Francesco Yates discusses Dylan, Williams and meeting the expectations of pop music

Toronto heart throb Francesco Yates brought it on like the coliseum for his young fans. His talent deserved a bigger crowd, but the 19-year-old’s performance was professional and ready for the centre stage. photos by Michael Erskine

LITTLE CURRENT— Francesco Yates may be one of the hottest up and coming young entertainers to grace the pop music scene in recent memory, but there is no trace of any diva symptoms developing in his character. Instead, the 19-year-old musical phenomena from Toronto comes across as a young man almost totally devoid of pretension or artifice—his hair may be big, but success has done nothing to swell his head.

That may not seem like too much of an accomplishment, but when you have megastars like Pharrell Williams (he of the ubiquitous earworm ‘Happy’) giving out quotes equating Mr. Yates as “the next big thing, but not like you’ve seen,” staying grounded must take some serious effort, or a substantial font of personal integrity.

When The Expositor arrived at the Flatrock Entertainment grounds on Harbour View Road in Little Current for an afternoon interview following Mr. Yates’ and his backup musicians sound check, the musician was trying his hands, quite credibly, on the drums. We retreated to the quiet confines of the musicians’ trailer.

Mr. Yates is one of those very few pop entertainers who wields a musical instrument onstage, he plays guitar with a confidence and skill that belies his youth. His onstage style is a fusion that finds its roots in his earlier ‘progressive rock’ years. Mr. Yates has been a serious musician since he was 14, but he originally left the guitar behind as he pursued a more ‘pop music’ career. He credits Mr. Williams with bringing the guitar back to his onstage persona.

“Pharrel Williams has been a very good influence,” he said. “He redirected me back to the guitar. I always played it before.” Mr. Yates noted that getting a shout out from the likes of Justin Timberlake has done wonders in boosting his career to where it is today. “It has helped me a lot.”

The entertainer credits Mr. Williams with providing him with a major piece of invaluable advice. “You have to be alert and focussed as a musician and as an artist,” he recalled. “Sometimes you can have a lot of self-doubt, it’s natural. But you have to push through all that to get where you want to be. You have to listen to the way the music makes you feel, don’t question what your gut is telling you, go with it and you will find it won’t steer you wrong.”

When it comes to meeting the expectations of the music industry, or perhaps more accurately his fans, in influencing his music and the impact of accommodations he makes to meet those expectations, Mr. Yates shrugs softly. “(It influences you) all the time,” he said. “You have to be aware of it and pay attention, but you can’t be selfish. As a musician you want to make music that other musicians appreciate. But you bridge between what makes you happy (and the mechanics of the pop music genre).” He describes the actual accommodations he has had to make in his musical career to date as “not a lot.”

Whatever the source, Mr. Yate’s well runs deep. It is nigh on impossible to turn on a pop music station without hearing his “ultra-funky” hit ‘Better To Be Loved.’ When Coca Cola was looking around for a young fresh talent to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its curvaceous bottle, Mr. Yates was it. “It was amazing,” he said of the experience. “The campaign referenced all these icons of pop culture, people like Ray Charles and Marilyn Monroe, to be amongst that was…amazing.”

Mr. Yates draws on the experiences he encounters every day to create his music, but when it comes to the inspiration that fuels a hit song, he tends to agree with the legendary Bob Dylan in that the well from which lyrics are drawn remains somewhat mysterious, even to their creator.

“Even when I sit with some of the biggest writers in the world they will tell you that in two minutes there will be something that sets you off; it comes from somewhere else.”

Mr. Yate’s best creative work occurs “mostly at night.” But there is little mystery in that, the life of an up-and-coming pop star means maintaining a grueling work schedule. “There is less stuff to do at night,” he said. “There is a lot that has to be done in the daytime, you have to maintain that.”

But when it comes to finding the inspiration, Mr. Yates said that he tries to maintain as open and malleable to the influences and experiences around him as he can. “It is something you just have to do,” he said.

Mr. Yates agreed to provide some words of advice to the Wikwemikong music business students and the young musicians seeking a career in the industry at Manitoulin Secondary School. “Keep in touch with it,” he said. “If your goal is to make it and do it, then find what you want to do and don’t stray from it,” he said. “Have a relationship with what you want to do musically, hone your craft, and everything else will fall into place. You can learn the business but you need to take the time to hone your craft.”

As the interview is drawing to a close, Mr. Yates unconsciously demonstrated the class that marks him apart from many young musicians. As bassist Alex St. Kitts steps out of the sun and into the cool of the trailer, Mr. Yates points to him. “He is one of the best bass players in the world,” he said.

Mr. St. Kitts plays bass for a number of the world’s top musicians from performing on the Much Music Video Awards with Ed Sheeran, to sharing the stage with greats such as Tony Royster Jr., Jeremy Taggart, Adrian X (Drake), Mike Stern, JP Saxe, Slakah The Beatchild and The Cliks, to touring China with Jazz-Fusion combo Gia and The Unpredictable Update, he is in much demand, but he also has his own projects such as The Astro Droids and has recently launched his first solo EP entitled ‘The Projektor.’

“These guys make me sound good,” laughs Mr. Yates, to which Mr. St. Kitts politely demurs.

Later that evening, when Mr. Yates takes to the stage, the soft spoken young artist explodes onto the stage with an energy and presence that embodies the motto “bring it like the coliseum.” He certainly did all of that.