The Excess and Eccentricity of Francis and the Lights

A moderately illuminating introduction to a studio obsessive

Everything about Francis Farewell Starlite, leader of synth-pop throwbacks Francis and the Lights, is insanely meticulous. Sipping on Orangina in his cement-floored Lower East Side apartment one crisp January afternoon, Starlite is dressed neatly in a dark, military-ish overcoat, charcoal-gray pressed pants, and expensive-looking black dress shoes. The bathmat is folded tidily over the tub in the bathroom; racks of clothes hang from the ceiling, still covered in plastic from the dry cleaners. A trapdoor in one corner of the room leads to the basement, where you'll find a full-blown recording studio with the instruments all ordered just so, including an array of synths with all the white keys painted black. Starlite explains that it's a songwriting aide: "It helps me break the mold. The difference between black and white keys is that there is no difference."

This is where Starlite records most of his songs: shimmering, complex nuggets of '80s-excess pop that call to mind the brainy soul shakedowns of Scritti Politti and the cocktail-jazz fusions of Steely Dan. (Studio obsessives both, too.) Since 2007, he's released two excellent EPs and one single, a modest output with nonetheless killer highlights, including the tender, falsettoed-out ballad "Strawberries" and the spare future-funk jam "My Goals." You may not have heard of him yet, but Starlite promises to be one of the year's breakout successes: Internet entrepreneur Jake Lodwick (who now runs the music company Normative) has thrown him a boatload of money ($100,000, to be exact) so that Starlite can focus solely on his music. MGMT have tossed him an occasional opening slot. Kanye's offered shoutouts on his blog. "I think he could be a successful, mainstream international act," says Lodwick. "The way he crafts his songs—they've gotten more and more sparse. Every element of his songs is so deliberate. He's acting with certainty."

Next up for Starlite? Hard to say. He won't comment on whether he'll release a proper full-length, but he's already making a splash with his live shows. (At his most recent gig, a sold-out performance at Bowery Ballroom earlier this month, he performed note-perfect renditions of his tunes and showed off some impressive dance moves, hopping across the stage and twirling in circles in what looked like a bizarro Indian rain dance.) "I don't discuss things that aren't definitely going to happen and, ideally, I only discuss things that already have happened or are happening," he says. "I think it's the proper way to conduct one's self."

When asked to divulge details about his personal life (where he grew up, his earliest musical memories, fairly innocuous stuff like that), Starlite gets maddeningly vague: He remains silent for 30 seconds, nervously pleats and unpleats his pants, and then offers up something like, "I don't know how to answer that question." Eventually, though, he gives in and offers very specific responses: He's 27, grew up in Berkeley, California, and went to Wesleyan from 1999 to 2002, where he took "1.5 full semesters of classes, then resigned." His favorite song by Prince, a personal hero, is "Dirty Mind"; he also digs Thelonious Monk's "descending and ascending whole-tone scale that he uses quite often."

His biggest influence, though? Strunk and White's Elements of Style. "That book is about doing things simply and omitting the needless," he says. "That's the most influential thing on my music."

Starlite seems to be a pretty private guy generally, so it's strange that he keeps a highly detailed laundry list of everything he's purchased on his website: $5 for a taxi; $7 for a Vietnamese sandwich; $41 for a blow-out at Grace hair salon; $6 for a heart-shaped nightlight and batteries. The purpose is practical: It's a way to keep track of his budget. But it's meant to benefit his fans, too. "It is a factual, accurate window into who I am," he says, "and what I do in daily life."

 
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