Francis Farewell Starlite’s hairstyle—a James Dean-esque pompadour—and chic style scream “Star!” His vocals are vintage, like a raspy-smooth Joe Cocker, and onstage, his moves are grand, seemingly pulled and remixed from James Brown’s good-foot arsenal. As leader of his indie pop band, Francis and the Lights, he’s a fascinating eccentric. Don’t tell Starlite any of this, though. The 28-year-old isn’t a fan of comparisons.
In the few interviews Francis has given, writers inevitably wind up describing him as an elusive, coy character. He’s reserved. His words are brief, guarded even. “Let me think about how I want to answer that,” he’ll respond to a few questions during our interview. He doesn’t mind letting several moments pass before he gets out exactly what he wants to say. It’s refreshing in an era where most artists blurt out outrageous quotes and eventually cry foul after reading and eating their words.
The group has two stellar, five-song EPs, 2007’s Striking and 2008’s A Modern Promise. The introspective sets with bouncing, spacey beats have earned him a dedicated cult following. This summer the band’s set to release their third effort, It’ll Be Better.
Currently on tour with hip-hop’s young stud, Drake, Francis called in from his West Virginia-bound tour bus to introduce himself. Among other topics below, he opens up about why he’s curt, who or what “the Lights” are, his legal name, and how he found his life’s purpose on a train.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you enjoying the tour experience so far?
FRANCIS FAREWELL STARLITE: It’s been wonderful. I’m very thankful. It’s a very exciting tour. It’s an experience.
Drake fans are expecting a hip-hop show. How has the crowd been reacting to your performances?
It’s hard to say. In general, it’s been positive. We haven’t felt any negativity. I think there have been a couple of shows recently, once we’ve gotten our bearings straight, that have gone over very well. At least it felt that way, where we were able to bring people into our world. But it is a challenge, no question about it. I feel like every night we do a show, I have to just go out there and go to work.
What’s been your best show so far?
East Lansing, Michigan. That was the first show where I basically decided to never let it slow down. That seemed to work. It allowed me and the band to get into it.
So you’ve cut out all of your ballads? Or did you just cut back?
A little bit. Actually we played at an outdoor arena at Oakland University. It was an incredible audience for Drake. I saw some of Drake’s show. It was the livest crowd I had ever seen. Drake just completely destroyed it out there. After the show, I lamented not playing some of the lighter, floating songs, because it was beautiful out. So I’m going to be sure to bring those songs out at the right time in the future of this tour.
You’re featured on Drake’s upcoming album Thank Me Later, right? When did he first ask for your help?
That was right before the tour. It happened naturally. We were communicating and they asked if I had anything and I had a song that I had been working. I had it in my mind. I knew that there was something to it. So I produced a new recording, and I sent it to them. I guess they liked it.
Have you heard the finished product yet?
To be completely honest, I have not. They’re very careful about that, to their credit.
What’s it called?
That, I think I should plead the fifth on. I want to respect their release and how they want to roll out their work.
You’re quite a dancer. You’re like a blend of David Bowie, Prince—splits included, and James Brown. Are those performers you admired?
I usually try as hard as I can to not talk about other artists. But I can definitely say that I try to make music that makes me want to dance. The other thing is that the show and the performances are equally important as the other elements, like the recording or songwriting. I don’t know if that’s much of an answer.
I’ll take it. You’re way more talkative now than the extremely brief person you seem to be in other recent interviews.
Perhaps I’m failing at my overall plan right now. [Laughs]
Why do people have this elusive perception of you?
Well, um, that’s a good question. I’m very influenced by this writing guide called The Elements of Style. That’s probably my biggest influence on my work. The main idea is brevity. So I try to be like that.
So it has turned into your mantra?
Ideally. And in interviews, the artist is powerless. So I try to control it as much as I can. I’ve really appreciated your questions, so I guess I’m talking a little bit more than I normally would.
You have two EPs. Plan on releasing a new, longer album soon?
