Linda Di Franco always wanted to be a director, but while pursuing that dream she was offered a record contract as a singer. It was an unlikely turn of events, even for someone that had started as a radio and club DJ in the vibrant Italian city of Turin.
Once signed to a major label, Di Franco was offered the opportunity to pick any producer to work with, leading her to Detroit and a series of sessions with Don Was. The result was the album The Rise Of The Heart, now considered by many to be a Balearic classic. It included the singles “T.V. Scene” and “My Boss,” both of which continue to be championed by DJs in love with the hard-to-define sound of Ibiza.
Di Franco quit making music in the late 1980s, instead moving to Los Angeles to try and make it in the movie business. She has been there ever since, first working as an assistant sound editor before working her way up through the ranks. Her film audio credits include Star Trek: First Contact, Bruce Almighty, Spawn and Beavis and Butthead Do America. In recent years, she has also worked as a producer, writer and director.
In this excerpt from her Fireside Chat with Red Bull Radio’s Frosty, Di Franco talks in detail about her short but eventful music career, her love of David Bowie and becoming an accidental singing sensation.
What was an early music epiphany for you, something that totally opened you up?
My early music epiphany was so clear: David Bowie. To me, David Bowie was everything. When I was 16, I learned English because I needed to know, “What are the songs saying?”
I remember that I used to go to sleep singing an entire album in my head. I didn’t need to put it on. I was just playing it in my head in the same order. Three of my favorite albums are Young Americans, Diamond Dogs and David Live. To me, Bowie is always going to be the Bowie from Diamond Dogs to “Heroes”. He taught me so many things besides learning English.
I got so interested in [Bowie’s choreographer] Lindsay Kemp. When he came to Turin, I went to see all the shows that he was doing and I followed him around in Italy where he was playing, Rome and other places. I went and I actually became friends with him and his troupe. I was helping them out, just going around town showing them places, where to eat or something. It was great, and just the presence of knowing that I was close to somebody that actually knew [Bowie] – it was like secondhand oxygen to me. It was fantastic. As I said, he just taught me so many things.
Obviously with Bowie it was like oil expanding, so [that led me onto] Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. I was so happy at the chance to meet Brian Eno when he came to Italy. He had a speech at the university in Bologna and I was the translator. I spent time with him and it was fantastic. He was such a gentleman. He said that I have “psychedelic eyes,” because my eyes actually are a weird color, kind of yellow-ish. I always remember that.
Was there a song or album that first sparked Eno for you?
Music for Films is my favorite Brian Eno album. Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) are also favorites, then (No Pussyfooting) with Robert Fripp.
Can you sketch out a picture of Turin at the time when you were coming up?
When I was in my teenage years I spent so much time with my friends listening to music. I spent the entire afternoon after school [listening to] music. Then when I finished school I went to London, because I had to go in pilgrimage to 46 Stansfield Road, which is where David Bowie was born in Brixton.
I was there for a few months and I came back home heartbroken, because I had a boyfriend that broke up with me. I came back to Turin, which at that time was pretty jumping, I must say. We had a lot of young people doing things. It was amazing. That was at the beginning of the ’80s. It was really cool.
A friend of mine was a DJ and he said, “You can’t just be there moping. You know a lot about music, you have a great voice and I think you should be a radio DJ.” He brought me into the radio station. He showed me how to use the two turntables. I did a demo. He brought that demo to the head of the radio station, which was Radio Flash. I remember that he liked it and he wanted to meet me.
I walked into Francesco Carboncini’s office and my knees melted. I fell in love with this man immediately. Francesco Carboncini then became “My Boss.” I wrote “My Boss” for Francesco Carboncini. That is the inspiration for my song.
When you walked in that room, what did you see?
I walked into his office and he was sat behind his desk. He was this man with these amazing blue eyes and this black curly hair. I don’t know how to describe him. To me he looked like an angel. He was very soft-spoken and very smart. We just started talking about music and ideas.
He knew that I was going to London very often. He knew that I knew a lot about the young culture. At that time, not very many people were going to London. I was a little special in that way. He was very excited to have somebody that could do a program who knew about the English music scene.
I thought, “Let me make a little song so that I can shoot the video.” I had no intention of being a musician, I just wanted to direct.
I spent a couple of years being a radio DJ and playing all the music out loud, which was from Bowie to everything new wave – things like Siouxsie & The Banshees and Japan. The radio station was a very big one, and we also had a big club, which in fact was called the Big Club. I was DJing once a week at the club.
Because I was going to London all the time, I was recording stuff from television and then coming back to Turin carrying all these [video] images. Remember, this was the early ’80s – nobody was doing this kind of stuff at all.
The club used to be a cinema before; that’s why it was very big. They took out all the chairs but they still had the screen. We were projecting all this imagery which people had never seen before. Again, it was the early ’80s. It was very difficult to know another culture unless you were going there.
I actually organized a night for “Heroes”, in which I scrounged all the music videos from David Bowie and I made a display. The program was about an hour. So many people came. They were like, “That’s amazing. That’s so successful.” It was really, really great. I had so much fun with that.
