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Call it life feeding art. Call it truth in advertising. Call it a vintage Francesca moment. It happened as Francesca Battistelli was working on the follow-up to My Paper Heart, one of the most joyful and successful national debuts in recent memory, and it provides a telling glimpse into the mindset that makes her art so powerfully uplifting.
"Everything was completely different this time around," she says. "When I made the first record, that's all I was doing with my life—writing and recording, writing and recording. But this time I remember thinking, 'OK, if I can just get through these four things—being pregnant, writing and recording my album, moving to a new city and touring!' There were times when I was like, 'I don't know how I can do this,' but I kept thinking, 'I'll be okay.'"
Faith within struggle. Joy amid chaos. They're key to what makes Francesca's music so widely appreciated by critics, fans and peers alike, and to why she has been able to achieve a long-stated goal: "to bring something authentic to the scene that even non-Christians could listen to."
It's a dream she has long since fulfilled. Not only did My Paper Heart produce four major hits on the Christian charts—"I'm Letting Go," "Free To Be Me," "It's Your Life" and "Beautiful Beautiful"—but her music spread like wildfire on TV shows including ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance, TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8, MTV’s The Hills and the Style Network's Running in Heels, on promos for the movie smash Julie & Julia and on the AOL Music home page, among many others. The release was the biggest-seller for a debut Christian artist in nearly a decade and the longest-running #1 for a female artist in Billboard Christian Album Chart history. It earned Francesca a raft of Dove Award nominations—she picked up the "Female Vocalist of the Year" and "Short Form Video" awards in April 2010—as well as a Grammy nomination en route to selling nearly half a million copies and three-quarters-of-a-million downloads.
The "I'll be okay" faith that saw Francesca through the writing and recording of her long-awaited Fervent Records follow-up—Hundred More Years--was more than justified. Its debut single, "This Is The Stuff," a quintessentially infectious Francesca gem, debuted in the Top 20 on the Christian charts and in the Top 10 on iTunes Christian and Gospel songs.
"I was excited about it and so was the label team," says Francesca, "but I didn't know if it was too different for Christian radio. The fact that people have responded really well to it is wonderful. I really hope it will help lift people up. I need songs like that in my life, songs that make you feel better about life, not things that bring you down. It's sort of this CD's 'Free To Be Me'—I'm not perfect but at the end of the day God still loves me and everything's going to be okay."
"This Is The Stuff" is the perfect introduction to an album that takes the treasures of My Paper Heart one step further. Working with producer Ian Eskelin, Francesca has crafted a CD that is every bit as hooky and infectious as its predecessor but whose subject matter, as befitting a young woman whose life has changed so dramatically, addresses a wider spectrum of the human experience.
So much of my life has changed since the first album came out," she says, "and it's all for the better. I'm married. I have a little boy. That wasn't even on my radar!" Francesca married Matthew Goodwin, the percussionist for NewSong—he is now part of her road band—after meeting him on tour in the fall of 2008. Their son, Matthew Elijah, was born on September 22, 2010.
Perhaps nowhere did life and career come together more compellingly than at last year's Dove awards, held before she'd let the world know she was pregnant. Francesca was nominated in six categories, but says, "After being nominated for five the year before and not winning any, I had no expectations going in. The only thing I said to my husband was, 'If I happen to win female vocalist, let's go up and share the news. I'll tell everybody we're expecting.' I wanted to win just for that! Then to be able to perform and to have Bart Millard from Mercy Me, who I was touring with, hand me the award—it was really a special night."
All of that change has been woven into Hundred More Years.
"The first album had 'Someday Soon,' about meeting my future husband and falling in love someday," she says. "At the time, I hadn't even met Matt. This one has 'Hundred More Years,' kind of the album's answer to 'Someday Soon.' 'You've met him now. You're having a baby.' Those songs definitely mimic my life as it was on the first album and as it is now.
"There are some very personal songs on this record," she adds, "because what I tend to write naturally is songs from my life, what I'm struggling with and what I'm excited about. But this time I’m definitely focused more on thinking outside my own experience, looking at what other people are going through. I like that about this record."
Many of the songs, in fact, are focused on lifting up others. "Angel By Your Side" is about being the help someone needs, in whatever form it's most needed. "Emily" encourages a young woman to remember her own worth in the grand scheme of things. "You Never Are" urges belief against all odds and "Worth It" counsels working through the all-too-real challenges of love. "Motion of Mercy" makes clear the pass-it-on nature of God's love in so many forms, while "Constant" finds strength in the rock-solid nature of that love. "Good To Know" is a fresh new take on the importance of remembering that despite our mistakes God wants us to return to him, and "Don't Miss It" is an uptempo celebration of life's little moments.
The music draws on the variety of styles that have influenced Francesca, from jazz and rock to gospel and R&B, all held together by her soulful pop-tinged sensibilities and that rich, beautifully nuanced voice.
The approach to this album did not involve reinventing the wheel.
"We didn't overthink it," she says. "We thought, ‘Hey it worked the first time.’ We just wrote some good songs and picked the ones we thought were best and tried to make them sound timeless. I wanted to do the same thing on this record."
The result takes her another huge step forward as it fulfills a lifetime of preparation. Born in New York City and raised in Florida, Francesca grew up in a musical family and knew at an early age "I was going to spend my life performing." She was drawn to musical theater, took ballet and dreamed of becoming an actress.
As a teenager, she got involved in a local youth group and "started writing songs that kids in church would want to sing," At 15, she became a member of the Orlando-based all-girl mainstream pop group Bella. When the group disbanded, she picked up the guitar and focused on Christian music. After two independent releases, she began talking to a Nashville label when friends in Group 1 Crew played her demo to execs at their label, Fervent, which signed her.
She is still astounded at the success of My Paper Heart.
"That record went from zero to sixty," she says. "I still don't really believe in some ways. I was especially gratified that 'Free To Be Me' did so well because I wrote it before I moved to Nashville, before I was signed. It was one of those real, from-the-heart songs that I'd written by myself, and when people related to it, it was so rewarding as a writer and as an artist. It said, 'OK, maybe I do have something to offer.'"
Nowhere was her stated goal of reaching non-Christians more in evidence than with "It's Your Life."
“I was on tour with Mercy Me, signing autographs after the show,” she says. “A girl came up with nothing to sign. She just shook my hand and told me she'd heard 'It's Your Life' on the finale of Jon & Kate Plus 8. She said, 'I really liked the song and so I went and found your record. It helped me to come to know Christ.' She said, 'Thank you' and squeezed my hand and walked away. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. You hear that in this industry, but that was when I said, 'See! It's more than just a cool song on a TV show or in a commercial. My dream is that people who would never turn on a Christian radio station would maybe hear a song and like it and find the album and make a turn to God. That happened at least once and I love that."
It's indicative of the way the faith that sees her through her own struggles translates to art that inspires others. Like the full-circle nature of "Motion of Mercy," their reaction strengthens her own walk.
"The more you walk in relationship with the Lord, the more you learn to trust him. I'm learning not to focus so much on the issues I think are so big right now—our bus has broken down, or someone said something that frustrated me. I'm learning to slowly let things roll off my back, to say, 'Hey, God knew about this before it happened and He's got a way out or a plan better than mine.' I've learned to stop freaking out and just trust that God knows what he's doing. He's not going to leave me in a bad place because He never has before."
Fortunately for all of us, it's a journey she has chosen to share, step by step, with the world.