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For deFrance, Classic Rock Is A Living Thing

deFrance plays Jazz UpFront Tuesday night
deFrance plays Jazz UpFront Tuesday night.

Drew deFrance loved the comparison of his namesake band with the sound of classic rockers like Bad Company and Mott the Hoople.

“Wow, thanks so much, appreciate that,” said a clearly appreciative deFrance, who soaked up those classic rock, blues, and soul sounds from decades prior from his parents record collection.

“Mainly those were British and American bands, and it was crazy how much music came out in that time from the genre of rock and roll, which gets confused with all these other genres. I’m a firm believer that rock and roll is a sound and genre to itself,” he declared.

DeFrance took that sound to the stage as early as 14, playing local bars and venues and eventually stretching out to gigs across the country. It has stayed with him, even adopting Tom Petty’s often stated songwriting mantra: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” said deFrance.

DeFrance the band considers itself the hardest working band in Arkansas. They’ve toured heavily and have paid for that hard work with some band turnover and occasional strained relationships at home. DeFrance was also stuck in a record deal for four years with little to show for it. Despite the occasional glamor, the life of a touring musician is not for the faint of heart, and these independent artists often need help on the business side.

“It is not the musician's role to be an educated business person, it is the musician's role to be a creative person, and all these other business people are making money off that creativity and songwriting,” said deFrance, who said the relationship between musicians and especially record labels has changed over the decades.

“You know, Capitol Records and Atlantic Records used to go, ‘I’m going to take this artist like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin who haven’t had much success with these other labels but they’re amazing talents and I know they’re going to give me an amazing record that’s going to stand the test of time. It’s going to be so creative and mind-blowing that we’re going to take a chance on it and I don’t care if we make our money back,’” said deFrance.

For the most part, that isn’t the model anymore. Record labels and talent agencies will generally pick up an artist only after they’ve shown they can attract a fan base on their own, figuring if a local or regional band can regularly attract hundreds or thousands of fans without outside help, the big money should be able to blow those numbers up.

DeFrance agrees, saying it's imperative artists today view themselves as a small business or startup.

“And approach if from, 'How can I make my business and reach and my brand be more recognized without the highest overhead that it can that it makes everyone say ‘man this isn’t fun anymore.’ And that’s why we started this. Because it’s fun,” said deFrance.

Some of that fun has come opening for major rock artists, including ZZ Top, Foghat, and a recent bill with Bon Jovi in deFrance’s home base of Little Rock. He appreciated how Bon Jovi nodded at local music scenes as they crisscrossed the country.

“I really applaud those guys for having us open for them on their arena tour,” said deFrance of Bon Jovi’s policy of asking the biggest rock band in each town to open for them.

“That was really cool how they did that on different cities around the world. It used to be that when a band came to town and they already had a huge following, they would pick up the band that was doing well in town and have them open. It used to be way more common.”

Not that there were no political songs back in the day, but deFrance’s 70s rock sound is accompanied by lyrics that also echo the 70s classic rock “boy vs. girl” stories. Which is unlike many artists today diving into overtly political and social commentary in what many consider a divisive time in U.S. history. He says it’s not conscience, as he gravitates to songwriting in the vein of Townes Van Zandt’s “cloud songs.”

“I just reach up there. I hear the lyric; I hear the melody and throw it on paper. I’m lucky to be able to tap into some kind of consciousness. I sometimes don’t give myself enough credit as a human being for being creative and writing this stuff out because sometimes I feel like I’m tapping into another universe or dimension or aura that’s around me. It’s like there is melody and music floating around me and I would just tap in, pull it down and write it on paper. And it’s so fast it doesn’t seem like it’s happening in my mind,” said deFrance.

DeFrance plays Jazz UpFront in Bloomington Tuesday night.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.