Verna Francis: A London Diva

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Singing, dancing, acting, and all that jazz–Verna Francis can do it. From playing Miss Sherman for two years in a West End production of Fame to giving Nathan Haines’ “Earth Is the Place” its distinctive vocal flair, Francis’ talent is as big and broad as her rich voice. Her range and emotive delivery make her sound like a house or broken beat cousin of Whitney Houston or Chaka Khan. And her new album for Chillifunk, Down to Earth, is an appropriately varied outing that takes in equal amounts of soul and uptempo nu-jazz grooves, all the while focusing on that voice.

At turns bold and brassy, smoky and sultry, bright and beautiful, Francis’ instrument is not some fragile, auto-tuned studio wonder, but the hearty voice of a woman who undoubtedly shook her head in dismay at Ashlee Simpson’s SNL fiasco. She got her start early–as Cinderella in a school production– and is now “old enough to do whatever I want and young enough to remember doing it!” But her musical path hasn’t always been a fairy tale. Instead, Francis worked her way through the performance ranks, including taking on plenty of roles that required six to eight shows a week. She says that these experiences have in turn fed her live PAs at London clubs like Cargo and Fabric. “I think that my stage acting more influences my live performance than my recording style,” explains Francis. “When I’m in the studio, it’s me and I pretty much do what I feel at the time. When I’m performing live, then my stage experience allows me to relax and not be nervous and just enjoy what I am doing.”

Though seeing her in the flesh may be the only way to take her proper measure, Down To Earth is an intriguing introduction. Horn and keyboard player Scott Baylis (Reel People) and producer-engineer Felix Hopkins (who’s worked with Ashley Beedle and is part of Restless Soul) wrote the basic tracks before Francis came in and brought the subtly nuanced grooves truly to life. From the sublimely swinging house of “Look” to “Twilight” and its haunting take on R&B (which will soon see a Blackbeard remix) Francis’ singing is clearly from her heart–not from her inner diva.

Recalling the genesis of “Keep On Dreaming,” an ode to love set to a half-time 2-step beat, Francis remembers drawing on her own experience. “I was thinking of my husband when I wrote the lyrics for the verse, and the way that you have to work at relationships in order to sustain them. That’s a challenge!”