Michael Fracasso – Slow Turning
Michael Fracasso is reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in a rustic little Austin coffee shop. He greets me warmly and introduces me to his dog, Fuji, who somehow manages to vanish until we’re through. Michael looks at me with his deep, dark eyes and a slight devilish grin creeps onto his face as he puts the hefty book aside. “You know,” he says, “I’ve always heard that this the best novel ever written. I haven’t gotten that far into it yet, but what I have read is blowing my mind. It is so amazing.”
It is not surprising to find that Fracasso is a literary type. His songs have always been a shrewd combination of powerful images and memorable melodies. Yet, despite critical acclaim, two solid records under his belt and a band so hot they could melt paint, he’s not exactly what you would call a household name. Not even in Austin, his current hometown.
“I’m pissed off that he’s not more well-known,” proclaims Charlie Sexton, who produced Fracasso’s new album, World In A Drop Of Water. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with him. I want more people to hear how great Michael’s songs are.”
Sexton and Fracasso might seem an odd combination. Sexton is the talented young guitarist who’s had major-label deals, been adored by female fans from around the world for his finely chiseled good looks, and had that “Next Big Thing” tag thrown at him ever since he was on the cover of Spin while still in his teens. All the while, Fracasso has slowly but surely been working on a career, writing finely crafted epics and touching love songs while enthralling smaller audiences for the better part of two decades. But the alliance makes immediate sense when you hear Sexton’s production of Fracasso’s new record.
Sexton was turned on to Fracasso through bassist George Reiff, who has played with both of them. “George kept on telling me how good Michael was and how he thought we’d really hit it off,” Sexton said. “But the first time I went to see him play, I was astonished at how different he was in the universe of Austin. His songs just spoke to me in a way I hadn’t been spoken to before.”
When the two began working together in the studio, “it was just me singing with my guitar,” Fracasso recalls. “No way did I think I was going in to make a record. When I recorded for my records before, I went in with my whole band and we did almost everything live. I thought these were just demos. So when I went to his studio, he set up some mikes and he recorded me. I played ‘World In A Drop Of Water’ [the album’s title song] and he said, ‘How do you hear this?’ I looked around the studio and saw all the things he had. So I said, ‘Man, I’d love some pump organ and cello and bunch of other things.’ He had some pretty incredible stuff. I come back a couple of days later and he had made this beautiful thing.”
Sexton adds modestly, “I was just trying to do my job without being totally self-indulgent.” The relationship was cemented to the point that Sexton, when time allows, occasionally plays guitar in Fracasso’s band.
Sexton’s influence opens up Fracasso’s music stylistically in ways he’s never approached before. There are instruments and textures that verge on Beatlesque — a tendency that may have glimmered through previously but is now in full bloom.
“The few people that have heard it have commented on that,” Fracasso agrees. “Some one came up to me and said, ‘I heard that thing that Charlie’s working on and it sounds like John Lennon.” I was very pleased to hear that because I never really thought about the Beatles when I was writing these songs, even though I’d admit they have been an influence on me. For instance, I got the string section together for ‘Our Finest Hour’ before I started to work with Charlie. But I heard more of a Gershwin ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ kind of strings. A really big sound. Hugely dramatic,” he laughs.
It’s obvious that this is a major step forward for Fracasso’s songcraft. He acknowledges, with a certain amount of pleasure, that one of the reasons he’s taken three years between records is the need to grow: “I wanted to explore as much as possible.”
It’s certainly a giant leap from his early days in New York City. “I moved there in 1978 from Pullman, Washington, without knowing a soul,” he relates. “But I had these songs that I was working on, and there had been an article in The New York Times about the folk scene and the Cornelia Street Cafe. I just knew that I had to be there. I knew that I wanted to be a songwriter, and if I’m going to do it, I was wasting a lot of time where I was.
“It was horrifying for the first three months, being alone there. But it was exciting, too. I found myself. Three months later, I found out who I was. I fell into this scene that was very folky. It was called the Folk Co-op, and I didn’t go over very well with those people. I got to spend some time with Suzanne Vega; she was part of that crowd, but hadn’t been discovered yet. I think we all felt the same way about each other, to be honest about it. Frankly, I didn’t enjoy what they were doing, but they ran the show so I was pretty much out in the dark without them. That’s when I started to gravitate more to the East Village. I started playing with this sort of rockabilly group called Hoy Boy & The Doys as my backup band. I don’t like things if they don’t have rhythm to them.”
He spent twelve years in New York City, honing his style and learning the craft of songwriting. “The last two or three years,” he recalls, “I had backers, people who were putting up money so that I could go into the studio. But I hated waiting, and that’s exactly what they were telling me. So I gave them a time frame and said if I couldn’t get a deal by then, I’m leaving town.”
When the time was up, he left for Austin. “I drove through Austin one time and didn’t really even stop, but it struck me as this beautiful place to live,” he says. “I was just tired of being in the city, and I saw this town that I knew had a musical background. I didn’t know anybody here. But I thought this feels like the place for me.” Within a year, Fracasso was voted Best New Artist in the annual Music City Texas poll, and he became a regular at such songwriter-friendly haunts as the Cactus Cafe, Chicago House, Saxon Pub and the Austin Outhouse. He released two albums, 1992’s Love & Trust on Dejadisc and 1995’s When I Lived In The Wild on Bohemia Beat/Rounder, and toured throughout the country, as well as venturing to Europe.
World In A Drop Of Water, also on Bohemia Beat/Rounder, proves Fracasso has come along way since those days in Greenwich Village. After some consideration, he acknowledges, “There are definitely songs on this record that I couldn’t have written before this record. ‘Marie’ is one; I don’t think I could have gone there before. It’s a sense of who I am and being able to write something like that.” The song is an achingly sad tale of a junkie and the heartbreak associated with knowing someone you love who has thrown their life away to drugs. It’s drawn with passionate detail and a stark musical background that lends it a cinematic scope beyond its simplicity.
The last song on the record, “Sleep Becomes You”, is a stunning lullaby that sums up the record perfectly, and again underscores Sexton’s contributions: It was one of two songs they recorded in their first session together. “We had this connection that I didn’t get with other producers,” Fracasso says. “I knew Charlie’s instincts were really true. True to what he heard, and on the same listening plane as myself.”
Jim Caligiuri lives in Austin, Texas, with his cats, Waylon and Willie. Lately, he’s also been writing a lot for the Houston Press.