Gillian Frances: “within a formless realm”

Woman standing on a balcony

Record: Miles Away From Myself (2020)

As a queer female musician, it can be difficult to understand where I fit within this industry. I grew up around radical, queer folks expressing themselves freely, and it was a harsh reality when I stepped into the world and didn’t see people like me.

Gillian Frances
Recording artist Gillian Frances
Gillian Frances (photo courtesy of the artist, used by permission)

Can music be a mechanism for a recording artist to find her way from a discontinuous life to wholeness, from inexperience to wisdom, from deep personal loss to a sense of independence and wellbeing? These are some of the big questions Gillian Frances sets out to explore on her new full-length LP, “Miles Away From Myself” (Decency Den Records, 2020), set for release later this summer. And in its making, this record also tests Frances’s ability to step outside of the support role in the careers of other artist’s projects and tours, as she’s done with forerunner bands like Black Belt Eagle Scout and Surfer Rosie, into the lead role for her own intuitive experiments in songwriting and arrangement. The result is a record quietly defined by its tenderness and honesty, by its vulnerability as well as its courage.

Confidence is both an asset and a potential trap for an artist. Frances’s strength on “Miles Away From Myself,” at first, feels like a paradox: boldly stepping out to make a record of one’s own after years of supporting the efforts of other successful recording artists, which requires a deep reserve of self-confidence (and honesty). But that same confidence can also lead to clinging to introspection rather than using experience as her guide. “Miles Away From Myself” deftly navigates this arena and emerges as both tender and insightful.

Clearly, there’s a universal, lyrical, and calmly observational quality to these 10 songs — allowing Frances the space to become the mindful observational-self in her own, confessional narratives, perspectives, and actions — rather than forming attachments that might narrow the focus of her efforts. In short, Francis made good use of her time in the company of passionate songwriters like Katherine Paul. “Miles Away From Myself” is a breakthrough moment for a young songwriter who, until now, has been seen but not heard.

With her lush guitar atmospheres and contributions from her proficient band, standout tracks include “New Bones,” “U R Nothing,” and “Friend.” Frances’s voice shares a quiet, open affinity with artists such as Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), Kennedy Ashlyn (SRSQ, Them Are Us Too), and Mirah (Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn). “Miles Away From Myself” is an impressive first LP effort from a quietly prolific songwriter embarking on an exciting new adventure, well worth bookmarking for this, and future releases. Her creative spark is enhanced by her association with Decency Den Records and The Unknown recording studio in Anacortes, WA. Her technical skills and team are aligning themselves for some exciting new collaborative work under her direction, even as we remain locked down in our COVID-19 pandemic storm.

For now, three tracks are available from “Miles Away From Myself” on a special EP, “Fundraiser: SONGS FOR THE GWORLS!” Recently, The Palace spoke with Francis about her time in Portland, touring, and her journey from a supporting role in music to her new, opened-hearted solo songwriting — her journey from a frenetic Portland music spectacle to the modest music scene of Anacortes to the bucolic spaces on Guemes Island.

[NOTE: All proceeds from the EP “Fundraiser: FOR THE GWORLS!” (aside from sales tax, and shipping fee for the limited-edition poster purchase) will be sent to a non-profit, For the Gworls, an organization that raises money for Black trans people to assist with rent and affirmative surgeries. The first track is a cover of a well-known Pearl Jam song, “Better Man.” The other three tracks are a part of Gillian Frances’s full-length album, “Miles Away From Myself,” which will be released this summer.]

The interview

First, I have to ask: in your press materials you mention that you grew up with parents who were involved in the 1990s Portland grunge music scene. That sounds really cool, but… it might not be. I don’t know. Was it? [Laughs]

Gillian Frances:
[Laughs] OK, yes, it was cool, but it was also… a lot. So, my mom and dad met playing in a band together. My mom was the bass player and my dad was the drummer. They’re both still musicians. My mom’s actually in a funk band right now in New York, a political funk band with my stepdad.

Anyway, so they met playing in a band together, and then they had me, and they weren’t married. They split up pretty quickly after I was introduced into the world. So I spent time going back and forth between them.

