The trick is to make a confession entertaining. A Private Picture, the debut album by Chicago’s Fran, delivers a collection of extremely personal experiences that have been distilled and abstracted to the point that you can see yourself in their imagery, find analogs to your own emotional history in their scenarios –when you hear them, it’s a conversation. It’s therapy, if therapy was allowed to turn you on and make you shake what you got.
Maria Jacobson began writing songs during a time of great personal upheaval. Working as an actor at a summer repertory theatre in rural Indiana after a disillusioning stint in the Chicago theatre scene and a series of failed relationships, she bought a guitar and taught herself to play. Through this instrument and her voice, she discovered a way to process the pain of recent events and draw ambiguities closer to conclusions.
Landing an English teaching job with sparse hours in a small city in Mexico afforded the time and space to develop as a songwriter: playing and writing all night until it became clear that a body of work was forming.
Maria returned to Chicago and kept a cool head while navigating the general hassle that is getting your first band together. She employed the help of friend and bassist Atticus Lazenby to form the band and arrange their first EP called More Enough. It was through the release of the EP on Chicago tape label Lake Paradise that she met Jake Acosta. Jacobson remembers, “We met for beers at this weird bar that doesn’t exist anymore in Humboldt Park and were so happy to have met each other. That is sort of where everything changed.”
The period following this crucial meeting was fast and important: through Acosta and other avenues, Jacobson met the kindreds who would eventually comprise the current lineup of her band. She found the perfect drummer when Ashley Guerrero responded to an ad on the DIY Chicago facebook page (guess there’s a first time for everything). Guerrero’s intuitive sensitivity and feather light-to-bashing touch is absolutely necessary for A Private Picture’s dynamic material. Jacobson met Bret Koontz, lead guitarist/keyboardist, when his pop trio Softette played Fran’s EP release show at the Empty Bottle. Koontz became a necessary piece of the Fran puzzle as he contributed slick and shimmering guitar parts live and in the studio, where Jacobson convinced him to play dirty again. Finally, Jake Acosta circled back to play his surprising and melodic brand of bass guitar as an 11th hour addition to the group the night before Fran left for a two-week southern tour.
Jacobson found another good match in Luke Otwell, who got it so right while engineering/producing A Private Picture in a sprawl of sessions that spanned 2018. The resulting record is an epic soundscape that remains safely tethered to reality. It’s a mature and clear-eyed sound that features some of the wit, complexity, and R.O.C.K. you might expect from Aimee Mann or the Pretenders. At the dead center of the sound is Jacobson’s voice. It is true and full, ranging from an almost-whisper to a pitched scream and soaring to incredible heights. These vocals were made possible through a life spent singing and studying—church, musical theatre, jazz . . . as music writer Leor Gail said, it is the band’s “guiding light.”
At its core, Fran’s music is about sharing a truth -–telling it, confessing it, yelling it—in the service of human connection. Or, as Jacobson puts it,
“I feel that I am a songwriter for the same reason I wanted to be an actor. I want to tell the truth. I want to challenge myself to get closer and closer to the core of an experience, an emotion- I want to say it, sing it, in a way that says exactly what it is. I cry when I write songs because I am constantly making discoveries, about myself, about the world, about the best way to convey and connect and get closer.”