At that time, because I was doing all this video stuff I wanted to be a music video director. I thought, “I really would enjoy doing that.” [But] I had no way to show it. I thought, “Let me make a little song so that I can shoot the video.”
I had friends that were musicians and one had a studio. I went to the friend that had a studio. One morning I just wrote a little song in order to make the music video for it.
What was that song?
It was called “Stage.” I shot the Super 8 video for it in sepia color. Again, that was the beginning of the ’80s – everything was shot on video. I did this thing with a Super 8 camera and then I transferred it on to VHS. With that I went to London, because I wanted to find a manager that would help me direct music videos. I had no intention to be a musician whatsoever. I didn’t really care. I just wanted to direct.
What was the motivation to direct?
I liked to put together imagery. I liked the idea of telling a story. I liked the idea of being in charge and just creating something for somebody to enjoy.
I went to London with this VHS and I met some people. I met one guy that ended up being quite successful, John Mabry. At that time I was living with him, sharing his flat in Camden. That was the time of the New Romantics, Rusty Egan, Camden Palace, the Wag Club and Heaven, Charing Cross. Because of him I met this guy that was a manager. I showed him my VHS and he said, “We are very busy right now.” He was like, “Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”
There was me, a little girl from Turin, singing in the studio in front of Aretha Franklin. I thought, “People are going to find out I’m a fraud.”
About a couple of weeks later the guy called me. He said, “I think we are going to manage you.” I was like, “Yay! That’s fantastic!” He said, “I’m sending you the contract. Go to an attorney, send the contract when you sign it and then just come to the office.” When I went to the office they were waiting for me. It was like, “Congratulations. Both Warner Bros. and Virgin liked your demo and they want to sign you.”
I said, “I want to be a director.” He’s like, “No, you can sing.” They gave me some development money, I wrote three or four more songs and then I ended up signing with WEA, which is Warner Bros. I said, “Do I get to do my video?” They said, “Of course.” I was like, “I’ll sign.”
A few days later they asked me, “Who would you like to be produced by?” I just said the first names that came to my mind – Nile Rodgers, Bill Laswell, Don Was. A couple of weeks later I was in Italy. The phone rang and it was Don Was. He said, “Hi, I’m Don, I’m going to be producing you.”
What was it about Don Was that you felt sonically connected to?
There was a single that he did called “Busted Up On Love,” by Fiona Franklyn. I loved the production. When I mentioned his name, Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers, I had no idea that they would actually try to contact these people. I thought they were trying to understand what my taste was.
I guess that they contacted all three of them, sent my demos, and Don was the one that responded to it. I was flabbergasted that Don Was called me at my house and told me that he was going to produce me. I was like, “All I wanted was to be a music video director.” Talk about missing the target.
They flew me over to Detroit and we recorded in the sound suite in Motown’s studios. In fact, I sang in front of Aretha Franklin. It was me, a little girl from Turin singing in the Motown studio, in front of Aretha Franklin. It was surreal to me. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I felt like I had no control. I thought, “People are going to find out that I’m a complete fraud.”
On your way to Detroit, did you have a vision for what you wanted to create?
I had no idea what the song was going to sound like. I was very happy to be in the hands of somebody I completely trusted. When we were in the studio we did a few recordings and we tried a few things. We couldn’t find a sound that we were happy with. Then eventually Don came out with this sound and I was very happy. Because I never thought of myself as a singer, I had no ego problem whatsoever. Although I wrote the songs, I wasn’t precious about it at all.
What was the first song that you recorded there?
I think the first that we did was “My Boss,” and then we did “T.V. Scene.” I think. I don’t remember. It was such a blur. I know that after that we recorded in New York.
Honestly, I’m really a crooner. I use my voice to connect with my feelings, but I don’t feel that I’m a singer.
What did you record in New York?
I think we did “The Look Of Love” in New York, in Philip Glass’s studio.
“My Boss” and “T.V. Scene” were all featured on your album Rise Of The Heart. What can you tell us about that?
Every single song on that album was for Francesco Carboncini, except “T.V. Scene,” which probably wasn’t. That was about the feeling of disconnection I had when was in London. I was feeling alone, spending all my time watching TV and not going out. I just felt so weird. There’s always been a fascination for me with image.
Maybe that’s what it was: my subconscious saying, “Instead of singing, you should just be doing this.” My subconscious was telling me that I was supposed to do image, not sound, which is ironic because now my reality for 20 years has been sound. Not in music, but in the movie business.
The video for, “T.V. Scene,” is really amazing. Was that a video you made?
Yes. I wanted to see everything all white. I am wrapped up in gowns, kind of like a mummy in a way, but not completely. I wanted to show the feeling of being tied up in my solitude, in my loneliness. I was suffocating with loneliness. I think in England they wouldn’t show that video, because it was too suggestive. At that time that was a little controversial. To me, I wanted to have something that visually was very interesting. It was important to be wrapped up and feeling suffocated.
I’m still kind of caught up on the fact that Rise Of The Heart was an album inspired by love. Were you together with Francesco as a couple at that time?
Yes. When I wrote Rise Of The Heart I was together with Francesco. The breakup happened after he became a success. Still, to this day I don’t understand. It’s just such a blur to me what happened. The album was done while I was in love.
