Not so fast, Faccini
Listen to the music on “Tearing Sky,” the new CD by Piers Faccini, and it’s close to impossible to envision Faccini doing what he did last summer; namely, opening shows as a solo act for rocker Ben Harper in packed, 10,000-seat venues across Europe. “Tearing Sky” opens with “Each Wave That Breaks,” whose title reflects the quietness, almost stillness, of Faccini’s music. Yes, even Ben Harper is capable of the softest ballad, but a Harper album will eventually explode into roaring, guitar rock. “Tearing Sky,” however, stays resolutely low-key. Faccini’s voice never rises to much more than a whisper, and when instruments are added – eventually the sounds expands to feature dobro, mellotron, the African kora and a wealth of percussion devices – they are slipped in unobtrusively, accentuating, rather than interrupting, the meditative feel.It’s not a sound that would seem suited to big spaces or being played to crowds numbering in the thousands. And not long ago, Faccini himself couldn’t have imagined playing it even for the smallest audience.Growing up, Faccini’s family bounced back and forth between England and France, and Faccini himself bounced between music and painting. When he went to college in Paris, it was painting that won out – primarily because he couldn’t see himself getting up in front of other people.”I wanted to be a musician and a painter, both,” said the 36-year-old Faccini, while driving toward a show in Salt Lake City. “But it seemed like painting suited me more, because I was so shy, and it was a solitary thing.”It took until he was 25 for Faccini to form his first band, the London-based Charley Marlowe. Even that took a load of coaxing by friends who had heard his songs.”The people around me, for years and years, were saying it was a waste of talent,” said Faccini, who performs at Belly Up Monday, Jan. 29. “I’d share the songs I wrote, but I wouldn’t bring it any further. They said I was being selfish.”I was somehow convinced that I was a better painter than a musician. I didn’t want to be the kind of self-indulgent songwriter talking only about himself.”In his younger days, Faccini had seen plenty of musicians who had no such worries. They were performers who seemed to have never encountered the idea of stage fright. Ultimately, they were every bit as instrumental in instilling confidence in Faccini as were his encouraging friends.”They were very brash, no shyness, no self-consciousness. Without any inhibition, they would grab a guitar and play,” he said. “But they weren’t any good. They just had this incredible self-belief in what they did.”I realized I didn’t have to be that guy. I just had to be me, and be sure of what I do. Before, I was too worried about what other people thought.”
Faccini’s low-key musical makeup can be attributed, in part, to his shyness.”Inevitably, the music you create, like a painting or writing, is going to be a mirror of yourself,” he said. “And I spent a lot of years playing to myself. I wasn’t out there in front of a rowdy crowd, trying to get people to dance.”As for external influences, Faccini names the usual pantheon of singer-songwriters – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley; Nick Drake and Richard Thompson on his side of the Atlantic – and one who is off the beaten path. Late in his teens, Faccini took to buying old vinyl LPs on the cheap at swap markets. He snatched up a record by Skip James, a Mississippi-born Delta bluesman who had died in 1969, without knowing a thing about him, not even that he had written “I’m So Glad,” a hit for the rock band Cream.”When I first heard his music, it changed me overnight,” said Faccini. “Before that it was pop music. I hadn’t heard country blues. I put it on the turntable and it knocked me over the head by how powerful it was. And there was something in it that I wanted to find in my own music – something spare, very naked, essential, bare.”Another quality in James that Faccini admires was his uniqueness. “He was really a one-off,” said Faccini. “I don’t think that anyone made music like that before or after.”Charley Marlowe, the band Faccini had for some five years, wasn’t much to speak of. Faccini calls it an “underground” thing; Charley Marlowe played occasional gigs around London and released one EP, “This Could Be You.” But it served effectively as a breeding ground for Faccini’s late-blooming solo career, which he launched with the 2004 album, “Leave No Trace.” On the current “Tearing Sky,” his second album, the elements – touches of West Africa and old American blues, the light rhythms, the hushed voice – come together in a distinctive way.”It took a long time to figure out how to make those things work together, and not be a mishmash of different stuff,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a bad copy of someone else. I wanted to wait till I had my own voice.”When I did my first record, it felt true. Natural and honest, which is important to me. There’s so much music out there, and to be honest, most of it is not good. If I can’t add something original or touching, I’m not going to do it.”Among those who heard something in “Leave No Trace” was JP Plunier, noted for producing albums by Ben Harper, and also Jack Johnson, who has a mellowness and focus on acoustic sounds in common with Faccini. Plunier made an EP, “The Streets of London,” for American release out of “Leave No Trace,” and when he heard the new songs Faccini had written, he brought Faccini to California, to record them at Sonora Studios near Los Angeles. Faccini is credited with numerous instruments on “Tearing Sky,” from electric guitar to harmonium to er-hu, a two-stringed Chinese violin. But Plunier also rounded up an A-list of players: bassist Juan Nelson and percussionist Leon Mobley from Harper’s Innocent Criminals; drummer Adam Topol, who plays regularly with Johnson; Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko. Harper himself adds backing vocals to the opening tune, “Each Wave That Breaks.” “I was really for a couple of minutes having to pinch myself, that these people were playing my music,” said Faccini, who has Topol, as well as bassist Jose Esquivel, backing him on his current tour.
The core of Faccini’s methodology, though, is not in the studio. He is a writer’s songwriter, working over the songs by himself until they are finished products. Faccini does his writing in the hilly, sparsely populated countryside in the Gard region of southern France. Both the place and the process are in line with his personality.”I’m not writing in the studio with guitar hooks,” said Faccini, who continues to paint, mostly landscapes, but has put that facet of his career on hold. “It’s me with a notebook and that’s how I finish the songs. I like spending a lot of time with the song, and the songs are very finished when I get into the studio. I don’t have to worry, ‘That word doesn’t fit there.’ I can focus on working fast, just getting a great vocal take.”
If the sound is a reflection of his personality, the lyrics are drawn from Faccini’s past. He moved back and forth from the U.K. to France during his childhood; he settled in London for 12 years before relocating to Gard three years ago. His father is Italian, his mother English; his ancestors came from all over Europe.”That thing you have with immigrant culture is, you never become attached to a place. Because you don’t have those deep roots,” he said. “I’m not attached to one particular place.”I think that means that my art, or music, is a journey. A good story to me is like going on a trip. You travel to a certain place and see a certain landscape. That atmosphere of a place is what I try to conjure up.”Faccini points to “Fire in My Head,” from “Tearing Sky,” as an example. It is a song of movement and time and landscape, and finding your place in all of it. “It’s very imagistic,” said Faccini. “Instead of saying something, it describes a place. It’s not, ‘I did this, I did that.’ It’s just trying to create an atmosphere, not a story.”One place Faccini has never lived is the U.S. But recently he has become very familiar with the sights and sounds here; over the last year and a half, he hasn’t been away from the States for more than a month at a time. Among his observations? That we have the volume turned up on our music.”There’s something about the drums and bass here that sticks out,” said Faccini. “It’s more punchy. People play louder here.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com