GEN F: Francis and the Lights

For an artist who whose blowout pompadour, black turtleneck and sex machinery generate a city’s worth of voltage on stage, Francis Farewell Starlite nearly blacks out in conversation. The inscrutable impresario behind the post-modern funk sensation Francis and the Lights has already developed a reputation for his notorious reticence and borderline clinical fixation. Like an unemployed meter reader who doesn’t know how to do anything else, he has a meticulously maintained Twitter where he details every dollar spent, and his blog logs every minute of his rehearsal time. You might expect a person of this wiring to be a dispassionate subject. To my surprise, Starlite proves not nearly as difficult as that, though some topics shut him down more than others. Anything regarding his personal life, his hinted-at forthcoming album, or, say, his opinion on witnessing a recent Public Enemy show are met with a resounding “I don’t know how to answer that,” while questions about music, stage presence and The Elements of Style (“That book is more influential on my music than any band I’ve ever heard”) are met with excruciating pauses followed by intensely thoughtful answers.

“The performance aspect has always been central to the concept of what I do,” says Starlite. “I give it equal weight in my mind. It is something that I’m naturally drawn to, both as a consumer and as an artist. Performing, singing, dancing, playing music—it’s an art form. It’s my favorite thing. I think a lot about the difference between ‘entertaining’ and ‘performing.’ I like to think of myself as performing, someone working really hard and actually doing something, not just showing off or doing tricks. I think a lot about that when I’m on stage.”

The idea of this skinny white twentysomething from New York recasting the notion of soul music could, at worst, end up a forgettable irony (see: Midnite Vultures-era Beck), but has instead, over the course of two EPs (2007’s Striking and 2008’s A Modern Promise) and many unforgettable live shows, proven Starlite and his Lights frenzied legitimacy. Starlite’s voice veers seamlessly from Prince-like falsetto to throaty Peter Gabriel croon as he sucks up two decades of radio soul and exhales meticulously composed and synthetically raw sexual chocolate.

Given Starlite’s heat, his aggressive hesitance is shocking. Still, two cappuccinos into our conversation, it becomes apparent that Starlite’s obsessions are not a weird affectation. Or maybe they are. I don’t really know for sure, but what I’ve imagined must be a torturous experience for him—sitting down to talk about himself—turns out to be the opposite. “I don’t actually hate doing this,” he laughs, “It’s difficult for me, so I take it on as an artistic challenge.” Or maybe just a source for the next neuroses in his arsenal.

Stream: Francis and the Lights, A Modern Promise

GEN F: Francis and the Lights