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Francesca Lombardo on live performance, her debut album and deciding her own destiny

Francesca Lombardo may have a background in classical, but it’s as a techno and house DJ that she tours the world. Ahead of her debut album, DJ Mag meets her in San Francisco to talk musicality, deciding her own destiny, and the joys of performing live...

First thrown into the global spotlight in 2011 as Crosstown Rebels’ “first lady”, Francesca Lombardo has, over the last seven years, confirmed her standing in dance music through an ever-growing discography, high-profile sets and live shows at clubs and festivals the world over. Her punishing touring schedule in August and September saw her playing shows in Lebanon, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada and multiple dates in the US, including LA and Miami. A flick through her Instagram profile will take you around the world. 

DJ Mag catches up with Lombardo while she’s waiting for delayed luggage to arrive in San Francisco. She’s about to do a road trip to play at her fourth Burning Man on the Robot Heart bus, alongside Art Department, Seb Wildblood, DJ Tennis and Mr C.

Lombardo is thoroughly charming. Her down-to-earth manner and bubbly optimism temporarily diverts attention away from the fact that there isn’t much in music that she can’t do. Not only a DJ and producer, Lombardo is also a gifted singer with a background in opera and classical piano, as well as earning a further degree and diploma in Vocal Techniques and a Sound Engineering diploma respectively. On top of all this, she owns and runs two record labels.

She’s been hard at work in the studio, having just released her debut on Anja Schneider’s new label Sous Music and a single on Bar 25, plus a remix on Rebirth Music and further remixes on her young label, Echoe. But, most significantly, she released the first single from her long-awaited debut album, ‘Life Of Leaf’, on her other label, Echolette.

The single ‘Eye Ring’ has been met withcritical acclaim, much of which is attributed to Lombardo’s enchanting voice. Each word on the track is delivered carefully over delicate, dreamy string and piano arrangements, and guided by a sparse, beckoning groove. The single thoroughly flaunts her vocal abilities and sets the tone for a very personal LP, which sees her meld that early classical training, and singing in bands, with electronic music. It distils all of Lombardo’s skills into a coherent statement.

You could argue that the blueprint for the album’s sensibilities has come from her elaborate live shows, which incorporate Lombardo playing live and singing, as well as a string section. ‘Life Of Leaf’ is a distinct departure from her style as a DJ and existing repertoire of singles, which leans heavily on tech-house and techno. However, Lombardo has always had a deep penchant for electronic artists including Aphex Twin, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Plastikman and labels such as Ghostly International. 

“It may be new in the eyes of people who know me as a DJ, but it’s not a new thing,” she says. “DJing is very fun and fulfilling — it’s very spiritual and connects people, but playing music live is more three-dimensional. 

“Performing live is another level, the work behind it is huge. It’s your music, you are rehearsing your music, you are playing music that you have been writing for a long time... you use more of your skills. You have to use not only your choice and your mixing, but you have to play and you have to sing. You use your hands, you use your heart, you use your voice. It involves everything." 

Growing up in Castiglione delle Stiviere, close to Lake Garda in north-west Italy, into a family of chefs and restaurateurs, Francesca paints a vivid picture of her childhood. She would harmonise with her father, who loved to sing, and could effortlessly accompany any of the many instruments in the house. Her interest in and aptitude for music was noticed and nurtured: at the age of six, her parents bought her a piano and enrolled her in a 10-year course in classical piano and opera at the Conservatorium Of Music. But, six years in, Francesca left Italy and moved to London to chase her dreams of being a singer. left Italy and moved to London to chase her dreams of being a singer.

LONDON CALLING 

“For some reason, I was convinced that I needed to go to London to pursue a career in music, even as a child,” she says. “I always had a special connection with London and it’s still my favourite city. Looking back, it was my mission. I think this is really beautiful. Some people are lost in life, but me, no. I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Francesca arrived in the capital in 1999, and in the years that followed, completed courses in Sound Engineering and a three-year degree in Vocal Techniques in Popular Music Performance, which helped develop her voice and confidence.

“It was at Thames Valley University,” she says. “We had amazing teachers, and musicians coming to do workshops. Every month we had a master-class — Kate Bush was a really memorable one. It was an amazing experience and I wish I could go back, to be honest. It really helped to improve my confidence, because even though I had been singing for many years I was still quite shy.”
In London her efforts were poured into singing and playing in bands, and she was involved in an all- female electro/rock/drum & bass band called Purity, playing keyboards and mixing tracks. At the same time, she was also singing and playing keyboards in another band called Def By Disco.

Swept up in the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, Francesca was introduced to DJing through friends, and it wasn’t long before her career started to take off. “When I first started DJing, I was part of a duo with another girl called Lara, called The Misfits, but one day we got booked at the same party in different rooms, so we needed to split the name in two, and I went with Jackie Misfit,” she explains.
As she made the rounds in the London underground scene, she became a resident at techno night Chemical Warfare, which was held at a previous iteration of the Great Suffolk Street Warehouse, and held a residency at Ultraplay parties held at Cafe 1001. “I used to play techno at a lot of raves and squat parties in and around London, and later in Spain and Madrid. But slowly, my sound started to change and get more musical, sophisticated and minimal.”

