Interview: Robert Francis, on pink houses, ‘End Times’ and why he’s released 2 albums in 2 months

Robert Francis (Photo by Cori Elliott)

Singer-songwriter Robert Francis named his new project Robert Francis + The End Times long before we actually felt we were living in the end times. He plucked the moniker from the name of an old recording studio he’d drive by during the time he lived in Nashville.

“But it seemed fitting,” says Francis, who was in the process of clearing yet another hurdle in a career that reaches another milestone today, when he releases his second album in a two-month span.

In early May, Francis, 32, released his seventh album, “Amaretto,” without the advance notice or fanfare you’d associate with a work that features guests such as Ry Cooder, Marty Stuart and the late Terry Evans. Today, though, brings the release of his eighth, “Robert Francis + The End Times, Vol. 1.” If the former is Francis’ “Nashville” record, the latter is his coming-home tome.

In different ways — “Amaretto” with its Americana flourishes and “End Times” with its unvarnished indie-rock — both exude Francis’ strengths: poignant stories dexterously put into song, told in an Everyman voice and played with precision. As such, they only add to the great mystery surrounding him: Why isn’t Robert Francis huge?

People have been saying ‘He should be so much bigger than he is’ for years.

“It’s not like I harbor a grand desire to be a big artist,” Francis says. “But, you know, maybe I’d like to be the guy that can sell out 300- or 500-capacity rooms. The music business feels to me like a right-place-at-the-right-time situation. People have been saying ‘He should be so much bigger than he is’ for years. But as long as I can keep making records, I’ll be happy.”

Thinking perhaps Nashville was the right place, Francis decamped to Tennessee in 2017. “I’d been wanting to leave L.A. since I was 8 years old and saw the movie ‘Paris, Texas.’ Or maybe end up in a remote place like Vinalhaven, Maine,” he says. “You know, somewhere to start anew.

“Nashville was a place where I could have some land yet be close to all these talented musicians.”

He ended up in a pink rental house — yes, “Music From Big Pink” came to mind — with a recording studio in the basement, “all for the price of what a studio apartment with a view of a dumpster in L.A. costs.,” he says. While the accommodations were basic (imagine trying to work in a basement equipped only with two-pronged electrical sockets), his friends from L.A. joined him to record with the Nashville-based players.

“The vibe was great,” Francis says. “It felt like we were doing something important.”

Only after I left Nashville did I feel like ‘Amaretto’ was a special record.

His label was hoping so, too. “BMG was expecting me to go to Nashville and cut a big country record — there was even talk I could be on country radio,” he says. “But they were not into it. It felt like a failure, and only after I left Nashville did I feel like ‘Amaretto’ was a special record.”

The album features Cooder on four tracks and Stuart’s mandolin finery on two, including the tender “How Long Has It Been,” an homage to Francis’ father Robert Commagère, the pianist/composer/classical and ragtime music label owner who died in the fall of 2017. Blues singer Terry Evans, who would pass away in early 2018, backs Francis on the burner “Snakes in the Grass” and the soulful “Other Side of Heaven.”

Yet “Amaretto” sat on the shelf for two years until L.A. independent Aeronaut Records — which has released all Francis’ albums except 2009’s “Before Nightfall” (Atlantic) and 2012’s “Strangers in the First Place” (Vanguard) — released it May 1.

It was in the aftermath of Francis’ Nashville experience — one dreary winter was enough for him — that he conceived “Robert Francis + The End Times.” On the cross-country drive back to L.A., the songwriting bug bit him. “I’d been doing a lot of listening to the records I grew up with, from the Replacements to the Gin Blossoms,” he said in the initial album announcement last month. “I was going down memory lane and falling in love with that kind of music all over again, without letting my insecurities get in the way. I wasn’t wondering if the new songs sounded too country, too rock, or too Americana. I was just embracing this form of heart-on-sleeve, nostalgia-driven rock ’n’ roll.”

I’ve a long history of telling people like that to fuck off. Maybe it was time to adopt a new persona.

He expounded on that this week in explaining “The End Times”:

“I was in the mindset of the BMG deal, where people were telling me ‘This isn’t big enough’ and things like that,” Francis says. “I’ve a long history of telling people like that to fuck off. Maybe it was time to adopt a new persona … I kept thinking, if people don’t like these songs, I’ll just write some more. And by the time I got back to L.A., I had pretty much the whole album written.

“I can’t make any promises to deliver a record that anybody else wants,” he adds, laughing. “I tried to make a big rock record and it still ended up sounding like me.”

While “Amaretto” was distinctly a solo album — “everybody gave me space to do my thing,” he says — “End Times” is a full-band effort made largely in L.A. with guitarist Drew Phillips, bassist Shane Smith, drummer Brad Cummings and vocalist Cori Elliott. “I wanted everybody’s personalities to come through,” Francis says. “The approach was, ‘What would you bring to the table if this was a band and not a Robert Francis record?’”

“End Times’” includes a handful of poignantly framed relationship songs. “Coast” locates a turning point on a remote beach: “Two people, different visions,” Francis says. “It’s one person thinking, ‘You know that time at the beach when you said you were happiest just throwing sticks for the dog? That’s not for me.’” “Paradise” was inspired by a nightmare Francis had of he and his girlfriend fleeing their burning house … surely a metaphor for something. And Francis wrote “Boy Like That” from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend.

Maybe accidentally, the flagship song on “End Times” is the concise, no-frills rocker “Built to Last.”

“Sometimes I do feel like me and my kind are the last of a dying breed,” Francis says. “I wanted to write this anthem about the people from the old guard, the ones that wear their hearts on their sleeve.”

Francis’ has rarely been anywhere else, no matter how huge.

||| Stream: “Robert Francis + The End Times, Vol. 1” and “Amaretto” in their entirety