Jack Black as an inspiration to a young songwriter? An unusual mentor for sure. Then again, Francesco Yates isn’t your typical Canadian crafter of songs. He wrote his first one when he was only 11 years old, after watching the heartwarming 2003 Jack Black comedy School of Rock; he signed to Atlantic Records at 16; and his recently released debut self-titled EP features “Change the Channel,” a co-write with 10-time Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, of “Happy” and The Voice fame. Did we mention Yates recently turned 20?
When we catch up with the fledgling singer-songwriter, he’s resting at The Oswego Hotel in Victoria, B.C., a couple of days after tearing up the red carpet, playing a 2015 American Music Awards pre-show concert with Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes and Gabi, and later acting as one of the presenters at the gala. Asked how he’s doing, Yates simply says, “I’m maintaining.”
To understand how Yates maintains this laid-back persona, let’s first flash back nine years to that pre-pubescent epiphany when he penned his first composition.
“Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”
“School of Rock is what ignited the whole movement I took towards music,” he recalls. “Jack Black inspired me a lot, and so did many of my music teachers in school, who’ve taught me more than just music. I’ve had the great privilege of working with a lot of great people, many of whom symbolized what Jack Black was trying to teach the kids in that movie.”
And working with Pharrell? “He is the Sensei… The Minister of The Funk,” Yates says. “He was instrumental in shifting the way I thought, and shifting the way I see music. You learn a lot from him. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could during those sessions.”
What specific lessons did Pharrell teach Yates? “He taught me to not be as afraid,” he says. “He’s very good at taking things that don’t seem like they work with pop music and putting them into pop music. With him and me, it was the electric guitar. He encouraged me to be that guy on the guitar, which I always was in my basement, but wasn’t otherwise. He taught me to put that in the forefront. I didn’t know where to position it… It was nice of him to impart his wisdom.”
Yates signed to Atlantic Records as a writer at 16, but only just released his first EP this past fall – a six-song collection, marked by “Better to be Loved,” for which he created a stunning performance at the 2015 SOCAN Awards (see the video below); the catchy single “Call Me”; and the Pharrell-produced “Change the Channel.” What took so long? Yates says he needed to find himself first before putting his songs out to the world.
“I’m figuring that out every day, as all of us are,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve found myself so much, but what I will say is that EP has a lot of diverse stuff on it. I just wanted to show all of the things that I can do. It was more a showcase, if you can call it that, rather than a complete, painted picture.
“An album is a consistent and painted picture, as well as the singles that are on it,” he adds. “The EP is supposed to be a demonstration… like a sketch, just touching on some of the things.”
When can we expect the completed canvas? In 2016, for sure, according to Yates. “As far as an art motif goes, I’ll have a blank canvas and will see the image more clearly,” he concludes. “Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”
Watch a red carpet video interview from the 2015 SOCAN Awards:
CBC included Yates on a list of their Top 25 Canadian Songwriters under the age of 25
Yates was featured on the huge Robin Schulz hit, “Sugar”
He won the Heatseeker award at the 2015 Canadian Radio Music Awards for his single “Better To Be Loved”
Discography: Francesco Yates (EP, 2015)
SOCAN member since 2013