Friday, May 30th, Sage Francis plays Le Poisson Rouge as one of the first dates of his new tour promoting Copper Gone, his first album in four years, due out June 3rd. A lot’s changed since his last go-round, having said his June 2010 NYC show at the end of his last album Li(f)e‘s tour was going to be the last performance of the last tour he would ever do. Since then, the underground hip-hop world has flipped several times over, as has Sage’s world. Having experiences everywhere from working with HIV-Positive orphans in Africa to maintaining a longtime home as it begins to fall apart while tending to a sick cat, he’s seen a lot since we last heard from him. We spoke to Sage about the new album, how the indie hip-hop grind has changed and his issues with those who’ve attempted a, in his words, “radio friendly version” of his particular hip-hop stylings.
Was it cathartic to publicly react to the questions you’re sick of in the tour announcement video?
Totally. It felt so good. Those questions that we use in that video have been posted multiple, multiple times on my Facebook and Twitter. To be able to answer them in the video and let this be a thing to exist forever to tip people off that it’s kind of annoying to be asked these things. I understand why you say them, and I try to give a cordial response, but the enamel wears off of my niceties and I start saying “That’s right, I hate your city. Correct, I hate my fans. Pay no attention to that there’s no way to visit your city in between these shows.” Who the fuck knows if I can do 60+ shows in three months. I’m not trying to book every single day of my year. How is that possible? People don’t see you as a human being, they don’t think there’s a health risk involved. And again, talk about the indie route. I get the van, I drive the van, I headline the show, I set merch up. I do this shit on my own, this is how I like to do my stuff. Having the opportunity to do a video to give the response that’s in my head and now everyone gets to see it is part of what makes it so fun.
It’s been a while since your last full-length album, and you make clear your own self-awareness of this by the opening track, “Pressure Cooker” being kickstarted by you saying “I’ve Been Busy!” With all you have going on with your life now, not to mention being the head of Strange Famous Records, how much time did it take to create the new album?
After the last album and the last tour, there was probably an entire year where I didn’t write and didn’t record. I didn’t do anything except run the record label. I just stopped. I didn’t want to do it, and it was the first time I had ever done that. I just reached a point where I was so frustrated and downtrodden that I didn’t want to do it and just focus on something else for my own well-being. Developing some type of general happiness and domestic life was the goal. I felt if I was going to be home, if I’m gonna stop touring, I have to develop something here. It has to be the real adult life I’ve seen other people doing. I’ve tried that for four years, but the first year I didn’t do any writing or recording because I wanted to see what it was like to not do that. When I went to South Africa and worked with the people there and became acquainted with the kids, I wrote a song for them and that was my first time writing again, it got the creative juices flowing. Then I started doing features for other people’s records to get back into the saddle. My verses had more fire and energy, which was invigorating because that’s the type of rap I like. I like the laid back stuff, but Li(f)e was too laid back for me to try to do another laid back type of project, so for this one I wanted to do more intensity. It took me probably two years or a year-and-a-half. But, some of these songs were half-written about ten years ago. I always delve into old material, and have stuff waiting around always looking for a home. Songs like “Grace,” there’s segments of that that come from 2005, 2007, earlier than that. I’ve been sitting on the “this is not a love ballad thing.” I was sitting on the sample from the Poor Righteous Teachers record, but thought it worked better in my understated way.
You mention the heartbreaking moments that can come from being a cat-owner on the album. How’s your cat doing?
Awesome. Totally back on the mend. He’s always had a heart murmur, and it wasn’t an issue. I was thinking he was definitely going to die and accepted that I was gonna lose my cat. To have him back in full force right now is amazing. He’s the best. Love that guy.
How does having a cat fit into the indie-rap grind?
Cats are important. First of all, they’re an animated entity in the house. If was just me in the house for so long, but to have cats they give you something to laugh at and have responsibility. It’s having something there, and if a cat’s there, you’re not talking to yourself. Everything’s acceptable when you’re in a room with a cat. They’re weird, funny, stupid, brilliant creatures and they’re great to have around.
