Name: Miles Francis
Occupations: Producer, drummer, songwriter, singer, guitarist
Current Release: Miles Francis's "Good Man" is available via their bandcamp account. The debut album by the same name is slated for release on March 4th 2022.
Recommendations: BOOK: “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib; SONG: “Coffin For Head of State” by Fela Kuti
If you enjoyed this interview with Miles Francis, visit their official homepage. They are also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I’ve been writing music since I was a kid, thanks to my dad who is a songwriter as well. Going with my mom to see him play when I was little was the catalyst for sure, although it was already in the cards - my entire family on my dad’s side in Canada are musicians.
Drums were my first instrument, starting at age 6. It was pretty cosmic - I don’t know what drew me to them, but I found them and they instantly became my vessel for expression. I picked up guitar and bass when I was 10, and started making songs on Garageband shortly after. I have loved layering myself on every instrument ever since - it has always been my chosen method of songwriting.
When I learned how to use Pro Tools, the sound quality got a big level up and I was suddenly making songs from home that were ready for release. I realized that I already was producing but I just didn’t really know it. This opened up lots of avenues for experimenting and honing my production mind that I had never considered before. Now, I consider my two main passions to be drums and songwriting - two umbrella terms that include variants like rhythm, production, arranging, timing.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
From 2010 until around 2016-2017, I played primarily with Antibalas and EMEFE, where I got to explore myself as a drummer, songwriter, bandleader, and producer - not to mention getting experience collaborating with artists like Tunde Adebimpe, Allen Toussaint, Angelique Kidjo and more.
But it wasn’t until I toured with Will Butler (of Arcade Fire) that I really began to uncover my own identity as an artist. The way he moved onstage, the way he wrote songs and lyrics - it all had a huge impact on me (I was 23 when I joined his band). From there, I made my two early EPs (Swimmers and Doves), and I eventually developed songs that became my first full-length album, which is out in March 2022.
Another important time for me was in September 2019 through February 2020, when I hosted monthly afrobeat parties at my studio with my friends. These were sweaty beautiful nights where we would play Fela songs and just be free together. Anyone who was there knows the magic we captured on those nights, and it directly inspired me to make a lot of the music that ended up on my album.
The final pivotal moment in my development as an artist was being a part of the Black Trans Lives Matter movement in NYC in 2020. Marching every week with Qween Jean and Joela Rivera, providing drums for their marches, I found my own nonbinary identity and really evolved into the person I am today. The encouragement of my friends in and around that community spurred me on to dig towards my deepest self and to embrace it.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
For me it’s the other way around - how does my creativity influence my identity?
I feel like my creativity has always lead the way, and my identity takes shape around it. Or better yet, my creativity is my identity. My creativity is where I am my most formless, shapeless, unboxed, and uninhibited. The times when I am not creating - when I am not playing music or performing, when I am just existing in the space between (which is a lot of life) - that is when I need to make more effort to stay open, to stay present, to stay in touch. When I can, I bring my creative mindset into those spaces between.
Identity is a funny thing. My creativity helped me find my gender identity. I came into my nonbinary identity because I realized that was a key difference between my creative self and my non-creative self. When I’m making music, I am genderless - but when I step into the world, I am a “man”, and that changes things. Nonbinaryness helps me bridge that difference, and access that freedom when I am not making music.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When you’re making music alone, you sometimes don’t know what translates from your brain outward to the average listener. So, when I would play songs for people and they wouldn’t react the way I wanted them to, I would get down about it, take it personally, or at least be disappointed.
But, through the years I’ve grown to cherish and find fascination at those moments, because it is a great reality check. What’s happening in my brain when I’m listening to my music is extremely specific and contextualized. When I play it for someone new, I get to see how my ideas actually hit in the real world, which is a nice mirror. Then, from there, I’ll either take their reaction and go back to the lab to tweak, or I’ll decide that it’s okay as it is.
Playing my music for other people along the way is a pivotal part of my process in recording a group of songs.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
When I recorded music as a kid all the way up through college, I would use Garageband. These were classified in my brain as “demos”. I would still labor over them intensely, but at the end of the day I wasn’t too focused on sound quality or production - it was more about documenting ideas to later explore with a band.
That changed when I learned Pro Tools. Suddenly my “demos” were sounding better and better, and I realized that I was creating early versions of the final product. This started a huge shift in my songwriting process, and enabled me to really start thinking like a producer. It also mixed up all the different steps that are required to bring a song from your notebook to the album - the writing process was the recording process was the producing process was the editing process, all happening at the same time.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
It’s more of a concept utilizing certain technology, but mixing together drum machines and live drums changed my life.
For example, for a particular beat in a song, you can have kick drum and hi-hat played live, the snare played on the DSI Tempest, claps and cabasa on the Linn Drum, and live tambourine. This is opposed to having a song just have live drums or just have electronic drums. Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver” was one of the first I ever heard do this.
In that song, the kick drum and hi-hat are drum machines while the snare is played live. This gives the music a sway and swagger that is unique and all its own.
Drum machines have their own beautiful way of grooving, but they are fixed in their dynamic and timing - so mixing in live drum elements adds a degree of error, of imperfection, or just raw energy - not to mention how it colors the overall sound of the beat. I use this concept in every single one of my songs.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
At this moment in my creative process, my actual music-making process is relatively solitary. The collaboration has really come when it comes to visual content surrounding the music. Music videos, photography, graphic design, everything that helps communicate the music through our eyes.
My main collaborator has been Charles Billot, who has done all of my music videos and most of my photography since 2017. With Charles, a lot goes unsaid - he just knows how to capture what I have in my mind’s eye. He is a meticulous and visionary planner but leaves room for improvisation in shooting or editing, which is really important to me. Sometimes we embark on a video in one direction and end up in a completely different destination than we had planned. Sometimes we take B-roll footage and turn it into a different music video.
I recognize his film-making process in my own music-making process - a careful mixture of work and play, balancing intention with intuition. We have made twelve music videos together now, and every time we get closer and closer to having one mind. Charles is immensely gifted, to the extent that I don’t know half of what he is calculating when we make videos together, because he makes it look so easy.