By Ashley MackinSinger, songwriter, guitarist and 2010 The Bishop’s School grad Nina Francis is so proficient in pop music, she has a degree in it. Seriously.
Francis is one of the 25 students who will graduate with a popular music degree from the USC Thornton School of Music this year, and will celebrate the feat with a concert at the La Valencia Hotel La Sala lounge, 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 20 and 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 27.
The 22-year-old acoustic performer has been compared to Norah Jones and Joni Mitchell, and is influenced by everyone from The Beatles to Scottish singer KT Tunstall. But at the end of the day, she said, “I’m really influenced by tons of artists. Good music is good music.”
And she heard plenty of good music while in school, via the guest speakers and mentors available to her through the USC program.
Speakers included the funk band Earth, Wind and Fire and R&B singer Smokey Robinson. Francis, who lives in the Kensington neighborhood, reports working with composer Randy Newman, Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier and pianist Patrice Rushen. She is currently mentored by Glen Ballard, the songwriter who co- wrote Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
Lesser-known musicians Francis considers mentors are the teachers she had at The Bishop’s School, where she was active in the jazz band and choir. She said she still uses strategies she learned at Bishop’s, such as how to make vowel sounds, when she performs.
Whether its recording advice or lyrical feedback, Francis takes note of all the comments she receives from teachers. “Sometimes I’ll play something for my teachers and they will say something needs to change and I’ll realize they are right,” she said. “Other times, they are wrong when they say something needs to change, because I am happy with it.”
In the early stages of her songwriting, she said she would write melodies first and then lyrics, but now she’ll start with lyrics and build around them. “It starts with a line or two and I record it on my phone or write it down. Then I try different chords on my guitar to see what fits,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve taken years to write songs, because I’d write a chord and set it aside, and all of a sudden I’d get an idea and could finish it. Other times ideas strike like lightning and can be done in an hour.”
The three songs on her self-titled debut EP are the ones she said are her favorites, because they fit her mission of creating something the audience can empathize with. “It’s one thing if what I write makes me feel better, but if other people respond to it, too, that’s it.”
Francis played at La Valencia two summers ago, and when she told management she would be back in town, they asked her back. “I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends in San Diego and making my debut in La Jolla,” she said. “It should be great.”
While she did a mini-tour in London in July 2012, she said she now wants to focus on San Diego venues, building a local fan base, while maintaining the connections she established in Los Angeles.
Hear her music on iTunes and her website