Photo of Frances at SXSW 2016, by Derrick Weber/Variance
English singer Sophie Frances Cooke, known simply as Frances, is one of the year's most buzzed about acts, and she's doing it just her voice.
Unlike some of the current "rising artists," many of whom were at SXSW in Austin, she doesn't have a van full of backing musicians or a massive entourage. It's just her and a piano.
"I like playing by myself," says Frances, speaking with Variance in Austin, noting she previously played with a full band before realizing she's most comfortable solo. "If I want to change something, I can do that. It’s a great feeling to play a show and perform your songs for people, but when it’s just you on stage with a piano, it’s a special kind of energy. It’s actually very empowering."
The 22-year-old has been preparing for and chasing a music career for much of the past decade, having taken piano and violin lessons at 12 before realizing in high school she definitely wanted to seriously pursue her passion.
"I’ve been scheming since an early age," she quips playfully with a laugh. "I just knew there were some things that weren’t for me and there were classes I didn’t want to take. Like ICT. I said to my teacher, ‘What do I need to do to get a C? Because I don’t have time for everything. I’ve got five songs I need to write.’"
While she caught listeners' attention in 2014, it was last year's breakout single "Grow" that really made clear she was onto something. And fans on the both sides of the pond seem to agree, although Frances says American fans are "more confident or expressive" when she meets them.
"Not that fans in the U.K. aren’t excited," she says. "But in the States, they come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing! This was incredible!’ And in the U.K., they’ll just go, ‘I really enjoyed it, thank you.' Very politely. It’s interesting."
Despite the wonderful feedback she's received from fans and critics alike over the past year, Frances points to a moment five years ago when she realized she definitely wanted to follow her dreams.
"When I was 17 and playing violin and trying to decide what I was doing, I took my violin teacher some of the classical music I composed," she recalls. "He was like, ‘It’s good. It’s cool.’ And I said, ‘Or I also write songs. I play piano and I sing.' So I played him a song and while I was singing, he started crying. And I was like, 'Wow, I actually moved somebody.' Afterward he said, ‘Yeah, you should do that, singing while you play the piano.' And now I am."