There’s a new single out from Karima Francis, 11 years beyond feted debut LP, The Author. And it signals a welcome return for this acclaimed Blackpool singer-songwriter, currently based in London after a spell in Los Angeles.
‘Orange Rose’ is more West Coast America than West Lancashire and more Pacific Ocean than Irish Sea, a fair indication of where Blackpool-born Karima is at right now, as was the case with last November’s ‘Shelf Life’, both tracks suggesting added maturity but no less soul.
Taking her first steps into the music industry two decades ago, aged 13, self-taught Karima’s true break came in 2009 with her first album, consequent releases The Remedy (2012) and Black (2015) further showcasing her talent and creative development, Manchester and London moves later leading to the next step in California, selling some of her beloved guitars to buy a ticket to the States and kick-start a fresh direction.
Karima was 21 by the time she truly arrived, named by The Observer as the No.1 act to watch in 2009. And after winning performances at In the City in Manchester and SXSW, Austin, Texas, she was signed by influential indie label Kitchenware Records, linked to Columbia, and within two years was with Vertigo Records, linked to Mercury.
The Author certainly made a stir, notable appearances following on Later With … Jools Holland and supporting Paul Simon on the main stage at Hard Rock Calling in London’s Hyde Park, where she revealed to her backstage interviewer a ‘Made in Blackpool’ neck tattoo, while admitting it was a lie as she was ‘conceived in Benidorm’.
There were also shows on bills with Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith and The Stereophonics, and Karima played the Royal Albert Hall in a Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser. Her second LP was produced by Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Foals, Smashing Pumpkins), and her third by Dan Austin (Massive Attack, Biffy Clyro, Doves, Maximo Park).
Now, five years on, things have moved on again, her new 45 described as a love song ‘but like almost all love stories, it’s not without complications’, the artist offering wistful rumination on how mental health can send shockwaves through even the most intimate and entwined of relationships.
“In a world where we sometimes feel we can’t speak out, we tend to take the worst out on people closest to us,” she says. And as I put it to her, that’s surely all the more an issue in lots of lives of late, following the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It’s definitely very relevant, and it’s going to be hard at the moment for those in domestically violent relationships. I have noticed though there’s a lot of help out there, for instance hotels open in London, and a lot of phone lines. But it is very hard, a tough time. I don’t know anyone who’s finding this easy.”
That said, I imagine you more or less self-isolate much of the time anyway, with just a guitar for company.
“Yeah, that’s true. And I’m more of an isolating-type person actually. I used to be more of a social butterfly, but now I’m a little more within myself.”
Talking of air-bound existences, until that option was taken away you tended to flit between London and Los Angeles, it seemed.
“Yeah, last year and the beginning of this year I was in LA for around six months. It’s like a haven for me.”
I wonder if that’s helped you look at yourself from afar, in a sense – travel broadening the mind and all that bringing new perspective. You’re described on the new single, for example, as striking ‘a masterful balance of meditative and melancholy songwriting’. That’s you in a nutshell, isn’t it?
“Yeah, and I’ve been busy lately focusing my life on doing the things I’ve not done, travelling a bit, studying, and think that drive to go over to LA led to music starting to come out of nowhere, taking my perspective to another point of view, especially when writing ‘Shelf Life’. I wouldn’t have been able to write that song over here … even though there is a massive homeless problem here.”
Karima found the other side of the coin to the City of Angels’ accepted image as a place of celebrities and million dollar mansions, feeling compelled to shine further light on the reality, devastated by what she saw and the contrast between rich and poor, as explored in an accompanying promo video shot with director Joseph Calhoun.
“It was different seeing it there, and it affected me so much. I was struggling to cope with it. It’s not what I expected to see. That was such a shock. But it’s such an inspiring place, with the energy, the creativity, the music.”
‘Orange Rose’ is one of a number of songs Karima penned in Venice Beach, California, finding herself ‘instinctively drawn to the sun and sounds radiating from the West Coast and its simmering alternative scene’, discovering a kindred spirit in LA producer Tim Carr, who also produced ‘Shelf Life’.
