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At least for the time being, Fran Healy has escaped. The front man for Scottish rock combo Travis has managed to zigzag through the maze of lights, radio hits, notoriety and ancillary contributors—managers, guitar techs, merch guys and the like—to find a bit of peace. This doesn’t mean he has turned his back on the music business. Rather, he’s simply found a way to cut out all the fat.
Healy, a songwriter’s songwriter who has been publicly praised by everyone from Chris Martin to Sir Paul McCartney, has ditched the band—for those wondering, Travis are still going strong—in favor of going it alone . . . really alone.
His most recent performances in support of his excellent solo debut, Wreckorder, released earlier this year, feature nothing more than him and his guitar. He’s completely sans entourage: Healy serves as his own manager, merch hawker and tech. A vaunted, tenured, successful musician cruising from gig to gig in his car! Healy, who lives with his wife and son in Berlin), is making multihour drives across rural landscapes with just his thoughts and his instrument to keep him company. The image of the lone gunslinger on his horse atop the mesa is not too far off.
“I love it. . . . I really love it,” he says. “When you’re on tour with a band the size of Travis, there are, like, 15 people with you at all times, and it can get really noisy and hectic. When I’m alone, I can control the situation, and I like that.”
He also finds the solo approach to be far more productive from a creative standpoint. Driving alone gives him time to get lost in his brain, conjuring lyrics and melodies that he often puts to guitar and records in the next venue’s dressing room. Never using more than four tracks on his eight-track recorder (he feels his songs don’t need more than that), he has amassed a bank of recorded ideas for additional projects. The inspiration from being alone in his own head has helped to make this time one of the most prolific songwriting periods of his career—he’s constantly writing new material.
“I think that being in a band for so long made me feel sort of institutionalized, to use a Shawshank Redemption reference,” he says, adding he didn’t know he was allowed to go out on his own and do something like this—or that he was capable of it. “I feel like now, the possibilities are really endless.”
That includes mixing up the way he delivers songs. While the one-man, one-guitar approach is working for him at the moment, he plans to strike out on the road with a full band in early 2011. The most alluring part of Healy’s songwriting is how his tunes translate seamlessly from stripped-down emotion conduits to full-arrangement rockers. The way he sees it, he says, they’re all written on acoustic guitar anyway, so they should present well in that setting.
“That’s the way they were originally put together, so I think that adds something for the listener,” says Healy, who remains the principal tunesmith in Travis. “There is an evolution when the band comes in that changes something in the songs. I’ll be playing a lot of Travis songs acoustic, too, which might be interesting to some people.”
At the heart of Healy’s songs, beyond his penchant for melody and well-crafted chord structures, is an honest, confessional Everyman lyrical approach. Marrying poetry with humor on “Buttercups,” the first single off Wreckorder, Healy relays a bittersweet tale about the host of women who have shaped his life. Even in his most far-reaching singles (Travis’ “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?”), Healy always shares a piece of himself.
“That’s my style. . . . I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell, and she is the queen of the confessional songwriters. I just picked up on that,” he says. “I think it adds an honesty to the songs if the lyrics have some personal feeling in them.”
This article appeared in print as "Going Solo: Travis front man Fran Healy takes some not-quite-alone time."