I don’t really remember a lot of it. It’s more the stories that are cool. My mom’s like, “You went to your first concert when I was pregnant with you, and you were on stage. [Laughs] There are, like, cool pictures of my mom being pregnant with her bass resting on her pregnant belly and my dad’s drumming in the background. So, yeah, I was there. Music was in my bones, or whatever. [Laughs]

My mom got together with my stepdad when I was three or four. He was in a pretty popular [1990s] band called Hazel, one of the first Sub Pop bands. They toured a lot. So yeah, that part was cool.

I just needed to get out of Portland and start fresh somewhere.

Gillian Frances

The Portland music scene is a pretty serious scene. And you chose to relocate from Portland to Anacortes. Of course, Anacortes also has a cool music scene. But that’s a big change in scenes, very different vibes between the two. Why did you come to Anacortes?

Yeah, a lot of people ask me that. [Laughs] Portland is a big scene, and a cool scene for sure, but my partner and I were ready for something quieter. We’re both in our late twenties, not like that’s old or anything, but we both had our time in the scene for a long time. I was in Portland for four or five years and played in some big, popular bands, in terms of Portland status. Did a lot of fun, cool DIY tours.

It was great but I think I just got tired of the bullshit. There’s a lot of drama there. It’s not just like… everybody is cool and we can hang out. People get knocked down for gossip, you know. It can feel really toxic, and the social stuff is just really overwhelming.

And I was also going through some heavy stuff, like processing the death of a family member. I spent a lot of time up here [in Anacortes] as a kid because I would go up to Lopez Island with my step-grandma. She has a cabin up there. So basically, every summer we would go up there. I have the fondest memories spending time on Lopez.

So, when I came up to Anacortes to record with Nich Wilbur at The Unknown, and with my old band, Surfer Rosie, last year… as soon as I got here, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m so ready to leave Portland!” I really loved spending time with Nich, and getting to meet Caitlin [Roberts of Hoop], and other people here. It just felt really natural and easy.

So, then we decided to take the plunge and get out of Portland. And I’m really glad we did. We live on Guemes Island. It was a super random choice. We didn’t even know how to pronounce it when we moved up here. [Laughs]

Guemes is even more isolated. It’s not too far into the islands, but you do have to take a ferry to go anywhere.

We’re definitely bound by the ferry time schedules. At first, we were kind of worried about that. But it hasn’t bothered us. We were both so maxed out from Portland that we just really needed some isolation and some space to heal from… everything. Especially now, with the pandemic and all the protests and stuff, I think we’re both really glad to be away from a big city. It would be really intense to be living in Portland right now. It’s been six months, and we’re really starting to settle in and make it our own space. It’s really wonderful.

And maybe a lot of expectation for you to participate rather than withdrawing and writing songs.

Totally, yeah, I would definitely feel guilty. Like, I feel guilty for not being there. But at the same time, I’m glad that I don’t have that pressure. We went to the small protest in Anacortes on Saturday [May 30th]. So we went to that and it was pretty chill and nice. It got a little crazy at the end. That’s about the level I’m willing to do right now.

Gillian Francis
Gillian Frances (photo courtesy of the artist, used by permission)

The Rock & Roll Camp for Girls thing. You’ve spoken about how important that experience was for you. How is that program different from the School of Rock, which seems to me kind of — for lack of a better word — commercial? You hear conflicting assessments of what these programs are all about. In your experience, it was clearly very important for you.

It was in this rickety, old — I can’t remember what the building was — it was just like a really crappy building with plywood walls, stuff like that. Most of the gear was donated. The theme song was written by Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney, I think she wrote it, I could be wrong.

The Camp involved a lot of really cool, rad, queer women. When I was 10 years old until 14, I went there every year — those women I was around — people who eventually came out as trans people — people who were queer, and so many dikes, you know. It helped me understand my own identity as a queer person. I was like, “These people are so cool!” I just wanted to be one of them!

It was very much about understanding what it meant to be a girl and a woman in the patriarchal world that we live in.

Gillian Francis

The camp works, basically, like an empowerment community. So, girls would come, and we would learn different instruments. I think the first year, I might have done DJing — so I was in the DJ group. And then after that I was on drums — all the rest of the years I was drumming.

You would have your private instruction with a teacher. Then, in the middle of the day after lunch, we would get to do different workshops. One of them was on zine making. One was on self-defense. One was on image and identity. So, it kind of ranged from just talking, and deconstructing the patriarchy, to talking about bullying. And there were fun things like screen printing. We got to make our own shirts, which was really fun, with our own band designs.