She had also spent time developing her production skills, and a year later she co-founded Lokomotiv Recordings alongside another Italian DJ/producer, Achille Soardi, also known as INTO YOU. The label released her first track, ‘Mama Cocha’, and in early 2010, Francesca started her own imprint, Echolette, through which she released her own work and signed other artists.

“I used to play techno at a lot of raves and squat parties in and around London, and later in Spain and Madrid. But slowly, my sound started to change and get more musical, sophisticated and minimal”

CROSSTOWN REBELS

One of the most pivotal moments in Francesca’s career happened entirely by chance. In 2011, she headed to the Miami Winter Music Conference (WMC) to network, promote her label and meet up with Luciano, who was a major influence at the time.

“I first met Luciano in Ibiza, and he was my main inspiration back in 2010. I gave him three CDs: one with my music, one with a set I’d recorded, and another with music from my label. He listened to them and got back to me saying that he liked my music, so we stayed in touch and agreed to meet at WMC.” At this meeting, she happened to be seated next to Damian Lazarus.
“I met Damian by fate,” she says. “We connected immediately. Damian is a funny guy, and he really enjoyed my sense of humour — basically me being silly. So we laughed a lot, made a lot of jokes, and there was a very quick connection. He gave me his email address. I had bought the very first Crosstown Rebels record, so I knew what sound they were pushing, but I didn’t know what to send him because I had been making lots of different music and writing songs which weren’t really dance music.” Francesca wrestled with the decision for a month and then decided to send him everything. “I thought, what have I got to lose?

“He got back to me immediately and said he loved my sound, and could I make some more music — ‘I want to hear more stuff’. So we kept in touch, and over the next nine months, I worked hard on making six tracks, which I sent to him. He chose four tracks that became my first EP on the label, ‘Changes’. When I joined Crosstown started using my real name.”
Their working relationship and friendship developed. “Damian and I hung out, we partied and we got to know each other. So now we were friends, and after I released on the label, he asked me to join the family, his Rebel Agency. It was an honour and I really had the best time.”

Two-thousand-eleven was a massive year for Crosstown Rebels and Lazarus’s agency, and during the years that followed, Francesca became a regular addition to Crosstown line-ups. When the label celebrated 10 years of operation in 2013, she performed at over 10 dates on the Crosstown Rebels Rebel Rave world tour.

“During the first two years, we were doing all these Rebel Raves and also celebrating 10 years of Crosstown, so I was touring and playing with Jamie Jones and Art Department. At times we would be going to play and there would be 20 of us. It was insane. We had so much fun.” But all honeymoons come to an end, and once again Lombardo felt the urge to pursue her own path. “Of course things change and this is how life is for an artist, you feel yourself wanting to go in your own direction,” she says. “I had a great time and I know Damian and I will work together again. I can feel it.
“I’m lucky that I found people on this journey who believed in my music and me as an artist, and helped me to be where I am right now,” she continues, “but I’ve always wanted to be the one to decide what’s going to happen with my future.”

LIFE OF LEAF

Her journey has now culminated in a debut LP which will be released through Echolette. “It’s coming out on my label. It’s what I want to do and how I want to do it. The thing is, I’ve studied music since I was a child, so I have a very clear vision in my mind of what I want. It’s very important for me to follow that path and do it the way I want to do it, because that’s really what keeps me alive as an artist. Being in charge and not being told what to do — it’s really about maintaining my integrity.”

While composing ‘Life Of Leaf’, Lombardo collaborated with seasoned double-bass player Andy Waterworth, whose credits include work with London Elektricity, Tindersticks, Damian Lazarus and Christine & The Queens. “Andrew helped me write some of the string arrangements and he wrote some on his own, and I’m really happy with how it’s turned out,” she says.

In the months ahead, Lombardo will be touring the album. The performances will build on her previous live shows. “The live show is constantly evolving,” she says. “It was very important for me to have the audience visually involved in the music. I am working with an artist called William Worrell, who has also done all my pictures and artwork for the album. We work on the projections together, and right now we are creating some special moments in the show with lighting and imagery — he will start touring with the band so he can do it live, because I think it’s really important for the visuals to be live too.”

In the past Lombardo has performed with string players, but logistics made it difficult. “It was really hard to find new players in each city and rehearse for a couple of hours with people who were unfamiliar with my music. It was getting in the way of the vision and the vibe, so I have decided to put that on the side for now.”

The current band is completed by a sound engineer and Berlin-based producer/ instrumentalist Giovanni Allegro, who also goes under the name Gioal and releases on Lombardo’s label.
Throughout her career, in both her productions and live performances, Francesca has cultivated the qualities and capabilities that make her distinct, voyaging into the richness of her classical background and merging sophisticated instrumentation with her affection for electronic music. We can’t wait to hear what comes next.

WORDS: Heather King 

Want more? Read our recent interviews with Sinistarr and Kate NV 

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