franny.

Jonathan: It feels like this record has a fair amount of intimacy that you bring to the songs that really brought me in. That's not unusual for your music, but I felt like I was particularly leaning into the speaker more this time around. Was that a deliberate plan to go almost slightly understated? I'd imagine these tracks translate so well to just you and an acoustic guitar; I'm guessing they started there?

Fran: Yeah, they all begin on just an acoustic guitar or a piano. I started writing a bit more on piano on this album. I still can't play it very well, but if you record it, you can edit it together enough to where it makes sense. It is a personal record. It's songs about me, songs about life, and where I'm at, and where we're all at. I believe life throws things at us, and I don't think we are all different from each other. Generally, we're moved by the same things. An important thing to focus on when you are trying to find a song or a melody is this feeling that you have just heard something that is super honest, and without sounding too pretentious, a universal truth that you can totally relate to. There's a song on the album called "Nina's song," and that was written for a TV show. It was going to be a musical, and I was asked 'can you write some songs for this show?' And I said, sure. The show was based on this woman called Nina Stibbe; and her book called 'Man at the helm.' The story is about two wee girls looking for a new dad and a new husband for their mum, but funnily enough, when I was writing the song, you know, you sort of drill down into your own thing. When I was seven years old, I remember asking my mum, why don't you go to the dad shop to get a dad? Now, in the song, the first line is 'how come all the best dads are gone? This feeling that I had when I was wee, but never got a chance to speak out until I'm 47. Forty years it is taken for that to sort of bubble its way up and find a way out, and that's kind of what I am after. This is why it is taken so long to write because I think the older you get, the harder it is to find. When you're young, there is a lot of low hanging fruit because you're just discovering ways to say things, ways to express yourself and everything is kind of new. Maybe the older you get, you need to reach up a bit higher, look harder for things or dig deeper, I do not know. It has never come easy to me; it takes ages.

Jonathan: When you look back on some of those earlier records, are you surprised about what you were able to put together? In reflection, would you have done anything differently or even have some advice for your younger self?

Fran: No, I wouldn't do anything different. Although, when we came down to London, we were being asked to do four B-sides. In some cases, six. So you're almost putting out a whole new album with every one single and sort of just pissing songs down the drain a bit because a lot of those B-sides are really good songs in my opinion and I could have used them in an album. We got very lucky meeting Andy MacDonald, meeting our managers Ian McAndrew and Colin Lester and just being in the right place at the right time and having a bit of luck. I wouldn't change anything. If I had any advice to give to myself, it would be not to take my advice because I think it is good not having a map. If you have a map, then you will always go down the roads that are walked by many people. If you don't have a map, you will stumble down alleyways and find things no one else has found, and I think that is what I still do, so I am good.

Jonathan: Yeah, makes perfect sense. You have spoken a good bit about your process, but what are some key things that inspire you when you aren't feeling it on those off days? We don't always wake up in the mood to get to work when you feel like that do you just power through and do it until something clicks, or wait for inspiration to strike?

Fran: This idea of 'doing it' is an interesting one because people think sitting down with a guitar is doing it. That isn't doing it. Doing it is just waking up. If you're a songwriter, you are constantly thinking about it; you don't have to have a guitar. Everything you experience is a tea leaf in the teabag, plus, there is a lot to be said for inactivity. We're are living in this time right now where everyone is like, you got to work all the time, you got to do this you've got to do that. I am totally all for that, but I am also all for not working and letting things just settle and letting the guilt rise up and go, oh right, I need to do this now! It's like, you know, you flush a toilet and the system takes a bit of time to fill up. You can't just keep flushing it because there's nothing in there. That's what a lot of writers do and that is how you can burn yourself out. A lot of them will have a hit and then be like, oh no, nothing is coming, I have got writer's block. Just calm down, take your time, have a nice break, read some books, listen to some music and then it will come. The fallow period is just as important as the active period. Most days, I wake up and don't feel it coming. With me anyway, it is almost like the same feeling that makes you go to the toilet. You think, oh, I need to go for a pee. You just have a feeling, so you go to the bathroom, and you have a pee. So, when you have a song coming, I have this funny feeling, and I go and grab my guitar and I'm ready to write. I just like, why would you go and try to pee when you had nothing to pee, right? So, I don't do that. I know people who do it like that and it's just like dry heaving. For me I really need to compress it, you know, get the experience and then purge.

Jonathan: A few years back, you worked with Paul McCartney on your solo record. He's spoken in the past about how "Yesterday" came to him in almost a state of dream. Now, this has happened to great songwriters like yourself over the years, where you're about to fall asleep, and this whole song presents it's self to you and then just about getting out of bed and getting it down before it disappears. It's clearly got to be something connected to the subconscious but what do you think that thing is all about? Where do you think all this is coming from?

