New York City-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Miles Francis has collaborated with the likes of Sharon Jones and Tunde Adebimpe. Now, he’s branching out on his own, filtering his training as an Afrobeat percussionist into his electropop-leaning debut album, Swimmers. To celebrate his recent three-date residency at C’mon Everybody, we talked about mentorship, David Bowie, and the responsibilities that come with being an artist.
AdHoc: How did Miles Francis come about?
Miles Francis: It’s something that I’ve done my whole life. Most young musicians get swept up in whatever opportunities come to them. And I was very fortunate to be swept up with Antibalas and Will Butler and a bunch of artists I’ve collaborated with over the years.
[Miles Francis] came about as a result of the different collaborations and phases of my career so far all sort of coming to a head. At a certain point, I had to basically get all these ideas out. It just made sense for me to do it alone, because that’s sort of where I’m most at home. It was just time for me to pursue myself.
You’ve collaborated with Tunde Adebimpe, Sharon Jones, and Will Butler of Arcade Fire. These are all pretty different genres. How have these collaborations affected your solo work and your evolution as musician? Was there any particular friendship or mentorship that really shaped you along the way?
I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work with people that are great teachers in their own right, whether they’re meaning to teach or not. [I’ve taken inspiration from] all of the different artists I’ve worked with over the years. [When I was] playing with Will Butler and touring with him, I learned every night what it is to perform for an audience and really put on a show. Also, playing meaningful songs that people depend on emotionally—[Will Butler] was like a big mentor for me. When you’re young, it’s easy to be in your own world and think you’re the shit. You’re fortunate to have these people who have been doing it all around you, and if you can soak it up, you should. And so I’ve basically tried to keep those things in balance: my own vision but also the experience of collaboration.
How does your background as an Afrobeat percussionist influenced your current work?
Afrobeats shapes how I think about music in a lot of ways. The rhythmic sense of the music and the art, the emotional arcs of the music, and the arrangement of the instruments are embedded in my songwriting. I think [it will] probably [be there] forever. And while the music of Miles Francis is not Afrobeat music at all, it’s there. [On] every song, there’s some little thing, some little evidence, that there’s an Afrobeat drummer in there somewhere. It’s sort of layered on top with a whole other world of influences. Basically my music is an Afrobeat drummer mixed with a Prince fanatic, David Byrne, and David Bowie.
How does it feel to be at the front of the stage now?
I think anybody who comes to these shows will instantly see that I am extremely at home [at the front of the stage] and that it’s been a long time coming for me. I have a voice that I want to put up there. Drummers are always at the back of the stage. I’ve spent many shows doing that and I love that for what it is, but what I want to say needs to be said into the lead vocal mic. [My show] has become quite a spectacle. And I’m really enjoying hamming it up.
Swimmers is primarily electro pop. Why did you decide to explore this genre?
These things happen. Even though it is electro in some ways, I play everything live, and there’s no MIDI or or anything. So, for me, the process is still very analog. I’m still playing analog synthesizers and guitar and performing everything live through a song. So I don’t think of it as electro, but I guess that that’s how it comes off. I’ve played in bands my whole life, and [I’ve] played in really big 10-piece bands. I made Swimmers because I was really interested in songwriting. I was facing the fact that as much as I love drumming with people or playing in bands and touring, my real passion is writing a song and trying to record the best version of that song. It is a free process, and I went with whatever instrument I had in my studio, whatever made the most sense for me.
What inspired Swimmers? What were you listening to, watching, or reading at the time?
Around the time that I was making it, I was listening to To Pimp a Butterfly. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah also came out right around that time. Those two records were huge for me in terms of sculpting a singular vision of an album. Also Bowie’s Blackstar was a big one for me. Bowie in general, the way he orchestrated his final album and the end of his life as an extremely meaningful, artistic statement just blew my fucking mind. For him to do that… I think the world saw that when you’re an artist you just live your music. That I was sort of what was in my mind as I was creating all the visuals for Swimmers—it’s a short film in addition to the EP—I wanted it to be this world that you can step into. And here in my world, some of it is true to me personally, and some of it is my reality.
What exactly does being an artist mean to you?
I sort of look at it as playing a character. Maybe that character is super true to yourself and extremely natural—it can just be a guy in a T-shirt and jeans and he’s not putting on any airs, or it can be you putting on a suit and slicking back your hair. My goal is to put my emotions into musical form, so whatever is happening with me that day or that month, that’s what the music is. Then, somebody can go and pick up the album and they can feel something, or to help them make some sense out of what they’re feeling. I think that at the end of the day, being an artist means helping us all figure things out.
What’s next for you?
Well I have a lot of songs. I’m always writing and recording and Swimmers is just the beginning. What’s next first is touring and releasing the short film that I made with the director Charles Billot. But I’m sitting on a lot of songs and I’m making new songs all the time.