Audience members at a 2012 Green Bean open mic witnessed a sophomore singer-songwriter forget the lyrics to her own song and restart it five times.
A decade later, Lillian Frances ‘15 is now a professional producer, musician and artist. Frances is a Sacramento-based musician who recently gained national attention for her 2022 submission to NPR’s annual Tiny Desk Concert Contest. Her entry, “Gravestone Feel,” shows her scale a South Lake Tahoe mountain to perform her song while suspended in the air on a portaledge — a tent setup that hangs off mountainsides. The video was featured in NPR’s Weekend Edition in July.
Before finding success as a professional musician, Frances was just another Occidental student. But the week before her senior year at the college, Frances had an epiphany at a performance by electronic pop duo, Sylvan Esso.
“I was like, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. That looks like the most fun that a person can have, and that’s what I’m gonna do,’” Frances said.
Up until that point, Frances said she never fully embraced her passion for music out of fear. But she credits that concert with inspiring her to immediately drop her economics major and sign up for Music 101 and Electronic Music instead.
“I would think about how secretly, deep down, I wanted to be a musician, but I was too scared to say it out loud,” Frances said. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna keep thinking about this forever, and you can either do something about it or not do something about it.’ So I choose every day to actually do something about it.”
The next spring, Frances earned her Urban & Environmental Policy degree with a double minor in economics and Spanish. A week after graduating, Frances went straight to music production school at the Beat Lab Academy. At first, Frances said it was hard to commit to doing music full-time, but once she did, it became her life. With her “never give up” mindset, Frances submitted five Tiny Desk Competition videos before getting national recognition through NPR.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in my life not working towards the things that I know I want,” she said. “It’s a waste of time. And I don’t do that anymore. Music is something that I want to do forever and want to be really successful at.”
After playing the guitar and piano as a kid, Frances said learning about music production helped her develop a new musical style without the “constraints of genre.”
“I do most of my songwriting on the computer, and it’s always an experiment,” Frances said. “I get the best sounds when I make them on accident. So it’s a lot of just starting with any sound that sparks interest or inspires me, and then I’ll just try to [f–k] it up as much as possible.”
Frances’ sister Charlotte Krovoza ‘13 said she has been there for every step of Frances’ musical and artistic evolution. Krovoza said their relationship became closer when they went to Occidental together and began to bounce ideas for Frances’ music off each other.
“We just were able to bond on such a deeper level, not only because we had to be nice, because we were sharing the same Subaru Outback to get around Eagle Rock and Highland Park,” Charlotte said with a laugh. “[Now], I like to think I’m just encouraging. I kind of act as a sounding board with a lot of things that she’s always calling or texting me about.”
In the YouTube caption for “Gravestone Feel,” Frances thanked her sister for her “noodles of support.”
Mental health-focused filmmaker and advocate Amanda Lipp also supported the creation of the “Gravestone Feel” video, working as the cinematographer, co-editor and drone pilot. Lipp said she and Frances were strangers prior to the shoot, but quickly became friends once they began working together. Lipp said she found out about the project after a friend tagged her in a rock climbing community website forum, Mountain Project, where Frances was asking for videographers and collaborators.
“It was such a unique idea,” Lipp said. “My filmmaking skills, to capture her music and us doing it collectively through rock climbing. It was this really beautiful triangle of us all sharing and combining our passions.”
Lipp said the day of the shoot was incredible. They filmed all day, and climbing with the gear was its own hero’s journey.
“We woke up super early, I drove out to Sugarloaf and we literally rappelled in the night to get off a mountain. So we filmed all day, sunrise to sunset,” