Sage Francis doesn’t play by the rules. He developed a large following by eluding the well-worn path of gangsta and player-style hip-hop by releasing the intensely personal Personal Journals. He then confounded expectations by becoming the first hip-hop act signed to LA punk label Epitaph. Then, Sage took on everyone’s least-favorite media giant on his “Fuck Clear Channel” tour. Take into account the immense critical acclaim for his record Hope, a collaboration with DJ Joe Beats, his recording with indie folkster Will Oldham titled “Sea Lion,” and his own vegetarian, drug and alcohol-free lifestyle, and you’ve got a very atypical emcee on your hands.
Unusual, though he may be, Sage Francis is nonetheless a unique performer, putting out today’s most compelling hip-hop records. We’ve made at least two of his records Album of the Week (see links at bottom of the page) and we decided to have a talk with the man, just to see what makes our current favorite rapper tick. What we learned was most intriguing.
Treble: It’s well known that you’ve been rapping since you were very young but what was the point that you felt you had established yourself as an artist?
Sage Francis: I’m not quite sure. I can’t remember when I first thought of what I did as art. By the time I accepted that, I’m not sure at what point I realized other people thought the same thing…to the degree that I could feel established as an artist. Personal Journals was a declaration of sorts.
T: You’ve put quite a few records out on your own label. Are you planning to re-release any of them with Epitaph or anyone else for mass-production?
SF: It’s been discussed but I would rather handle that material on my own. Or just let it be. It all had its time and purpose. If I see the perfect gap to shoot it through then I may pump some more life into that material. There are other things I am more interested in though.
T: If you could choose one of your own songs to really highlight what you’d like to be understood about you, which would it be?
SF: I think if you break down “Inherited Scars” line-for-line, it clearly explains who I am. There are other songs that do the same thing, but they aren’t as intricate or as word intensive as “Inherited Scars.” “Buzzkill” is another.
T: Personal Journals was a brave album to release, anyone who really listened could hear how truly intimate it was, did you ever feel vulnerable to your audience or worry that it wouldn’t be received how you intended? What was that like?
SF: I didn’t worry about those things. I was fairly confident that there would be an audience who would embrace it and an audience who would reject it. The vulnerability was what made it all worth it. I wanted to make a vulnerable hip-hop record, lay all my cards out on the table and then build my career from there. No sense in lying right off the bat and then having to live up to a false reputation. That’s too much work.
T: When Personal Journals was released a lot of people were getting used to you being a spoken-word artist or “emo-hip-hop”, Then once Hope came out, which was a solid hip-hop album, I think some of your “indie” fans were caught off guard, how do you respond to that?
SF: That’s what I expected, but what amazed me is Hope got a lot more positive feedback from the fans and press than Personal Journals did. It didn’t create quite as strong of a buzz, but almost all of the feedback was congratulatory. It was nice but I’m not sure if that’s what was best for us. I was hoping to create a war between indie rock kids and hip-hop purists.
T: I’ve noticed the crowds at your shows are more eclectic than possibly any other musician’s following, do you feel you have a target audience, or have you noticed any trend on tour as far as who’s turning out to your shows?
SF: I don’t think I have a target audience. I think I win and lose fans with almost every project I make, because they are all different kinds of people with different tastes. I love that. This situation affords me a good freedom in how I work and what I do. Of course there are people who enjoy every project and they are the core fan base…they are weird. I love them. I don’t know what to think of them sometimes but they tell me crazy things and I just nod my big, dopey head.
T: Musically what do you think has changed the most from the “Sick of Waiting” series to your latest album, A Healthy Distrust? What about personally?
SF: I don’t treat my “Sick of Waiting” CDs as albums. They are more like mixtapes. So sound quality and cohesion isn’t a big concern for me when doing those things. I like to stuff them with as much interesting shit as I can and then see what people think. As for official albums, I recorded this album just like I did all my others. The money comes out of my own pocket, and it wasn’t more expensive to record this album than my last one. In fact, I think Hope was more expensive. This time around I had history on my side though. Lots of experience in the studio with recording and mixing, and I have many more connections in the beat department. Sonically, the music has more punch. The lyrics are more social commentary at this point. I am working with live instruments more and really enjoying their presence on the album. I am going to move in that direction more.
T: One thing that hasn’t changed is your clearly unapologetic political, religious and over all social lyrical statements, what kind of affect has this had on your career?