I have a record that’s going to come out soon. It’s going to be eight songs. I like short records. But it’s a little longer than the other things I’ve done. Along with that is a new music video that we just finished. That’s going to come out very soon. I don’t have a specific date, but [the album] is called It’ll Be Better.
You have a couple of interesting videos on your site. Who shot “The Top” and “A Modern Promise”?
It’s my man Jake Schreier. He’s a successful film director in his own right. We have a very specific vision for the type of music videos we want to make. He also plays keyboard in the band.
I recently found out that the rest of the band members aren’t the “and the Lights” part of Francis and the Lights name. What are their names?
Francis and The Lights… All the art and all the music is made under that symbolic name. The band has changed over time. It’s got Rene Solomon on drums, Jake Schreier, and “Jump Back” Jake Rabinbach on guitar. He’s been in the band the longest. That’s the band right now. Jake Schreier on keyboard is someone I’ve been working with since the very beginning, conceptualizing the music videos and other roles. And Rene on the drums is another one that’s been a part of the project for a very long time. It has changed, but it’s all my people. And I don’t mean that in any other way than people that I know.
I thought “the Lights” meant the band behind you allowing you to shine. Or maybe it’s literally just you and lights on stage. Did you choose the name for that reason, its various possible meanings?
That is the reason. And you can take it further. You can say lights like a computer screen is a light. Every one of those little pixels is a light. You can say an iPod screen is a light. Those are all the venues for my art.
I’ve seen you on the piano. Do you play anything else?
The piano is my instrument. That’s pretty much it. I played drums on this new record.
Do you have any other artistic hobbies?
No. I’m pretty focused on what I’m doing: Songwriting and leading this band.
James Brown didn’t play any instruments, but was an excellent bandleader.
I think he played a little bit of organ on some records. But that definitely wasn’t what he was primarily doing.
Like he did, do you just relay sounds that are in your head to your guitarist and drummers?
Yes I do. I’m very specific in trying to get sounds that I hear and trying to execute that and make it exist
When did you decide that you were going to give music your all?
It was a very identifiable moment actually where I decided, “This is what I’m going to do in my life.” I was on a train traveling from Elkhart, Indiana to New Orleans. I had been traveling around the country on the train.
For that specific purpose. It was to figure out what I was going to do. I had dropped out of Wesleyan University. I had played music and loved it my entire life, but hadn’t fully committed to it. And there was a moment when I wrote down the different things I could do. And then I wrote down, “I think I’ll give the band a go.”
What were the other things on the list?
Oh, I don’t know. That’s not important anymore. It’s been six years. Shortly after I went back to Oakland [California]. I needed to write five songs and then I moved to New York.
When you first moved to New York, did you immediately find work as a performing artist? Or did you have a regular job doing something like busing tables?
I was actually a bus boy for several years. I worked at Blue Ribbon Brasserie on Sullivan St. It’s a fine establishment. [Laughs] I was managed by a man named David Brown. And he had an influence on me as well.
He was an exceptional leader. He demanded perfection. Like, commanded perfection. And that affected me.
Not many people would say that their restaurant manager taught them a life lesson… Are you the product of a regular, nuclear family with a mom and dad?
Um, I think that I don’t want to answer that question.
No problem. In what ways are you like David?
I’m still trying to get to that point.
You want to run your ship like he ran the restaurant.
Exactly. I would like to have a business that’s as successful and well run as that one was. And I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate all those things that I experienced.
Francis Farewell Starlite is one of the more interesting names in this business. Is that your legal name?
That is my legal name.
Oh, that was easy. In another interview, you chose not to say.
Somebody asked me in a strange way.
Were you born with that name?
No, I was not.
I’m guessing there’s significance to your name change and it’s not just as simple as finding something cooler than what it was. You don’t talk about your birth name. What was so bad about it?
Let me think about how I want to answer that question. Let me think for a moment. [One minute passes] It’s very difficult because I’m very proud of the fact that I changed my name. It has meaning to me. I believe that people change, and that you are what you make of yourself. And that that is true. That’s true … I don’t want to, I don’t want to … The problem is that I feel like when I start talking about these things, I start to say things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to read myself saying. They might be too easily misinterpreted. So I think I’ll just leave it at that. I’m proud of the fact that I changed my name. I am what I make of myself.
