Francesco Yates has the voice of angel with an almost exclusive appetite for debauchery. The 24-year-old Torontonian looks like he’s fallen straight from the Sistine ceiling, and has the boyish charm of an entire ’90s R&B supergroup to back it up. Don’t let his cherubic face fool you through—our boy Francesco has been on a roll for the past eight years, rubbing elbows with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Pharrell (whose supernatural origins we touch in on our interview. You heard it here: The Neptunes frontman is not of this world.)
Yates has been laying low in anticipation of his new album, and has been keeping an eye on the chaos erupting the world over with the novel coronavirus and escalating instances of police brutality against the Black community. Even though things are looking pretty grim, the "Superbad" singer is pretty steadfast in his optimism. “I know a lot of people are saying that 2020 is canceled. But maybe it's the year we all need to remember and we all need to grow from.”
It’s easy to trace Yates’s boundless hopefulness back to his music. His honey-sweet voice soars and quivers through a magnificent vocal range, all sluiced with the kind of immaculate funkadelic backdrop that puts you smack-dab in the middle of neon roller disco. Francesco’s music is the kind of fun that makes this weird dumpster fire of our present reality more bearable.
Today, Yates is premiering a short film for his new EP Superbad on Complex Canada. Check it above. We also caught up with the singer to get his thoughts on astrology, slot machines, and vampirism.
How has life in the studio changed since the pandemic hit?
I mean, obviously, the only difference is sometimes when I'm in the studio, I’m alone rather than with other people. I miss working with a crew. I consider myself very lucky and very privileged to be able to do music. In a typical studio session I fiddle around with the keyboard, and I wait for some chord patterns that make the most sense to me. And then, you know, I find it all comes in three minutes, like the initial connection and the idea. I also find that I listen with my body. If I'm looking at the speakers kind of weird and my head is tilted, I know that it’s probably not very good. But if I'm going super Michael Jackson in the studio while I'm listening to it, I know that I’m onto something.
Tell us about your typical studio crew!
Recently, I’ve been working with a guy named Ali Pay who produced "Can’t Feel My Face" for The Weeknd and we really bonded. And, you know, because he's also a fellow Virgo, he’s also of a scientific mind. He's produced all these hits and it's amazing to see his perspective on it and how balanced he is. One time I was singing into a microphone and I'm like, “Man, this microphone is great.” And he would disagree and we would argue over this philosophy for a long time. He would check me because, you know, you get into overthink mode, like, “Oh, I need a certain microphone for a certain thing” and he's like, “No man, it's you.” We’d record on a $100 microphone and it sounded like a $1,000 one. He’s great at giving an open perspective and teaching you to really trust your intuition rather than your conviction. I’m also tight with my manager Johnny Wright, who is also Justin Timberlake's manager. Me and him have the funniest conversations about this ever, and he’s been a really good mentor throughout the process.
Plans after the apocalypse simmers down?
There's like a new renaissance in the home livestream concert. I’ve been thinking that maybe the future looks like the livestream concert, and we'll get to a point where it's perfected and the production value will go so through the roof. I can totally see there being a whole virtual tour sector of the music business. I'm just planning to really just put out a lot of music. And in general, you know, just doing better. We've been given a second chance when everything flips over, to just do better.
What does "doing better" look like for you?
Being more aware and present in your everyday life, and realizing that any dream that's worth pursuing is worth pursuing right now.
That’s interesting to look at in such a turbulent time. How would you say civil unrest makes its way into music?
As artists, we look at our worlds and we try to put it in front of everybody. Our environments impact us and shape us in so many ways. It can influence your behavior. I’ve been asking what I can do differently now, since we're in such a crazy time where everything is digital and person-to-person contact is limited. I couldn't ignore it in my writing anymore. My new stuff definitely has a nice, little apocalyptic flavor.
So you have some new music dropping! Can you talk us through your influences?
I’ve been singing on and off ever since I was a child. I had a stereo when I was two years old, and I would always be playing different things: the soundtrack from the Lion King, Bono, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool. I had a very eclectic playlist growing up. I remember my dad would play me Keith Sweat. I also just love Prince—I think that whole Minneapolis sound that he pioneered was unbelievable. I mean, when I think of it: Here's an artist that was able to really give everybody a blueprint for how to be a trailblazer as an independent artist. If he didn't take that extra step, maybe independent artists might not have been able to follow that same blueprint and experience such success.
"I’ve been asking what I can do differently now, since we're in such a crazy time where everything is digital and person-to-person contact is limited. I couldn't ignore it in my writing anymore."
And you’re currently an independent artist?
I am! I was on Atlantic for quite a time. During that time I worked with Pharrell. When "Sugar" came out it did really well and then I was with Warner Music Group. I learned so much about how the inside of the system works and all of that. But I found I never really figured out what type of music resonated with me the most. And I was really young and I think that's something a lot of the artists that are young get caught up in—they just have to kind of go with what's going on.
A lot of people are focused on doing better by the Black community right now. How does that look for you?
I was watching Dick Gregory—he’s a political activist that used to be around Michael Jackson and Prince a lot. I was watching an interview that he did about police reform and I think, you know, he was so ahead of his time. As far as the cause goes, I would really like for people to not be distracted by what they see on Instagram. A lot of times, you know, I can't tell if it’s just a virtue signaling thing or if it's actually rooted in the cause. I think we have to focus on what’s really happening and pay attention to that. And also take real action you and put money where your mouth is. I've donated to George Floyd’s family because I couldn't be at the protest. Action is our most important conduit for change.
You mention Prince and Pharrell and Michael Jackson. How would you say Black music has influenced your artistry?
It's everything for me. I think without Black music and Black art, I wouldn’t be doing this, or making the same music at all. Black music has inspired me to go forward. It’s impacted me on deep levels that sometimes, you know, I'm not even conscious of, and you have to remind yourself sometimes how deep-rooted everything is in Black culture.
Speaking of Pharrell: Is it true he’s a vampire?
He's 100 percent a vampire, there's no question about it. There’s a video for "Let's Get Blown" where he's there with Snoop Dogg. Go check it out now—there's no change and that’s 20 years of difference. Sorry P, you're still good in my books, even though you're a vampire.
Let’s touch on your music! Was Superbad inspired by a particular relationship in your life?
It was! It was a nice, fun chaotic relationship that I was in. It's always about the chase when it comes to relationships like that. You’re almost okay with chasing the person even more than actually having them. It's an interesting dynamic, that you're into them so much that you're okay with the game, you know? It's a very much 'don't hate the player, hate the game' situation.
So what happens when the chase is over?
When you get to know different people, I think there’s three people: there’s the person on the surface, there's the person you don't show anybody, and the person that's inward. When the chase is over, I find you really get to meet the parts of someone that are hidden.
Craziest tour story?
One that comes to mind is when we were in Vegas on Justin Timberlake's "Man of the Woods" tour. I think I stayed awake for an entire day and a half. Me and my tour manager actually won $1,000 each on penny slots. I think at one point. we went to 10 different restaurants in a night. We thought we were big shots, just trying to live the life. The details of such a story shall not be confirmed or denied but if you wanna win big, just go to the MGM and there's an Elvis machine and I think it's a loose slot. I'm letting everybody know to go for that if you wanna win big.
Anything else you wanna let the fans know before you sign off?
You know, it's not really my place to tell anybody what to do or anything, but I guess my only thing is that we're entering a bit of a zone now. I start to think of astrology and stuff, like, I'm like this could all be, you know, based off where we are, you know, the changes always tend to happen. So don't be afraid of the change.