The nearest comparison for folksinger-songwriter David Francey would be to Gordon Lightfoot, who shares Francey's Scottish-Canadian background. If you enjoy the mix of Canadiana and contemporary love songs in Lightfoot's music, you should find more of the same in David Francey. But with the exception of the one involving pop instincts, each layer of Francey's music is deeper, tougher. David Francey returns to the Ark, where he's a staff favorite (which ought to tell you something), on February 26.
The national strands of Francey's music are Scottish, Canadian, and American. The Scottish qualities are obvious on first listen: Francey moved from Scotland to Canada with his family when he was twelve, and he retains a strong Scottish accent. Although often very short, his songs share qualities with Celtic ballads; they don't waste words, and they communicate through precise, powerful images. He sometimes sings without accompaniment, and he can convey a story in a sparse, completely unsentimental way. "Torn Screen Door," perhaps Francey's most famous song in Canada, tells of a farm family that gives up and moves to town, with "just the wheat waving them goodbye."
For much of his life, Francey did manual labor--exploration in the rural Yukon for a mining company, construction, carpentry. His songs of Canada have many topics but often focus directly on working-class life. "I may work tomorrow, but I can't be sure; I'm just a common example of the working poor," he sings. His snapshot of a Montreal bus station grimly includes "the bad boys, the rude boys, they're into the game, and they keep their eyes open for the halt and the lame."
Francey has spent considerable time in the U.S. since taking up music full time in 2002, and although some of his songs in American settings are similar to those from Canada (he even has one about coal boats in Ashtabula, Ohio), others are notable for their measured critique of political developments in this country over the last decade. You
get the sense that he doesn't come naturally to political songs but has written some out of sheer moral necessity. He remains an outsider observing this culture: in "Highway 95," making the Eastern Seaboard trip that he shares with so many other Canadians, he finds that "words are jewels" in the mouth of a welcome center worker, but when he spots Christian skywriting, "I feel sad and I don't know why."
None of which is to say that Francey's music is unrelievedly serious. He writes songs of friendship and comfort, and he has addressed plenty of love songs to his wife, Beth, with whom he lives in a small town in eastern Ontario. His scenes of small-town life are full of details that seem to imbue human community with a special luminosity. Go to hear David Francey once, and you'll never pass ice skaters again without thinking of "the lights around the skating rink, laughing in the face of the darkness of the lonely heart of winter." Much less well known on this side of the border than in Canada, he's a rare talent.
[Originally published in February, 2012.]