I was introduced to Sage Francis’ music about four years ago. I didn’t listen to a lot of hip hop then, but I loved poetry and my boyfriend knew that. As soon as I heard his music, it was the start of something that felt really special. You know that feeling when you find an artist who just captures it all perfectly? That was Sage Francis for me then, and still is now. His finger is spot on the pulse.

I admire his work because it breaks from the norm – at least, the norm as I know it in Australia. Sage Francis is not only a white guy producing really good hip hop, but he’s putting poetry to music. And that poetry shines, it really does. His subject matter oscillates between confessional and social commentary.

It’s easy for confessional work to become self-indulgent… Sage’s doesn’t. It speaks to the darker side of me. His comments on society aren’t just a rant – they’re intellectual, they’re insightful observations of where we’re at. They’re important and accessible.

Sage Francis – he’s smart, and not sorry about it. He’s honest. He’s funny (my favourite line: “if you ain’t dead, you ain’t a suicide girl!”). Lyrics aside – it’s plain good music.

He was kind enough to answer some questions for LGWABP.

Sage Francis

Q: -Your beard’s a bit epic. Tells us about that.
A: My beard grows wildly. I must be part viking. I would braid my beard if it didn’t hurt so much.

Q: -Come to think of it, B. Dolan’s beard’s a bit epic too. Is it some crazy Rhode Island thing?
A: We have different breeds of beard. His grows sideways while mine grows downward. We’re both part Irish so maybe the beard gene stems from Ireland but probably not. Because they are different species of beard.

Q: -Before hip hop you were a slam poet – what you do now is a beautiful mashing-together of the two. How did this happen?
A: Common misperception. I was not a slam poet before hiphop. I found out about spoken word poetry (which then introduced me to slam) many years after I had already been rapping. Since I was already writing by the time I stumbled into performance poetry I figured it was a good medium to present my material to an audience. I was right. What I’m most thankful for, in regard to my involvement with the spoken word scene, is that it opened me up to different subject matter which then was infused into my rap songs. The slam thing was inspirational in the beginning but it quickly wore thin and uninteresting to me. Much like the battle scene in hiphop. Competitive based art, when graded and judged by people you are performing in front of, almost always results in bad art. Those are not creative scenes, nor are they supportive scenes. At first they are, but they quickly fall to the way side once people figure out the “tricks.”

Q: -Your latest album ‘Li(f)e’ is very diverse sounding – it’s much less beats-based and uses a lot of really different instrumentation, and you’ve worked with a lot of great musicians on this one. Each song certainly has its own distinct feel. Tell us about that.
A: You said all that I think needs to be said about that. I mean, those are the basics right there. I deviated from a beat-based soundscape and delivered my raps on top of live instrumentation. This has annoyed some of the more hard-lined hiphop fans and opened up some of the non-hiphop fans. I wanted to create an album with a whole new sound and doggone it…we did. I believe that rap is much more flexible than people give it credit for, and I always have these impulses to explore the territories that other rappers or musicians are hesitant to go. As long as my ideas and words have room to breathe I am happy.

Q: -When listening to your music, I often discover a new line after I’ve heard the song fifty times. Do you intentionally make your lyrics that way, or do you just have so much to say that you try to fit it all in?
A: That’s what makes writing so fun. Setting up the traps, pitfalls, escape routes and alternate meanings. The power of poetry, as far as I’m concerned, is being able to stuff as much meaning into as few words as possible. That’s the fun part of what I do.

Q: -For “Little Houdini”, the first track off your latest album, the inspiration came from a news article you found. Do you do this a lot? And where else does your inspiration come from?
A: I don’t often derive my subject matter from news stories. In fact, Little Houdini is the only time I did that. It was a story I found so inspirational that I held onto it for a few years and then decided I wanted to tell the story. The only other song that followed a similar pattern is Makeshift Patriot, but in that instance it was the events that occured after 9/11 that inspired the song. Although my lyrics consisted of actual phrases from news reports, it really wasn’t the same kind of thing. My inspiration for songs usually just comes from whatever subject matter is plaguing my mind. That typically comes from personal experience or information that I come across in one way or another through regular day-to-day stuff.

Q: -Your lyrics often hold a mirror up to society – do you see social commentary as a big part of hip hop’s role?
A: Well…yeah. It used to be like that anyway. That’s a big part of what drew me into hiphop in the first place.

Q: -Your songs seem to be equal parts confessional and social commentary. Is that intentional?
A: Sometimes you have to turn the mirror on yourself. I don’t really like looking at myself in the mirror anymore, but I need to be fair.

Q: -The slam scene in America is quite different to what it is here in Australia – over there you can pack out stadiums with poetry… Here we hold tournaments in warehouses and pubs, but it’s a push to pack it out. It’s a small but very enthusiastic scene. Do you have any advice for those of us trying to get this thing to take off?
A: It belongs in pubs. Not stadiums. Let the small pack of people stay enthusiastic and creative. Don’t bastardize the shit like we tend to do with everything in the states.

Q: -A lot of what you tackle with your work is really heavy, but there’s also this video floating around on Youtube, of you battling the Strange Famous Records intern in your parking lot. Care to comment?
A: Well…that battle took place in the Epitaph parking lot. It was totally random and off-the-cuff. While I was in Los Angeles I dropped by their office to have some face time with the Epitaph folks. While I was making my rounds I came across this intern who would dance on command. He was told to dance for me…and he did. The office burst into laughter and I got mad. I was like, “That ain’t shit. It’s time to battle.” And the whole office was like, “Ooooooohhhh.” So they immediately set up an event to take place in their parking lot so the intern and I could do a dance off. The rest is history.

Q: -Tell us a bit about how you create.
A: When all goes well I fall into a trance-like state and let my mind run wild. That’s just when I’m feeling metaphysical though. It takes a fair amount of peyote to get me there. A lot of the time I just imagine something that I want to bring to fruition…and that’s that. Nothing too complicated there. Once I put my pen to the page I do my best to avoid typicality. A lot of ideas are bad ideas so it’s important to be a good editor. Editing can turn shit into gold if you know what you’re doing. And vice verse if you don’t know what you’re doing. I probably do both.

Q: -You’ve recently announced that you won’t be touring anymore, and you’re taking an
indefinite break – what bought this on?
A: I’ve found this to be very difficult to explain to people which I didn’t expect but I understand why there may be confusion. I’ve been a road dog for over 10 years now. I’ve traveled this world many times over. I’ve seen many clubs. I’ve had the same small talk conversation with thousands of people. I’ve wrecked my throat and body, risked life and limb, ruined my relationships with people back home and have a career to show for it. Yay. It worked. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m a pseudo-recluse. I can function while in the company of others but it’s not comfortable at all. That’s not me. I don’t know what I’m going to do, or if things will change for me, but for right now I have to be fair and honest with myself as well as with my fans. I won’t be able to do long strings of shows anymore. It’s doing some serious damage to my life. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it.

Q: -And what will you be doing instead?
A: I’ll try to live a life of stability and creativity. If that doesn’t work then I’ll be back on the road telling myself “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Repeatedly. Over and over. Oh, journey…you fuckfaced mistress…gimme a death kiss already.

Thanks to Sage Francis for supporting a blog like mine, and answering my questions. He will be in Melbourne on the 15th of October for the Melbourne International Arts Festival – you can buy tickets here. Check out the rest of MIAF’s program too, there’s some exciting stuff on.