In search of Michael Fracasso, his audience, and his niche
Michael Fracasso's SXSW 04 showcase took place 1am Friday morning at the Lounge, West Fourth Street, which is not really a club, more a wine bar with a stage tucked in the corner. A small stage, barely big enough for Fracasso and his three bandmates to turn around.
A small crowd, too. These are hardcore fans, almost every one of whom has seen Fracasso numerous times. Even for them, such a weird place, at such an inconvenient hour, makes the experience a little awkward. If it fazes the performer, he doesn't show it. In fact, he gives the same kind of intense performance he always gives. The only kind he knows how to give.
Nobody knows quite what to expect. Even though Fracasso has a new album on Austin's Texas Music Group, A Pocketful of Rain, there's no guarantee he'll play those songs. He might sing anything. He might come off as a particularly insightful singer-songwriter; he might make rock & roll noise. Someone once said, "He's like Buddy Holly if he went to college."
He plays many new songs, but the evening's surprise is the emphasis on guitar interplay between Fracasso and Mac McNabb. It's pure music-making, on the spot, and it's quietly fierce. Not jam band stuff: There's nothing hit-or-miss about how Fracasso makes music. But it's still not the kind of singer-songwriter stuff with which he's most strongly identified.
If he's identified at all.
Fracasso has spent 15 years in Austin, and he's worked with some of its icons. Charlie Sexton has been a band member and produced several Fracasso albums. Patty Griffin, who's all over Pocket, regularly sings duets with Fracasso. Alongside Alejandro Escovedo and a classroom of local third-graders, he wrote the "The Big 1-0." He's an irregular part of the Woody Guthrie road show Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway, with Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson, among others. After all that, Michael Fracasso remains Austin's best kept musical secret.
No one can quite explain why he's a secret. Fracasso can do everything a fine musician needs to do. He writes strongly melodic songs with lyrics that offer narrative, characterization, and aphorisms. He plays mean guitar. He can carry a solo show fine, and he's a first-rate bandleader. He's best heard with a group, although that's not a universal opinion.
Most of all, Michael Fracasso has an extraordinary voice, a bright, high tenor that can drive a song or float through it, well suited to material indebted to Sixties beat music or to country blues, as well as the folk material he occasionally includes in his sets. (He does a great "John Hardy," and a stunning "1913 Massacre.") His singing routinely elicits comparisons to Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, though Fracasso himself talks about the day, back when he lived in New York, that he heard Gene Pitney sing "Only Love Can Break a Heart."
"I thought that's how I'd like to sound," he smiles.
These are reference points only, though. Fracasso resembles other great singers because, like them, his voice and the way he uses it is singular. He's compelling because he sounds so much like himself. There's no flash to what he does, nothing like Orbison's "operatic" expropriations from norteño, none of Pitney's swoops and crescendos. Like them, Fracasso doesn't cheat his way up to high notes, and when he finds, as he frequently does, a certain inflection, he can break your heart or stir your soul on the beat. When he's rocking, he sometimes inserts a quick, Holly-like hiccup, but he doesn't really rant like Buddy.
You could call what he does sweet. Michael Solomon, who manages John Mayer, says that thinking about Fracasso, "The word angel always comes to mind," but it's not that simple either. His blues numbers don't snarl, but they have real bite, which is appropriate since there's much more bite than snarl in the country styles on which his blues are based. His lyrics take care of the snarl.
Always, there's a sense of nuance, especially in the phrasings, and in the ways he inserts quavers and slides. It makes sense for a singer this good to turn to songs like the Temptations' "Just My Imagination" or Ellington's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me." Because he can. Frankly, most singer-songwriters can't, because they're pretty much all writer.
"That's probably why other musicians get me," reasons Fracasso, "because they understand music, so they find it more intriguing than people who are passively listening."
He's not interested in a great many things, all of them things that get in the way of expressing his vision. Asked whether he does much co-writing, he responds, without a trace of sarcasm, "I'm really not that interested in sitting around trying to find rhyming words."
Fracasso, a small, modest, soft-spoken man, lives with utter assurance about what he should and shouldn't do in music. He isn't unerring; he didn't see the point in putting out the 2-CD Retrospective, one disc live, the other gathering songs from his previous five albums, that TMG released alongside A Pocketful of Rain. But that's the music business, not music.
"Michael continues because the music is who he is," says his friend Greg Johnson, who runs the Blue Door club in Oklahoma City. "It's not about some brass ring down the line."
Fracasso is so naturally musical it seems impossible music people don't get him right away. He was ready to go the minute he hit Austin in 1990. Heinz Geissler, who runs TMG, remembers one Monday night open mic that Jimmy LaFave and Betty Elders used to run for Sixth Street's dearly departed Chicago House, which Geissler describes as "the B room" for singer-songwriters at that time.
