Travis‘ Fran Healy: „It’s a radical act to write a simple song these days“

My first encounter with Travis frontman Fran Healy was quite a special one. It was in 2010, he was on tour with his solo record „Wreckorder“ and his intention was to keep everything small and intimate – so small and intimate that I spent minutes trying into the club and more minutes hunting him down because he didn’t even have a tour manager with him and nobody knew where he was. When we finally met, we sat down next to a refrigerator and mostly discussed the different possibilities of Berlin schools for our similar aged kids. 

Ten years later, Travis are about to release their ninth album, simply called „Ten Songs“. Fran Healy is not living in Berlin anymore but spent the past years with his family in Los Angeles, where his son Clay went to school (yes, we will end up talking about schools again). Now that through Covid his school is still forced to operate through e-learning, they took the occasion to take a little father and son trip to Glasgow. They are still in quarantine at the time of our conversation, and while we chat over Skype, Fran has to go and wake up his jetlagged son to get ready for his online classes. The weird life of a pandemic. Still, our conversation feels a bit like we took off where we stopped ten years ago. 

Ten years since we last spoke! I feel so old now.

You know, it’s funny, we were looking at photographs with Clay of me in 2008 and 2009, and I look like a different person. I don’t know. I don’t feel younger of course because I’m not. I just feel much better. My brain is better, I’m more grown up… I’m a very, very late developer. I think I spent my 30ies and 40ies kind of trying to catch up with everyone else, in every way. But I feel good, I feel great, oh my god! Really!

That is so cool! I mean, you’ve been making music half of your life now. I can imagine when you start out in your early twenties, you got so much going on. It’s a different way of growing up, isn’t it? 

You know… this is the other strange thing I’m trying to unpack at the moment. Which is this: here I am with our ninth album. If I go back to our first album, I look at what I was doing, I look at the songs, I look at the feelings behind it. I look at my energy, there’s this kind of very determined nature about me. Almost like a laser focus. Wherever I put that laser onto, I make it come alive, I make it happen. And I think for the past 14 years, definitely with being a father, that’s been a focus of my attention. And Clay came up to me about a year ago and said: hey Papa, I think you should do the band now, I’m good. 

Really?!

Yeah! And I was like: really? And he’s gone: yeah. It’s good, I’d really like you to go for it. And so I’ve now got my focus on my band, which is nice. But I see a lot of similarities to … I don’t feel that much different, I still have this very, I don’t know… I feel very competitive. Maybe it’s something that doesn’t leave certain people. So yeah. I’d definitely say I’m „on“ at the moment. Because we finished the record, Covid suddenly happens, we have to see how we’re going to do this. I’m directing all the videos, making everything, all this co-work… it’s good! I don’t think I could have done that 20 years ago I think eventually you graduate or something. 

That is such a lovely thing to say of your son. Kids can be so mature.

I know. I love him so much, oh my God. He’s just a cool dude. He’s a great guy. 

And it’s also cool that you manage to stay so positive. I read that you started making the album end of 2019 and that you finished it the beginning of this year. And then all over sudden everything got so different. 

Yeah. 

I mean, there are a lot of things you can be positive about, like the different ways of being creative. But I mean… isn’t it also a big bummer? To not be able to play shows…

(very quickly) No. 

No?

No. Not at all. I didn’t want to play any shows, I was getting really sick of it. I’m beginning to think this was like the universe granting me my wish (laughs). I don’t know, over the past ten years I was saying to people: the only thing that’s gonna stop people, that’s gonna stop the way that the world is moving, is gonna have to be something massive. Something global that affects everyone. Something’s gonna have to happen, that has to stop everyone in their tracks. Everything was getting really out of control. At the end of our last tour I was having thoughts on my mind going: God, I don’t wanna tour for a little while. I just feel I need a break. I didn’t realise it would be four years until we would be touring again properly. And then this happened! I was thinking wow. That’s kind of cool, because it means I can get an extra few months of not touring. And I think the absence makes the heart grow fonder. For me, going on stage, I give everything. I put everything into it. I give my heart away. And there’s only so many times you can do that without just draining yourself completely. I think I just felt a bit drained. And I’m feeling much more energized now, looking forward to whatever comes. I don’t know what will come and I don’t know what is in the future for music, for gigs and for bands. For Travis… but you know, I don’t care. I just think I’ve had an absolutely gilded life, that started up pretty shit when I was a little boy. I’ve just been so lucky. I’ve got so many things I can do. I didn’t even know I could animate! And now people are calling me up, asking me to animate. And I’m like: no, I don’t really wanna do that again (laughs). You know I can do it, but I don’t wanna be someone’s lackey. I don’t wanna be someone’s little art person, doing it for them. I’d rather do it for myself. 

But how did you come up with the idea anyway? Animating is quite a specific art form. 

Well, it was all because of Covid. My managers called me, and they were saying: okay, we need a video. And I had a video, and so I called up lots of people. Just within the first weeks of lockdown it was all beginning to happen. Covid was beginning to have an affect on daily life in Los Angeles definitely. People were not working, were not doing anything. I had an idea what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a crew or cameraman or anyone to do it. So the only way to do it would be to draw it. I thought okay, I got thirty days to deliver this video, why not just draw it. So I did. It really turned out well and honestly, I’m good at drawing. I went to art school, we all went to art school in the band. I made a movie to go along with the last record and then between the last record and this record, I made a documentary about the band also. That took a long time to do, it took about two years. I don’t know, I’m so excited about doing all these different types of things. I’m enjoying doing visual things a lot. I don’t really like songwriting. I never really enjoyed it, the actual sit down and process of it, because it’s not really creative. It’s just sitting down and digging and digging and digging. You may not find anything. But then eventually you find a little tiny diamond and you go like: oh, excellent, I’ll make a ring out of this or a necklace. But most of the process is just very manual, dig, dig, dig, dig…. very boring. With visual art, especially when you have a song already written, you hear the song, it inspires you and you have a starting point. But when I’m songwriting, I’m starting with nothing. And I really don’t like starting with nothing. When you give me something, like a springboard, I’m much better. 