There’s a line on your new record, “Mama said ‘Knock down the house, start over.'” A point of pride in your earlier work is that you bought your house off your parents. Was this your Mom being literal?
Yes, she’s said it multiple times and she’s being very literal. I’ll explain how stuff’s failing in the house, how stuff’s broken. We have well water here, pipes are shot to shit and rusted the fuck out. Everything breaks and whenever I tell her, [she says] “Knock down the house. You have to knock down the house. Get a new house, but knock that one down.” I can’t knock down the house, it has every thing of mine in it. So, I’m OK living in a broken house. At some point, maybe when time stands still and I have the opportunity to really gut this house over, OK, then. I wear shoes until they literally fall off my feet. I can’t see myself knocking down the house because everything’s broken. It’s psychologically risky. I’ll leave it as is, there’s a lot of ghosts in these walls. I don’t know what happens if I knock it down.
A big part of your legacy is the D.I.Y. grind. Copper Gone is going to be the first studio album of yours released on your own independent Strange Famous Records, which is entirely in-house with additional distribution through Red Eye Distribution. You mention the faux-“independent artist” persona being in vogue on the new album’s “ID Thieves,” which seems in-line with your issues with Macklemore that you expressed at your most recent New York show. What about the rise of Macklemore rubs you the wrong way?
There’s a lot of things, I don’t even know where to start with that. I think he should be giving certain head-nods that he’s not giving. I think he’s been influenced and inspired a lot by the scene he came up out of like me, Atmosphere, Brother Ali. There’s so many elements in his music that come from us, but he never gives that recognition. And it weirds me out because I know he’s a fan. If you took as much as you did and were as inspired as much as you were by us, why wouldn’t you take an opportunity after you’ve sold a billion records to say “Oh, check out these guys.” That’s one thing. It’s not huge, but it’s little things. I don’t want him to take me on tour. But, what if I never shouted out Public Enemy but they’ve inspired me my whole life. I’d feel weird as shit. I’m just creeped out by how they go about there shit. I’ve discussed it with a lot of people, and some people are like “Oh, he’s the nicest guy in the world! You wouldn’t believe how he’s so nice.” Well, I’m not. I don’t give a fuck if he’s nice. I’m an artist and I notice weird shit about his art. But, he’s one of many, it’s not all about him but people talk about him when his song is always playing when you enter a shopping mall. When a pop artist becomes unavoidable, that’s what everyone wants to talk about, how it relates to indie artists. Rather than us talking about him, maybe he should talk about us for a while.
So, for the record, is that part of “ID Thieves” about Macklemore?
No. You’re the fifth or sixth person to say that to me even though he’s never mentioned in the song. I think it’s because I say “Independent, fuck you” everybody thinks Macklemore.
I thought it was because of the “radio friendly version of what I do” line.
Oh, well there’s a few people I think that applies to. I think it does apply to him.
The title and art for Copper Gone is really thought provoking. How did you decide on the title?
There’s an abandoned house down the street from where I live that had “COPPER GONE” spray-painted on to the house. I never paid much mind to it, a couple years went by and it was one of the things you always see. Then I reflected on it. I live in an area where houses and businesses are broken into and copper and metal are stolen from them for scrap metal money. This place looked so sad and broken down, and whoever was in charge of that building decided to spray-paint that and say “Listen, there’s nothing else here for you. You’ve taken every single thing of value, now leave me alone.” The phrase stuck in my head, and when things start echoing in my head, they stick to my ribs and become something I need to do something with. Applying that term to other things and trying to find more meaning with it. When it came time to do the artwork with the oxidation and etching of actual copper, those things where you get your hands a little bit dirty and have fun with it, it’s a good way to tie everything in. This project was made in a Hellish period of my life, but in that time it’s what saved me and put me in touch with people I needed to be in touch with. Music has definitely come through in the clutch when I’ve needed it personally.