How do you define happiness? Money, health, job security all probably rank high on the list, but what about balance? Or more specifically, the balance between chasing a dream and regular old day-to-day survival. For young L.A. singer/songwriter Robert Francis, it was this question that led him down his current road, which, on the day we spoke, was about 20 miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where Francis was speeding along to the next part of a national tour that will bring him and his band, The Night Tide, to SOhO on July 9.
Francis, who released his fourth LP Heaven in June, is a rumpled exemplar of 2014’s singer/songwriter set. Scooped up young (age 19) by the music industry, he delivered a promising debut, followed by a solid second album for Atlantic Records. He opened for big-name acts, scored a handful of high-profile placement deals, and seemed dead set for stardom. But by album three, Francis started feeling the label pressure, and in response he jumped ship in exchange for more “creative control.” Long tours and low show turnouts followed, and before he knew it, Francis was 24 and self-medicating in the back of a tour bus somewhere in Europe.
“You find yourself staring at your band members, driving 47 hours, wanting to get out, playing a show, then immediately getting back in,” he recalls. “There’s really only one way to cope with that. And it was everyone in the band, whether they were becoming violent or drinking heavily — it was kind of the only thing to do.”
In true VH1 Behind the Music fashion, drugs, alcohol, and women problems were causing Francis to self-destruct, and forcing him to question his future as an artist. “After that tour, I never wanted to do it again,” he says.
Following a brief and troubled relocation to Michigan with a girl he met on the road, Francis returned home to California with no real plan of action. “I got a place in Laguna and tried to live a more relaxed lifestyle,” he says, “but I realized that when I’m stagnant, I feel like I’m cheating myself.”
With California at his fingertips, Francis spent the following months traveling up and down the coast with his pup, seeking inspiration in the silence and natural splendor of his home state. What he came away with was a renewed sense of self, as well as the makings for a fourth album.
“Most of the songs on the record are just about fate and how we manage the cards which we’re dealt,” he explains. “It’s about how we deal with our day-to-day lives and love and relationships; it’s about steering your way through life and being optimistic.”
While Heaven has a hopeful gleam to it, Francis’s latest collection runs the gamut in both style and severity. The whole thing creaks open with the dark piano ballad “Something Tells It Not To.” It’s followed immediately by the top-down, Tom Petty-conjuring “Baby Was the Devil.” Midway through, the album’s brooding title track offers a lovelorn dose of twangy soul.
“I always thought that success and happiness were the same thing,” says Francis. “For me growing up, my idea of heaven was getting on the road and playing music — playing a show with Neil Young, or hanging out with Willie Nelson, or getting in a tour bus and traveling to some part of the world. But then I reached this place where I had accomplished a lot of the things I set out to accomplish, but I wasn’t happy, and I had no idea why. I started thinking a lot about this whole idea of personal happiness and one’s personal quests, and I wanted to name the album after that.”
“I think with this record, I settled into a place where I didn’t feel like I needed to prove myself. I didn’t feel like I had to try so hard, and I think the best music comes from that.”
Robert Francis & The Night Tide play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Wednesday, July 9, at 8 p.m. with openers Vikesh Kapoor and Maxim Ludwig. For tickets and info, call (805) 965-5205 or visit sohosb.com.