Karima Francis: right on cue

Warm-hearted but effortlessly cool, Karima Francis talks about how she stayed true to herself and her music – and why she hosted a star-studded online festival to help Big Issue North vendors

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Karima Francis is putting me on the spot. I’m supposed to be asking the questions but she is quizzing me about our fundraising for vendors.

“Big Issue North is so important – it helps so many people,” she says. The lack of structure in her working life – in her comparatively free-spirited career as a musician – has thrown her completely out of whack. She can’t imagine how hard it is for those who sell the street paper, for whom routine is a vital cog in keeping functioning.

“There’s not just a homelessness crisis in California – there’s a crisis all over the world.”

I tell her about our hardship fund, how we’ve been allocating money raised through donations and magazine sales to vendors in need, and how we’re currently trying to buy them all contactless card readers and PPE to get them back on the streets selling safely. No, we haven’t thought of putting on a fundraising gig. How would that even work in lockdown?

“I could help co-ordinate something,” she enthuses. “I would love to do something to help.”

Fast-forward less than a month to the Big Busk at Home – a mini online festival hosted by Francis raised over £600 of vital funds for Big Issue North vendors and with Everything Everything leading an impressive line-up. There was long-time Big Issue North supporter Ian Prowse, recent interviewees Self Esteem and Ren Harvieu, and big-hearted Manc-folk singer Beans on Toast. And, of course, there was be a set from Francis herself, who demonstrated in a few short weeks the same will and determination that took her from a seaside town – where she was raised by a single mother facing various challenges and left school with few prospects – to another stretch of coastline. In her part-time base in LA the weather doesn’t necessarily suit her oversized and monochromatic clothes, but the rich musical traditions suit her soulful tones and vast talent.

Despite the deprivation she witnessed growing up, it’s the Golden State that has spurred her to address homelessness through her music.

“My last single Shelf Life was about homelessness in LA. There’s not just a crisis in California – there’s a crisis all over the world – but out there there’s really not much help at all, and the sights I was seeing!

“I went down to Skid Row but even on Hollywood Boulevard people are living in tents all down the road. It’s just not what you imagine for LA. These people are dangerous as well. Some people are unmedicated, so you can’t approach to help them.

“Obviously we have things like Big Issue North, there’s lots of help available. If you want help with addiction there are open doors everywhere but for these people there’s absolutely nothing.”

The Blackpool-born singer is supposed to be in LA finishing off her album. Instead she’s locked down in London finishing off her dissertation for her music production degree. That, along with travelling, reading (she recommends Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Shulman about the New York Aids crisis), “getting to re-know myself, doing things I want to do and taking time to just enjoy life”, has kept her busy and out of the musical spotlight for the last few years.

“I’ve learnt academic writing,” she says modestly. “It’s something I never did at school because I was a bit naughty and I never learnt much, so to actually do that and to get marks back for assignments and see you’ve done OK – it’s actually quite rewarding. And it felt like the right time to do it because as much as I’ve achieved a lot with my music I feel like this is more of an achievement.”

It’s also enabled her to produce her own music.

“I was just really wanting to learn more about the production side of music so I could have more creative control over my own records and start being more involved in finding the sound,” she says. Her newfound skills mean her next album – her fourth at the age of just 33 – is still on track for early 2021 with remote collaboration from multi-instrumentalist and LA-based producer Tim Carr (The Americans), who has helped her capture that hazy West Coast sound in tracks such as Shelf Life and new single Orange Rose.

“I’m a big fan of lots of music coming out of America: Car Seat Headrest; Andy Shauf – actually he’s Canadian; I love the National. I really loved the Phoebe Bridgers album – the production on that by Tony Berg, that was really amazing and sonically I was just like, I’m going to go there and I’m going to find that sound. It’s just so soulful, very warm sounding and full, and I just loved it.”

Arguably, Francis didn’t need to travel 5,000 miles to find warmth. It radiated from her lauded 2009 debut, The Author, which drew comparisons to Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading and support slots for Amy Winehouse and Patti Smith. It was evident too on 2012’s The Remedy and 2016’s largely overlooked Black. But both also carried the scars of the emotional turmoil that followed the first – a break-up and a bout of anorexia Francis says was a “whirlwind, and I don’t know where it came from”, though she’s grateful to have recovered. There was professional turmoil too.

“I’ve not had the smoothest journey in the music industry. There have been ups and downs and you do take a lot of knocks. I’ve worked with two major record labels and I don’t work with them anymore. I think going from that level of exposure to not does affect you.”

Despite her ability to pull off impressive feats – like moves to LA and online fundraising festivals overnight – you wouldn’t describe Francis as a force to be reckoned with. She’s gentle and self-effacing and, despite her warmth, effortlessly cool. Her knocks, she admits, have affected her confidence.

“I used to have a set formula for songwriting when I was younger. I’d sit in front of the mirror and I’d just hear all this music and write song after song, but as I’ve got older it’s not as free as that anymore – it comes when it comes.

“As you get older you get more self conscious and judgmental. When you’re younger it’s new and fresh and everything’s so free. I just think that life gets in the way – you’ve got more responsibility.”

Orange Rose finds the singer on form in an ambient dreamscape cut through with emotional lyrics about self-destruction.

“It’s about mental health in relationships and how people feel they can’t speak out, as well as a love song. It touches a little bit on my life but it’s more external and about people in general. It’s not all about me.”

