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An Interview with Musician Francesca Blanchard
For Francesca Blanchard, lyrics are “where music meets purpose.” This sentiment is embodied in her work, which often emphasizes the power of words, speech, and the human voice. Writing songs in both English and French, incorporating poetry and spoken word, Blanchard takes great care and attention to detail when crafting her songs. Although she wears multiple hats as a performer and a multi-instrumentalist, the Vermont musician considers herself a songwriter first and foremost.
Born and raised in France, Blanchard and her family settled in Charlotte, Vermont when she was 10 years old. Aside from her mother who dabbles on the piano, Blanchard is the only musician in the family. She started learning guitar, playing covers of classics such as the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on repeat, until she began writing her own songs in French as a way to preserve her first language. At Boston University, she studied theater, but she knew that writing music felt more freeing than her work as an actor. When record label Cumbancha approached her with a deal, she spent her first three post-graduate years on the road, touring across the country and in Europe. She raised enough money to finance her first full-length LP Deux Visions, featuring half its songs in English and the other half in French.
After the release of her first album, Blanchard suddenly felt she was losing sight of what she was trying to say and accomplish. Pigeonholed in the nebulous realm of “world music,” she did not feel she had the chance to be honest as a songwriter. That’s when she decided to step away from music, and she did not return for another five years. Traveling on the west coast, volunteering in Ecuador, Blanchard gained new insight into herself and her work during her time off. Only after coming back to Vermont did she decide to resume building her musical repertoire. She returned to her craft with a wealth of new music, videos, and performances, but with an entirely revamped sound and image. She released her polished, pop-infused sophomore album Make It Better in June 2020.
This year, Blanchard received a Creation Grant to support her third album, which she began writing while living in Paris after the pandemic hit. The album challenges Blanchard to explore darker lyrical themes, while still remaining true to her charming indie pop sound. “I released my last record independently, and I take great pride in that,” Blanchard said, “but it’s hard, especially during COVID, when I questioned so much if I should keep going in this field, or if it was a wake-up call to do something more realistic. But coming back home and receiving the grant… I hadn’t considered starting this project and I didn’t know if I was going to, so I’m very grateful for that push.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vaughan Supple: How does a song usually start for you? Do you compose acoustic demos, or do you experiment with sonic ideas in the studio?
Francesca Blanchard: Both. I took the metro all the time in Paris, and I have this huge note on my phone of lyrical ideas where I would write. For one of the songs, I sat down with my acoustic and I took the last paragraph of what I had written on the subway and turned it into a song. That was awesome, I love that song. Other songs, I’ll come up with a sound or a beat on my computer, and I’ll throw down some gibberish for the first hour, and eventually that’ll turn into lyrics. I’m not going to overthink how simple it is, I’m just going to go with it. And I love pop, so some of these are just straight pop songs. And in my next project, I want to do the opposite. I’m a total perfectionist; I’m in the studio doing production over my co-producer’s shoulder, tweaking every minute detail. For my own growth, in my next project, I want to lay off. I want to be messy.
What themes and concepts do you find yourself returning to in your songwriting?
That’s always changing. I want it to be changing. Not to be stereotypical, but I write when there’s heartache, when there’s abandonment, or too much solitude. Heartbreak is a repetitive theme that I go to, and I’ve got to change that. I don’t usually want to write when I’m happy. I usually want to be in the happy moment, with the people that make me happy. So I’m trying to write more about the things that make me happy, and to take time away from living them to write about them.
Between your first and second albums, you took a five year break from music to pursue other ventures. What lessons did you learn during this time away?
I took the time I needed to figure out what it was I wanted to make. I still don’t know if I’m a musician. It all comes down to what you need to say. What is worth other people’s time to listen to? In that five year break, I gave myself permission to completely shift and think outside the box, and to make music more similar to what I, Francesca, enjoy listening to. Also, I gained perspective and a lot more life experience. I went straight out of college and right into a music career, without many friends. That did not fill up my well of creativity. I think community is everything — experiences, heartbreak, loss. You’ve got to go through all that to find something to write about.
When you returned to music to work on your second album, your style and sound changed from fingerpicked folk to more produced indie pop. What were some of the challenges of this transition, either technical or conceptual?
First off, I don’t engineer my own records — I work alongside my co-producer and engineer Christopher Hawthorn, who I made my second record with. He’s an incredible engineer and producer. I was very lucky to work alongside someone who could take my ideas and do them very well in the box. One challenge for the pop and produced sound is that I couldn’t touch everything we were playing. A lot of it was in the computer or in synth land, and Christopher is the synth guy, so there was a lot of trust involved. I would sometimes sing the sound that I wanted, and together we would dial it down. It’s not a room filled with instruments, it’s a room filled with ideas. It was amazing, you could make any sound you want and not have a single instrument in front of you. But that isn’t always good, because it’s nice to have something in your hand. I’d say the biggest challenge is trusting that it’s okay to do that. Sometimes it feels like cheating, and it’s not. It’s a genre of music, and it comes down to whatever the song needs.
What sorts of risks are you leaning into on this new project?
They’re not all pretty songs. They’re thematically to-the-point. I was challenging myself to care less about how it would be received. I think a lot of my early work, the half-French stuff, was very pretty, and it was mostly geared towards a sophisticated older audience. This new body of work kind of strays from that, it challenges that listener. You want to hold the people who have been fans of your music, you want to keep them close… and this might be scaring some folks away. But I think as long as the work that I’m putting out is honest, then there’s no real wrong turn.
Aside from music, what are some things you love to do in Vermont?
I’m a total nature girl, so I love hiking very much. I love writing, non-musically. I love working on my merchandise, working on how to present things, the whole marketing side of presenting the record. And, of course, theater — putting on shows, producing. But outside of the music industry, put me in a car going towards a mountain, and I’m the happiest person.
Are there any new musical acts you’ve been listening to recently that you’d like to endorse?
I’m constantly listening to new, up-and-coming acts. My personal favorites right now are Samia, Skullcrusher, and MUNA. Angel Olson’s new record is stunning. I love Cleo Sol; Japanese Breakfast; SAULT. Definitely the indie scene, those are my top artists.