q&a with ken francis, academic lecturer and founder of passionfruit collective
Starting his career as a session guitarist, Ken Francis has jammed with a large array of top tier artists and worked as a music producer in advertising, television and film.
Ken is currently an Academic Lecturer at AIM and the founder of Passionfruit Collective, a recording studio based in Sydney that produces music for advertising and documentaries.
Ken’s impressive career spans across performance, music composition & production, business management, and music education. Ken currently works as partner & advisory Creative Director of The Passionfruit Collective, delivering music & sound for advertising and entertainment media producers across Australia and SE Asia.
We were able to catch up with Ken and chat about composition, live music and teaching.
AIM: Tell us a bit about your role at AIM in Music Composition and Production
KEN: My role directly is teaching. I am a tutor and lecturer in music production and composition. I teach three out of the six units in the music production and composition stream. I even helped design some of the units. I teach diploma students in composition and a basic course in music software that I helped build a while back. I’ve have been at AIM since 2012.
AIM: Tell us a bit about your career thus far
KEN: I started playing guitar as a kid and went professional in my early 20’s in Brisbane when I joined a pro band. I came to Sydney with that band in 1976 and learned a lot playing with them. Sydney at that time was incredible, there was a huge amount of live music as opposed to Brisbane.
From there I continued to play in live bands and develop my skills so by the time it got to the 1980’s, I was playing with really good bands like Air Supply who were really big in America. My best friend was Tommy Emmanuel who is now a renowned guitar player.
I was a live player who specialised in recording, which was great back then because you couldn’t do it in a laptop at home - you had to be in the studio all of the time. I was a rock player who could also play country music. That versatility got me into session work and that’s what I did for the whole of the 80’s. I played on movies - like the Crocodile Dundee soundtrack and hits for bands of the day - like the Hoodoo Gurus. It was a huge amount of music for 10 years playing everyday and it was incredibly special.
Because where I was working was the only place to record, I got to play with a lot of international artists. David Bowie recorded for three months at one of the studios I used to work at. It was there where I learned a lot in music production because I was working as a hired player for producers from all over Australia and the world. I played with the guys from INXS and on some albums with Tommy Emmanuel. I got to do an extraordinary amount of stuff and the quality of playing was really high.
I also got to work on a movie called Coolangatta Gold, the composer was a heavyweight Hollywood guy named Bill Conti, who had composed the music for Rocky. I even got to sit on in a session with Stevie Wonder and jam with him. It was an incredible exposure to the top end of music.
One of the producers I did a lot of work for was working in advertising music production so I started to produce for him. I could work on synthesizers plus I was a rock kid so I could put those two things together whereas most producers weren’t as literate in that type of music - usually coming from stiffer backgrounds like jazz and classical. I started to produce a bit and by the end of the 80’s I got a job with that producer who started Australia’s first music production company for advertising and television, called Song Zu. I was there until 1995, then did a bunch of things for the ABC that launched me into forming my company.
I started producing under my own company, it was called Fresh Music. Fresh Music ran until 2015 until I merged it with some other people I knew and it became the Passionfruit Collective.
AIM: What do you love most about being a teacher?
KEN: Perhaps the biggest is watching people grow. I remember being a young person, it is very intense and difficult, especially if you want to be good in a creative field.
I like being around people and it is fantastic being around younger people - although we do get a huge range here at AIM. As a human in music and as a professional, I find it fascinating figuring out what helps people learn the things they need.
As Sir Ken Robinson said, ‘there can be a lot of teaching going on in a room and very little learning’. To me, the role of the teacher is to make sure that when people leave, they have something useful. It is a very hard thing to do.
Teaching allows me to continually re engage with things I already know in different ways. Every now and then I even learn new things from the students and other teachers.
AIM: What musical instruments do you play?
KEN: I started on the guitar and I can now play all kinds of guitars. As a session musician you effectively learn how to fake other stringed instruments. As a producer you kind of grow out of just the playing - I mean playing is wonderful and I am in a hobby band - but I get to play other instruments by writing for them. I have gained the knowledge of what other instruments have to do because as a producer and composer you have to understand what it is like being a person playing whatever instrument.
AIM: Tell us a bit about Passionfruit Collective and the work you do there
KEN: We produce music for clients in mostly advertising but we also do work for documentaries. At the moment I am working on a documentary about a 70’s rock band called The Angels. I have a lot of friends who work in advertising production and television shows so that is where most of my work comes from.