I have never written a song in my life. I have absolutely no idea how that should work. 

You could do it. 

Ahah!

No, you could! Everyone can do it, that’s the thing. What is the most famous song in the world? 

Right now I have no idea. 

(starts singing „Happy Birthday To You“) Right? That was written by two people who don’t write songs. They were teachers and they wrote it for their class. It wasn’t „Happy Birthday“, it was (sings) „good morning to you“. I just think people mystify songwriting. When you were a little girl, I guarantee you, you would run about the house and you would be singing, making things up. And then you got older and you got a bit more embarrassed and then you stopped doing that. Here’s the thing: if you sat down for a month and I said write, your life depends on this, you need to write me a song, any song, it could be about anything, you would be able to do it. You just need to sit down and do it. I think the creative part of songwriting only comes on the final five percent of the process, when you found the diamond, when you dug down deep enough. The creative part is what you make out of that. But the hardest part is finding the diamond. That is why I feel like there is not a lot of great music out there for me. I don’t get moved like I used to get moved by music. People are not finding any diamonds. It’s just all production. It’s all just tricks, and smokes and mirrors. But once the smoke clears, there is no diamond. You can’t find it anywhere. 

So how do you feel about your ten songs. Are they diamonds?

They are diamonds!

That’s what I wanted to hear!

They are totally. I know they are, because I lived with them for four years now and every single one of them has a pulse. When you’re writing your song and you find your little thing, it’s like an embryonic thing. And there’s a little tiny pulse there, and when you come back to it, six months later this pulse has become louder and stronger. As you develop this thing it becomes a heartbeat, and then it stands by itself. I’ve got these ten songs now.nd the reason why I called the record „Ten Songs“ is because I really feel strongly that there’s not many songs being written nowadays the old school way of doing it, which is one person sitting at the end of their bed with a guitar and just singing their life. That’s what I’m doing, and that’s what I’ve always done. I don’t think many people do that anymore. And if they do do it, there’s not a lot of room in the charts or in the radio for that. I think it’s a radical act to write a simple song these days. And that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s a statement. These songs, they’ve been around over four years, and they still feel fresh. They are that way because you are singing about your universal truth. There’s something in it that’s true, and it has a good melody. Anyway (laughs). I’m really, really happy with the record. It’s really close to me. 

You know, I’ve already said this on numerous occasions, but I really feel attracted to loud and aggressive music these days, like Punk and stuff. Maybe it’s because of the quietness that has been forced upon us through this whole situation, I feel like I need an antidote to that. So I was hooked when I heard „Valentine“! (Fran laughs) It’s so raw and rough, I love it! But then I listened to the whole record, and then I thought my favorite of the songs is „All Fall Down“. And that is exact the opposite! 

Oh wow! But I think the thing you’re reacting to is the thing I reacted to when I wrote that song. It just came out. And then you record it and you play it back and you’re like… (gasps). I don’t know, there’s this honesty about it, that is totally beyond me. I don’t know where it comes from. If you sit long enough, it just bubbles up and comes out of you. It’s weird… you were saying Punk and loud and… I think that and a song like „All Fall Down“ is a similar thing! Even tho dynamically and sonically they’re different, there’s this directness to them. When you have silence and someone is singing very, very close to a microphone and it’s right inside your head. It’s good. Thank’s for seeing that, that’s really nice of you. 

Well thanks for providing us with such heartfelt art. I can only speak for me, but that’s what I will always come back to. 

Right now, even more than ever, I’m craving honesty. I need to hear, someone, even myself, just be honest. I’m fed up, because we’re living in this bloody TikTok fucking YouTube fucking Donald Trump sort of weird quasi fucking alternate universe right now where basically everything that comes out someone’s mouth is not honesty. So listening even to my own songs.. this sounds really weird… because they feel like they are outside of me… it’s like medicine or something. Maybe when people get to hear that album, I hope they get the same thing. Oh my gosh! It’s like opening the window and letting fresh air in. 

I really want to trust in people that they do.

I don’t know… I think they would, but nowadays you just don’t know. This album just might not get heard. But it might have a life, where maybe ten years from now it will be heard. All I know is, it’s honest, and we need it. I just hope it gets some nice luck and people get a chance to hear it. As a songwriter, your job is done when you deliver the medicine. 

I think you need to have faith in what you created. Good things will come through. It’s gonna give a lot of hope and good feelings to people out there.

Exactly. This is all I hope for. I think there’s a lot of music critics who tend to lean on this thing of: how complex is it? Is it pushing the boundaries of music? Why does it have to do that? Why can’t it just be honest? That’s why I think it’s radical to be honest these days. No one’s being honest (laughs). Who would have thought something simple as honesty could be so hard to come by. Anyway. I think so too. I think it will find a home and do its thing. 

Stay healthy, Fran. And take care of your family.

You too. Lovely to chat! And hopefully it won’t be ten years until the next time. 

Oh my god! We will be so old!

I know! But you know, young at heart. I don’t know about you, but actually I’ve never been fitter in my whole life. It’s just a number. It’s about putting your finger out and grabbing life by the scruff of the neck.