We caught up with Nina Francis, a local artist whose music showcases a blend of pop, folk, and jazz.
Nina Francis has made quite a name for herself here at home, and was nominated for “Best Singer/Songwriter” at the San Diego Music Awards. Check out what happened when we chatted about San Diego’s music scene, milestones in Francis’ career, and what’s next for this talented artist.
You earned a bachelor of music in 2014 at the University of Southern California. The “Pop Program” was the first of its kind. How did that shape you as an artist?
Nina Francis: USC was the first major university to start teaching popular music at the conservatory level as opposed to genres like classic and jazz music for which programs have already been well-established across the nation. In short, USC Pop is School of Rock: college edition. So awesome!
USC is in the heart of LA so I was thrown right in the thick of it. We had guest speakers and workshops every Friday. I got advice from the likes of Randy Newman, Steve Miller, Glenn Frey, Lindsey Buckingham, Chaka Khan–I mean I could go on all day. The most prominent people in the music industry live right in town, some are on faculty, and a lot of them surprisingly jump at the chance to share their experiences and work with “pop kids.” I feel likethere’s a lot of false information and red herrings out there. So it’s nice to have all their words floating around in my head to help me navigate this whole music thing.
My time at USC humbled me. My classmates were SO talented (for example, Scott Hoying of Pentatonix and MUNA who’s about to tour with Harry Styles). It was cool to see how different everyone’s approach was to their art. Seeing that concentration of talent is paralyzing at times, but ultimately forces you to grow. We had and still have a lot to learn from each other. I will never be complacent again or think that I don’t have room to improve. Everyone does. I now use that process as a source of joy and fulfillment.
And of course I took very extensive music theory, ear training, performance, and songwriting classes. Music school nerdery to the max! I now have incredible tools at my disposal. If my musicality were a soup, USC gave me great ingredients to start with. Now it’s up to me to mix them all together and find the best combinations. I’m sure you can learn what I learned in other environments, but I definitely feel like it was a great way to do it.
Who are your top musical influences?
Nina Francis: I listen to all kinds of music. It changes all the time. The music I make is rooted in songwriting, and my songwriting is rooted in my life experiences. Just going about my day, I could be influenced by a scene in a movie I saw, or the shape of a building, or a line in a book, or a beautiful canyon, or something my friend said. You never know what will turn into a lyric or a melody or a feeling days or years later. I try to live my life open to that kind of artistic absorption. I love playing acoustic guitar but I feel like it and my voice just happen to be vessels to communicate what I feel compelled to share. If it’s good art, who cares where it came from? I like that mystery.
You’ve been building your career using a grassroots method here in San Diego. Can you tell us a little bit more about this method? What challenges have you faced building a career like this in the San Diego music scene verus a city like Los Angeles or New York?
Nina Francis: I mean I think they are slightly different ways to do it but the same challenge and same method everywhere: get heard. However you can. Gig. Make recordings. Make videos. I was born and raised in San Diego so it made sense for me to become a part of San Diego’s rich local music scene. Everything you need is here especially to start. It’s welcoming. There are lots of opportunities to play live and interact with other talented musicians. I think I’ve played a lot more shows in town than I may have had I stayed in LA after graduation. I’m so comfortable onstage now! I think it’s easier to build a following and a buzz down here too. And best of all from my experience, all the work I’ve put in down here translates well to the Los Angeles scene. New York is too cold for me. That would be the real challenge out there for me given my thin California blood. All good things! You can do it anywhere.
Over the past few years, you said you have been “gigging like a maniac.” Out of these hundreds of shows at countless venues, are there any standout performances for you or favorite venues to play?
Nina Francis: So many! Belly Up, house concerts, Lestat’s, Java Joe’s, to name a few. Wherever people listen.
You recently opened for Eagles of Death Metal at Del Mar Concert Summer Series. Was this a milestone for you? What was it like to open for them?
Nina Francis: That was an awesome milestone! In the past year, I’ve opened for Tiffany as well at The Coach House. Opening for national acts feels like reaching a certain rung on the ladder for sure. I would love to do more of that kind of thing.
Tell us about your full-length album, Between Dreams.
Nina Francis: Since my last release in 2014, I’ve written over a hundred tunes. “Between Dreams” is made up of the 11 songs I kept coming back to that I just couldn’t let go. Among the themes on the album are heartbreak, California, thoughts from my car, and new beginnings. The title comes from a lyric of mine on track eight, “Curiosity.” I like it because it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. I would love to hear yours. But I’ll give it a go right now. When you’re not dreaming, you’re awake. You’re in a temporary state of discomfort that compels you to grow. You are the opposite of numb. I do feel like all the songs on this record have that in common. They document experiences that I’ll never go through in the same way again. Like emotional time capsules. I think that’s pretty cool.
Your CD release show will be at Java Joe’s, which is well known for providing artists like Jason Mraz and Jewel with their first big break. In May 2016, you began a yearlong residency there. Can you share with us some of the opportunities the venue and that residency have provided for you?
Nina Francis: I definitely credit Joe and the opportunities he’s given me to play at his coffee shop for much of my local success. Java Joe’s is not just a room that people rent out to play. It’s actually an awesome patio now. A really great vibe! Beyond the lore, Java Joe’s is the tightest knit community of singer-songwriters that I’ve experienced in San Diego. It’s like a family. A very talented family. Unlike most music venues, if a fan comes to a musician’s show and sees a poster for another’s, they might actually come check it out. Especially since there are only a handful of artists that play there. I think playing shows at Joe’s regularly gives me the kind of visibility that I have in the music scene.
Tickets are available now for Nina’s “Between Dreams” Album Release show on Saturday, October 7th at 8:00pm at Java Joe’s Old Town. $12 Day of Show.