National Folk Festival Interview: Liz Frencham, Frencham Smith

Liz Frencham
Image Couretsy of Liz Frencham

The heart and soul of the Australian folk festival scene is undoubtedly bassist Liz Frencham. A solo artist in her own right Frencham is also well known for her work with Jigzag, Jimmy The Fish and Frencham Smith. She is currently making her way from festival to festival with long time collaborator Fred Smith and is about to hit The National Folk Festival over Easter. We grabbed a couple of minutes of her time to talk about how she fits it all in, how her approach to festivals has changed over the years and what’s next after her current tour.

Evan Hughes: You’ve just come off some shows at the Port Fairy Folk Festival. How was that?
Liz Frencham: It wasn’t the best festival experience I’ve had just because of the circumstances. I tried to fit two festivals into one weekend. I did the Burke and Wills Folk Festival on the Friday with Fred [Smith] and then we travelled to Port Fairy on Saturday morning, got there and rehearsed with the band, did our gig and then by that stage I was pretty exhausted. Then the next day we had four gigs.
EH: Oh wow.
LF: And they were all a little too close together. We also had a projector and screen that wen’t AWOL and that caused Fred some consternation. It was just one of those festivals that felt a little more like work just because of the circumstances.
EH: The one thing I’ve noticed with you at festivals is you’re everywhere all the time. I’m surprised all this running around is not something you’re used to by now. Although running from one festival to the other is a bit extreme.
LF: Yeah [laughs]. It’s a little bit different if you’re running to jam with someone and also there’s a difference from when you’re 23 to when you’re 33. And then when you’re pushing 40 and running around with a double bass it means a little bit more organisation. Also if it’s a gig that you’re featuring at, particularly the ones with Fred where people connect with the Uruzgan material in a certain kind of way, even the CD selling area I take over while he talks to people. That kind of thing’s exhausting as well – organising that as well as being aware of what gig’s on the horizon. It was always exhausting but it’s a little bit more business these days. It’s one of those things that’s good and bad when you’ve played on the scene for longer – I used to have no voice by the time I’d get to Sunday of a festival because I would have stayed up late drinking and singing and talking and now I don’t because I know my voice is really low, it’s set in my chest, and if I try to talk over a lot of noise I’ll lose it really quickly. It’s only just because I want to make sure I can perform really well right throughout the whole festival. I feel like I’m a much better performer now but what I used to have was raw enthusiasm to get me through. It’s an interesting tradeoff but one I don’t mind having. I feel like I’ve had hundreds of amazing late night jams over those festivals. Things just change when you’ve been doing it for longer.
EH: You mentioned Fred Smith. You’ve played with him on his album Dust Of Uruzgan and toured with him as your schedule allows. The songs from the album really connect with people, especially if they have a connection to Afghanistan. How’re you finding playing those songs live?
LF: It’s intense to play songs of war. Besides singing a couple of songs that I do I’m pretty much playing the role of band member really, I’m playing the bass trying to do that as well as possible. Every song asks something of you and that’s what you’re thinking of when you’re playing it, what does this song need. I know all the intros back to front, I know all the stories, I know all the lyrics so I guess I’m no longer being moved by them anymore. I’ve probably done the show maybe 40 times now or more. In order for everyone in the audience to keep hearing it fresh it’s my responsibility to take each song at a time and give it my best. When you’ve played the songs that many times you do learn what really works on each song.
EH: When I interviewed Fred Smith last year he was telling me all about the songs you sing on the album, that they’re sung from the point of view of Afghan women. That must have been difficult to put yourself in that mindset.
LF: Strangely not. One of them’s from the point of view of a woman in exile and anyone who’s got friends and family can imagine what it must feel like to leave them behind. And there’s so much personality that he puts into those songs so you get a sense of the character which makes it easier. There’s definitely a wry sense of humour in the woman from “Trembling Sky”, there’s a couple of lyrics that give that away: “As I recall we were still kissing, while our friends were going missing”. There’s a little bit of bravado there. He gives you enough in the song to just go into it and feel it. The other one, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, is more of a straight story so it doesn’t really benefit from trying to push any more into it, any more emotion. The melody is also so beautiful – just to sing the melody and tell the story is all that needs.
EH: It’s been a while since that album came out – are you still touring just under Fred Smith or are you going out there as Frencham Smith again?
LF: The line blurs quite a bit mainly because of the show. The National is booked under Frencham Smith with the expectation as well as doing our material we’d probably do a dedicated Uruzgan show, being that’s the most recent thing Fred has to offer – and also a really lovely thing to offer any festival. I think it’s easier to blur those lines because I’m quite involved in the Uruzgan stuff as well, in singing a couple of songs, having recorded bass on the album and toured the album. It’s easy a week before the festival to work out which is going to be the Uruzgan and which is going to be the Frencham Smith set.
EH: Are you guys recording any new material together or anything like that?
LF: Probably not for a while. I think Fred has something in the works before that, without telling any tales. Also this year I’m dedicating to recording the second volume of my duets, You and Me Vol. 2. That’s going to keep me pretty busy from winter onwards and then I want to give that album a good spin, a good tour next year. I’d say probably next year you won’t see as much of Frencham Smith just because I think both of us will be doing stuff that doesn’t involve the other for a little while.
EH: Can you reveal any details about who you’re playing with on the duets album?
LF: I can tell you that I’ve recorded the first duet with Andrew Winton. We’re doing a Sting cover which is really fun. We just did that when he was recently here touring. But I don’t like to say who else because obviously you can have all the best intentions and the artist can say “yeah, let’s do it” but then I’d hate to say somebody’s name and then it not happen and people be disappointed. Put it this way: there’s some international artists who are touring at the moment who are trying to fit a recording into their schedule. Definitely some names you’ll know.
EH: Andrew Winton’s a big enough name Timber and Steel’s eyes for us to already get excited.
LF: I can definitely say he’s on that because it’s recorded.
EH: I think one of the first times I ever saw you live was playing bass with Andrew Winton at The National a number of years ago.
LF: Oh wow.
EH: It might have even been his first National.
LF: We’ve been mates for a while and we’re pretty much the same age so whenever we cross paths at festivals we often find ourselves at the same kind of life stage, swapping stories about where we think our careers are going and that kind of thing which is kind of fun.
EH: You’re at so many festivals every year – do you have a favourite?
LF: Hmmm…
EH: It’s such a hard question.
LF: It’s interesting. I would have said my favourite big festival was The National but a big part of that was the Troubadour Wine Bar which isn’t going to be there this year so that’s kind of shifted for me. I’ll have to see how it feels because that was very much central, that home base you always went when you weren’t gigging, where you knew you’d see people you know. The Wintermoon Festival up in MacKay is pretty special – really chilled out and it’s May when down here in Victoria it’s absolutely freezing you get to head up that way and walk around in a skirt and sleep under the stars. Port Fairy was great for the amount of acts they have playing but I tend to have to work harder there so it’s hard to find them fun. It’d be very different if I was just going to the festival. It’s hard to say – I like a lot of the little ones. It’s hard to pick favourites really
EH: I think that’s all the questions I had for you today. Good luck with everything you’ve got coming up. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
LF: No worries, I’ll see you later!

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