At first listen, nothing about Francis and the Light’s debut full-length, It’ll Be Better strikes you as particularly complex. A rich, beautiful mix of pop and R&B, the songs feature stripped down arrangements held together with a combination of programmed and hand-played beats. The grand design, explains songwriter Francis Farewell Starlite, was to purposefully limit his instrumentation and simultaneously avoid the potential for sonic overkill. This meant little to no variation in the guitar and bass sounds, in addition to using the same setting on a single synthesizer–Starlite’s Yamaha Motif–with only slight adjustments to things like cutoff, attack, and release. Dig a bit deeper into the process, however, and the eccentricities of Starlite’s creative process begin to reveal themselves. At the core of his songwriting is his piano, all the keys of which have been painted black to create what he calls a “sea of notes,” free from any preconceived mental triggers that might hamper his creativity.
“I would play through the whole record on the piano many times before starting the recording session, playing through each song in order,” recalls Starlite. “The entire record is based on those performances. All the rhythm tracks are in my head, but I cut the piano tracks first before any rhythm sequencing.”
After tapping out a few kicks and claps in Ableton Live, and laying them over his piano performances, Starlite moved onto the drumkit. A combination of an Electro-Voice RE20 (inside) and Neumann U 87 (outside) were used on the kick, while a Shure SM57 was placed about five inches away from the snare. The overhead was a Pacific Pro Audio LD3 tube placed about three feet above the center of the snare with very light compression from a Shadow Hills Optograph. All mics except for the U 87 (which ran through a mic pre on an SSL G Series board) passed through an API 512C. Even though he used a simple fourmic setup, Starlite tracked and edited his performances in a very unusual way.
“I would put a verse of one song on a loop,” Starlite explains, “then I would play just the hi-hat part until I got something that was interesting. Then I would move on to the tom or snare and play that part. So by the end of it, I would have the full kit down, having played each part individually in a loop for each section of the song, with each of those instruments having four tracks of audio.”
The result was hundreds upon hundreds of drum performances, hand-picked, edited, and painstakingly reassembled by Starlite in Pro Tools like Lego pieces. By laying down piano as the foundation for each song, then throwing a framework of Morse code-style percussion over the top, Starlite was able to achieve maximum feel, and wasn’t beholden to a set of hard quantized rhythms.
“It was really almost nightmarish,” Starlite recalls. “Co-producer Jake Schreier and I made fun of ourselves along the way a lot, especially in listening to the final product. The amount of complexity and work that went into it is really not apparent in the record, but it’s there.”
In what other ways does Starlite like to torture himself in the studio?
“That was the main way,” he laughs. “Everything else was a lot easier.”