Mary Frances is best known in Boone as “mama funk.” Keyboardist and vocalist of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Frances is also an alumna of the Hayes School of Music at ASU. With 5 Booty Band records and a Grammy winning collaboration with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo under her belt, Frances has now released her first solo record, A New Perspective.
A New Perspective, which first appeared this January, contains 12 original R&B and soul tracks that Booty Band fans will likely find an easy transition with some cool new surprises.
In the album, Frances showcases her talent as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist across a variety of stylistic approaches. The tracks move purposefully from deep gritty funk grooves to cool vintage soul, and the album also features some slower R&B tastes and even a country music tease. As most of the songs finish up right around the 4 minute mark and are placed in a tasteful order, it never runs out of momentum.
This is an easy one to listen through in order, and I highly recommend the experience.
While the album is decidedly R&B/soul, it really covers some stylistic ground as mamma funk gives way to Mary Frances.
“I just really wanted to share that part of who I am,” says Frances. “Momma funk’s my stage name with booty band, you know. I’m a Gemini, so I get to have two names. Mary Frances is kind of the lighter side of me.”
Frances and her husband, Lee Allen, who also plays drums for the Booty Band, recorded and produced the album at their home studio in Nashville, TN, aptly dubbed The House of Groove.
Frances also enlisted the help of many other notable musicians: Jennifer Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band), Evan Cobb (Cage the Elephant, The Dynamites), Derrick Johnson (Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Jazz is Phish), Casey Cramer (Josh Phillips Folk Festival, Strut), and Nashville guitarists Tommy Scifres and Will Newcomb.
“They came to our home studio. We just chilled out, had dinner, recorded songs, shared road stories,” Frances says. “I think really that’s what this album’s about. It’s just a new perspective of who I am and what my life might be like when I’m not on the road.”
That life, the one of the normal everyday Mary Frances, that life seems pretty cool.
“While working on the album, I’d come home in the afternoons, after teaching music, and just go in the studio everyday to record vocals and keyboard parts.”
The songs in the album also corroborate to intimately reflect this interesting other side of mama funk a.k.a the regular life of Mary Frances.
“Some of these songs I had written years ago. Like the first track “Million Miles” I wrote after I got back from a trip to Italy with my sister. There’s “Take What’s Mine.” I wrote that years ago. I saw Nigel Hall from lettuce in earthfare in Asheville. And he had on this button. And it said killin it on the button. And I thought that’s really the mentality you’ve got to have in the music business. If you listen to the lyrics of that one it really talks about that. So the button really inspired that one. Each song’s got a unique story to it.”
As many know, Frances and Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band got their start here in The High Country.
“Lee and I met at Appalachian in the music therapy department. That was 2003. And we started playing music together. We toured from then through 2008 when we joined the booty band. So we played Boone saloon, Parthenon, Murphy’s. We also played Flip Side Cafe”
That electro-soul group was called Eymarel, a combination of the duo’s names: Mary and Lee. The two later moved to Asheville in 2008 where they joined the Booty Band.
“We used to have a great time in Boone. We loved touring there.”
A New Perspective
Uniting and crossing a variety of styles, the 12-track A New Perspective gets right to it with ear-catching upbeat funk and never lets go as it traces warm organ textures, gritty horns and lively grooves through to the last track.
“There’s a couple instrumental tracks on there as well that sort of have a booty band vibe. So you can see the inspiration there,” says Frances of the album overall. “But it’s just fun to explore music with your friends.”
Million Miles: The difference in modern funk and the funk/R&B from the 70s is the advent and evolution of hip hop. There’s something distinctly hip hop about the heavy funk that first track “Million Miles” drops in the laps of listeners. From the outset, the song lays out a smooth groove with a soaring almost silly synth line paired with horns a la Derek Johnson and Jennifer Hartswick. This all comes together with a sassy vocal refrain that immediately grabs the attention of modern listeners with an aversion to vintage soul but who are also steeped in hip hop. The current of the groove pushes and pulls against a big stanky dug in funk line grounded by Frances’ own synth bass.
Summer Nights: “Summer Nights” throws back its sound toward the happy 1 4 5 days of classic 60s soul jazzed up a bit. One of my personal favorites on the album, “Summer Nights” features warm organ tones, super clean sparse guitar, and a classic structure that flows freely from punchy verses into a big open chorus. This track also includes some of the coolest vocal melodies and harmonies on the album. Frances really stretches out her classic soul chops on this chill track.
January: Slow and emotive, “January” is a soulful ballad featuring electric piano, a gently insistent back beat and Tommy Scrifes on slide guitar. This one is certainly a departure from the heavier groove stuff, but not an unwelcome departure.
Habanero: “Habanero” shows of Frances’ extraordinary musical dexterity as arranger and keyboardist. The song’s walkin-down-main-street groove conjures up sonic images of another band that named their famous instrumental groove after a vegetable, Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
The song features Evan Cobb on flute.
“He played a Mary Frances show one time and he was like I wanna record that song,” says Frances. “He felt like that song was like Greyboy Allstars with Karl Denson on flute. So I said alright let’s do it. I was actually the engineer for that session.”
Break: Frances recorded “Break,” the 8th track, by accident.
“This was cool because you can sit and write songs all day, but sometimes you just have to be in the moment for the magic to happen in studio world. So I was playing that opening riff on the fender rhodes, and Lee said ‘hold on, stay right there.’ He pressed record, sat down behind the drums and we took that song right then and there and played it one time.”
They would add a few more layers and split the track in two, creating “Break” and “Break Outro,” which ends the album.
Chase in the City: Move over Beyonce; you’re not the only R&B voice that can put a spin on country music. This catchy tune features some classic country ideas in the verses, but in the choruses, breaks into a big indie-pop type sound with uplifting major chords and vocalized “hey, hey, heys.” This song also features some excellent Nashville country guitar pickin by Tommy Scifres and a terribly tasteful organ solo.
As anyone could imagine, Mary Frances, sometimes mama funk, is extremely busy. Though the Booty Band plans to record in the coming months, Frances is also planning some live shows for her solo act in Nashville and Asheville. In the meantime, check out A New Perspective. Its available pretty much all the places.
“We’re all staying busy and it’s fun to collaborate with different musicians,” says Frances. “Keep the music going man. You gotta keep it alive.”