Fran: The place that songs come from is a place with no language. It is just sounds, vowels and emotions. I think everybody was singing before we were speaking, if you go back long enough ago, like 200,000 years ago. We were upright, walking about, making rudimentary tools, but we hadn't quite made the iPhone yet, and the language was all kind of 'Uh' and 'Buh'. I think we were singing then and still making connections with one another. So, when you write a song or when you sing, it's tapping into something that is prehistoric, way back in your monkey mind. I think when you sleep and go into that little subconscious area, it is probably where the base of your emotions lie. All animals have emotions; every animal has them. It's why a dog wags its tail and why a cat will hiss at you or whatever. They say when something happens to you that affects you emotionally. Like, being rejected or someone gives you a fright or gives you love or one of those things. It's happening to your animal because that is where these emotions lie. You then drill down with your guitar or your piano trying to find these sounds that relate to the emotion. There are no words attached to them, just vowels. Where songwriting is creative and where the talent comes in is translating these anomalous sounds that you howl in your process, and translating them into a word that can connect perfectly with the sound. Like saying the word 'door' compared to the word 'more' compared to the word 'floor,' they all have different emotional resonance. So, your job as a songwriter is to try and match words to this noise that comes out, and the best songwriters can do this. What I've found is if your melody is really good; the words just come almost immediately. It's miraculous, and you think, oh my God. It feels like you have not written it.

Jonathan: Because it is coming from a purely emotional place?

Fran: It's coming from your animal, where it doesn't have a voice usually.

I've seen a change in songwriting in the world recently. Like, if you are looking at songs in the charts right now, there is very little emotional music going on. There are some people doing great stuff like Phoebe Bridgers. Brilliant songwriting, very emotional and very honest and beautiful, which is what I think is the big part of songs, and the big part of singing, it's an emotional release. A lot of the songs that I'm hearing on the radio right now don't seem to have that; they just seem very surface level on the emotional side. Like the icing on the cake and not the cake and if you pick the icing off, it's just empty, like there's nothing there. Nothing to get your teeth into, emotionally. There are amazing singers out there at the moment who could sing the back of a Cornflakes box and make it sound amazing. So, a singer like that plus a producer can create this music that sounds stunning, but the songwriter is not there. I find it interesting how fashion, technology, all of that shapes what you hear on the radio.

Jonathan: It definitely does, and with that in mind, are you ever concerned that music is almost becoming a thing you listen to while you are doing something else for so many people, as opposed to just putting on an album and taking it all in?

Fran: I don't think it's a problem. When I was my son's age, I wasn't sitting going, oh, this is so emotional, wow. I wasn't doing that until I was in my 20s when you start to really feel things. Apparently, the physical human brain is less empathetic in your teenage-hood, because that part of your brain hasn't developed yet, and is why kids generally just can't think outside of themselves. They are still forming the world around them. It's why I think a lot of the great songs happen just when the dawn of your full consciousness happens, when you see other people, you feel for other people, and that is around about the age of 24 to 26. So a lot of great, interesting and emotional music comes out then. My son said something the other day. We are talking about music he played me this song that's a really big popular song on TikTok, and to me, it just had no resonance whatsoever, and I was like, what is this? But, you know, when these kids are your age or my age, they will hear this song, and it will remind them of that time. At the base level, that is what songs are. They are like bookmarks in your life. So, it doesn't need to be a big emotional thing. I used to think the 80s were shit, and I guess there was a lot of shit at the time, but when it foreshortens, all you see are the peaks.

Jonathan: Every decade there's some shit. There's always shit.

Fran: Yeah, right; there is always some shit.

Jonathan: Famously, you lads have a talent for taking popular songs and giving them a whole new lease of life like you did with "...Baby One More Time." How did you end up covering that Britney Spears track anyway?

Fran: That happened by pure accident when we went to do the Mark and Lard show when all of Radio One was in Ibiza and Mark and Lard, as a protest, went to Robin Hood's Bay. It was just as "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" was beginning to kick in on the radio. We met Mark and Lard the night before and then went to the pub with them. I brought a guitar and everybody was having a jam and having a sing-song and then I started playing the chords to that because I'd just learned them. I was going, guess what this is? And they were saying, is it "Hotel California," is it blah blah blah? And I said no, then started singing it, and in the end, the whole pub was singing it along with us. Now, I would never in a million years have thought I am going to do this on the radio, but the producer came up and said, you are singing that on the radio tomorrow. I said oh no, I don't want to do that, but they made us do it—nothing to do with us.

Jonathan: It was a good idea, though.

Fran: It was a good idea.

