How Black Francis of Pixies Writes His Own Narrative
The power of creativity to develop self-concept
Posted Nov 01, 2016
Our personal narrative – or the story that we tell ourselves and others about our life – can have a tremendous impact on our well-being and behavior.
As an example, if we notice that we view the world differently from others around us, we may become sad and isolated if our personal narrative is that we are “weird” or “crazy.”
In contrast, if our narrative is that we view our divergent thinking as “unique” or “creative,” we may feel empowered and emboldened to explore our creativity and seek out others who embrace an “alternative” life approach.
Perhaps, in deference to the power of narratives, most forms of psychotherapy involve the exploration of our personal narrative as a possible curative agent in treating mental illness.
For example, cognitive-behavioral therapists focus on helping individuals challenge catastrophic or self-critical narratives of life events. (e.g., “I’m a loser, and no one likes me.”) That may lead to social isolation. At the same time, they help to develop and support a more self-enhancing narrative (e.g., “I’m going through a tough time, but things will get better.”), one that encourages seeking out fulfilling social interactions.
One particularly damaging dynamic is when other people try to dictate or control our personal narrative. And this can range from isolated critical comments about our behavior to ongoing stereotyping based on a range of factors, including sex, race or appearance.
So, when Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, better known to many as Black Francis of the band Pixies, was talking with Pitchfork about the group’s new album, Head Carrier, and discussed his desire for open interpretation of his lyrics, he was highlighting the power of narratives.
In the article, Francis states that he wants the meaning of his songs to be “open-ended and universal … so that people could insert their own emotions, their own stories and narratives onto it and not get too hung up on whatever the song was supposedly about.”
And in talking with Francis, I discovered that his comment about narratives was part of a broader approach to his life and music. That’s because, in the tradition of artists such as such as David Byrne and the late David Bowie, Francis has made a habit of reinventing himself and his narrative.
Whether it’s through the mechanism of different bands (e.g., Pixies vs. Frank Black and the Catholics vs. Grand Duchy), different lineups (e.g., Kim Deal vs. Paz Lechantin), different personas (e.g., Frank Black vs. Black Francis) or different musical styles, structures and even languages within his music, Francis conveys a simple message:
Don’t let anyone dictate your narrative.
Francis learned the power of narratives at an early age. He told me, “I had a hard time relating to people. I literally had a hard time connecting with people in an intimate way and having friends...I was a bit of a loner and hung out with the kids that were more odd birds.
“I started to feel like an outsider.”
Contributing to Francis’ difficulty in forming deeper friendships was the fact that his family moved frequently. “So, you have to protect yourself — a coping mechanism. ‘I’m not going to get too close, because I’m probably going to have to leave here anyway,’” he explained.
Also, Francis found that his taste in culture and music seemed very different from that of his peers. “I don’t like all of this commercial crap that my high school peers seemed to be so enamored with. They’ve all got the T-shirt on from the concert last night of the Blah Blah Blahs. And I think that’s crappy music. I’m much more into this weird stuff I found at the used- record store,” he recalled.
Initially, feeling this disconnect from his peers fed into Francis’ own negative self-concept. “If you’re already uncomfortable in your own skin, then being labeled ‘different’ or ‘weirdo’ or whatever, it’s hard to use that as fuel for a good thing,” he said. “It becomes something that causes you to reinforce negative feelings you have about yourself.
“It becomes fuel for a bad thing.”
However, Francis also experienced an early interest in creativity, which was encouraged by his parents. And eventually, this helped Francis to form a new narrative – that of a “creative” and “artistic” person.
“Basically, at some point, you have to get comfortable enough in your own skin to say, ‘Yeah, it’s OK that I’m weird or I’m different or I’m odd or artistic … and that feels good to me,” he explained. “That feels good that I’m not like everybody else … . I had enough self-confidence, love of creative things and enough encouragement to pursue whatever created world I wanted. That feeds into my self-confidence.
“I must be pretty cool.”
