As the ukulele has become a popular performance instrument, it’s also contended with some backlash from those who see it as an inherently light-hearted novelty.
For local singer-songwriter Francesca Olsen, though, the ukulele was the catalyst to finding her musical voice and embarking on a journey that has made her the iconoclast of ukulele cliches. On two albums and through a new musical partnership, Olsen shows the ukulele to be a gateway to depth and complexity, dark humor and obscure subject matter.
“I’ve never played any other instrument ever,” Olsen said. “Well, I played cello in fourth grade for a minute and hated it and quit.”
Originally from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Olsen was part of an energetic DIY music scene, eventually as keyboard player in a no-wave band. She didn’t exactly “play” keyboards, though.
“I just jammed my hand down on keys on a Casio keyboard a lot,” Olsen said. “Not really music.”
Olsen found her first ukulele, a baritone uke, lying around her post-college apartment and took to it immediately. She soon found her distinctive singing voice worked perfectly with it. She formed a musical duo called My Rifle with a friend who played guitar, and they gigged around for a few years.
When Olsen moved to North Adams, she wasn’t really looking to revive her musical efforts until she blundered into a slot at a Common Folk Collective program that was seeking a female singer to open a show. Olsen raised her hand for the job and hasn’t stopped performing since.
Olsen’ first album under the name Francesca Shanks, “Wolf Island,” was recorded on her computer and featured just her and her ukulele. Her second, “I Am Walking Away,” produced by Lance Monotone, expanded her sound. It also added considerable emotion to Olsen’ already evocative poetry, with the songs written and recorded after the sudden death of her and her husband’s best friend, the Berkshires journalist Tom Casey. Casey, 26, was killed in a car crash in 2015.
“It made me think about my young life and doing everything that I wish to do in my young life,” Olsen said. “A lot of those songs come from the process of grieving.”
Since that album was released in November, Olsen said she has become even more prolific with her lyrical output.
“I think I’m in really good practice,” she said. “I think I finally have a really good discipline about it. I feel calm enough to listen to the world around me and be inspired by it easily. I’m not deep in some narcissistic struggle inside or anything right now. I feel like lots of nice stuff happens to me. It’s really easy for me to embrace a day, to get excited about being alive.”
Olsen’ professional background is as a writer, and her lyrics reflect it. Her past life as a newspaper reporter helps her with brevity, as well as with research. Any completed poem or song probably represents a deep dive into some subject.
“I really read a lot to try and stay inspired,” Olsen said. “I read about all kinds of crazy stuff in my odyssey to write. I got really interested in the constellation Orion, so I looked up and read all about Orion, and saw that Orion plays a major role in the poem ‘The Princess’ by Tennyson, so I started reading about Tennyson. That happens all the time.”
One recent song, “You’ll See Colors,” is the result of her desire to write a song about what happens when a person drowns. This resulted in a couple months of research, reading multiple firsthand accounts of people’s drowning experiences, which she sees partly as residue of her previous life as a reporter and partly just as second nature, an understanding that this is just how she creates.
Olsen describes herself as “the Alfred Hitchcock character in a lot of those songs,” hiding within them, allowing herself a cameo emotionally punctuated by evil revealing laughter, and then retreating behind the curtains.
“A lot of them are the story or perspective or a really long rumination on a thing, but they’re not necessarily based in personal experiences that point at people I know,” she said. “There are usually one or two lines in there that’s very genuinely my inner experience — and then the rest is just a narrative or a picture.”
Although playing a musical instrument is chronologically a recent happening in her life, she said the desire to create music has always been there, and Olsen always been a writer.
“I was such a weird child,” Olsen said. “I used write little doo-wop songs when I was 10. Writing and making up stories and the play of making up stories in something like a doll house and the play of doing that in writing merged a lot for me. It’s really fun to sit down even when I’m just like, OK, let’s work out some thoughts. It feels like I’m going into my dollhouse or going into the woods to play.”
If there was one part Olsen wanted to change in her musical pursuit, it was the act of playing alone. That’s been solved, and Olsen is now in a two-person band called House Sparrow.
She and bandmate Joe Aidonidis already knew each other from non-musical work — Aidonidis is a videographer — and Olsen thought he would be a good creative match.
Aidonidis had begun selling off musical equipment after the dissolution of a previous longtime musical partnership and was starting to think he was outgrowing a musician’s life.
“Then Francesca came along and said, I’d like your help with this show, it would be great if we could reproduce this album,” Aidonidis said. “I said yes, and then she showed me the unmastered tracks of the album, and as soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘Thank God I said yes.’”
On stage, Aidonidis’ role of expanding Olsen’ sound transforms him into a one-man band, with his right leg playing a kick drum, his left playing a homemade pedal with bells on it and a tambourine, his left hand handling a synthesizer he modified to devote to bass, and his right hand playing the lead keyboards.
His goal is for a sonic component that is as singular as Olsen’ own presence and not tied to one specific genre of music. It’s a blank slate they both can experiment with and grow from, anchored by her unique vocal style, which Aidonidis describes as having a “really smoky and authoritative type of tone.”
And Aidonidis says the sound of the songs reveals the Francesca Olsen he has gotten to know.
“I haven’t seen Francesca do anything without authenticity — being very genuine and being very straightforward with it — and that carries on into her music,” he said. “She wants to say something at a time when people are really obsessed with a good hook, and she is maybe less accessible to a very wide audience in that way. But I feel like for the people who actually hear what she has to say and are looking for a solid message and something that’s beautiful, she appeases those folks and does so with what seems to be completely innate talent.”
Next for House Sparrow is a tour that will take them through New York into Ohio, Illinois, near Detroit, and even to the edge of Iowa, where they will record a session for Daytrotter, the online site specializing in indie music acts.
Olsen is also busy writing new songs, at least eight of which she says are destined for the next album, which she and Aidonidis are starting to work on, though they already perform them in the live show. The duo are figuring out now how much they want the new album to mirror their live performances and how much they want it to be its own experience.
For Olsen, it’s just part of the journey, and that’s why she does this in the first place.
“People always ask, ‘Francesca, what’s you’re end goal with music? You know you’re not going to be famous,’” Olsen said. “And I’m like, no, I’m not going to be famous, but maybe someday I’ll have 10,000 Facebook likes and a dedicated cult following. Or not, and I’ll just enjoy what my heart needs to do and be really happy, and break even on doing that. I’m going to take it to its ultimate conclusion, whatever that is, and build on it in that way. I don’t need to have a five-year plan. It’s fun.”