Jonathan: I know you'll have talked about this period at great length, but I just have to touch on it slightly, because my first time seeing you live was back in '97 supporting Oasis. It was a fantastic show, during a fantastic tour and I have always been fascinated by the idea of yourself and Noel Gallagher having some time together during that tour. Two of the best British songwriters of a generation spending time together on the road.

Fran: Those guys are amazing.

Jonathan: What were some highlights from those run of shows for you?

Fran: Well, that was a big tour to get. I mean, I remember punching the air and being like, ya beauty! It was amazing, but we hardly spent any time with them. I remember seeing Noel eating; he would have beans on toast for his dinner every day. It felt like that. I would see him in the canteen and say, alright? He would be like, Yeah, mate. When they came off stage, they walked backstage, got into their chauffeured Mercedes and just sped off. They were super rock and rollers, and I was super shy, we were all really shy, and they were like our heroes in a way. We didn't want to go near them. The next year, they asked us to come on tour in America, and that was a bit more like we got to know them. The brothers were very mercurial towards each other as certain brothers are, it is no surprise that they had the big, giant, massive blowout. That was the mother of all fallouts. I had a lot in common with them. I think that is the thing about Oasis that for me, two things showed me that if you are working class, you can still make it, and they were Oasis and Billy Connolly. I've got to hang out with both at different times in my life, and you see how with Oasis, how badly they were treated when they were kids by their dad especially, and that spoke to me. They managed to somehow get out of that. It's hard to break out of, you know? I look at music and media and culture, and there aren't many working-class people in it. It's quite a middle-class or middle-upper class environment. So, when we were on tour with Oasis, I think that was one of the things I realized, is that the image that you get from the media is almost like some WWF wrestling guys, but actually they were like me. That's why they were so popular because most of Britain is not bloody middle class; most of Britain has to work for a living. It spoke to them, it spoke to me, spoke to everybody, and getting close to it was cool. On the American tour, there was this funny moment. I was in Liam's room, and he would sit you down and he is like, right, I am going to play you a song now, and just get the guitar out and be singing right into your face! He'd finish, and say to me, what do you think of that then? And I'm like, it was great! It WAS great. It was Liam and me alone in a room, and he was just being so enthusiastic. He is a really special character. Anyway, we went downstairs, and we were all sitting. It was all jokey still and fun, but then Andy or Dougie were sitting, and they said, Franny does a really good impersonation of you, and I was like, no!! Liam goes, yeah? I am still saying, no, but he takes his hat off and puts it on my head and says... do me! I said, can I borrow your glasses? He takes them off, and I put them on and did the walk, I did my Liam, and he just sat there staring back.

Jonathan: Oh, no.

Fran: There was silence, and my enthusiasm for this thing drained out of me like a burst co-op bag. He just said, that's not me, and I quickly said alright, here is your hat. Take it back.

Jonathan: You've written some absolutely tremendous songs over the years, however, are there ever any songs that you hear from other artists that you wish that had been one of yours?

Fran: Oh my God, loads. One of the most inspiring things as a songwriter is hearing something that stays with you. Most of the time I hear things, and it's very much an off-the-shelf melody. You have heard it before somehow, but when you hear a new melody, then you get inspired. It used to happen to me a lot more, and it still happens today. There's a girl in France. Her name is Claire Pomme, and her artist name is Pomme. I don't know what she is singing about because I can't speak French, but her melodies a terrific. I stumbled upon her on YouTube one night and it was like hearing something brand new. Hearing a completely new melody is like discovering a new element on the periodic table for me. There are only so many notes and only so many ways to arrange them, but if you hear something done differently, it is like, holy shit! She does this loads. I was very inspired by that, and obviously, listening to all the old masters when there were still acres in the melody department, like, the Beatles and Bowie, Ray Davis and Kinks. Britain really has a good history of writing great melodies.

Jonathan: Brilliant, Fran. Final thing before I let you go, is the tour still going ahead for April?

Fran: That is what they say. We are still, sort of, in the live music business. Personally, I was thinking about it the other day, a game-changer will be instant tests where you walk into a venue, and there is an area where you stand on a mark on the floor and look at this camera and apparently, a laser, three or four meters away takes your temperature. If they can develop or devise a way to test people for this quickly, then we will be able to get the industry back on its feet. I cannot wait to play. Oh, my God.

Jonathan: Well, I can't wait to see you guys. I'll be there, that's for sure. Thanks again for taking the time to chat today, Fran. Keep yourself safe.

Fran: Cheers, Jonathan. See you later.

 

Travis '10 Songs' - Track List

  1. Waving At The Window
  2. The Only Thing (feat. Susanna Hoffs)
  3. Valentine
  4. Butterflies
  5. A Million Hearts
  6. A Ghost
  7. All Fall Down
  8. Kissing In The Wind
  9. Nina's Song
  10. No Love Lost

 

For more information on Travis, please visit:

travisonline.com

 


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