AIM: What have been some of the biggest opportunities in your professional career?
KEN: I can point to highlight moments or awesome sessions that I’ve had but to be honest no one of them were lift off moments. I see a lot of anxiety among young people about where they will go after they finish their degree but I feel that they should just take the next opportunity that comes up and roll with it. As John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans’.
I could say that picking up a guitar as a 15 year old was the biggest moment in my career. Discovering music was ‘the thing’.
AIM: What skills do aspiring industry professionals need to develop?
KEN: The ability to get along with other people no matter what they present as. It’s everything. It is why we run ensembles here at AIM, where we can have contemporary students in with music production and arts management.
Look at any aspect of any business, other people are always a factor. It is a bit of a blind spot with the young generation because we have such fantastic tools - particularly music software - you can do more as an individual person but if you run your own business or working in high level professional environment - collaboration is key.
Ensembles are probably one of the most important things AIM does - getting used to collaborating with a safety net where nobody loses a job or someone lets you down. Out in the world I work in, people can lose their job or large clients and that affects their entire career and livelihood.
If you want to work in the production world, versatility in music making is key. If you are a performer, I think those fundamental skills are the most important.
AIM: Are there any trends in the industry you are really excited for?
KEN: I love songs as much as I do music for a purpose. It is wonderful to see that in this day in age with so much availability of music and the amazing changes it has had and continues to have, people still love great songs. You can be Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas and write an amazing song and it still cuts through. Humans have this uncanny way of voting for music that is very curious. Formulas to make great music just don’t work.
One of the downsides of technology has been the scattering of earnings and the diminishing of returns for music which I think is unfair. But on the other hand, live music and festivals are just amazing and the level of performance I see growing from younger performers and places for them to play is great. It’s safe to say Sydney’s live music scene is suffering but in America and Europe, they do small venues really well. The ability for people to come together and create great live performance has really improved in this country since I was younger.
AIM: What is the best advice someone from the industry has given you?
KEN: Geez, so much. It was more examples rather than one person - I work in lots of different fields so there has been a lot of different advice for different realms.
But the thing that sticks out to me is ‘Try to be good at something’. It is something Ed Catmull said. He runs Pixar and Disney Animation, a very interesting human, especially for students. He has written a great book called Creativity Inc. and he talks about culture. One thing he talks about is when people ask him how to get into animation he says that really, people have come into the industry in a range of different ways but he says ‘be good at something’. If you’re in a Bachelor degree I think that is the sort of advice you can use. It is difficult to be great at music production right off the bat so you need lots of different things. Pick a niche and figure out how to get some part of it to be good. Focus on an area, observe and learn from other people.
It can seem a bit vague but just pick an area of music and get really immersed in it - you will get better at it.
AIM: What is your top tip for a young person starting out in the industry?
KEN: Go to what you’re attracted to now and work on that. Don’t stress about the future and compare yourself to other people. Trust your journey, focus on what you need to learn now, pay your bills, be kind to your friends and parents.
Deal with what is in front of you and try to summon up some patience to grow at your own pace. Reality has this fantastic way of going places you never dreamed of. Take the opportunities that present themselves.
AIM: Who are your favourite performances artists?
KEN: Wow, too many to list! It would have to be Childish Gambino, Björk and Jeff Buckley - which would probably be the single most moving concert I ever saw. Amy Shark is very good right now too.
AIM: If you could have dinner with any musician dead or alive who would it be?
KEN: It would be a woman called Nadia Boulanger - she died in 1979 but fascinates me because she was an incredible woman who was brought up as a classical musician in the 19th century and ended up being a tutor to Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky - classical composers of some renowned.
When I noticed I didn’t have many female role models in music production I did some research and came across Nadia. I realised that all my examples of stellar producers were males except one. Igor Stravinsky is an incredible musician and this woman helped coach him. She had a high level of performance and skill - she spent a lifetime studying and teaching music. She had incredible instinct and a modern focus. I love people like that - who don’t get locked in feeling that one period of music is right.
She lived through the turn of the century in Paris, which was like the New York of the world in the late 1800s. Artists, sculptors and musicians turned up in Paris because it was just this cultural hub. Nadia lived during that time and knew these incredible people and I would love to have dinner with her and ask her what it was like.