There is a line on ‘Glory Days’, the poignant, rousing centrepiece of Karima Francis’s extraordinary new album, ‘The Remedy’, that tells you, in just a few words, where the Blackpool singer-songwriter is coming from. “They are weak but strong,” she sings, “who fail but carry on.”
A lot has happened in Karima’s life since she first ensnared listeners in 2009, with her debut album, ‘The Author’, and live shows so emotionally charged and laid-bare, you could hear a pin drop, and sense the extreme tension in the room. She is strong now, a lot stronger than she was. “Fail” is a bit harsh, however: Karima didn’t fail, she just came up against a set of circumstances that forced her to take stock, and some time out, until she was ready – to carry on.
Characteristically, she doesn’t shy away from discussing the eating disorder that took her away from music. But she is equally forthright in stressing that ‘The Remedy’ represents not just recovery, but renewal – because the album is a document about her return to what she knows, and loves, best: music, singing, lyrics that burrow beneath the skin and lodge in the heart, melodies that are equally impossible to dislodge.
Flood, who produced the album, was a key player in bringing
‘The Remedy’ to life. Karima first met him after a Water Rats show in 2010, but the celebrations following the gig – involving, she says, hazily, “something to do with a CCTV camera and an ambulance being called because someone we were with was that drunk” – meant neither had an exactly precise memory of the encounter. When the pair met up again last year, it was with clearer heads and a much greater sense of focus and purpose.
Karima came prepared, bearing the fruits of months of hard musical labour at home. “I went into my bedroom,” she says, looking back at that period, “and demo’d the whole record there. And I gave those demos to Flood and he was like, ‘Right, let’s make that – just bigger and better.’” Another remark by Flood struck an even louder chord with Karima that day. She had first sung him the songs up close and personal, “playing to his face, just me and the acoustic guitar,” and his response convinced her that she’d struck gold. “He just went, ‘Why has no one ever stood you in a room and just recorded the songs around you? Okay, that’s what we’re going to do.’”
You begin to understand what Flood meant as you listen to ‘The Remedy’, Karima’s first under her new deal with Vertigo. For, while songs such as ‘The Remedy’ and ‘Days Like These’ may soar and swell with lush string arrangements and euphoric, gospel-tinged harmonies, in every bar you can hear how completely the producer has stuck to that pledge. Karima confirms this. “We recorded it with just me, Simon” – her long-time guitarist, Simon Robbs – “and a drummer, and it just set the songs free. Recording the album felt like you imagine the old days must have been. It all happened so naturally.”
It is testament to the strength of Karima’s writing on the record that what comes across most powerfully – and undeniably – are those songs, which no textural ornamentation can obscure. Karima’s singing – a sound that still, as fans of The Author recognised and cherished, hits you with that unlikely one-two of vulnerability and ferocity – has never sounded both so raw and so confident. And her lyrics are unambiguous: rhapsodising about life, love and romantic and sexual longing on ‘Days Like These’, ‘Stay’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘Tonight’, confronting her fears on The Remedy. Karima began composing that last song the night before she entered treatment for her illness.
“I wrote it just as I was packing up my flat. I couldn’t sleep, so I sat up with my guitar, and it all poured out.” You can hear her trepidation in the plangent, descendant guitar motif that opens the song, as you can when she begins, simply, “Help me.” But you can also hear, as the track explodes into its chorus, the beginnings of fresh hope – almost as if, even at her lowest ebb, Karima sensed that a new, brighter day would dawn. And she was right. It did. “I knew that I had something that I hold on to,” she says now, capturing the album’s sense of rediscovered strength and perspective – and joy.
Karima and her band took the new material on the road before Christmas, and she is still reeling from the experience. “It was amazing, the amount of people that came – and we were playing a completely new set. We were silencing rooms, and I never thought I’d get that back.” She pauses, and begins to laugh. “I feel like such a stranger to myself.” By which she means? “With the first album, I’d be doing Jools Holland, which was my absolute dream, and he had Carole King on too, who’s one of my idols – but I just wasn’t there, if you know what I mean. I’d be on tour and not sleeping for days, and running on empty.”
She looks full – of life, of determination, of confidence – as she says this. “Well, I am. I didn’t have that last time. I knew things were going on, but it didn’t feel like this. And because of that, I have this real sense of achievement this time. This record feels like my masterpiece.” Another laugh. “So far!”
That last remark is very Karima – a bit of bombast, a touch of mischief, and typical of the northern lass who, no matter how dark some of her days have been, has always responded to adversity with a knowing sense of a humour and an enduring belief in salvation – through love and friendship; and above all, through music. “Music saved me,” Karima agrees. “And that must mean I’m meant to do it.” You can hear that belief when she says, matter-of-factly in parting: “Look, there was a reason I took a break – but I’m back now.” And you can hear it, also, on ‘The Remedy’ – in every note and every word. You’d better believe it too.