Pursuing his artistic path, when Francis was 19, he started the collaboration that would eventually become Pixies and change his life forever. “I was kicking around the idea of starting a band with one of my roommates, with Joey Santiago. We were able to get something to happen pretty quickly, and it was interesting,” he said. “And so now, I have the microphone. They’re motivated to listen to me. They like my music. They like my band’s music. Sure, we wanted to perform music for people that were like-minded, that would get it and go, ‘Cool, man. Yeah we’re cool. You’re cool too. We like it.’”
And as his music evolved, Francis discovered the satisfaction of challenging the very norms that had previously made him feel like an outsider. In particular, he enjoyed challenging people’s expectations of who Pixies should be and how they should sound as rock musicians.
“When we’re making music or when we’re doing a concert, we can have a little more fun with that narrative,” Francis explained. “It’s almost like you get an extra kick out of performing for those people who are a little more conservative in their tastes or in their perceptions of what rock music was supposed to be.
“And you can make them a little uncomfortable.”
It can be particularly gratifying when Francis witnesses a change in people’s perspectives. “You want them to go, ‘I like it, but I’m confused! I like it, but I’m not sure,” he said. “Ultimately, I suppose, you get them to question their own perceptions about art and music.
“And, hopefully, you win them over.”
And while many musicians feel that they need to choose between being artistically relevant and commercially viable, Francis’ chooses instead to strike a balance between both, which is one of the reasons his music is so compelling.
He described the dangers of going too far in one direction. “Sometimes when too many elements in an arrangement lyrically and musically are in agreement with each other, it starts to sound too dumbed down or too commercial or trying too hard to be somebody,” he explained.
“You can just tell, this is palatable, but really this is kind of getting boring here. Or you can march the other way, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do anything that’s boring or easy to digest. I’m going to do something that’s way more edgy, way more confrontational, way more weird, and if you become too focused on those kind of aesthetics, then it sounds pandering.
“You’re trying to be so clever and weird or angry or whatever that it just sounds annoying and also may be boring.”
For Francis, it’s about being open to it all. “It’s about finding the delicate combination between the tension and also the things that agree with each other. And going, ‘Yes, this is a great balance. This is good. Stop here, this is finished.’
“There are no rules.”
By pursuing his unique artistic vision, Francis has taken a revered place in music history. Timeout magazine named Pixies one of the greatest indie rock bands ever. New Music Express has called them one of the most influential bands ever.
The now-deceased Kurt Cobain summed up his creative process in writing Nirvana’s anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by saying he was “basically trying to rip off Pixies.” And when Thom Yorke of Radiohead was presented with the prospect of following Pixies at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2004, he refused, saying, “Pixies opening for us is like The Beatles opening for us. I won’t allow it.”
And while this adulation may seem like a win worthy of reveling in, Francis is very clear that even a seemingly flattering narrative such as being the voice of a generation is confining and hinders art.
“The power is not, ‘Now I have the power. I’m influential, everybody … . And since I’m legendary, and I have this power, I want to tell you some more legendary stuff,’” Francis explained. “It’s egotistical, but more importantly, it takes you away from the creative birth. It takes you away from the creative inception.”
But even with all of the adulation Francis and Pixies have received over the years, Francis has heard his share of negative narratives about himself. “There are people who have narratives about me. ‘Oh, that Black Francis, I heard he’s an asshole. He’s a real prick in interviews. Not a nice guy. He wouldn’t let Kim Deal write any songs.’
“Sure, I can take it personally, and it can drive me a little nuts.”
But Francis asserts the importance of insulating oneself from other people’s narratives — both positive and negative. “So, you better get all of these other voices, and all of these other expectations about you — you better check all of that at the door. Because it’s not really going to help you do good work,” he explained. “And once you realize it’s going to hurt your art, you’re definitely not going to want to do it.”
Francis feels that removing those expectations opens you to new ideas and new forms of expression. “It’s coming from a personal place that is much more psychologically vulnerable. I have to be a little bit naked or open,” he said. “I have to let people see what’s going on here if it’s going to be interesting art. I think you just kind of feel it.
“That’s where the power is.”