Frances Luke Accord

by Corey O'Flanagan

On this first show of the new year I am so pleased to have Nicholas Gunty and Brian Powers, the Chicago-based duo known as Frances Luke Accord. They have an amazing new album called Safe In Sound, which is being released for your listening pleasure on February 9th.

Hailed as "the definition of lean-in music" by NPR's Mountain Stage for their delicate, introspective brand of contemporary folk, Frances Luke Accord released their breakthrough full-length debut, Fluke, in 2016, followed by the EPs Silver & Gold (2019) and Sunnyside (2021).

Today we get a chance to hear how they came together as a band in college and listen in as they banter about some of their songs and how they came together. Fun fact: They don't always agree! And of course, we get the stories behind some of the tracks off of the new album, including "Maria" and the Darlingside collaboration "In My Life."


Creating Peaceful Music Amid Covid Chaos

Nicholas Gunty: When we first started pulling this whole record together, we were really hoping that it embodied some of the calm and peacefulness that we were trying to attain in our own lives.

Brian Powers: Some of the songs had been started pre-Covid, and during Covid was when a lot of it was recorded. Needless to say, it was a damned tumultuous time for the band. We had been touring a whole bunch after our debut record, Fluke, came out in 2016. We'd finally gotten an agent in December of 2019, promptly lost that agent in April of 2020 with Covid, and so it was like, Oh shit, how do we continue this without income from touring? So lots of external anxiety and trying to find some internal calm in the music was definitely what we were both seeking.


Getting The Band Together

Brian: We met at the very end of high school. We both went to rival Catholic high schools in South Bend. He was dating one of my good friends, and that individual is no longer in the narrative of the band. Then we went to college together in South Bend, and our mutual love of songwriting drew us to each other. We also have pretty remarkably similar backgrounds. It's kind of funny - both of our moms are from California, the Bay Area, and both of our dads are from the Midwest. So there's a good bit of value alignment, which is important when you're not only writing with somebody, but also in business with somebody. It definitely came together in college, and we've considered ourselves to be really lucky to have been able to do it for this long, and it's a gift to be able to do that.


A Trip Down Memory Lane

Nicholas: On our last tour in September, Brian popped out a CD that was lost underneath the seat of his car a long time ago, and we popped it in, and it was all of the old stuff that we'd worked on, before we were ever a band. It really was a trip through Memory Lane. That was a time in our lives when we hadn't started the band, but we were sort of getting to know each other through our music. I don't know that I could put my finger on one thing or another about the music per se. It was just more the confluence of a lot of different factors - one of which was the fact that we were in South Bend, Indiana, and there weren't many people interested in songwriting and song production, and figuring out how to tour. We were far away from a lot of that stuff still at that point. But it was kind of a meeting of ambition and inspiration and vision that pulled us together and kept that engine going and going and going until we eventually decided to move to Chicago together and really commit.


Building Their Signature Sound

Brian: Nick is a phenomenal studio producer and a phenomenal musician across the board. We are both multi-instrumentalists, but Nick is responsible for a lot of the production work, a lot of the layering that you hear - the richness of it.

Nicholas: A lot of the arranging. Another one of the things that really got us going and interested in being a band was the fact that we both are native to guitar. The acoustic guitar in particular is an instrument that we both started writing songs on. In some ways, having that as a common ground to begin with was one of the things that allowed us to, especially once we moved to Chicago, start thinking about how to break that into different dimensions. That was when Brian started playing mandolin, which is a huge part of the signature sound of our recorded music, but especially of our live show.

And I'm a huge fan of finding a new instrument or finding a new way to record an instrument. Sort of pushing at the edges - like starting with the guitar, and pushing at the edges of what we could do with guitars, and then moving beyond guitars into more complicated string ensemble stuff.

Brian: I am such an amateur mandolin player and when I hear bluegrass mandolin-players play, I'm full of envy every time. My playing is definitely more textural. I started learning when we moved to Chicago because it was kind of like, Well, we can't just both play guitar all the time, it'd be boring. So one of us has gotta pick up the baby one.


The Challenge Of Recording Safe In Sound In Lockdown

Nicholas: It was largely remote recording. A lot of the core tracking that we started from happened like weeks before lockdown, wasn't it?

