Blackpool musician Karima Francis has made a welcome return this year, with poignant singles tackling big themes of homelessness and mental health.
Though unassuming, a fierce will and determination has taken Francis from this seaside town that offered few options – where she was raised by a single-mother facing various challenges, and left school with few prospects – to another stretch of coastline. In her part-time base in LA the weather doesn’t necessarily suit her oversized and monochromatic clothes, but the rich musical traditions suit her soulful tones and vast talent.
And despite the deprivation she witnessed growing up, it’s the Golden State that has spurred her on to address homelessness through her music.
“My last single Shelf Life was about homelessness in LA. There’s not just a crisis in California, there’s a crisis all over the world, but out there there’s really not much help at all, and the sights I was seeing!
“I went down to Skid Row but even on Hollywood Boulevard people are living in tents all down the road. It’s just not what you imagine for LA. These people are dangerous as well, some people are unmedicated, so you can’t approach to help them.
“Obviously we have things like Big Issue North, there’s lots of help available. If you want help with addiction there are open doors everywhere, but for these people there’s absolutely nothing.”
The singer was supposed to be in LA finishing off her album this summer but instead spent it locked down in London, finishing of her dissertation for her music production degree. That, along with travelling, reading (she recommends Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Shulman about the Aids crisis in New York) “getting to re-know myself, doing things I want to do and taking time to just enjoy life”, has kept her busy and out of the musical spotlight for the last few years.
“I’ve learnt academic writing,” she says, modestly. “It’s something I never did at school because I was a bit naughty and I never learnt much, so to actually do that and to get marks back for assignments and see you’ve done ok – it’s actually quite rewarding. And it felt like the right time to do it because as much as I’ve achieved a lot with my music I feel like this is more of an achievement.”
But it’s also enabled her to produce her own music.
“I was just really wanting to learn more about the production side of music just so I could have more creative control over my own records and start being more involved in finding the sound,” she says. Her newfound skills mean her next album – her fourth at just age 33 – is still on track for early 2021 with now remote collaboration from multi-instrumentalist and LA-based producer Tim Carr (The Americans), who has helped her capture that hazy West Coast sound in tracks such as Shelf Life and Orange Rose.
“I’m a big fan of lots of music coming out of America: Car Seat Headrest; Andy Shauf – actually he’s Canadian; I love the National. I really loved the Phoebe Bridgers album – the production on that by Tony Berg, that was really amazing and sonically I was just like, I’m going to go there and I’m going to find that sound. It’s just so soulful, very warm sounding and full and I just loved it.”
Arguably, Francis didn’t need to travel 5,000 miles to find warmth. It radiated from her lauded 2009 debut, The Author, which drew her comparisons to Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading and support slots for Amy Winehouse and Patti Smith. It was evident too on subsequent albums – 2012’s The Remedy and 2016’s largely overlooked Black but both brandished the scars of the emotional turmoil that followed the first – a break up and a bout of anorexia Francis says was a “whirlwind, and I don’t know where it came from” but says she’s grateful to have recovered. There was professional turmoil too.
“I’ve not had the smoothest journey in the music industry, there has been ups and downs and you do take a lot of knocks. I’ve worked with two major record labels and I don’t work with them anymore and I think going from that level of exposure to not it does affect you.”
Francis has a lot of affection for her hometown. “A dream for me would be able to have enough money to put a bigger touring venue there,” she says. “Something to bridge between Bootleg and the Winter Gardens – it would bring a lot of people in.”
But her affection isn’t uncomplicated. “My mum is still in Blackpool but to be honest I get this really weird anxiety about going home. It’s depressing, it’s neglected, I find I get really angry at the council and that awful Conservative MP [Paul Maynard]. They don’t do anything to support Blackpool and there are just no opportunities for kids.
“I constantly feel quite emotional when I’m there because there are no opportunities for the people that I love, and literally on a train journey two hours to London and you have one of the most thriving cities in the world.”
Though Francis speaks passionately, you wouldn’t describe her as a force to be reckoned with. She’s gentle and self-effacing and despite her warmth, effortlessly cool. Her knocks, she admits, have knocked her confidence.
“I used to have a set formula for songwriting when I was younger,” she says. “I’d sit in front of the mirror and I’d just hear all this music and write song after song, but as I’ve got older it’s not as free as that anymore – it comes when it comes.
“I just think as you get older you get more self conscious and judgmental. When you’re younger it’s new and fresh and everything’s so free and I just think that life gets in the way – you’ve got more responsibility.”
Orange Rose finds the singer on form in an ambient dreamscape cut through with emotional lyrics about self-destruction.
“It’s about mental health in relationships and how people feel they can’t speak out, as well as a love song. It touches a little bit on my life but it’s more external and about people in general. It’s not all about me,” she says.
She may have come a long way since the buzz of her debut but preferring to expose herself through her lyrics rather than in interviews has remained consistent, as has her unmistakable talent and her ability to quiet a room with her heartfelt performances – recently relocated to Zoom.
“They’re really daunting,” she says of the recent sets played to around 100 people on video link. “It’s more anxiety provoking than playing a live gig. I actually have to put the brightness down so I can’t see their faces or their reactions or the husband getting up and going out the room. You can take these things personally.”
And she’s always sounded and looked like herself – resolutely refusing to conform to the female trappings of the music industry.
“That feels good, to be honest,” she says. “There are a lot of artists that get signed young and they start as singer-songwriters then go into electronic pop stuff and it’s like, how did that happen?
“The record labels can influence so much! I’ve always been really sure of what I wanted and it did get quite commercial on my record – the mixing and the shininess of it – but predominantly I was always very happy with the songs and the arrangements.
“There was nothing at the time that I was not comfortable with. I’ve always been very true to myself and I’ve never let anyone sway me into another direction.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Big Issue North, a magazine supporting homeless and vulnerable people in the North of England. Earlier this year Karima Francis organised and hosted an online fundraising gig headlined by Everything Everything to support the magazine’s hardship fund, which went someway to making up for its vendors loss of income during the Covid-19 pandemic. You can support them by purchasing single magazines or subscriptions from shop.bigissuenorth.co.uk
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