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May 12, 2016

Internationally beloved voice transforms song
by Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, the Rascals, Johnny Thunders
alongside self-penned gems

AUSTIN, Texas – Sitting down to discuss music with Michael Fracasso is a challenge. But it’s not because he’s a tough read or reluctant to talk. It’s because conversation with a man whose website identifies him as “Musician. Chef. Austinite.” can veer off in so many wonderful directions, it’s sometimes hard to stick to the subject at hand.

Musically, Fracasso also tends to veer off in wonderful directions. His new album, Here Come the Savages (releasing nationally June 10, 2016 on Blue Door Records), finds him in a favorite spot — straddling that imaginary divide history somehow erected between Gerde’s Folk City and CBGB (though let’s not forget that, pre-punk, those letters stood for “country, bluegrass and blues” — all elements of the Americana camp where Fracasso pitches his musical tent).

That is not to say Fracasso rests in a comfort zone; somebody once characterized him as incapable of repeating himself musically, and he agrees that’s true.

“I get bored easily,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is make the same record again.” Even returning to work with Jim Lewis, the producer who helmed his last album, Saint Monday — something artists are often eager to do — was a choice he made only after convincing himself that it was OK to continue exploring the rock and pop avenues they’d ventured toward on that one.

But when an influential critic claims you’ve made the album of your career, as Michael Corcoran did in the Austin American-Statesman, of course you’d be wise to see if that path holds more creative potential. This time, Fracasso says, they opted for a crooner approach — and certainly succeeded on the five Here Come the Savages tracks they produced together

Actually, they produced several more than five; in fact, Fracasso recorded an entire album of cover songs. Then he recorded one of originals, the latter produced with longtime band member Mark Patterson. Fracasso intended to release both, but when his manager suggested combining the two, picks from each were seamlessly integrated into a new entity.

It’s an album that shifts beyond labels previously associated with his work, such as “psych-folk” or even “city sensibilities with a rustic twang” — a description that has remained his favorite since it appeared in the first Variety review he received.

It should be noted that there are touches of banjo and even pedal steel, but one could hardly characterize their use as “twang” — especially when they’re applied as accompaniment to Fracasso’s ethereal voice on his cover of former New York Doll Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”

That voice — a sweet, high, singular tenor — evokes John Lennon on songs such as “Open” and the Willie Cobbs cover “You don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” while deconstructing Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” so completely, the song has the feel of a dirge. Until it becomes buoyed by the slight lilt of BettySoo’s backing vocals. The Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” gets similar treatment with a slowed-down tempo, staccato guitar and piano chords, and deep bass notes, augmented by BettySoo’s and Gina Chavez’s harmonies. And, OK, maybe a hint of psychedelia, too.

“My end of the production was the weirdness,” Fracasso says. “I love experimenting. So some of it was a little psychedelic in a very mild way. But nonetheless, not your traditional folk record.”

Not hardly. The title song’s lyrics reference Davy Jones, the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and Them’s “Here Comes the Night”; the opening track, “Say,” quotes a line from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Between the lines, both suggest the heartache of a breakup, which Fracasso experienced while crafting this work. That undercurrent flows through several of the originals, including “Little Scar,” co-written with Nakia Reynoso.

But “Open” has double import. First, it references the fact that he could play only open tunings after breaking his hand in a car accident a couple of years ago. “It was almost a little bit tongue in cheek. Like a meta song in a way,” he says. “But the song takes on a very significant part of my life. My relationship was falling apart. It wasn’t over, but I understood how it was gonna go before it went. Like I saw the future. Oftentimes I will project myself into the future, and then write a song. It also was hopeful. It embodies the whole record, in many ways.”

The hopeful tone extends to the upbeat final track, penned by another presence hovering throughout: the Kinks’ Ray Davies. “Better Things,” featuring Rickenbacker chimes and even some grinding rock chords, lets Fracasso fully convey his pop prowess on a song that’s all about moving beyond pain. “So here's to what the future brings,” he sings. “I know tomorrow you'll find better things.”

In both originals and covers, Fracasso makes sure we hear each lyric. And it matters. The covers seem to take on new lives as he takes on ownership. While the originals may remain open to interpretation, there’s no shrouding their emotion.
Fracasso credits his co-producers with challenging him, though their methods differed. He says of Lewis, “He’s really decisive and has strong opinions, and it’s fun. No wishy-washiness with him.

Patterson, he says, made him calm down.

“You fall into bad habits as a solo artist,” Fracasso says. “I always start out with fingerpicking, and then the next thing you know, I’m strumming. And there’s no one to answer to. But he insisted that I continue to fingerpick throughout a song when I never would have.”

Patterson also chose different songs than Fracasso would have, but that’s why the drummer/percussionist got the job in the first place, the singer says. “I realized that I always relied on him to tell me whether a song was working or not.”
Growing up in Steubenville, Ohio, Fracasso figured out he could write songs years before he learned to play them on a guitar he got in high school. “I remember the first time it happened,” he says. “I was surprised by the words coming out, and I enjoyed it.”

After earning an environmental science degree from Ohio State, he went to New York to launch his music career. But he learned he hadn’t developed his voice — that is, his own form of expression.

“I was writing dopey songs, like, probably, most people do. And then I moved to New York to become a songwriter, and I remember going there with all these songs and thinking I was great, and I couldn’t get a gig,” he recalls. Then he joined the Cornelia Street Songwriters Exchange at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village. It required members to write a song a week for Monday-night critiques by fellow members. They included Suzanne Vega, Cliff Eberhardt and Lucy Kaplansky.

One Labor Day weekend, he turned down friends encouraging him to join their getaway, insisting, “I moved here to be a songwriter and damn if I’m not gonna write a song.” He spent all weekend laboring, literally, over one song.

“But then this other song came out that I realized was me. And I thought, ‘Wow. I just wrote a song that’s not Bob Dylan, not Paul Simon, not Neil Young,’ or whoever else I might have been listening to. It felt great.”

Eventually, he started playing more CBGB gigs than folk gigs. But his music didn’t gain a foothold in New York, so he pulled up stakes. Inspired by a Spin magazine piece, he moved to Austin. Sight unseen. That was in 1990.

“When I moved here,” he says, “I really felt like, ‘OK, I found a home for what I do.’”

Praise and recognition immediately followed, and hasn’t stopped. With Here Come the Savages, he’s sure to earn more accolades.

So here's to what the future brings.

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Hear a track now: "Open" premiered by American Songwriter

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