Brian: We met up in Michigan in a house for a week and knocked out a lot of the core stuff. And then, yeah, the world shut down.

Nicholas: So we needed to keep working on it. The shift in production modality put a damper on our pace a bit, but we just persevered through it. It's really easy to collaborate remotely now in music. It's not like it's 1980 and we're all trying to send each other cassettes. We had been living apart for some years at that point, so we were pretty used to the process of sharing things on Google Drive. Obviously, there's a huge difference between writing and recording something and then sending it off to somebody to listen to later, as opposed to being in the same room and being in the same moment and experiencing that moment together. So the main challenge was just making sure that through all of that we were still unified in our vision and in our desire for what we wanted out of the project.


The Story Behind "Sunnyside"

Brian: I was the primary writer on this one, and it took a long time. It started on guitar, and I think the initial lyrics that it started out with were [he sings] "Blue bird, oh blue bird, da, da, da, da, da"... so it took a really long time to come to the lyrics that ended up being there. All of our tunes wouldn't be what they are without both of our brains pushing at it at a lot of different times and a lot of different angles. A lot of hope occurs in the third verse, like, "One day we will see eye-to-eye, you and me." I remember being stuck at that moment and then Nick came up with those lyrics and I was like, "Oh, yeah, that feels great there for sure." It's definitely a tune that starts dark on top of this really warm loop and ends hopeful.

And I don't think it would be what it is had we not gotten a chance to work on it in the same room in Michigan, right before Covid shut everything down. Because in that room in Michigan was one of our favorite violinists out there, Katie Van Dusen. It's hard to picture that track being as emotionally deep as it is without her playing on it. She was a big piece to that too, but it was totally a team effort all the way around.

Nicholas: I'm glad Brian said that because this is a really good example of how all of our best music happens. It's gotta start somewhere, it's gotta start in one of our heads. But it doesn't really take shape until it's shared. And I don't mean you show it to somebody and they give you feedback. I mean handing over the reins to somebody else to say, "Yes, no." That's a huge part of our process. Even before a song gets on the table for a record, there's the process of sifting through the various ditties and voice memos that capture certain components of a song, like melodies or riffs. And then before we even develop it, we take it to the other songwriter/producer and do a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, and an initial critique to figure out what we want out of that tune - what we're hearing, other artists that are inspiring us, stuff like that. That lasts through the whole process with all of the songs that we make and has come to really define how we work, and in some ways it's also why we are so meticulous. But the best way to be meticulous is when you get to the point where you feel like you've done what you can or you're hitting a wall, that's where the other person comes in and can really pick the piece back up. And that was the story of every single song on this record.


Brotherly Love Keeps The Band Going

We're lucky that we are good friends. We're like brothers and that intimacy and that trust doesn't come to just any band or just any partnership. The fact that we love and respect each other the way that we do is such a huge part of how we can continue to do it. Because there are some moments where we disagree and it can get dark too. Part of the beauty of it is having somebody you trust and know intimately enough to know you and to know your strengths and weaknesses, and can help you along in that process.



The Challenge Of Writing From Different Perspectives

Nicholas: Like any author, you write what you know. On the other hand, writing about yourself is kind of boring and can be very navel-gazey and solipsistic, and is a fast track to getting stuck.

It's not our primary goal to write with the intent of inhabiting a specific, other perspective. It's more like, if you probe deeply enough into yourself, you start to find other people. That happens a lot in our band because we share so much of the writing that inherently there's multiple people in the song right from the beginning. So you can't go that far into your own personal way of looking at things without at least gauging it against or tempering it with something else that's bigger than that, that can reach other people, which is the ultimate goal of writing music - to reach people and to find a connection there. And you do that by tapping into universal things - universal traits and universal experiences. Being a duo and sharing that songwriting is such a huge part of how that happens for our band.


The Story Behind "Maria"

Nicholas: I started that song a very, very long time ago. It was one of the first pieces of music that we began for the record.

Brian: Yeah, late 2017, I'm pretty sure is when he started. And there are a couple different versions of it already out there.

Nicholas: I think the one that ended up on the record was like the seventh or eighth version of the song. We didn't release all those versions, but it sort of took that many iterations to get to a place where we were like, "This feels like and says what we want, more or less."

Brian: Can you tell that Nick is never fully happy with the end product by the way he just said that?