"It was a typical Austin open mic," recounts Geissler. "Usually whoever showed up there wasn't all that good. But suddenly, there's that voice. Everybody was like, 'This guy is good!'"
Johnson, who was living in Austin at the time, remembers the buzz: "You should see this guy with this tiny guitar who sings like Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Gene Pitney all rolled into one."
Geissler, then running Watermelon Records, tried to put together a deal for the cassette Fracasso already had made, Love and Trust. The album eventually came out on onetime San Marcos-based indie label Deja Disc, the songs and performances striking in their intensity and focus. The approach is folk-country. When I Lived in the Wild, his second album, he describes as folk-rock. World in a Drop of Water, his third LP and the first he made with Sexton, adds a pop edge and bigger beats.
He and Sexton also cut an unreleased album, Blue Heaven, which is quieter. Wild and World both came out on Bohemia Beat, an affiliation Fracasso shared with LaFave. The label had Rounder as its distributor, which was terrific, and no real staff, which was worse than unfortunate. But this is less a solution to the Michael Fracasso mystery than it is an element of it.
It took more than a decade for him to hook up with Geissler, and that's typical of the Fracasso time frame. Then again, before Fracasso moved to Austin, he'd seen the city once from the window of a passing car. He met his wife, Paula, that May; they married the following August. So it isn't that he's slow his music never drags the way so much neo-folkie stuff does it's that his pace is as individual as everything else about him.
When I Lived in the Wild
He didn't commit to a music career 'til he was halfway through a master's program in environmental science at Washington State University (thus When I Lived in the Wild). He moved to Manhattan in 1978 and spent the Eighties trying on musical approaches, not particularly fitting into any of the music scenes there. Once he figured out his nearest musical kin made their base in Texas, he packed up his Volkswagen and drove to Austin, where he didn't particularly know anyone and had nothing arranged with strangers, either. He obviously fell in with good company. This makes Fracasso sound like a loner, but he's really just private.
"He doesn't want to be famous," says his wife, Paula. "He wants the songs to be famous."
He came from a close family, his parents Italian immigrants who landed in Steubenville, Ohio, hometown of Dean Martin and Jimmy the Greek, where his father found work in the steel mills. His folks spoke Italian at home. Michael had two sisters, no brothers.
In high school, his musical talent showed up, but only intermittently. He mainly remembers one talent show, where he filled in at the behest of a nun. He got a standing ovation. He was writing songs all the time and performing at little coffeehouses in the area. If singer-songwriter was his identity, nobody knew it.
At the end of high school, he took a job in the steel mill to pay for college. He sang at Ohio State, but Columbus is a football town. Washington State is in Pullman, on terrain so "totally stark and beautiful it was like looking out over the ocean." He slipped away when he could to sing in Seattle. He was living out his parents expectations, not his own. When he was 26, he finally told his parents he was leaving school to be a musician.
"The day I told them I was leaving and going to New York City was the first day I felt they honored who I really was," he recalls.
He loved New York, where he put together his first band, in which he played his first electric guitar, then in a series of "concept bands." One was called Spaghetti Western. He played the usual run of places: Kenny's Castaways, where the band had to buy tickets and sell them to friends (or eat the loss); CBGB's; holes in the wall. But he saw himself mainly as a songwriter who performed, and the city's singer-songwriters struck him as hopeless.
"It wasn't really about the music too much," he says, referring to songwriters who view music as "just something to hang words on."
"I don't think anyone heard drums in their songs or cared," he adds.
He cared desperately. One device he still uses at solo shows is stomping his feet. He's like the John Lee Hooker of the Cactus Cafe. He's tried just about every popular music style.
"I liked all of 'em," he shrugs. "But I didn't necessarily fit into one of them completely. When I moved to Austin, the same was true."
Now we're on the trail of the mystery of Fracasso's missing audience. The music world has become the land of niche marketing. Fracasso could make a ballad album, followed by a rock album, followed by a traditional folk album, followed by as good a singer-songwriter set as anyone's turned out since Guy Clark's Dublin Blues. If he did this, if he focused all of his skills in one genre into a discrete package, would that give him a bigger audience? Maybe not.
Maybe it would blur his sense of identity even more than building his albums out of a combination of styles. Or maybe one of them would be a hit and when he turned to his next interest, the greater audience would be bewildered and leave again.
Ragamuffin Blues In a culture doled out niche by niche, all but the most monolithic artists are invisible, and the price is not only monolithic art, which is monotonous and overbearing, but artists exploring about 10% of the talent they have.
It wasn't always that way. There really was a time when figures as unlikely as Van Morrison, Randy Newman, and Warren Zevon became not just makers of occasional hits, but actual recording and touring stars. Now, the days when Morrison or the Byrds, the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen, could shape-shift from project to project have waned.
It's wrong to say Fracasso is unconcerned about this. Like anybody who has a broader vision, he's disturbed by what he sees. What he's not is deterred by it.