Then we would form a band, and each band would write an original song. You’d be with that band the whole week. At the end of the week we would perform our original song, for like — sometimes there would be 200 people there, at the final show. We would rent out a big movie theater, or a venue hall in Portland, and get to perform our song for all these people.

It was really awesome. And understanding how to form strong connections throughout the program, how to protect ourselves and express ourselves. I think those were the most valuable things I walked away with, having a strong sense of who I am, and understanding my own strength.

I feel, especially for young girls — all people — but, especially young girls are minimized to be these little creatures a lot of the time — put in boxes based on their sex. So, it was really nice to be able to be more free with that. Kids would play around with their pronouns. It was really cool to be able to learn about that before learning it again in feminist-studies classes in college [Laughs].

You carved out an impressive place for yourself supporting headliner bands, like Black Belt Eagle Scout, and of course your punk band, Surfer Rosie. Stepping out to do your solo stuff seems like a big step, with all eyes on you now. Why make such a bold move?

I’m a multi-instrumentalist, so I’ve been a backing person — I played a supportive role in so many bands for so many people. Surfer Rosie was more collaborative — we all wrote the songs together. But aside from that, it was sort of… “Play this,” and I did. It was fun. I loved being in Black Belt Eagle Scout. KP [Katherine Paul] was great. But touring was hard.

I really enjoyed playing music with my friends. But I’ve been kind of working on my own projects for a while. In Portland, I just found, like, the best band. People who wanted to play my music and who were excited about it. It was this rag-tag group of all different people from different scenes, with such different voices. And they’re all on the album. And I thought, I’m really ready to invest in this. It’s what really gives me the most joy.

Not that playing with Black Belt Eagle Scout didn’t give me joy, but it was more — easy [Laughs]. It also had more ego with it. It was like, “I’m with Black Belt Eagle Scout!” And people would be like, “Whoa!” Or, I’d go and play a show and there would be a bunch of people in the crowd, but they weren’t there to see me, or to understand me as a musician.

So, I had this realization — when I thought about some of my favorite artists, like Angel Olsen or Sharon Van Etten —  how many people can actually name the folks in their backing bands? Probably, not many. Probably not many people take the time to actually learn about the amazingly talented people who are making their music happen. I guess I wanted to take that step, wave my arms, and say… “Hey, I have songs, too!” [Laughs]

I’ve got everything ready for my next record!

Gillian Frances

As a songwriter, what’s your process? The songs on “Miles Away From Myself” span 5-6 years of writing time. That seems like a long time for writing. Of course, you could have been busy doing a zillion other things, or you just like to work more slowly.

That’s a good question. [Laughs] A couple of years ago I tried to record this album but it just kind of fizzled out because it wasn’t a concentrated effort. I hadn’t really developed my voice as much. I think I was still relying on my friends to make the music work around me.

I’ve been writing songs for a really long time. Some of the songs I wrote when I was living back in New York. I think it just took me a while to kind of understand how I wanted to take in all of the music that I love and transmute it into something that I feel is my own, if that makes sense. More in terms of textures — how do I actually want this to sound.

Now I’ve figured it out with “Miles Away From Myself.” It’s been a good way for me to come to terms with my own songwriting. Now that we’ve moved up here, I’ve been writing — especially with the pandemic quarantine — I’m just writing song after song.

It’s a mental-health exercise, if nothing else!

Totally! It’s funny though, because I was writing, like, every day, for the first couple of weeks, and then I just totally fizzled out. But I picked up my guitar the other day and wrote a song for my cat, Louie. And that felt really good. So, I’m excited to get back into recording and songwriting.

But to answer your question, it’s not going to be long until I have another album out. I think my next album is going to be more stuff I’ve recorded at home, so it’s going to be more DIY sounding. I’ll probably still have Nich [Wilbur] mix and master it. I’ve just been recording stuff on my own, which has been really fun.

We have spent our years together
Holding and fighting for space
Lost and alone I was back then
Together we found our place

from the song “Friend,” by Gillian Frances
Recording artist Gillian Frances
Gillian Frances (photo courtesy of the artist, used by permission)

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Girl” / photograph by Jr Korpa on
“Gas station” (footer) / photograph by Kaytoo on Shutterstock, design done by GP using Canva

Old gas station.