The Ukulele Maven Francesca Shanks

Photo Credit: Alexander Butfilowski
Photo Credit: Alexander Butfilowski

Back when Francesca Shanks was in the fourth grade she played the cello, well – she tried. Even after some remedial lessons she realized it wasn’t for her. While she left that instrument long ago, she wasn’t ever far from music. Always a maestro with a pen, she started writing songs and later in life paired them with her trustee ukulele. Her journey is similar to mine, only I quit the flute after two weeks and never went on to make music again. Okay, so we’re not two peas in a pod.

Back to Francesca – today fans are awaiting the release of her new record, Wolf Island, which is due out later this fall. So you’ll have to keep your eyes on this page to find out what to expect from that. Also continue on to hear where you’ll see her next and what and who she’d take to her own deserted island.

Kendra: You’ve obviously been filled with a song since you were a kid. When did you realize that you had a knack for actually writing as well playing and singing?

Francesca: The writing came first. I have always, always been a writer—I’d write stories when I was a little kid and make my dad illustrate them, and I wrote a couple of little plays, one that somehow ended up being performed at my elementary school (I forget how that happened). I also always loved singing, and I did go through a brief songwriting phase from around age 8-10; I wrote a bunch of doo-woppy songs. I started getting really hardcore into writing short stories and poetry when I was around 11 or 12, and my professional career has been as a writer and editor, mainly at newspapers. Writing is the way that I make sense of the world. But adding music to words, often just really simple words, is a form of magic, and it’s easy for me to be obsessed with that. The music part is what makes people stick around and hear you and add themselves and their experiences to the story you are telling, and that becomes something even greater.

Kendra: Lyrically you love short, simple and to the point. Is that what we can expect from your record, Wolf Island, this fall?

Francesca: I think so, yeah. Some of the songs are a minute or less, and very few of them are obtuse.

Kendra: What drew you to the ukulele?

Francesca: After I graduated from college, I moved into a house with three of my best friends. It was a great situation—there was a creek in the back, it had a basement practice space for my friends’ ambient noise band, and it was close to our whole scene of friends, with plenty of parking. My roommate Jamie was a musician and hobby luthier; he brought an older baritone uke to the house with him, but it sat unplayed for the first month or so of us being there. I had been writing a lot that spring and summer—it was probably one of the most prolific times of my life—and I really wanted to learn to play something with strings so I could put some of those poems into songs. I had Jamie tune it for me—it was probably like, “I’m going to play this now, do you mind, and what should I do?” and looked up a chord chart, and I think I fell in love the first day I played it. Four strings is easy, and the tone is just right for me.


Kendra: Really quick, if you found yourself stuck on an island with one album, one person and one food – what would they be?

Francesca: Album: Vampire on Titus by Guided by Voices. Person: My husband! Food: A nice Mediterranean spread, with baba ghanoush and hummus and bread and olives.

Kendra: Now back to the music. What do you hope Wolf Island brings to your local music scene when it drops?

Francesca: The Berkshires has a really supportive music scene—and community—and I am happy to live here and be a part of it. I hope that Wolf Island inspires some more woman performers to play locally and absorb some of that support.

Kendra: If MTV still had Making the Video, would the cameras have caught anything crazy when you were shooting “Balsa Wood Burning?”

Francesca: It was 90 degrees the day we shot the video. It was my dumb idea to do part of it in front of a bunch of dumpsters. About halfway through playing the song it occurred to me that I was standing directly in front of hot garbage…thankfully there is no smell component to video (yet).

Kendra: Will you be playing any shows with the release later this year?

Francesca: Yes! I’ll be at Wind-up Fest in Williamstown, MA on October 16, and we’re booking shows all the time, so check my Facebook or the Sounds and Tones site for more details.

Kendra: If you had to make a mixtape for a camping trip, what five songs would be on it?

Francesca: I’m so excited about this question! Five songs is hard, but here goes:
You’ve Got Me Wonderin’ Now“—Parquet Courts
Walcott“—Vampire Weekend
Shangri-La“—The Kinks
Love Connection“—Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” —Old folk song, but probably the Peter, Paul and Mary version.
And a bonus, “Love and Mercy“—Brian Wilson.


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