By Nicolas Shuit
New York, Late Summer, 2015
Luminous electro-pop duo Frances Rose are enjoying a few last moments of calm before their debut EP, “Dreams Come True”, makes a splashy debut this Fall. The EP, five impeccable songs that merge crystalline beats and slick swirls of 80s synthpop, delivers on the thrilling promise of 2013’s stand-out track “Vampire”. Intricately-crafted vocals deepen their Pantone pop with shades and shadow. The best of the bunch is “American Girl”, a bubblegum jam for a champagne-and-strawberries prom. It’s Carly Rae Jepsen beamed onto an arthouse cinema screen and if it isn’t next year’s Song of the Summer, let’s just call off the whole season now.
Conversing beneath a canopy of leafy green trees in the backyard of their childhood home in Lagrangeville, New York, they’re happy to talk shop and I quickly realized the Cagianese sisters are already seasoned songwriters. “Dreams Come True” will earn them attention as “new” artists—and surely a legion of fans—but the sisters have had a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell since 2013.
Vampire by Frances Rose
The enchanting mix of musical styles comes from the sisters’ complementary tastes and influences. Sarah brings a connoisseur’s discernment to the sunny blitz of mainstream pop while Michelle prefers lurking in the darker corners of the indie scene. Michelle: “I’m super obsessed with the up-and-coming and the weird underground. Sarah has much more of a filter for mainstream music. We meet in the middle. It’s important because it gets too competitive when you’re really similar. We have opposite personality types that balance each other well.”
Their sibling synergy makes for an electrifying collaboration. “We trust each other in artistic decisions,” says Sarah. “We know our strengths.” The sisters are matter-of-fact about who brings what to the table. As Michelle explains, “Sarah’s good at bringing people together and curating. I’m really good with directorial instincts for aesthetic. So, “You coordinate that and I’ll make sure it looks like this.’” Sarah nods. “I’m more pragmatic but quite selective. I curate Michelle. I know she has really good taste. I trust her in that.” Michelle: “Our music is a mix between 90s hip hop, grunge, and shiny, modern pop. We’re building that sound and being true to all of those passions and those roots.”
Said roots are deep in the Hudson River Valley where Sarah Frances and Michelle Rose grew up. In the country, free of the conforming pressures of either city or suburb, the girls were imbued with an unusual streak of independence. Ninety minutes outside New York, they were close enough to visit friends, skip school to see shows in the city, hang around the fringes of the art scene. Ninety minutes outside New York, they had the space to carve out their own world. “You just go about your art and your music in your own way. You just do it,” says Michelle. “I was able to put on blinders, to say ‘This is what I love, this is my aesthetic.’”
While recognizing the power and reach of the city’s art scene, Sarah also loves the potential of the Hudson River Valley region to continue expanding as a haven for new artists. “Poughkeepsie has a charm, as does Beacon, Hudson, and Rhinebeck and other towns in upstate New York. Find a new city. Expand your domestic lifestyle. People are beginning to explore more. In the long term, Beacon, New York could become the new Williamsburg.”
Having a place outside the city has helped them develop as musicians. “There’s a much slower pace up here, which I appreciate,” says Sarah. “It’s a sultry balance to live in Manhattan and go into the country. The city gets so intense”. Michelle adds: “It’s easier to write music up here. There are no distractions. There are these cool little cultural epicenters of people from New York City who have built amazing cafés and galleries.”
Maybe this accounts for the purity of their songwriting approach. Despite the intricate layering in the Frances Rose sound, the process begins with the sisters sitting down together armed only with guitar, piano, and their voices. True to their ambition of blending the old and the new, there’s as much love for classic songwriting as there is for bleeding-edge studio wizardry. One minute they’re nerding out about different types of analog synthesizers, the next they’re enthusing about the pre-digital honesty in the voices of Fifties country singers like Patsy Cline. Sarah: “I think that’s where it comes from, too, being able to play a song on an acoustic guitar, so raw, so then when you translate it and you put it into this beautiful arrangement of electronics, it grows so much. When you have a good song, it’s so simple…just the chords on the guitar or even the piano and a voice. That’s the root right there.” I ask if they’re ever tempted, when they’re writing new songs, to release them as is—Frances Rose, unplugged. “Temptation doesn’t begin to describe!” says Sarah. “We absolutely want to and will record a naked, raw acoustic record.”
Sarah develops the chords and initial melody on an acoustic 1946 Epiphone guitar (from the Greek instrument makers House of Stathopoulo, to whom the sisters are related) while Michelle joins on guitar and adds her own toplines and lyrics. Together, they create the vocals and drummer Miliken Gardener and guitarist Christian Winter fill out the band. Though the words are simple, as classic pop lyrics are, the dynamic phrasing seduces with ruthless efficiency. Sarah: “Our songwriting is so important and precious. In a lot of mainstream pop, the writing is very simple.” Michelle elaborates: “We’re really specific on our delivery for every word. It’s so funny when we’re in the studio together because we talk about words and the engineer thinks we’re so nitpicky and weird. I’ll say to Sarah, “Can you sing ‘night’ again? Can you punch that ‘night’ in and break it? Because you said it that one time in the kitchen…”
“Kitchen” is a revealing word about their collaboration. Sarah and Michelle have lived together most of their lives, of course, but their artistic partnership really flourished as adults sharing an apartment in New York City. After separating for college, the sisters reunited to live on the Lower East Side six years ago. Both acknowledge that living together has helped them develop their songwriting. Michelle: “We were able to write as roommates, for years, and that really did help us. If you want to be an artist in New York, don’t be afraid to live together.” Sarah elaborates: “Living together is important because it helps you get unified artistically. You find out about the other person. Are they a morning person, a night person…you understand temperaments.”
Rooming together as songwriters fostered collaborations with other artists in the city—check out “Questions”, their stellar work with Chordashian—and helped create a broader sense of community among their friends and peers. “Magical” is how Sarah describes it. “We have had some incredible musical experiences in our Lower East Side apartment. So many talented musicians have hung out and played with us in our spot. Nick Zinner, Dev Hynes, Honor Titus, Dream Show, Gillian Rivers, Com Truise, to name a few. Many of our friends are artists and they love to improvise and share music.”
Questions (JackLNDN Remix feat. Frances Rose)
In creating a home away from home for themselves, Sarah and Michelle gradually attracted a second, extended family of sorts, as often happens for young New Yorkers transplanted here from all over the globe. Michelle: “People who don’t have family here will try and attach themselves to what we have. ‘Are you guys making dinner?’ We have friends who want to be part of our unity, bringing friends up for holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas.”
Their living arrangement reveals something about the music, too. For all their complementary differences, the artful mix of opposites that defines Frances Rose, the picture is only complete when a few of the details about their lives as roommates surface. At one point, Michelle describes the way they used to take phone calls from their friends, “One of us would pick up the other’s phone and just start talking like we knew exactly what was up, pretending to be the other sister. No one could tell our voices apart,” she laughs. “Our friends would freak out because she sounds just like me.”
See Frances Rose:
On September 16th they play Baby’s All Right with Allie X and a secret show at Jesse Malin’s new East Village club Berlin will delight fans later that month. Frances Rose will be at CMJ in mid-October. And visit francesrosemusic.com for updates.
Nicolas Shuit is a writer living in New York City.
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