SF: It makes me a spokesperson of sorts, which really isn’t something I care to be. But I accept it for now. It’s a responsibility of mine since I have addressed the topics and I get a fair amount of press.
T: What’s your favorite song on the new album?
SF: I don’t play favorites with my children. “Dance Monkey” and “Sea Lion” get a little something extra on their birthdays though.
T: You mention reading Jack Kerouac in one of your new songs, are there any other authors or literary figures that you pull inspiration from?
SF: The only other authors I could say that about are Hunter S Thompson and Stephen King. I am not incredibly well-read. I wish I had more time to read the classics. I mainly prefer reading biographies.
T: “Sea Lion” was kind of a different track for you as it had such a melodic chorus. Was Will Oldham someone you’d been wanting to collaborate with or did that just happen?
SF: I was introduced to his music by Tom at Lex Records while Will and I were in the UK at the same time. People got to talking about us doing some music together and then we began talking to each other about it. I had no expectations, but when it was all said and done I was extremely happy that this collaboration took place. He is a favorite singer/songwriter of mine and the song that resulted from our collaboration is one of the best songs on my new album.
T: Do you care if your journals are lined or unlined? If so which are yours?
SF: No, I don’t care. I use both. The lined journals help me be more structured and informative in my writing, where as the unlined offer me freedom to just doodle a random character and go completely off topic all the time. Wait…I guess I prefer lined journals.
T: Being a “real vegetarian, no chicken not even fish…” do you have any favorite veggie restaurants or recipes?
SF: There are so many. I am touring with a bunch of vegans and we have been hitting up the best spots in every single city. It’s difficult to remember now. Some are all vegan, some are just vegan friendly, but here’s a list: Garden Grille, Veganopolis, Pizza Luce, Grilla Bites.
T: You seem pretty down to earth and headstrong, what has it been like to gain such a strong following so quickly?
SF: Well, it didn’t happen quickly at all. That’s part of the reason I am so headstrong I guess. Everyone is down to earth depending on what level you know them on.
T: What’s it liked to be a hip-hop artist signed to such a predominantly punk label? How did the signing with epitaph come about anyway?
SF: Hip-hop and Punk rock have a lot of things in common, but don’t tell the purists of each respective genre that. As for as me signing to Epitaph, the hip-hop labels that are big enough to handle the demand of my music put out shitty rap records and I don’t want anything to do with that. Epitaph showed a genuine interest in what I talk about and how I do my music, where as the hip-hop labels poked around to see what kind of molding they could fit me into. It is an honor to be on the same label as the Rhymesayers, The Coup, Quannum, and Looptroop, not to mention Bad Religion, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland and Noam Chomski. It took a punk rock label to treat hip-hop with a little respect and dignity in the 2000′s. Irony is not dead. The President of Epitaph, Andy Kaulkin, called me after seeing me perform in LA and he asked if they could put “Makeshift Patriot” on their Punk-0-Rama and I quickly obliged. They told me that my style of music and the content reminded them a lot of what they loved so much about punk in the beginning. I had recently purchased a lot of Epitaph material and it was all a part of my consciousness. After talking to them for a while I decided that Epitaph is the company who will work my projects better than any other label, so when they asked if I was interested in being the first hip-hop act signed to their label I got in touch with my lawyer and we made it all happen. It’s been great.
T: You sing about a lot of sad unfortunate truths, would you consider yourself a “glass is half empty” kind of person, or are you more of an optimist?
SF: I am more of a ‘what glass?’ kinda guy.
T: What is your favorite word right now and why?
SF: Magnanimous. Some fat guy just said it when someone asked him how he was doing and it struck me as forced but funny. I haven’t heard that word in a while and I like it.
T: You seem utterly intrigued by and you work so well with the English language, twisting words and phrases in impressive ways. It comes through your work as a true passion. What inspires you the most about words and where does the ability to manipulate them so well come from?
SF: It’s the language we speak, man. (Laughs) I am amazed and saddened when people willingly keep their vocabulary limited. There are only so many words to describe so many things. I just want to learn more and be efficient in my speech. It is frustrating to not be able say what you mean, and then you have to fish around for alternative words, which usually compromise your meaning. I am not a walking dictionary by any means, but I like finding new words and applying them to my normal life. I’m trying to weed out the unnecessary swears and vague slang. Grunge and Jackson from Grand Buffet has an impressive vocabulary. I like to listen to them talk about anything.