In the studio, I felt like I should just shut up and follow what they said, because I didn’t feel I was at their level at all.
You were creating something fueled by this passion, but then you are saying somehow it also was the destroyer of that relationship in some way?
Yeah. I think that because I was away for so long, the relationship kind of faded, together with the fact that he rediscovered his ex-girlfriend. They broke up six years earlier. I don’t know. I’m glad that Francesco was in my life because he allowed me to have those feelings and be able to create what I did.
He taught me so many things. I am so grateful to him. I have no resentment whatsoever towards him. I wish we could be friends. He’s in Italy and I really don’t see him. We are on speaking terms, but we never talk because he’s so busy.
For part of the recording of the album, you were working in Detroit. Can you talk about some of the team that was playing with you and how you felt about working with them?
Everybody that played on Rise Of The Heart was one of Don’s session musicians, people like Harry Bowens, Luis Resto and Sweet Pea Atkinson. It was amazing to see them working together because Don didn’t really need to tell them much. He was like the father with the kids, just giving them a look they understood. That’s why I really didn’t feel like I needed to say anything, because I was such in great hands.
As someone who was a DJ, did you have conversations with Don and the musicians about how you wanted it to sound?
In the studio, I felt like I should just shut up and follow what they said, although I wrote the songs. I had no inspiration to say anything, because I didn’t feel I was at their level at all. I was very happy to have them drive. I want to direct, I want to command, I want to be on top of that, but I am not a control freak. There are moments that I have no intention of being the driver.
I’m very much the follower. I feel like I can recognize greatness and when I’m in presence of greatness I will let it be completely on its own. I’m not going to interfere at all. I respect it and I let it be. When I was in the studio that’s how I felt. I did my job, which is writing and performing the song the way I wanted. The rest, I let them do whatever they wanted to do.
Your album also featured a cover of “The Look Of Love,” which was famously recorded by Dusty Springfield. How did that come about?
Doing a cover of “The Look Of Love” wasn’t my choice. That was my manager’s choice. I couldn’t believe that my manager would suggest that I tackle something that was so iconic and thought that I could get away with it. I didn’t feel worthy, I really didn’t. I guess that’s why I always felt like I’m a fraud. Honestly, I’m really a crooner. I use my voice to connect with my feelings, but I don’t feel that I’m a singer.
What’s the story behind your other famous cover version, “Walk On The Wild Side,” which you did as part of an act called White Lies?
When, “T.V. Scene,” came out, there was a band in England called Animal Nightlife. Apparently they were fans, because they covered, “T.V. Scene.” Their biggest [hit] was, “Love Is Just The Great Pretender.” They were pretty big in England at the time. They covered my song and I became really good friends with the bass player, Flid [Steve Brown]. We are still in touch. When I go to London I usually stay at his apartment.
Flid was also friends with Danny White, who was in the band Matt Bianco. I don’t remember if Danny came to the scene because Flid introduced him to me. It was somebody’s idea to have him and Basia [Trzetrzelewska] produce it. I don’t even remember if I came up with [the idea of covering] “Walk On The Wild Side,” but that was a no-brainer, because I was a huge fan of Lou Reed.
All I can offer is vibe. I can’t offer proper singing.
Ronnie Ross, the original sax player from [the Lou Reed version of] “Walk On The Wild Side,” also played on our version. I was in the presence of the same sax player that played on the original. I couldn’t believe that. It was fantastic.
You made, “Walk On The Wild Side,” around the same time as Rise Of The Heart came out. What was the reaction to the album like in Turin?
Actually, “T.V. Scene” came out as a single before the album. It came out while I was in London. I remember Francesco calling and saying, “There are a lot of people playing it in the clubs.” It was the clubs that were starting to play the record. I had no idea how they got hold of it, because there was no promotion.
When it started climbing the charts in Italy, I felt like a total fraud. I was like, “They are going to find out that this is a mistake.” I really couldn’t enjoy the success because I felt it wasn’t me, it was somebody else. Truly, it was baffling to me. To this day I don’t understand. That’s probably why I’m not a singer right now.
“T.V. Scene” and “My Boss” are both now considered Balearic anthems. Were you familiar with this scene at all?
No, not at all.
When did you find out your music was connected with the Balearic scene?
The early 2000s or late ’90s. I was editing here in LA, where I’ve been since Francesco left me in ’86, and I received an email from a DJ in London. They wanted the multitrack [tapes] because they wanted to do a remix [of “T.V. Scene”]. I was like, “Why?” We started talking and they told me that there is this thing in Ibiza called “the Balearic sound,” and that Café Del Mar was playing my songs. I got to know then that there was all this going on, because [previously] I had no idea whatsoever.
Did you then start to understand the scope or the context in which the Rise Of The Heart album was popular within the Balearic scene?
I really don’t know. I never explored. I just know from what these DJs were telling me.
The Balearic sound is known for being eclectic, but being connected by a vibe.
All I can offer is vibe. I cannot offer proper singing. It’s more of a vibe that I’m able to communicate because I’m not a trained singer.