I catch Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Francesco Yates between shows on a busy tour schedule with ATCK (All The Cool Kids). Rehearsing in St. Louis, preparing for the next show, he has somewhat of a breather before heading off to play the next location along with AJ McLean and DJ Lux. For him, the stage is his natural habitat; a safe space where he can bask in his craft and really enjoy just doing what he knows best. It's the place where he feels most content.
Amber McKee captures the musician in a dialogue between analogue and digital, similarly to how Francesco himself experiments with old and new in his music. As he describes himself, he's a bit of a "mad scientist" when it comes to music-making. His music concoctions are an eclectic medley of styles which makes for a new, alternative twist on pop with a nostalgic appetite for funk. Stylist Leo Plass, rightly so, frames him in some classic rock pieces which provide a nice contrast to his soft expression and perfect set of curls.
Many will mostly be familiar with Francesco's collaboration with Robin Schultz on the dance track and Billboard top 100 hit Sugar, which has garnered over a billion streams across digital channels. Since then, he's released his self-titled debut EP which was co-produced by none other than funk-master, and just all-around super cool guy, Pharrell Williams, and been the opening act for Justin Timberlake on the North American leg of his Man Of The Woods Tour.
It's been quite a whirlwind for the Toronto native since being signed to Atlantic Records at the age of 16 and he is readying himself for another round as his sophomore EP - Superbad - releases soon, closely followed by a tour. With the album, Francesco, the self-confessed "hopeless romantic", tells the story of his journey with this one girl, recounting the ups and downs of falling in love with her.
Francesco's new EP releases in 2020.
Where in the world are you?
I'm in St. Louis doing rehearsals - just preparing for the next show. The next show is in a couple of days in Indianapolis, I believe. It's going to be really cool.
That sounds really fun. You're currently on tour with AJ McLean and DJ Lux. What's it like working with the two of them?
Those guys are great. I worked with Brandon a while back before he asked me to join ATCK. When he asked me to join, I thought, 'that's like hanging with the homies', so I said, 'let's do it'. And then when I met AJ - he was a really cool dude, really down to earth - we just got along right away. That relationship is pretty cool. Pretty easy-going. I'm very happy. When you're on tour with people, the relationships you have with the other people are really important.
Later this year, you're going on a tour by yourself?
That's correct. Sometime around May or June, I believe. Tentatively, it's happening. It also coincides with my EP album called Superbad, which is coming out in March. I'm also going to be releasing a short film to go with it.
Cool, what kind of short film?
A sort of music video that ties in with all of the songs on the EP in sequence and the story. It's a chance to experiment and try a different approach to the traditional music video. I just wanted to try something a little left of centre.
Let's talk some more about your EP, Superbad. Why is it called that?
That's one of the first songs on the EP; sort of the focus song. I just liked how it looked on paper and how it was kind of easy to say. It's also the name of the short film that goes with it. I like for my art to be kind of cinematic and everything's got to tie in together. So, I think that's also why I chose it.
So, what can we expect from your EP?
My sound is an alternative spin on pop music. It has this kind of nostalgic appeal to it as well. Those are the themes that I really resonate with: bringing back what was done before in a new way - but not necessarily in a throwback kind of way but just in an 'I want to reimagine it and repaint it' kind of way. Even if it has a historic appeal to it, that's not at the forefront. That's just the flavouring of it. It's all about falling for this one girl; just the ups and downs of this specific story. Even if the songs are kind of different and come from different places and different times, they're all centred around what happens with this one girl and this journey I'm on with her.
Whilst on the topic of falling in love, how would you visualise the feeling of falling in love?
I guess what I would do is I would picture probably this whole psychedelic imagery of all the colours that can be imagined. That's what I would do. Because there are so many ups and downs and so many different phases of it, that it feels like different things at different times. And I guess since people call it 'falling in love', I picture myself just falling through all these psychedelic colours in this sort of passive way. You might have given me a good cover idea right there.
That's why I call this question a creative exercise. I read that you started writing songs at the age of 11, what did you write about back then?
