Francey That

Justin Brake
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Juno-winning songwriter takes a slow boat to St. John's

David Francey has an affinity for Newfoundland. And St. John's, in particular, it seems, has an affinity for him.

The Scottish-born Canadian singer and songwriter, in his mid-50s, has spent the better part of his life doing hard labour.

But an innocent and somewhat sequestered pursuit of music through poetry, or vice versa some might say, led him to record "Torn Screen Door" in 1999.

Left, David Francey, right, Craig Werth. Submitted photos

David Francey has an affinity for Newfoundland. And St. John's, in particular, it seems, has an affinity for him.

The Scottish-born Canadian singer and songwriter, in his mid-50s, has spent the better part of his life doing hard labour.

But an innocent and somewhat sequestered pursuit of music through poetry, or vice versa some might say, led him to record "Torn Screen Door" in 1999.

The enthusiastic response to his music and songwriting tendered Francey with the resolve to release "Far End of Summer" two years later, an undertaking that brought him to St. John's in 2002 for the Juno Awards, where he accepted his first of Canada's most prestigious music awards in the Roots and Traditional - Solo category.

Since then, he's been back to the island a handful of times, where he's performed at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and The Ship in St. John's, and at venues in Corner Brook and Marystown.

With a host of folk music awards on his mantel, including two more Junos, and his new album "Seaway" fresh on music store shelves, Francey is making his way back to the island for a pair of shows in his favourite St. John's haunt down Solomon's Lane.

In a recent interview with The Telegram, he is self-effacing and mannerly as he speaks about his relationship with Newfoundland, recalling his first trip across the Cabot Strait with his wife, Beth.

"We came in on the ferry at Port aux Basques early in the morning in April, and I just turned to Beth and said 'I just have this uncanny feeling of homecoming,' and I've got no tie to this place at all. I mean zero, nothing. I just took one look at it and my heart was just like, heck, you know? And then the minute I stepped off the boat, the first guy was great and it just went like that for the rest of the trip."

Over the years, Francey says he has become friends with many in the St. John's music community, including Jim Payne, Jean Hewson and Frank Maher.

Nov. 9 will mark the next of his excursions to St. John's, where he will be joined by New Hampshire-based singer-songwriter Craig Werth as they support "Seaway," Francey's collaborative effort with former Moxy Fruvous member Mike Ford.

The "Seaway" story endures from 2005, when Francey and Ford hopped aboard the MV Algoville, a 750-foot bulk carrier for a two-week voyage down the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"It's a nod to the seaway, its importance, and a nod to the men and women on it," Francey explains. "I just think it's an incredible feat. If you go to Welland, Ont., and look at those locks - we're talking wonders of the world here. It's incredible engineering and it's ours man. We did that."

Each takes his turn on the album, offering a disparate exegesis of the experience, but most songs are marked by diligently crafted melodies about the Algoville and its crew.

"The Unloading," a dark, working-man's song, meticulously depicts the beauty in otherwise ominous industrial practices at Hamilton harbour.

"We pulled into the harbour ... and the minute we were tied off everything went into action to get us unloaded. There was not a minute's pause," recalls Francey. "It's a really remarkable scene. They were just unloading all through the night, so I stayed up for the entire thing. All of those machinations, all of that stuff came down at the very end, to a crew of guys with pails and shovels."

Francey's fascination with hard work isn't surprising given his background as a carpenter and construction worker.

But the most fervent moments on the album stem from his celebrated ability to weave real stories of real people into poetry, such as in "The Chief Engineer" and "The Ballad of Bowser MacRae."

"Everyone you talked to, they were so pleased to tell their story because no one had asked them their story before," says Francey. "And Simon Van Galen (the chief engineer) was no different than anybody else.

"Anybody who's so moved about something deserves a song about them," he laughs, "and Simon was incredibly busy but he was very generous with his time. His love for (the MV Algoville) was genuine."

Though not directly related to the Algoville experience, "The Parting" found its way onto the album because his family's arrival to Canada some 40-odd years earlier, when Francey was 12, was via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"I've never forgotten the last day leaving Scotland. It's not a melancholy thing or anything. The images in my head have just always been there.

"Our entrance into the New World, so to speak, was the St. Lawrence Seaway, simple as that.

"It's stunningly beautiful. As a kid, going into Quebec City and seeing it all lit up - it's just like coming into fairyland. It was really spectacular."

The album concludes with "All Lights Burning Bright," a line Francey found in the Algoville's log book.

"Every single crew log around the 24-hour clock ends in the same line: 'All navigation lights burning brightly,'" he explains. "That burning brightly thing was just so optimistic somehow. I asked Bowser what the story was. His explanation was this: He says 'Everything's lovely right now, but we're going to be coming into Lake Erie and the minute we do you'll see a storm that you won't believe. It's going to get blacker than pitch out here. It'll be unbelievable to you because you've never seen it before. But we could lose our GPS and our radar and all that stuff, but as long as those lights are shining,' he says, 'we'll see them coming, and they'll see us coming, and we'll all know what to do.' I just thought, what a phenomenal line, and I thought of it as a metaphor for life, just letting your lights shine a bit brighter and people will see you coming and we'll see them coming and we'll all know what to do."

Lately, Francey finds himself included in the ranks of Canada's best singer-songwriter-musicians, like Gordon Lightfoot, Willie P. Bennett or Bruce Cockburn.

"To get included in a crew like that, I just feel like, 'Wait a minute, I was a construction worker six years ago," he laughs. "What I was doing was working and writing, and that's really it. I think of myself as a really lucky construction worker."

Francey and Werth perform at The Ship in St. John's Nov. 9 and 10. For more information, visit www.davidfrancey.com.

Organizations: The Ship, Roots

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Scottish St. Lawrence Seaway Corner Brook Marystown Port aux Basques Welland Scotland Quebec City Lake Erie

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