Be it Disney movies, books or pop songs, so much art and culture has taught us that romantic love might save us from our troubles – and from ourselves. For North-East London singer, songwriter and producer Fran Lobo, this culminated in what she describes as a “love addiction”, frequently finding herself lost in the intoxicating, often unhealthy highs and lows of connections with other people. It is this sentiment and internal struggle which her magical debut album, Burning It Feels Like, ruminates on; interrogating, reflecting and making fun of herself for it. “I’m accentuating this slightly comical idea that, ‘oh, this person will save me!’”, she says with a laugh. It’s a vividly drawn concept that plays out through her brilliantly mellifluous, elastic, looping voice over strange and stunning experimental pop that pulls from post-punk to lo-fi to shiny pop; touchstones include Kate Bush, Mariah Carey, Björk, Prince, Mica Levi, Tirzah, the warm spirituality of Alice Coltrane – and, of course, those starry-eyed Disney musicals.
Of Goan and Maharashtrian descent, Fran spent a lot of her childhood absorbing the sounds around her: her mum’s pop, Bollywood and R&B obsessions, her dad’s love of rock and country, her brother’s metal and nu-metal, alongside her own adoration for Spice Girls and TV shows like Girls Aloud-spawning Popstars: The Rivals. The result is that Fran’s own work is collagist and kaleidoscopic in nature, often taking unexpected twists into unfamiliar places, with songs sometimes imploding in on themselves. “Within every track, it became a theme of turning everything on its head; having an outro you wouldn’t expect, flipping the words a bit – this cut-paste collage where nothing is safe,” she explains. In part, this is rooted in a desire to convey the feelings of being deep in someone’s mind, jumping around unpredictably in feelings and overthinking and anxiety.
This style is enhanced by Fran’s collaborative approach to her work; she was previously part of Deep Throat Choir, has worked as a choral conductor, and many of her good friends like Lucinda Chua, Sam Beste, CJ Calderwood, Jemma Freeman, Laura Misch and Coby Sey appear on the album, building up an array of sounds with them. “A lot of the music I love is made in a similar way,” she says, citing artists such as Talk Talk and Arthur Russell, “This thing where different people are throwing loads of layers at it, the community of it, that’s always going to be so much more interesting to me than working alone at a computer; and then you arrange it all after.”
Fran was initially more interested in the performance aspect than actually setting down to write. It’s something you can hear now in the theatricality of her sound, and witness in both her installation work (her last piece, Voicescolourmotion, showed at the V&A in 2019) as well as the untethered nature of her live performances (for the uninitiated, these might involve her crooning at the piano or else literally crawling into the crowd, wailing into the mic). Her family moved around a lot in Edmonton, in what she calls an “unsettling” time, escaping into music on her headphones and dreaming of being one of the people she saw on MTV Base.
She recalls her first ever show at the local theatre, singing songs from Austin Powers and Rent, as part of a kids theatre group aged 10 – and she fell in love with the feeling. Though she was always singing, be that in her school choir or doing Britney Spears and Freddie Mercury impressions in her room, she did not initially consider it as her focal point, opting to play piano when she studied music at GCSE. She was a big fan of Queen, though, and her music teacher suggested she sing ‘I Want To Break Free’ for her exam, and – seeing her classmates’ reaction to her voice – she realised this was something she could actually do. Soon, Fran was starting to write her own music, arranging clarinet and flute parts to go with her piano-playing and lyrics about a boy who she liked. Although she went to university to study theatre and performance art, Fran still found herself more drawn to the musicians, even joining a rock band with a group of metalheads – “I wasn’t mad into the music,” she admits, “But it was a vessel to be able to perform, and it was really fun.”
She continued working on her own music, co-producing with her friend Pascal Bideau. Fran put out her debut EP, Beautiful Blood, back in 2015, to acclaim from the likes of Radio 1, Stereogum, NME and more. Her later releases, most notably the breathy, enticing beauty of 2020’s Brave EP, found fans in the Guardian, Dazed, the Fader, and she was regularly playing shows in London’s indie circuit. However, an abusive experience with someone in the industry had left her feeling jarred and uncomfortable, and so she took a step back. Years later, you can hear her unpicking that relationship dynamic among others on Burning It Feels Like, dissecting power imbalances, notions of control and addressing harm caused. Take ‘Slowly’, where the lyrics use words from real text messages which, on the surface, sound heated and sexy – but they’re set against production that becomes more ruptured, distorted and dissonant, inviting the listener to understand that something here is not quite right.
The album was written and produced by Lobo. Engineering duties fell to Andy Ramsay of Stereolab and mixing was completed by Jimmy Robertson (both of whom also co-produced, along with Sam Beste and Pascal Bideau), it is an album that is uncomfortable at times; raw and caustic in its lyrics while still generous and abundant in scope and sonics. Her favourite track is lead single ‘All I Want’, with its loop of her friend Joe’s bassoon and lyrics written in the space of an afternoon: “It came very subconsciously, I didn’t sit and write it for ages – but looking back, I think I was writing about imposter syndrome and working with a lot of men on the record, and the frustration of elevating other people without being heard. I never say what I want, but I’ve got to feel like I’m worth it.” This self-examination, actualisation and vulnerability sits at the album’s core – she even samples Sylvia Plath, another imperfect woman who stepped up in being open about her relationships with men.
The record’s title comes from Fran’s therapist asking her to identify how she was feeling when finding herself enamoured and building an internal fantasy about someone new; and also how she was feeling when she found herself in the same space as someone from her past – it all came back to that same sensory experience: burning. “The main feeling is burning,” Fran explains, “But also ‘it feels like’, because: is it real? Am I just imagining these things?” It’s a theme that runs through the record: the dangerous cycle of burning self-hatred and escaping into burning romance, passion, fantasy and longing – “Trying to win somebody over to feel like you’re worth something; the addiction, the attention,” she says. On glitchy ‘Armour’ she tries to protect herself with boundaries (though it’s also a look at “living and dying by the sword” she concedes wryly). It comes from a line Fran’s friend said to her about building up her armour – in fact, much of the album consists of advice and thoughts her friends have given her, stirring in her mind. On the gorgeous piano ballad ‘See Again’, she recognises the patterns of how she builds stories and worlds in her mind that are at odds with reality, getting lost in the paranoid scenarios and heady imagination of it all.
Visceral, beguiling and dense with yearning, sometimes she glimmers like flames and sometimes she lets us fester in the ashes with her. An unflinching debut, Fran Lobo will have you feeling that burning too.
Words: Tara Joshi