"It's not just a style of music," he states. "It's Michael Fracasso. I don't have to adhere to some sort of ground rules before I start, and I find that very satisfying.
"On the road this spring, I've been working with [guitarist] Terry Ware, and we've been doing versions of 'Summertime' and 'God Bless the Child.' It's a different realm, something I feel comfortable with. I think it has a lot to do with me finally getting used to myself as a singer."
This carries over directly to the writing.
"I know I have a song when I want to sing it the next day again," he reveals.
The niche, of course, is songwriter more than singer. One of the ways the music world hamstrings itself is valuing the composition, which, not incidentally, can be copyrighted, over the song, which can't. This takes its toll on every performer, even if the singer is also a writer.
Michael Fracasso now stands in the best position he's ever been in to see that change. Not for the shady realms of pop stardom; that would've been too ephemeral to satisfy him when he was younger. At 52, with two kids, what would make sense would be an audience that gave him respect and an income.
Steering him to that goal has become the welcome task of Paula, who's evolved into being her husband's de facto manager, though she shies away from the title because in the music world, the term "wife-manager" generates shudders. When his booking agent told Michael, "You need a project manager," Paula responded, "That's it. That's what I do."
Her background is as executive director of Austin-based nonprofit groups, which means she knows how to be organizer, taskmaster, and diplomat. She's now a partner with Watershed 5 Studios, which produces interactive media and DVDs. Michael gives her ample credit for A Pocketful of Rain.
"She gave me deadlines," he says. "Every week we had a meeting, so we made decisions as I recorded, and that gave me much less self-doubt. That made it easy and fun to do, and I didn't feel any pressure from anyone."
When the album was complete, Paula made the rounds of record labels and made the deal with Texas Music Group. She sees her husband's situation crystal clear.
"I think Michael's greatest strength as an artist and his greatest weakness as a marketable artist is that he doesn't want to be viewed as a product at all. He wants to be experienced as an artist," she explains.
"I think he can have it both ways. I think he can be the pure artist he is onstage, in his songs, and in his relationships. But he has to be willing to let someone package him for an audience that doesn't want to work very hard."
This isn't Michael Fracasso being a prima donna; emotional grandstanding is probably one of the few artistic roles out of his reach. And it isn't that he doesn't want his songs reaching more people. A Pocketful of Rain concludes by saying, "Don't want to be that lonesome tree that falls without any noise."
He clearly loves that his songs touch unfamiliar hearts. Although he jokes sometimes that he can't see anyone else relating to songs about him, the songs themselves belie that. Part of their craftsmanship involves concealing how hard they've been worked over in order to establish such bonds. In a sense, it's part of the very realistic expectations of a working-class kid who's come this far.
"In New York, I tried for 10 years to be on a record label," he says. "Then a small label signed me, and that made me very happy. I would've loved to be on a bigger label for sure, but I also feel lucky to be on a small label.
"My mom would always say, 'When are you gong to do something?' I'd say, 'Mom, this is what I do.' To achieve something I had to be a pop star, but that's not who I am."
Nor is he the guy in the new album's title track: "Nothin' but a dreamer with a pocketful of rain." He is, and remains, a man with a vision and the talents to accomplish it. And he plays it for laughs when he can: "I can't help that I was born/Some look on me with scorn," he concludes in "KC." "But missing out on Sunday dinner, that's what really hurt."
He sings it deadpan, and he sings it beautifully, with the shadowy ache of a Holly hiccup, and he makes "hurt" rhyme with "church" five lines previously. In "Devil's Deal," a seamless, economical blues, he turns from verse to chorus in the space of less than a breath, making poetry out of repetitions of "belly flop." "Ragamuffin Blues" comes on like a laconic outtake from Bob Dylan Sings the Real Folk Blues, with lyrics to match: "My reputation, there was nothing much at stake. I was down with lady luck, 'til she bit me like a snake."
There aren't many models for musicians on this scale. It's really something we expect from painters and sculptors, this single-minded pursuit of getting as close as possible to what one sees in the mind's eye and feels in the heart. Of our musicians we now ask endless compromise, that they pursue goals within our much more limited lines of sight. Then, when we run into someone who won't, we have the nerve to wonder what might be wrong with him.
The solution to the Michael Fracasso mystery, like the mystery of the purloined letter, lies in plain sight. It involves paying attention to the details. That is, there's really no mystery at all. Just a guy with great talent who's made the most of it without shouting the fact in our faces. Someone who thinks enough of his listeners to believe we can keep up with him at his best. What are you waiting for?
Michael Fracasso plays Thursday's recurring Popstars showcase with fellow pops Beaver Nelson, Matt the Electrician, and Nathan Hamilton at the Longbranch Inn, 1133 E. 11th, 9-11pm. Saturday, April 24, he opens for James McMurtry at Floore's Country Store in San Antonio.