The solitary Sage of hip hop: Sage Francis pursues his own truth

By Willow Grier
Sage Francis isn’t alone in his examinations of solitude. Photo: Joel Frijoff

Sage Francis isn’t alone in his examinations of solitude.
Photo: Joel Frijoff

CALGARY — An abandoned house stands decrepit and derelict, stripped of its inner workings by vagrants and thieves. Its shutters are banging, the walls peeling, it bears the paint emblazoned words “copper gone,” an advertisement to the outside world that there is nothing left of value to be found. In this desolate location, lone wolf and punk poet Sage Francis found the inspiration for his latest album.

A consummate old soul, Paul William “Sage” Francis began rapping at the age of eight, taking cues from East Coast hip-hop legends like Run—D.M.C. and Public Enemy. Over the course of his career, he situated himself in atypical settings. This mentality found him signed to Epitaph Records (a typically punk label), and touring with activist punks Rise Against on his first Canadian venture. While the two acts differed sonically, Francis’s ideology was a perfect fit. Still, it was a daunting venture.

“Picture being the only person on stage in front of thousands of people who want to see the most popular punk act of their time and you’re some fat, bearded, American rapper opening for them,” Francis recalls. “It’s far from the only time I was privileged enough to experience that type of adversity and opportunity, but there’s a special level of psychological fuckery that it taps into.”

These types of circumstances became the spiritual fodder for much of the rapper and spoken word poet’s written work.

Well-known for his self-deprecating and strikingly honest recollections, Francis would draw listeners to his work by capturing moments many are too embarrassed to share.

“There’s a definite confidence in what I do, but I do think it’s important for me to express a vulnerable side. That, in effect, is what separated me from most of the hip-hop crowd,” he describes.

Always the outsider, Francis even went as far as championing other artists celebrating the undercurrent. His own independent record label, Strange Famous, celebrates other anti-heroes of the genre.

“[As a label] we lasted through many tough periods in the music industry, and we’re still able to put out whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want, while working with whoever we want, all while staying truly independent. And snobby as hell!” Francis proudly quips.

“It’s just that we all have a struggle of some sort and I believe that embracing those struggles (not dwelling on them) is a great strength in all art.”

Ahead of latest release Copper Gone, Francis returned to touring after taking a hiatus to attend to his failing home life. When that attempt failed to yield results, Francis would pour even more of his personal experience into his work and thus find solace in his art. On the track “Make ‘Em Purr,” produced by fellow alt-rapper Buck 65, he describes how he prefers the company of his cats to that of people most of the time, going so far as to not leave home for weeks at a time. The song highlights the double-edged sword that is loneliness and latitude.

“Avoid personal interaction and human touch, shut the blinds,” he raps, “[but] If there’s anything I cherish in this self-inflicted prison, it’s freedom.”

This theme of finding strength in weakness carries over to several other tracks, including the album’s intellectual highlight, “Vonnegut Busy.” The song quotes the Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, a scathing satire that lampoons the arms race. In its intro, the song pensively muses, “of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘what might have been.'” While initially filled with longing, the song winds down a path to acceptance in Sage Francis’ signature headstrong, unrepentant style; “And as they say, let the bridges that we burn light the way.”

Sage Francis chose to forego standard camaraderie and companionship in search of his own truth. His dedication to his craft necessitated it. However, just as he is relentless in artistic pursuits, he is fiercely attentive to those who make a substantial impression on him.

“If you’re the kind of person who finds something that you like and then [follows] it obsessively, that’s what you do,” he explains. “And that’s probably always going to be a constant. I do that with music and with movies and with people. I obsess over the things I love, and everything else plays a far second fiddle.”

When Sage Francis found the traditional ideals of home crumbling around him, he found his place within the arid, exposed skeletons of the soul. Within these stripped-open, spacious frames, he found room for growth. In this anomalous approach, the path may be solitary at times, but is certainly not stagnant.

See Sage Francis in Vancouver on September 17th at Alexander’s, on September 22nd in Edmonton at Brixx, on September 24th in Saskatoon at Amigo’s and in Calgary on September 25th at Dickens.

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