It’s a breezy morning at the cafe at the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. At 9.30am, the easy-access heritage site is reasonably quiet, catering for roaming cyclists, some tourists (yes, tourists!), several campervanners and – walking amid the small crowd of locals and casual sightseers – two people that have recently released one of the best soul/blues/R&B albums of the year.
Just over a month ago, Free to Love, the debut by Frankham & Love, was delivered so softly that only friends and family heard it. As yet, radio producers, playlisters and some presenters – specifically those that can select the music they play on their programmes – haven't chanced upon the album, but it's only a matter of time. To be convinced, they just need to wrap their ears around music that seeps authentic soul and R&B, and songs that are driven, not just by a crack team of musicians – including saxophonist Richie Buckley, organist Justin Carroll and drummer Graham Hopkins – but also by a female vocalist that unites the subtleties of Amy Winehouse with the outpourings of Etta James.
The partnership of Mandi Frankham and Seán Love started, in part, at the Dublin-based music college, BIMM, in early 2019. One of the college's music tutors – Colm Quearney, a long-standing member of Ireland's music community, and another integral part of the exceptional studio band – was aware of Love's past life as an enthusiastic non-professional musician, and suggested he pick up his instruments again before his fingers stopped working.
“I had played with some bands in the 90s, but nothing memorable,” says Seán Love. He says he hadn’t played for years because work effectively took over his life – his day job is executive director of Fighting Words, the primary and post-primary schools creative-writing charity. “I had always liked writing and playing, and music has always been key to my life, but not part of my work. I said to Colm that I had never met the right vocalist to work with, and that if he could find an amazing singer to let me know. He called me about 20 minutes later, saying he had just the person for me.”
The following day, Love met Mandi Frankham for the first time, a Leitrim-based singer and songwriter that Quearney had been keeping tabs on during her BIMM-based BA in commercial modern music. "We met the next day in a cafe and just clicked, instantly," says Love. "We talked about the music we liked and would want to write." Individual and mutual influences came thick and fast: The Beatles, Ray Charles, John Mayall, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Bill Withers, Etta James, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. "A bit of everything, really. I had a piece of music I had been messing around with, just backing chords, and I sent a basic recording of it to Mandi. Within hours, she came back with an extraordinary melody."
As well as their respective tastes in music, what sealed the deal was that Frankham – whose remote-only job is with Music Generation – wasn’t prepared to be just the singer on someone else’s music project. She is at the point in her life, she says, where she has had enough of that. “I decided to do the music degree at BIMM and focus on the vocals element of it. In hindsight, what was lacking for me was the songwriting. Although the degree included a small part of that, it was something I didn’t know I’d like so much. I had been in original bands before but usually as the singer, and was told, pretty much, what to sing, albeit with my own flare added. I wanted to explore the songwriting areas more, however, so it was a no-brainer when Seán asked would I be interested. I just thought what could be the worst that could happen?”
From that early collaboration, the work continued non-stop, with three-quarters of the songs on the album written before Covid-19 arrived. Other music genres such as country and jazz were explored, but, says Love, “we found the most natural home where the body of work grew was in soul and blues. I’d usually have an idea about the backing, it might be on piano or guitar, and I’d send it to Mandi. Within a day there would be a brilliant melody. The music would come first, and then the lyrics would be more crafted.”
“I really looked forward to those emails, they were such a challenge,” adds Frankham. “Seán would have words, but I would change them if I felt they didn’t work with the vocals. A vowel might not work here, or I’d need some more consonants there – it was just the way the words resonated with my vocal sounds. Even if a theme of a song wasn’t designed by me, my task would be to take on that theme or story and make it my own. My music is instinctive and always has been, so that worked well between us. Also, I operate best when there’s no melody at all. When I’m sent chords and a basic outline it means I can put something of my own into it. Trying to bend other people’s creations is difficult because you’re always afraid to step on toes.”
While planning on what might come next is tantamount to tempting fate, there is, says Love, no shortage of material. “We have another album ready to record. We’re very productive in that sense – the music is flowing from both of us. We knew the sound we wanted – a real Muscle Shoals/Stax vibe – and the musicians just got it immediately. Lyrics are more work, but then they should be.”
With an album released with the mute button on and, in fairness, little or no expectations as to its reception, both Frankham and Love – like many others in a similar position – are taking the philosophical approach. “We don’t have a machine behind us, and that’s a challenge because we want to get the album out there and we want people to hear it,” says Love. They are quite happy, he adds, for people to take it for free on Spotify and other streaming services or buy it on Bandcamp for a very affordable €7. One point they are adamant on is the album must be released on vinyl. “That will happen at some point,” he asserts. And then there are the gigs. “We’re going to play live with the full band of up to ten people before the end of the year. The musicians are great, and the vocals are brilliant – the guys are real pros but when they heard the demos of Mandi singing, they were like ‘who is she?!’”
Love is either blithely confident about the gigs or he knows something he isn’t telling us. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’ve organised other things and a lot of good people will help. We don’t want to do a Mickey Mouse version; we want to do it right. It will be brilliant, and it will happen.”
Why singer Mandi Frankham is one of Ireland's best kept secrets
"I guess it's that I'm picky with what I do, and I suppose living in the beautiful, undulating countryside of Leitrim probably doesn't help. When I was younger, there were years and years of touring with different bands, and it never really happened. I cut my teeth in the family band in England. They were called Texarkana and were an everything-fits covers band that played parties, weddings, everything. I learned my stagecraft and stage skills with them. We didn't get that many gigs, but the ones we did were spectacular! I was very shy back then and probably not as adventurous with my voice. I think things happen when they happen, don't they, and I'm at the age now where I know what I want and what I don't want. I now understand that for me it's just doing something I'm very connected with. I can't be bothered with messing around doing stuff just for the sake of radio play, and I also know that what some people say isn't necessarily important. Seán Love came along at just the right time when I finished at BIMM because it was great to have something to continue with and to put my energy into. Then again, it's also about luck, isn't it?"