She may have come a long way since the buzz of her debut but her preference for exposing herself through her lyrics rather than interviews has remained consistent, as has her unmistakable talent and her ability to quiet a room with her heartfelt performances – now relocated to Zoom.

“They’re really daunting,” she says of the recent sets played to around 100 people on a video link. “It’s more anxiety provoking than playing a live gig. I actually have to put the brightness down so I can’t see their faces or their reactions or the husband getting up and going out the room. You can take these things personally.”

And she’s always sounded and looked like herself – resolutely refusing to conform to the female trappings of the music industry.

“That feels good, to be honest. There are a lot of artists that get signed young and they start as singer-songwriters, then go into electronic pop stuff and it’s like, how did that happen?

“The record labels can influence so much. I’ve always been really sure of what I wanted and it did get quite commercial on my record – the mixing and the shininess of it – but predominantly I was always very happy with the songs and the arrangements.

“There was nothing at the time that I was not comfortable with. I’ve always been very true to myself and I’ve never let anyone sway me into another direction.”


Big busk big success

After 18 musical acts donated their time and talent to help our vendors stay afloat during coronavirus, Bronte Schiltz says thank you

When Big Issue North’s deputy editor Antonia Charlesworth interviewed Blackpool singer-songwriter Karima Francis, she was not expecting to find the solution to the Big Issue North Trust’s funding crisis.

Taking a detour from discussing her musical work to quiz us about the current situation for our vendors, Francis wasted no time in stepping in to offer her support with the organisation of a livestreamed music festival. At this time of year, the fundraising team would normally be taking to the road with the Big Busk, a touring music festival. With lockdown meaning that was off the cards a new idea was born: the Big Busk at Home.

“When I found out that Big Issue North is a small organisation that relies on individual donations and the sale of the magazine, I wanted to help,” Karima said. “The things that Big Issue North do to help people get back on track, it’s not just about giving people a platform to work and setting them up with bank accounts. They will find housing for people; there are a lot of vendors who come from Eastern Europe who don’t have any education and they’ll help them get into education and get back on track. Everything they do on such a small amount, it’s kind of mind-blowing.”

Streaming to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, over ten hours of fantastic music were viewed by people from Manchester to Minnesota. Joining Karima were 17 fantastic acts: Heir, Jekyll, Natalie McCool, Eevah, Toria Wooff, Lucy Feliz, Beans on Toast, Ian Prowse, Ren Harvieu, Self Esteem, The Elephant Trees, The Ghost of Helags, KOYO, Emily Barker and Hana Brooks. Bringing events to a close was a vibrant headline set from Everything Everything and a DJ set from Clint Boon, who showcased some of Manchester’s finest musical exports with a charming and funny personal touch.

As acts performed from their living rooms and bedrooms without a crew on hand to perfect their sound, two things shone through – firstly that these artists are all incredibly talented, and secondly that they genuinely cared about the cause they’d set aside their time to support. Our vendors, it seems, have friends in high places.

“Big Issue North has always been really good to us, and obviously we love what they’re about,” Jeremy Pritchard from Everything Everything told Francis. “Actually, it’s a kind of hidden story – that the vendors are suffering because there are fewer people on the street, and because of living conditions they may be more susceptible to the virus itself, so when that became apparent, we wanted to do what we could to support it.”
Donations made on the day were allocated to The Big Issue North Trust, the charitable arm of Big Issue North. Under ordinary circumstances, it provides everything vendors need to change their lives, such as the cost of their badge and tabard, crisis support, signposting services, projects like breakfast clubs, and much more. In recent weeks it had also provided financial aid to vendors while they cannot work, and PPE and contactless card readers to vendors now returning to the streets. This has meant that the Trust’s outgoings are currently much higher than they would normally be.

The Big Busk at Home was a roaring success. As with previous Big Busk events, the festival was free to attend, but throughout the day, Karima encouraged viewers to make a donation, advocating the cause with passionate enthusiasm. By the end of the day 87 attendees made contributions totalling a fantastic £631.25. As the online nature of the event meant that it had no costs attached, all of this money will go directly to our vendors – providing contactless payment devices and PPE to those who can return to work and financial aid to those who are facing the daunting prospect of more weeks or months trapped indoors. If you would like to make a contribution to these efforts, there is still time to do so – just text 70201 to give £1, 70331 to give £3, 70970 to give £5 or 70191 to give £10.

If you came along and would like something to remember your lockdown festival experience by, you can now also buy our official Big Busk at Home t-shirt, available in five sizes and three colours. 100% of our proceeds will go towards supporting our vendors. Visit mercht.com/c/bigbusk
We would like to say an enormous thank you to Karima Francis, to all of our fantastic acts, and who everyone who came along and showed their support. You made an enormous difference to our vendors and we are incredibly grateful.

If you would like to keep up to date with our fundraising efforts, be sure to follow Big Issue North on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

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Big Issue North during the Coronavirus pandemic

We have taken the difficult decision to tell our vendors that they cannot sell Big Issue North on the streets during the Coronavirus pandemic, for the safety of the public and themselves.

This is a serious emergency for our vendors, and they need your help. There are three things you can do right now to help them get through this impossibly tough period.

  1. Buy our digital issue of this week’s magazine Buy
  2. Donate to our hardship fund, which we’ll use to help vendors in the most urgent need Donate
  3. Buy subscriptions and back issues online Shop Now