To hell and back

Hip-hop icon Sage Francis writes his way out of the darkness on 'Copper Gone'
By CHRIS CONTI  |  July 2, 2014

LOOKING FORWARD "Out of my mind, am I out of the woods yet?" Sage asks on "Over Under." [Photo by Prentice Danner]

What a long, strange trip it’s been for iconic lyricist/slam poet/DIY CEO Paul “Sage” Francis, who re-emerges following a four-year hiatus with his sixth studio album, Copper Gone (Strange Famous Records). Francis guides us through his own personal walk through hell and back on the album; it’s an earnest and introspective return-to-form complemented with a thumping boom-bap soundtrack. Sage Francis has plenty to share, but what else did you expect?

Sure, call it a comeback, but Francis never had rap retirement on his mind when he decided to dim the lights in 2010 and step away from the nonstop touring and recording grind following the acclaimed platter Li(f)e. A series of crushing personal blows sapped his energy to the point that Uncle Sage had seemingly gone full J.D. Salinger/Howard Hughes on us, shacking up in his house out in Li’l Rhody’s wooded outskirts with his cat. From indie rap baron to boondocks recluse, Francis was in a bad place mentally and spiritually, and the unexpected death of his father (which occurred while Francis was on tour) sent him spiraling downward. Then came the passing of fellow indie phenom and Scribble Jam alum Eyedea at age 28; he was also affected by the death of Sparklehorse founder Mark Linkous, one of many indie-rock heroes who appeared on Li(f)e. But Francis was never out of the game, running Strange Famous Records remotely (with help from trusty PR man Storm Davis) while writing new material. In 2011 he took an inspiring, life-altering trip to Durban, South Africa to help mentor and provide care for HIV-infected children, and the journey inspired him to write and release “Ubuntu (Water Into Wine)” in 2012. Francis and Dolan teamed up as Epic Beard Men last year and kicked out a few beastly jams that landed on the Francis mixtape SICK TO D(eat)H.

Francis is out of the woods (literally, at least), back in the booth and on the road with his bearded partner-in-rhyme B. Dolan, who also dealt with tragic life events around the same time (Dolan’s 54-year-old father died of lung cancer), as both were about to unleash new albums and head out on a six-month world tour. Amidst all the quotable couplets on Copper Gone, Francis may have best summed up their madness on the lead single, “Vonnegut Busy”: “In 2010 we had a couple dreams stolen, me and B. Dolan/Re-locked and re-loaded, when it feels like you’re going through hell — keep going.”

I checked in with B. while he an Sage were at the midpoint of a 30-stop nationwide tour. “Life kicked the shit out of Sage, as it eventually kicks the shit out of everyone, and when it gets that heavy there’s no help to be given,” he said. “All you can do is stand beside a motherfucker sometimes,” he continued, “on stages, in airports, and during apocalyptic hellstorms of grief and despair.”

The punctured heart-on-sleeve lyrical content is nothing new for 15-year rhyme vet Sage Francis; it dates back to his 2002 official debut Personal Journals (his mixtape series Sick Of... first dropped in ’99) and the 2005 breakout LP and Epitaph debut, A Healthy Distrust. His sulphuric acid tongue remains abrasive enough to wipe the patina clean from Copper Gone; from socio-economic issues to the current infestation of jackass #YOLO rappers in skinny jeans, Francis is back with a vengeance.

Francis fanatics in need of the Li(f)e vibe will be quickly satiated on the booming opening cut “Pressure Cooker.” His love for Golden Era rap is on display (Organized Konfusion’s “Fudge Pudge” comes to mind), as Francis declares, “They say anger is a gift — I’m very gifted/And if ignorance is bliss then I’m a sado-masichist.” Francis just released a video for the second single “Grace,” which addresses a domestic relationship gone awry, and by the time “ID Thieves” and “Cheat Code” arrive, it’s evident that Francis is back on his pulpit with vigor. “Over Under” is a slow-burning anthem with Francis revisiting rougher times, “Gotta swallow the pride and then follow the footsteps/Out of my mind, am I out of the woods yet?” Francis is “busy self-diagnosing disorders” on “Make Em Purr,” as Buck 65’s coasting rhythm gives way to the crushing “Vonnegut Busy,” with Cranston native Prolyphic supplying the soundtrack (look up his excellent 2013 SFR release Working Man). “Thank You” is particularly introspective (even by Francis standards), and latter-half standouts “Once Upon a Blood Moon” and “Say Uncle” are personal favorites.

Both Francis and Dolan are enjoying their time back on the road — or “getting back on the horse that trampled the shit out of us awhile back,” as Dolan poignantly stated. The tour will culminate at the July 4 hometown throwdown at Fête. See you there.

Sage took the time to answer questions via email late last week, somewhere between Albuquerque and El Paso. . . .

Can you go into detail about your state of mind while locked away from the outside world? Not too much detail, but I have reclusive tendencies. It wasn’t always like that, but I don’t remember ever having a problem with being alone. Anyway, after dedicating the entirety of my adult life to my music career and realizing that I wasn’t feeling happy in general, I decided to make some changes. 2010 was such a brutal year and the following four years felt like I was being slowly squeezed dry. With touring out of the picture, my main goal was to rid myself of the stress and anxiety of keeping up with music business bullshit, but I was also interested in seeing if I could build some type of home life that was totally separate from my music career. I’m not really sure how I thought any of that was going to happen. . . .

Whatever the case, this all resulted in me spending a lot of time by myself, and perhaps spiraling into what most people might consider “lonely” hermit life. A few days would go by and I’d realize that I hadn’t showered or had any human interactions. And then weeks would go by. And, you know, it was OK. In fact, I think I prefer it that way. There are no distractions. As long as I keep the cats fed and their
litter box cleaned. . . as long as I take the trash out on Tuesday. . .
all was well. I didn’t like most of my interactions with people in social settings. I didn’t care much for the conversations, obligations, expectations, or any other “-ations.” Regular old human shit. It didn’t feel healthy, though, so I knew I couldn’t get too comfortable in my isolation.

It’s something I work on every day while on the road, but having a specific task to accomplish on a daily basis makes things a whole lot easier for me. The added benefit here is that I get to travel with people I care about and people who care about me. All types of win. It’s been weird watching people I grew up with getting married, having kids, going on vacations, getting divorced, etc.. . . all while I’m still living the projection of my 12-year-old self.

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