Do you find that you’re thinking of how your quotes will read on paper before you speak? Your responses are well thought out, but also guarded.
Absolutely. I think that I considered it even more in the first few interviews. And I’d like to consider it even more in the future. I think that when people who are in that position complain about being misquoted or misinterpreted, I believe that’s because they weren’t sure enough of what they were saying or they said too much. So I would like to, ideally, keep that in mind.
The lyrics in your music are transparent. If people sat down and really listened to your songs, they’d be able to say they “know” you. But your interviews don’t give the same vibe. In comparison to your music, how open would you say you are?
Let me think about that one also, okay? That’s a good question. [Another minute passes] This is the way that I think about that. I’ll just say this and hopefully it will make sense… It should all add up. It should all add up and become the same thing. That’s the ideal.
Right now you have a dedicated cult following. It’s only a matter of time before you gain more fame and notoriety. How often do you think about the day when you can perform at stadiums?
I dream of it every day. And I think of it as an artistic proposition. Because there are things you can do on that stage that don’t make any sense when you’re playing for 100 people. If you were to say to 100 people, “I love you,” that would mean one thing. But if you say that to 100,000 people it takes on a whole different meaning.
Right. The intimate feel versus stadium love.
You know how Kanye West said that he wrote the songs on Graduation because he knew that he was going to be able to play those songs in stadiums, with these huge choruses to make his jobs easier? That’s such a beautiful thing to want to do.
On “A Modern Promise,” you sing, “Now all my friends, my very best friends, they call me… Well, I guess they call me Abraham. But all the beautiful girls… They call me Starlite now.” It’s smooth, but a bit spiteful. Could you talk about that line?
That song is really the answer to your question about my name, isn’t it? [Laughs] That’s what that song is about. The title of that song directly refers to how you make a promise to yourself for the modern age to be somebody.
(Ed. Note: Francis emailed us this morning (April 26) to give credit where it’s due. And in this case, it’s Prince, who Starlite credits for the line mentioned above. “That line is directly influenced from a routine that Prince used to do in his Lovesexy tour,” he wrote. “He would say, ‘All my friends call me Prince, but all my ladies call me the Electric Man. All my friends call me Prince, but all my ladies call me the Electric Man. Because when I stick my plug in your socket baby, I give you a shock like no one can.’ I wrote the song without realizing this, but later was rewatching the footage and realized it. At least I flipped it.”)
So that track was made to address people who knew you before your name change and didn’t recognize or respect it when you did?
It’s almost like someone trying to use it against me. You know, I changed the lyrics. When I sing it live now I say, “Now all my friends, my very best friends, even they don’t call me Abraham. Unless they mess up. “ It’s just a statement, a statement of purpose. It’s really more for myself than against anybody. It’s a statement of purpose.
Do you consider it disrespectful for someone not to refer to you as Francis Farewell Starlite?
If it’s someone from my past, I have to say that it’s understandable. But to not recognize the meaning of it or the specific choice of it… I don’t really care what anybody else thinks or says. It’s really mostly about what I do and what I’ve done. I’m not mad at anybody for anything they would say about me about what I’ve done. But I am standing by what I have done.
We just talked about how you dream of playing stadiums, but how do you feel about your position now?
Well, I certainly am very thankful for what’s happening right now with this tour. But I also will say that I’m in a constant state of feeling like I’m behind and that time is running out. It probably has to do with having material, songs and ideas and visions for things.
You know, there’s no deadline. You can make music your whole life. Why do you feel like you’re behind? Are you not where you thought you’d be career-wise?
I think the reason I say that is because I’m working on material now for that future time already. I just want it to happen. I don’t think I can answer that question with certainty. I don’t know exactly why, or whether it’s right to feel that way. I think it’d be crazy to say I’m satisfied.
Take a listen to Francis and the Lights’ new album It’ll Be Better here.
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