“I was fantasising about making more organic, saturated-sounding records for a long time and alongside this, I wanted to record out in America as I was finding most of my musical influences were artists from America. Last year I made the move to go out to California to find the sound for the new record and immerse myself in the West Coast indie/alternative scene. And out there, the relationship with Tim bloomed and the music was made.”
The fact that you’ve written songs in Venice Beach seems to make for very different records than before, adding something of a West Coast feel. And I’m talking California rather than the Fylde.
“Ha! Yeah, definitely, this record definitely has that West Coast feel to it, almost like sun-kissed – very organic, almost vintage, I guess, not least in the production.”
You’ve mentioned a love of the indie-folk singer-songwriter revival happening out there. But how much of an influence was working with Tim Carr?
“A lot of it is down to him, but I knew how I wanted it to sound as well. He’s produced it, but it’s very much, ‘We’ll figure it out together’. I definitely knew what I was going for, but meeting Tim was a blessing.”
How did you go about letting your producer know what you wanted this time? Were there certain influences you directed him towards?
“Yeah, I’m a big fan of people like Sharon Van Etten, Katie Von Schleicher, and I loved the Phoebe Bridgers record when that came out. But when I was referencing stuff, Tim’s an artist in his own right and has that kind of Californian sound, so I didn’t really need to reference. I knew he was going to bring to it the kind of sound I was looking for anyway. It just happened really naturally.”
I seem to recall you were one of the bigger names to feature early on at Lancaster Library for Stewart Parsons’ Get It Loud in Libraries initiative.
“Oh, yeah, I remember playing there. That was a long time ago, but I remember it really well. And they’ve got a lot of cool people coming through from that. I like that idea. I’d definitely play there again sometime. It was cool. I loved it.”
Karima has spent the last two months locked down at her home in South West London, where I asked how her COVID-19 lockdown was going.
“I’ve been at home now for nine weeks, and just venturing out for runs and occasionally walks, but mainly I’ve been indoors. I live with someone else, so I do have company, which is nice. I feel sorry for people that have got a lot of friends but are isolating on their own, and who are going a bit stir crazy. I’m really lucky to have someone to talk to.”
While I moved from Surrey to Lancashire, Karima relocated to the capital from Blackpool via Manchester, of late becoming a regular visitor to my hometown, Guildford, studying for a degree at the Academy of Contemporary Music.
“There’s a lot going on there, it’s a very interesting set-up, with some very passionate people there. I really enjoy it. I’ve always been interested in music production and just wanted to take some time out to get to know all that.”
We got on to the town’s link with The Stranglers, with Hugh Cornwell a regular visitor to the ACM of late through band practises with course lecturers Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray, back on the patch where his breakthrough band made their name, a stone’s throw from the off-license Jet Black ran and where an outfit first known as The Guildford Stranglers first rehearsed. That also gave me an excuse to tell her about The Stranglers practiced in my village scout hut, a couple of miles out of town.
“That’s so cool, and Guildford’s a beautiful place. Very hilly too.”
“No, that always stays, doesn’t it, no matter where you go. In my case, people say, ‘I can’t work your accent out, and I’m like, ‘I’m from Blackpool, me. Ha!”
That said, Karima was driven to get away from the ‘tatty seaside town’ Blackpool lad John Robb’s band The Membranes wrote about when she was less than a year old.
“I remember supporting John Robb and was just talking about this the other day. I used to play drums in a punk band years ago, and we supported The Membranes a few times. It’s crazy but growing up I came across John in lots of different circumstances throughout my music career, and at the time I didn’t really realise – I was only about 14 when I first played with him. I didn’t realise how much of a bit of a legend he is! Such a musical icon. He’s a taste-maker.”
He’s certainly an energy. I think we could all do with a bit of that in our lives.
“Yeah! And he’s buff as well. He must work out a lot!”
But what about your own Fylde roots? Are they an important part of what you’re about?
