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Sage Francis

Pioneering rapper comes to London and talks to Dazed Digital about his label Strange Famous, YouTube and announcing his retirement after every gig

It’s an unassuming basement, down two flights of fire escape, where I sit down (sopping wet) with heavily bearded indie-rap pioneer Sage Francis; he’s fresh off a full US tour and a brand new album but these modest surroundings are to play host to his uniquely incomparable style for tonight’s sold out show at The CAMP. Something of a rap-renegade, Francis’s new album is as tinged with country as it is with hip-hop – it’s not your typical record and Sage Francis isn’t your typical rapper – after a thirty minute taxi ride, less than two hours before the show, he talks to Dazed Digital about LI(F)E, his schoolboy infatuation with a certain French composer and the rumors these could be his last efforts as a performer.

Dazed Digital: Your new album’s just come out and it’s pretty different to anything else out there that’s tagged as being rap – now it’s out there how do you feel about it? Is it everything you wanted it to be?
Sage Francis: No, but I’m never happy - not with this stuff anyway. I don’t think I’ve set out to make my masterpiece and achieved it with this record. There’s really a lot going on, production wise, and when I do it again I’ll probably change that and go for a more stripped back sound. If I do it again…

DD: Yeah, I read that at the end of one of your US tour shows, I think it was Chicago, you announced (and I hate to use the dreaded H word) that you’re going on hiatus?
Sage Francis: Every show; I said it at every show. I’ll say it after this show. There’s going to be one more European tour and one more Australian tour.

DD: You’re back here in September for that, right?
Sage Francis: Yeah, September. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that just disappears without saying anything, but I didn’t want to do a press release or anything like that either – I just wanted it to be between me and my fans. They’re the ones who I need to tell. But, yeah, after this that’s going to be it for a long time.

DD: Why now?
Sage Francis: I’ve been a road dog for ten years now – that’s been my life. It’s not a bad life, but I just want to take a step back; I remember when I used to write music just because I loved it – there’s a lot more to it than that for me now and, at the moment, I don’t need to do this any more – I’m comfortable. If I really wanted to, I could pack up and sail the world.

DD: You’ve got your own label (Strange Famous) – is that something you’re going to work more on now that you’re not going to be doing your own thing so much?
Sage Francis: I’ve worked so much on it already. I don’t think there’s much more I can put in to it right now. Really, I want to cut down the eighty-hour weeks I’m doing right now, take a step back from all of it and let some of the other people who work on Strange Famous take charge. It’ll always be my baby and it’s already changed so much from what it was intended to be, but it’s the business side of music I’m actually frustrated with. It’s a difficult time for the music industry in all respects and I don’t want to be responsible for people not getting paid or anything like that.

DD: Yeah, I read about your video being taken down from YouTube?
Sage Francis: That’s a whole other business thing. That wasn’t even about me. That was some discrepancy between Epitaph and Anti, who I’m on; I just wanted the video to be up there. Apparently they get money every time the video gets played, which I wasn’t aware of, but if they kept it up we could’ve just used it to sell some fucking records and make everybody happy. I think I’ll study law and just become an entertainment lawyer…

DD: You’ve changed a lot of people’s perceptions of rap music by putting your words over music that kind of leans more toward indie or folk than hip-hop. Was that a conscious thing, I mean, do you want to show people that you’re capable of more than just fitting in with something that’s already so established or did it just kind of evolve that way?

Sage Francis: That’s definitely something I wanted to achieve. It’s not a sound I worked to cultivate as such – but it just sort of happened. I’ve done the straight up rap – I did it for years. I get a lot of people say to me ‘Man, I wish you’d do this kind of song more’ and I’m like ‘I’ve already done that, a lot’. Because I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great and really different composers, especially on this new record, it shows in the music.

DD: That’s right – it’s Yann Tiersen’s composition on The Best of Times, isn’t it? That probably surprised a lot of people. Did you always know that collaboration would work out?
Sage Francis: Did I know it would work? I never really thought it’d happen. I never listened to a Yann Tiersen song and thought ‘Fuck, I should sample this in one of my songs’. It was something totally separate and I didn’t want to…pollute it. I definitely never thought Yann would compose anything for me so it never crossed my mind. But when he sent through the music to me I knew I could do something with it.

DD: You’re a big Yann Tiersen fan, then?
Sage Francis: Definitely. I actually got to see him perform live and was lucky enough to have him play violin on one of my songs too. I was a total fanboy though, I actually got him to autograph loads of stuff for my girlfriend – it’s kind of embarrassing. I even go to go out to dinner with him – he doesn’t speak much English, but he’s a really cool guy.

DD: Thematically, looking at the wider picture, you’re quite alienated from most of mainstream hip-hop – do you think that makes your music harder for people to market?
Sage Francis: I guess it probably does, but I think hip-hop in general is harder to market. The fact that I’m offering something different might make it more marketable in a way. And that’s what I want people to find when they come to Strange Famous – I want them to know what to expect from that label, but what they expect to be something they won’t find somewhere else.

DD: If you took away the music and just showed someone a page of words from a songs like ‘Little Houdini’ or ‘The Best of Times’ they could be forgiven for thinking it was a short story…
Sage Francis: Yeah, sure, those two work on paper definitely. But I’m a rapper – I never thought any of my songs would work on paper – I always thought you’d really have to hear how I say the words for them to make sense. But those two would work as stories. Well, Little Houdini is the only story – Best of Times is just a stupid poem. It’s a confession. And I don’t think I’m the best writer, but my writing has always been my strength.

DD: So, it’s the words that come first with you then the music comes later?
Sage Francis: Not always…and it definitely didn’t used to be that way. It just happens the way it happens, though. Like I said with Yann’s composition; sometimes you just have a piece of music and you know you can do something with it – but whatever that is comes naturally.

DD: I read that ‘The Best of Times’ is basically a recollection of your own childhood memories – was it hard at all making those so public?
Sage Francis: No, it wasn’t hard at all – I’ve put much worse stuff out there in my career. Much worse. It was kind of embarrassing, though. These moments from my childhood always seemed so trivial; too trivial to write a song about and too self-serving. Maybe they still are, you know? But they’re out there now.

DD: A couple of tracks on life and some from the past are more like a spoken word track than a rap – what do you think of yourself as being fore mostly? A rapper, a spoken word performer or a poet?
Sage Francis: I’m definitely a rapper. I always have been. It’s my craft. I mean, I won’t get upset if someone tells me that I’m not a rapper – I used to – that was my identity. These days I’ve lost all sense of identity…