“There’s a lot of healing and a lot of forgiveness in these songs,” says Pete Francis. “It can be scary to face your fears and ask the tough questions, but sometimes you have to step into the darkness in order to find your light.”
That juxtaposition of darkness and light lies at the heart of, PTRN SKY!, Francis’ captivating new album and first full-length release since his 2019 departure from Dispatch. Recorded at home in Connecticut, the collection finds the acclaimed songwriter and multi-instrumentalist reckoning with the depression and anxiety that have dogged him for most of his adult life, transforming doubt and pain into growth and transcendence with remarkable grace and empathy. The writing is intensely raw and vulnerable here, even as the lyrics explore a world of improvised abstraction, and the arrangements are cathartic to match, wrapping deeply personal reflections inside layers of lush, dreamy synthesizers. The result is an unflinching glimpse into the subconscious of an artist learning to make peace with the struggle that threatened to rob him of everything he held dear, an aching yet ultimately triumphant testament to the power of love and art to make us feel whole again, even at our most broken.
“Sharing is in and of itself an act of healing,” explains Francis. “There’s still a lot of stigma and shame when it comes to talking openly about mental illness, but I think when we share our emotions and our experiences in real and constructive ways, we invite others to do the same, to feel less fearful and isolated, and there’s something really liberating about that.”
A New England native, Francis first came to fame in the late 1990s as a founding member of alternative roots powerhouse Dispatch, whose remarkable rise from Middlebury College to Madison Square Garden helped rewrite the rulebooks for modern indie bands. Though few knew it at the time, Francis was fighting an increasingly difficult battle with depression throughout his years of relentless touring and recording, and after taking multiple leaves of absence, he eventually made the decision to step away from the band entirely in order to focus more fully on his health and wellbeing.
“We all worked together so long and had so many wonderful experiences in the studio and on the road,” says Francis, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 31. “It was hard to leave, but sharing what I was going through publicly came with a sense of relief. I was met with so much compassion and love and support from everyone that it helped give me the strength to do what I needed to do.”
In addition to therapy and medication, Francis turned to songwriting as a means of self-care, working both on his own and back at Middlebury, where he began mentoring younger artists just beginning their journeys. While he’d released a series of widely lauded solo albums over the course of his tenure with Dispatch, the new material Francis found himself writing in the wake of his departure from the band was different than anything he’d ever created, leaning more heavily on synthesizers and drum loops and embracing the endless possibilities that came with the marriage of organic and electronic elements.
“I found myself going back to the sounds I loved as a little kid and tapping into the excitement I’d felt listening to Pink Floyd and David Bowie records for the first time,” Francis recalls. “I let curiosity be my guide, and that helped me reconnect with the joy of discovery all over again.”
The writing process was a loose and intuitive one for Francis, who would often begin singing without knowing what he was about to say. Rather than penning lyrics first, he allowed himself to simply be present in the moment, channeling whatever emotions the music evoked and inviting the sonic landscapes to guide his stream of consciousness.
“I recorded everything right from the start because there’s just something about those first takes that’s so fresh and pure and interesting to me,” he explains. “You haven’t turned your internal editor on yet, so there’s an honesty and an innocence that you can’t ever really recreate.”
That honesty and innocence informs every track on PTRN SKY!, which opens with the piercing “Can’t Get On With It.” Hinting at everything from Beck to Butthole Surfers, the track balances hope and despair in equal measure, grappling with the guilt and frustration that comes with feeling stuck. Like much of the record, the song is sung to the face staring back in the mirror, asking more questions than it answers in a search for clarity that seems to hang perpetually just out of reach. The airy “Scared Without Your Love,” for instance, wonders if it’s possible to make it through this life on our own, while the trippy “All Your Tears” contemplates if we can ever truly know someone else’s pain, and the hypnotic title track ponders whether abstraction can ultimately lead to revelation.
“I kept coming back to the abstract artist Cy Twombly when I was making this album,” Francis explains. “He made these beautifully emotive pieces that were dreamlike and whimsical but still generated a very strong and grounded emotional response, and that really felt like the essence of what I was trying to do with these songs.”
In the case of PTRN SKY!, the emotional response Francis found himself returning to time and again was love. The tender “Fall Into Your Heart” surrenders to its overwhelming power; the breezy “Eyes Of The Jungle” (a duet between Francis and his wife, Katie, who also contributed the album’s bold and psychedelic cover art) meditates on its primacy; and the stripped down “Mind Over Mind” soaks in its healing waters. Even the album’s title is steeped in it.
“PTRN SKY! symbolized my way out of difficult feelings and emotions through the lens of this beautiful, transparent pattern that appeared in my metaphorical sky,” Francis explains. “For me, it created the space to return to my heart, my truer self.”
It’s perhaps the poignant “Brighter Days,” though, that hits closest to home, with Francis finally finding love in the face staring back in the mirror. “I lead myself to brighter days,” he sings over ethereal synthesizers, his voice both gentle and resolute. “I won’t give up / No I won’t give up.”
“That’s ultimately what this whole album is all about,” Francis reflects. “You can’t fight the darkness. You can only share your light.”