I guess my immediate surroundings. A lot of songs I would write started off as instrumental songs, because I was always writing on the piano in my parents' basement. I wrote whatever came to mind and tried a whole bunch of things. I approached it kind of like a mad scientist in his lab coming up with these very crazy experiments. That's how it started for me.
And you play several instruments as well. What instrument did you start with?
I started on the piano. Something about the piano just gives you more versatility to try other things because you learn the dexterity of both your hands and stuff like that. And also because most producers are in the studio with keyboards and they know how to play the piano. So, I guess that's just what my thinking was: if I could do that then I could translate that over to other instruments. And then I went to the guitar and just kind of branched out from there. I wanted to know as much as I could. Yeah, I kind of had an obsession with it. I think that's why I wanted to learn as much as I could, in the quickest time possible.
It's not the worst obsession. So, like who or what sort of ignited your interest in music?
Since I was two, I've always had an interest in it, but it would come and go. I was, you know, busy being that little blonde-haired kid playing basketball in the schoolyard. Something really hit me when I watched the movie School of Rock - the one with Jack Black. Something about that movie made me want to go full-time with it. When I saw that I was like, 'man, I could really do that'. I felt like I could enjoy something like that. I thought, 'look at those little kids having so much fun'. So, that's what started it for me. Whenever I see Jack Black, I need to thank him many times over.
Yeah, sounds like that's in order. Back to writing, what is your writing process like?
Well, what I do is I start with the melody. I guess because I come from a piano background, the melody and the chords dictate to me where I'm going to go theme-wise. The musical part has to come first and then that triggers everything else. And once that's in momentum, everything goes. It usually takes about five minutes for some sort of switch to turn on and then I'm able to see the full picture. That's when the lyrics start coming and when the whole theme starts coming. It's funny because when I'm trying too hard to write a song, nothing happens, but then when I'm in the shower or something like that, a melody just comes to my head and I have to run out of the shower like a madman to try and write it down or go to my voice notes and figure it out. It's weird - it comes in at the most random times.
I understand; I can imagine it's hard to just like, 'oh, I'm going to write a hit right now'. It doesn't really work like that.
Music is made when it almost wants to be made.
It has a mind of its own. Musicians are often inspired by other musicians. Who is inspiring you at the moment?
One of my biggest inspirations music-wise is Prince because he just covered so much ground musically. That's why I really appreciated his work because he was able to bounce through some different styles whilst still bringing it back to him. I'm also liking the new Daniel Caesar stuff. It's big. It's really good. It's always been good. I remember meeting him in Toronto one time and we just had a really good conversation. There are a lot of great artists from Toronto that are doing it. I'm really excited now to see what The Weeknd's doing with the new song Blinding Lights. That is certainly an 80s thing. I did a song like that about a year ago, and then when he came out with it, I was like, 'damn, you beat me to it'. A lot of the things that the Toronto music scene is doing, I'm really getting behind these days.
Outside of music, what inspires you?
I like to read a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I guess you could say those things are inspiring to me. And yeah, I mean, I watch a lot of freaky sort of art movies like Stanley Kubrick films. I'm very, very into that. I would say that also plays a part in the sort of eclectic music taste that I have. I find clarity in things that are totally not related to music, like playing basketball. It sort of sets a refresher in my brain to go off and do what I need to do - something else. Sometimes experiences that I've had on tour. Last April, I got off touring with Justin Timberlake, being his opening act, and just that alone - man - I was bit with the tour bug when that happened. When you do something that big and of that magnitude, I think you just start to miss it. I guess you could say that also plays a part.
Tell me more about the experience of being the opening act for Justin Timberlake. That's pretty cool.
It's wild, man. It's not normal. It's not one bit normal. And, you know, it's weird to be chilling with someone who's this international superstar in catering. You get to see the show from all aspects: the backstage and this huge stage. When you walk on stage, there's just this amazing rush through your system - nothing really feels as good as this. When I come off the road too, it's weird because I want to keep that excitement going. But you know, you can't keep the excitement going because you're off the road. So, I think there's something to be said about that - I think that science is going to find that some level of dopamine gets released on stage that nothing else equates to.