Nicholas: I'm that classic painter that doesn't know when the final brushstroke is gonna happen, which is why I need Brian. Originally "Maria" started as a bunch of things just slamming together in my mind. My partner is a scholar of ancient Judaism, so there's a lot of talk about ancient scripture in our house, not necessarily from a confessional perspective, but from an academic point of view. I love that partly because - and this is something that Brian and I both believe - that the best spiritual writing is poetic and is poetry in essence. So I was thinking about a lot of different things that were coming from all sorts of angles - from ancient Buddhism to ancient Judaism to ancient Christianity. I was also thinking of medieval Eastern European mythology, and I was writing a bunch of things and throwing them in and playing around with words. And all of a sudden the word "Maria" came out of all of that, and it was right after Hurricane Maria had devastated Puerto Rico. I'm not even sure I could tell you exactly how we got to a song. It probably had a lot more to do with Brian's editing hand than my throwing spaghetti at the wall.

Brian: That's not my memory of that. My recollection is actually that Nick had "Maria" like 90 percent finished when he first showed it to me. So I'm gonna fully disagree with you on that, Nick. And some of the best songs come that way, they come really quickly. And I remember Nick telling me like, "This one just kind of came to me," one afternoon. The first two verses were pretty much done and you weren't sure what to do after that. And then we concluded that a third verse was needed.

Nicholas: Which is where the word "Maria" comes in, actually.

Brian: Which is where "Maria" comes in. But then you came back with the third verse pretty much there, and I think we had some small edits, but it was pretty much there. I mean, creativity is a weird thing, right? Some of the best stuff that you produce can come really quickly and then you can struggle for literally years with other pieces and they can turn out as Bs or Cs. "Maria" was one of those pieces that came really quickly to Nick, and it's really beautiful because it came so fast.


"In My Life" Shows Their Growth As Songwriters

Brian: It's the one that features our friends, Darlingside, and it's also one that we struggled really hard with. It's maybe not a level up for us as creators, but having those dudes who are like our older brother band helping us out with that tune and also singing on it, they just did beautiful work. It turned out in a way that we both are really proud of and it took many iterations of failing to get there.

Nicholas: We had a lot of help producing that song with one of those band members, Don Mitchell, who helped us produce most of the record. He also mixed that track, and as the mixing engineer of the band, that was really nice.

This was another one that Brian had pulled onto the table years and years back, and we had done multiple versions of it - maybe not full LP versions, but we had put it together in various arrangements and compositional sequencing. And that patience with that song is really how it got to where it is now. That sharing of ownership and responsibility really let that song do everything that we wanted it to, even though I don't think either of us could have envisioned exactly the way that it turned out from the very beginning.

Brian: And I think the original demo of that song was a good 15 beats per minute faster than the final version, so that's an example of how much this song did ebb and flow and change over the course of the original idea to the final piece. Without patience, it wouldn't have turned out the way it did. Without patience and also guidance from Don, which goes for the whole record. It took us a long time to make this record, and he was really instrumental in shaking us in the right ways to get us to pay attention to the right details and ignore some of the things that we thought were important, but in reality were just tripping us up and leading us down the wrong path. So Don really gets a lot of credit for how this record turned out, and also, in my life specifically.


Who Should Be The Next Guest On The Songfacts Podcast?

Brian: You gotta start with one of our best buddies, Chris DuPont. He's a songwriter from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and he's like James Taylor meets Sufjan meets... who would you say, Nick? Who's the third one? If we had to bundle Chris into three people?

Nicholas: James Taylor, Sufjan, and maybe like really old, classic Ryan Adams or William Fitzsimmons. Noah Gundersen is another one.

Brian: Phenomenal songwriter. Phenomenal dude. Phenomenal guitarist. Yeah, he would be perfect for your show. Highly recommend Chris DuPont.

Nicholas: Let me jump off that point and mention another one of our friends, Siri Undlin, who goes by the musical name Humbird, who is one of our favorite songwriters and is constantly pushing at the edges of what the Midwestern folk sound is, but is also really deeply rooted in the tradition of songwriting and has an incredible voice and always puts on a good show.

January 17, 2023

For more information about Frances Luke Accord and how to purchase the album, visit franceslukeaccord.com.

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Photos: Betsy King (1), Luke Jackson (2)

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