To hear them tell it, there’s a star-crossed quality to the collaboration between Miles Francis and Charles Billot, a meeting of complementary dreamers that quickly became apparent when the three of us met at Greenpoint’s BÚÐIN cafe. They had been introduced a year earlier after admiring each others’ work from afar, and a chance message from Charles happened to slide Miles’ way just as the musician was sitting down to mix Swimmers, his solo debut.
“All I said was, 'Hey... what’s up?'” Charles told me, laughing at the words that launched the six months of planning that brought the EP to life as a visual album.
“'What have you been up to?'” Miles corrected. “As soon as he reached out to me, I knew: he’s the guy. I made Swimmers totally alone, played all the instruments, but when he reached out, I knew that this was what needed to happen to it. I needed to interface with him to take it to where it needed to go.”
On its own, Swimmers is a gripping work of psychological storytelling, an unveiling of Miles Francis’ vast talent for arrangement and songcraft beyond the confines of his longstanding band, EMEFE. It’s fitting that the record’s conception truly began at its final song, “Overthink,” an encapsulation of Swimmers’ themes of self-doubt and the desire to escape from its constricting paralysis. “I’d been writing songs for a potential solo album, but that was the 'level up.' I realized that there was potential there,” Miles explained. “I found my voice through that song, and the rest of it just flowed.” From there, he worked improvisationally, setting up a studio environment conducive to the freeform experimentation that birthed “Overthink” and ended up with eight completed tracks. Done and done.
Or so he believed until Charles returned to the picture. “I think the two of us work together well because we can dream together,” Miles said, eliciting a knowing chuckle from his creative partner. “We initially wanted to do three videos, but as we started working on the video proposals, the thought of it being one interconnected experience took over.” That meant making a few cuts, narrowing down the vision to five tracks to match their growing list of visual ideas, which in turn influenced the final version of the EP itself. “As we were making the videos, we decided the order of the songs as well. I had a different idea, but it shifted because I realized that the end video and the end song, 'Overthink,' was really the realization at the end.”
Swimmers is a surrealist adventure, stuffed with visuals that externalize those emotional conflicts, but it dives in with candy at the forefront. “The first thing that came through was the Starburst,” Charles explained. “He was playing 'You’re A Star' and threw them into the audience as a gimmick. I thought it was a cool idea, and that’s where we started. They eat the Starburst and things start to change.” In the video for the same song, Miles slips downstairs and into a dreamworld. Dancers in colored jumpsuits swarm him in rapid cuts to the ocean. Miles enters the water and the sea sweeps over him.
Visually, Charles initially described the videos as conveying a kind of psychedelic drug trip, but Miles pushed back on that explanation, tying the word “tripping” back to the feeling of being emotionally bent out of shape. Charles pounced to tie the conceptual knot: “You make shit up when you’re in love. Your brain goes crazy.”
“Complex,” the following song, is a slice of electronic pop cruising somewhere between R&B and funk. Miles cited D’Angelo’s Voodoo as one of his favorite albums, an influence that definitely shows in the intimate, homespun grooves of the track, and the gentle posturing infused into the lyrics. “What would you do if I left you down?” he asks, taunting, “I’m busy and I’m strong / And nothing’s going to stop me now” in the face of a disappointed lover.
The corresponding video was actually the least intentional of the bunch. “It came out of having shot things that didn’t necessarily fit with what we intended them for," Miles said. "Charles experimented with them in other songs, but when we played around with stringing them together it worked perfectly.” The seeming simplicity of the shots, featuring Miles swimming just beneath the surface in colorful fabrics as smoke piles up above him, works well with the tossed-off, soft flexing of the track. This is Miles in a moment of power and control. Emerging from the pool with the fabric barely clinging to him, that confidence is established just before it all starts to tear away.
And tear away it does on “Deserve Your Love,” the emotional centerpiece of the record. Though it starts with hushed strums, it grows into a soaring chorus, followed by a free-falling psychedelic descent of pounding drums and distorted strings that's explosively cathartic. The video is a favorite of both Miles and Charles, particularly a scene in which dancers pummel him as they circle menacingly.
“Choreographing a fight but also making it dancey was really inspiring,” Miles said. “It was great because it hurt a little bit, so I was feeling that energy. Just getting beat up over and over but getting to be part of the dancers, even though I’m not exactly popping and locking, was fun.” Charles put him through his paces though, apparently going a little bit overboard in the excitement of getting such great footage. “I think I made you run after that car for an hour and a half, and honestly it probably could’ve been done in twenty minutes,” he admitted to Miles with a laugh. “But you looked so good and I couldn’t stop.”
After a brief segue of Miles brushing seaweed out of his teeth, it's on to “Take It,” a high-energy dance track with a buzzing synth lead reminiscent of house maestros Justice. In a black box theater, Miles confronts a dancer, Lukasz Zieba, who contorts and twists in a powerful routine. Watching Lukasz express himself so freely had a tremendous effect on Miles, and helped him unravel some of the inner conflicts that had subliminally played into the album’s creation—particularly a deeper understanding of and reckoning with his own masculinity.
“The short really brought out something in the music that I hadn’t considered while writing the songs, and it was showing the decomposition and faults of a man. What it is to be a man, and how that role can become a default, going through relationships,” he explained. “When I reflect on my own experiences with love and relationships, there’s definitely something personal to it, but so much of it is dealing with the social programming of that experience.” It’s a theme that Miles wants to explore more deeply in other subject matter, but the film, and particularly “Take It,” is a clear stepping stone in contextualizing those thoughts.
The crowning visual of Swimmers, the climactic moment that seems to quite literally crash back into reality, is a shot of Miles in a white suit plummeting into the water. The cover art shares the same image, also shot by Charles, but it took hours of practice to perfect the jump. “I practiced that with a wetsuit on, just to get comfortable so that I wouldn’t flinch at the impact,” Miles said, with a hint of exhaustion in his voice. “It was hard,” Charles explained, “because I didn’t want you to bend. And every take, hearing you hit the water straight with that slapping sound, I was like, 'Sorry, Miles, but we need it again.'” The end result is stunning, this perfect sigh of relief at the end of a long road.
Clichéd as it may seem, Swimmers concludes with Miles walking off into the sunset, barefoot and drenched, somewhat directionless but clearly changed. And that’s much how Charles and Miles left the project, with ideas still overflowing. One of Charles’ dreams is to do a musical, in the vein of West Side Story. “They take you somewhere that’s surreal,” he said. “It’s supposed to relate to reality, but someone snaps their fingers and they just disappear. We don't have West Side Story in Europe.” Miles has some different ideas: “I don’t want to do a musical, but I do want to do a show where I’m singing the songs, there’s a set, there’s dancers... and it tells a story,” he managed before erupting in laughter.
“So maybe I need to rethink my definitions.”
Catch Miles Francis on tour:
5/31 - Brooklyn NY - C'mon Everybody (with Spirit Twin, Ora Cogan)
6/19 - Winooski VT - The Monkey House **
6/20 - Montreal, QC - Brasserie Beaubien **
6/21 - Toronto, ON - The Garrison **
6/22 - Hudson NY - Half Moon **
6/28 - Brooklyn NY - Elsewhere Rooftop **