“Erm … of course. I think, socially, where I grew up and the life I had as a child has had a lot of influence on me, and as an artist as well. That passion and that drive to get out of Blackpool was the main thing. I think I was very lucky to have found music, because that was my get out card. Not as if I’m saying anything bad about it, but it wasn’t for me. I crave more culture and stuff.”
“I know! I believe it was!”
Is there a new album coming, and are ‘Orange Rose’ and ‘Shelf Life’ fairly indicative of that as a whole?
“Yeah, there’s going to be an album. I’m working on it, remotely, as I was meant to be going back out to LA to finish it. It’s probably going to be coming out early 2021 now. I’ll probably just be releasing singles up to then. That’s seems to be a nice way to do it, and I’m enjoying making videos.”
In the promo video for ‘Orange Rose’, filmed in Las Vegas before Christmas last year, Karima explores the notion of ‘ self-destructive behavior – a constant running away from our fears which potentially ends in us running away from the people who can make us whole again’- the artist portrayed lost deep in thought and caught between a rock and a hard place in Nevada.
Did you get to explore that Nevada fairly well while you were filming?
“I was only there a day and night this time, but I’ve been a couple of times, visiting the Grand Canyon the year before, and finding Las Vegas really bizarre. When I got to the hotel at around midday there were people gambling, and crazy amounts of smoke, and the same people were there when I got up in the morning, having got up at 4am to make it to the Grand Canyon. They were still there at the table, and I found that really sad.”
Casino life, eh. A home from home for a girl from Blackpool.
“I guess so, but I get scared even putting more than $10 on. The people there though … the amounts they’re putting on.”
Do you get back to Blackpool to see family and friends from time to time?
“I do. Last time was just after Christmas, visiting my Mum and some friends, surprising a friend at a birthday party. Having a party the previous night, I had a few drinks and just booked a ticket, and it was really nice.”
Career-wise, you seemed to fly out of the traps on the back of lots of critical acclaim. Did that put pressure on, or was it all good?
“That was all amazing. I was so lucky and grateful to experience all that at such a young age. I take a lot from that. It was an amazing time for me.”
And that acclaim was from both sides of the Atlantic, it seems, following exposure at SXSW and so on. Do you feel equally at home over there in that respect?
“Yeah, the response in America is really positive, and it’s somewhere I always wanted to go with my music. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen with the first couple of albums, so it took a lot to buck up the courage to say, ‘Do you know what, I’m just gonna do this’.
“It was always my dream to tour the States, and I’m a massive fan of KEXP and the radio presenters there, listening to that station every day. This is no offence to British music – I love that too – but it’s just something that gets me in my soul. A lot of bands coming out of America, like War on Drugs, have completely blown my mind and inspired me so much. And I just want to go and play Philadelphia and all these tiny states. That’s the dream.”
Do you feel The Remedy and Black got enough traction, regarding radio airplay and so on? Tracks like ‘Wherever I Go’ deserved to be hits.
“I know! It was a strange one. The label didn’t think the numbers were as high as they were expecting, so the album was kind of dropped.”
I guess you were a victim of changing times and the way labels were heading, caught up in the machinery.
“Totally! The industry I went into back then was so different to the industry now. I just wish … if I was doing it now, I’d have chosen to be solely independent and take a totally different direction. But I was young and believed in everything and was just so excited, going along for the ride.
“You’re always going to look back and wish you’d done something different. That’s my journey and it’s taken me until now to understand really what I want. You have to go on that self-exploration to reap the benefits, I guess.”
Do you feel you’ve learned a lot along the way from some of the artists you’ve been lucky enough to feature alongside or support? You’ve played with some big names over the years.
“Yeah, definitely, and I think the most influential people were Flood, the record producer, and Ken Nelson (Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay, Feeder, Paolo Nutini). I learned a lot from them in the studio.”
And when the lockdown’s over and you can go back to doing all the things you’ve truly craved these past few weeks, what will you do first?
“The first thing I’m going to do is – probably like the rest of us – go and see my family. But I’d really like to go to a park and meet with all my friends, have a few drinks, just socialise. That would be the best thing!”