John Francis, whose album “The Better Angels” was recently reviewed by Kimberly Burge, spoke with Sojourners editorial assistant Betsy Shirley about his calling as a socially-conscious musician.
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BS: Your lyrics have won several awards for social consciousness. What are the challenges of writing socially conscious music in America today?
JF: Well, most people don’t want to hear it. In concerts I joke about hoping to win the socially unconscious lyrics award, but I’m afraid the competition is a little bit too steep in that category. We’re an “entertain me” kind of culture…it’s not that popular to speak out or tell sad stories. But if music is good, and if I can do it in way that’s poetic—a really empathetic way that’s compelling, and not this paint-by-number kind of protest music—then people are going to listen.
BS: Is there a difference between “protest music” and “socially conscious music”?
JF: I’m not a protest singer. It’s not a soapbox. I’m just trying to be honest about what I see in the world around me. There’s a line between art and propaganda. And I think there’s a way to do both well, but I’m an artist, not a propagandist. I want to tell the truth in my music. If I can do anything with my music and my songs it’s to give voice to people who have no voice. Or give a louder voice to people who are on the margins
BS: When you tour internationally, do people in other countries react any differently to your music than they do here in the states?
JF: Yeah, I think people in Europe are especially drawn to a sense of story and storytelling. Certainly there’s the element of novelty, because they love American music and they really roll out the red carpet. But it goes deeper than that: I think in general America has kind of commoditized and dumbed down popular music to the lowest common denominator. We’ve forgotten what it’s for.
BS: Better Angels was produced by Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, and recorded on the Cash’s family cabin. How has Johnny Cash shaped your work?
JF: I learned to tell the stark truth. Whether it’s the fictional story about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die or the gospel lyrics “Lord help me, Jesus,” these are the truths of what it means to be human. That’s why everybody loves Johnny Cash. If I can walk away with just a little bit of that vast grasp on the human experience and the human condition, then I’m doing alright.
BS: You’ve said that you want to write “incarnational music.” What does that mean?
JF: There’s a track on the record called “Brother’s Keeper” and it’s a true story about a Vietnam vet named Gator. I met him in Philly about five years ago, and he told me his whole story: being drafted as a teenager for the Vietnam War, getting the Agent Orange poisoning, and suffering from PTSD. Then he asked me for five bucks and a blanket and slept outside in a park across the street. I went inside and wrote that song.
I sang it for him a couple weeks later and he loved it. So when I say “incarnational,” that’s what I’m talking about. It’s a beautiful and a tragic story but the redemptive thing is that he got to share it with me, and I got to share it with other people. There’s a whole lot of “Gators” from the past few wars walking around our cities like ghosts. I hope that story opens up people’s eyes and acts as a splinter in their conscience.