Karima Francis: 'I got well for my music, not for myself'
Karima Francis was set for stardom in 2009 when she was hospitalised with anorexia. Now she's back with a second album, The Remedy. Elisa Bray meets her
You could say that this is Karima Francis's second chance. Back in 2009, the 24-year-old's debut album, The Author, signalled the start of a promising career. But while the Blackpool singer-songwriter was promoting it, she became ill with the anorexia that put a long pause in her career.
We meet in Crouch End, north London, near David Gray's studio where Francis has been recording her melodic guitar-strummed songs that recall Tracy Chapman. Instantly recognisable with a mane of hair to rival Bob Dylan, and androgynous outfit of skinny trousers and jacket, she asks "Do I look alright?" – genuine kindness, eagerness to please and insecurity in equal measure. She looks happy, her smile only faltering when she reflects on the past year and writing the title track of her new album The Remedy. Its opening is a call for help; it was written the night before she was admitted to hospital where she remained for the next nine months.
"I remember being up all night that night", she recalls sombrely. "And I don't think you should include what I'm about to say, but I didn't want to be around anymore. The thing that kept me going was writing this song. It's strange that I had to be in such an amount of turmoil to create something like that."
Considering the turmoil she went through, it's unsurprising that the album should represent a great deal more than a record of her creative output. "I'm so proud of it. I had come through and done this alone. A strength came from somewhere that I never ever knew that I had. I guess when I was stuck in my recovery I didn't realise what was really going on around me. I felt that the music was slipping away from me and I remember being really sick when I wrote The Remedy and that feeling of knowing I had something to be around for. I got well for my music rather than myself, and even for my family or anyone in the world."
After a spell of living in Manchester where she recorded her debut album, Francis is back in Blackpool where she grew up. She's living with her mother, who gets to hear – and give her frank opinion on – Francis's songs first, but that's all she'll willingly impart about their relationship. Her mother fought alcoholism when Francis was growing up. Music played little part in her childhood. "Funnily enough, the only thing we had was after-midnight blasts of Annie Lennox and the Carpenters which my mum used to play when she had a drink. That was the only music I heard."
In her teens, she started backcombing her hair, and wore dreadlocks as a nod to Alanis Morissette, who was part of the grunge scene she followed in the 90s. In keeping with her autobiographical approach to songwriting, the album also focuses on love – Francis started a relationship with a girlfriend during her recovery and the making of the album, the recent break-up contributing heartache to all that she's had to overcome. She's still hurting.
"It was a bad move. Perfect as she was", she adds with a coy smile. "There's a lot of loss in there… It's so painful to think about my break-up." She trails off as tears threaten. "Do I sound really emotional?"
It's an emotional album, its raw, honest lyrics delivered with a powerful voice that goes straight to the core of the listener.
Francis confides that having expelled so much emotion, the writing is not flowing as freely as it was. "I'm struggling at the minute with writing. In getting well and falling in love I lost my way because I was putting my focus into other things, so now I forget how to write. And it's basically my survival – to write a song is probably better than having three meals a day."
Curiously, since her illness, she's been unable to write songs in her usual way of facing the mirror. "My reflection was my friend I would bounce ideas off, but now I can't do it… it doesn't feel safe anymore."
There's a suitcase at her side as tomorrow she leaves for Italy where she's playing at a fan's wedding; she keeps daily contact with her growing fanbase via Twitter and Facebook. She tells me that when she travels, she is so empathetic that she can't help but soak up the emotions of her fellow travellers – "I feel everyone's suffering and pain". Glory Days was written at Birmingham New Street station.
So natural is her voice and performing (when I see her play a gig in London she is so confident that a technical hitch prompts her to improvise, unamplified), you'd think that she'd been singing since she was a child. But Francis only discovered her voice at 18, when she was singing backing vocals for the punk band she drummed for. After answering an advert posted at her college by the bass player from Lamb, John Thorne, she dabbled in trip-hop, and song writing has flowed ever since. "I just started singing this thing, this hook, and that was it. That was the start of me. I couldn't stop writing since."
The moment she wakes up in the morning she warms up her voice, and she repeatedly practises her songs all day. "I force myself to do it. But when I'm on stage and I can feel the presence of the audience, it's the only time that my head goes silent. My thoughts are quite manic. It's like being a crossroads junction: a gridlock of thoughts, feelings and emotions all the time going round in my head like a loud siren. Playing live is my home. I don't like coming off tour; I get really sad."
Francis is ambitious: she signed with Mercury – The Remedy had to be released on a major label, she says, because she knows the level of success it could have. It was produced by U2 producer Flood, and there are talks that he'll be on board for her third album. "I know that people don't get second chances. People must really believe in the music, and that's what I'm here for. I wouldn't let them down," she says. This is Karima Francis's second chance and she's here to stay.
The single Glory Days is out 6 August and the album The Remedy is out 13 August. Karima Francis plays Secret Garden Party this weekend and Kendal Calling next weekend
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