What's the feeling you get from being on stage and performing in front of people?
Well, I feel like I'm a bit socially awkward otherwise, so being on stage is one of those things that I never feel hesitant about. I always know exactly what I am supposed to be doing. That's just very interesting, to me even. I'm learning that about myself. The more that I do it.
So, do you almost feel more comfortable being on stage than off-stage?
I think I do because on stage I just don't have any hesitation. I know what it is I'm supposed to do. And obviously, I worked really hard at it - to craft it. I just seem to feel very centred.
I think that makes sense. You've also worked with Pharrell Williams on several occasions. How has working with him shaped you as a musician?
I feel very blessed to be in the company that I am - with people like Justin Timberlake and Pharrell and AJ. These are people who are at the top of their game and they're nice enough to show me what it's like and show me the process and stuff like that. Pharrell is a really open-minded guy, so he allowed me and still allows me to look at the painting a little bit differently. Sometimes you can get really stuck, or you hit a slump in your writing. When I was doing that, at that point in my career, Pharrell really helped me through that. He was really good for those sorts of things.
I can imagine. I was looking at some numbers for Robin Shultz's Sugar - your collaboration with him - and it currently has 755 million streams on Spotify and 481 million views on YouTube. Like, those are some very dizzying numbers. How does that feel? That's huge.
It's really wild, to me, the whole thing. The whole thing was unexpected as it was sort of a happy accident because I heard the original music and loop of Sugar in the studio and it just became a thing of, 'oh, what's that there? Let's see if we can hop on top of that'. And while I was recording, I thought to myself, 'I wonder what will happen with this song? This is certainly different'. And it just sort of took on a life of its own. I was so surprised to see the reaction to it. It was just one of those happy accidents that I'm very thankful for because it's kind of amazing. Music is very much like that; you never know what song will do it for you. That's why you have to have a lot of faith in music to do it.
I can imagine it is a very tough industry to be in. How do you kind of deal with the pressure of the industry?
Because I can go back to music - back to putting together a song by myself, I can always centre everything around the music again when the hype and craziness get to be a little overwhelming. I also have a really good family too. I think having family support is so important. Also, as a person, you have to realise that the music and the person are separate things. I think if you identify too much with the idea that you are a music producer, rather than a human, I think that's when the problems start. So for me, I always have a circle of people that can ground me. My team too is really great with that stuff. I never really get overly caught up in anything too crazy, and I'm very fortunate to have that.
Yeah, I think it's very important to have really good people around. As we've been chatting for a bit now, I'd like to ask, who is Francesco?
I would say I'm kind of the mad scientist, the hopeless romantic and a guy who's just trying to figure it all out.
Haha, amazing. Our last print issue touched on happiness and ways in which to achieve happiness. What makes you happy?
Spending the time that I have with good people because it's all about time. You have to use your time wisely. Enjoy your time while you're here.
Just kind of looking at the other side of things. What gets you down?
I would say just going through things in music and life. Heartbreak. Moments where it didn't quite work out with someone. Struggles with music - how I wish I could do better songs all the time. Being misunderstood by people. That's what I would say brings me down. But what always brings me back around are the good people. It's a Yin and Yang sort of thing; it's almost like one can't exist without the other. I'm learning to kind of just roll with both of them - that's kind of what you have to do to keep the balance.
What are your thoughts on masculinity?
I don't quite know, to be honest. I never really defined it, whether it be masculine or feminine. I guess, to me, masculinity means to be comfortable in one's own skin and own whatever it is and have some direction. That's what I would say it is. But, I don't quite know because no one is all the way masculine or feminine all the time. It's again like Yin and Yang, both of those traits are always going to be there and always going to be met. Art can be very feminine and art can be very masculine too. I think you always need both to sort of be there and coexist peacefully at the same time.
What is the dream?
To maintain balance in my life and to have fun whenever I can. It's almost like what Prince said, "But life is just a party and parties weren't meant to last' - if the party isn't meant to last, we might as well have a good time while we're all here. That's the dream.