No one would ever call the ranter/MC Sage Francis ‘music “easy listening.” But that, it seems, is precisely the way he wants it. Born Paul Francis in Miami in 1977, Sage began rhyming in the ’90s, and in 1999 he released his first 12-inch with his group Non-Prophets, with whom he would later regroup and issue Hope in 2003. Between those two recordings, Francis began releasing music on his own, notably Personal Journals in 2002 on the Anticon label and several compilation tracks, notably “Makeshift Patriot,” which was included on 2003′s Punk-O-Rama 8 but recorded (and issued as an MP3) two years before.
Francis’s new album, and his second for Anti-/Epitaph, is Human the Death Dance, and while his MC’ing is still rooted in the spoken-word slam poetry he came up doing, the disc also features the most straightforwardly grooving production of his career. He also throws some jokes (“If you ain’t dead, you ain’t a Suicide Girl”) in among the more hard-hitting stuff. Francis answered our questions via email shortly before heading off on tour.
eMusic: You have a journalism degree. Do you feel that is related to what you do as a musician — or has it come in use there in any way?
Sage Francis: I decided to study journalism because I’ve always respected people who go out of their way to find information that is pertinent to the public, and tell the story. I don’t know if it affected my writing, but maybe it did. I enjoy exposing corporations, the government, the music industry and religion for all the dumb shit they tend to get away with. Being a co-founder of Knowmore.org has nothing to do with the money I spent to get a degree in journalism. I had to go for self rather than working as an indentured servant at some BS news corp.
eMusic: What inspired the title, Human the Death Dance?
SF: Buddy Wakefield has an album called Run on Anything, which was released on my label, Strange Famous Records. One of the titles he was considering using was Human the Death Dance and I told him if he didn’t end up using it then I would. I like the title a lot. It applies to the album and it applies to my life. And this dance is getting old.
eMusic: You do a lot of soul-plumbing on the new album, and the ones before it. Is there ever a point when you feel like you’re getting too personal?
SF: Yeah, I think so. I think I’m done with that. I’ll always touch on what’s happening to me and what I’m going through, but I’m creating more boundaries now. See how fun things can get by stuffing a catapult full of material and see if I can get it over the wall.
eMusic: One of the things I most like on Human the Death Dance is the production, which is a little more ’70s-soul-sounding. Did anything in particular inspire this direction?
SF: I’m glad you like the beats. I picked those beats because they fit the mood of what I was going for with the lyrics. Of course the beats are pretty unconventional as far as modern hip-hop goes, but the moment I give a shit about modern hip-hop you can stick a fork in my dick.
eMusic: What is your favorite track on the album?
SF: Tough call there. “Going Back to Rehab” and “Hell of a Year” are the heaviest. “Keep Moving” soothes me in a weird way and I love how the story plays out, with a beat that changes up at the end. Aw, heck, I can’t pick a favorite. They’re all my best buds! Little stinkin ‘rotten kids of mine.
eMusic: You have a very energetic live show. Who would you say inspired the way you perform onstage?
SF: I really have no idea about that. I go into shows with an idea of how I want to execute stuff and before I know it all my plans are out the window and I’m gyrating and screaming like an idiot. I feel like I’m in a battle with myself, and I’m trying to repress the outrage so that I can keep my energy and save my voice. Just cutting loose works for the better a lot of the time, but it’s not something I know how to control well and sometimes it can go bad.
eMusic: You’re on Anti-, which has a pretty wide-ranging roster. Who do you feel the most kinship with on the label?
SF: Well, I really love Jolie Holland‘s music and it’s incredible being able to record and perform with her. My greatest kinship might be with Tom Waits, but that’s not because I’m a legend or singer in any kind of way, haha. But he has always done whatever he’s wanted to and he’s done it for his own reasons. He has stuck to his guns, created his own sound, and he doesn’t give a flying crap about what other artists in his “genre” are doing. He’s successful because he is Tom Waits and he makes Tom Waits music. That’s the way.
eMusic: What do your parents think of your music?
SF: I don’t really know. My mom is very proud of my career and everything that I’m doing. My family always seems to have a difficult time understanding what I’m saying. You know . . . they’re big Jimmy Buffett fans. My lyrics are delivered a little faster than his.
eMusic: Do you find it difficult to maintain your enthusiasm for making albums, touring, etc., as you head toward 30?
SF: A popular question everyone (close ones, far ones) asks me is if I’m “excited.” Like, “Oh, man . . . you EXCITED? You exCITED? You exCITED about THAT?” And it feels like . . . there’s no way I can ever match the enthusiasm of their question. I get excited about small things. Big things come with lots of stress and the anxiety overshadows the enthusiasm a bit, but it’s still there. I am excited about throwing some curve balls and doing new stuff. I get most excited about seeing a video of Chuck D talking about me in a positive way. THAT is the stuff that keeps me going.
eMusic: What would the guy who made the first Non-Prophets 12-inch in 1999 be most surprised by about the new album?
SF: The lack of convention and the absence of barriers. He might also be surprised that I’m working with a bunch of new people, but probably not. 1999 Sage had it all figured out. I miss that handsome fella.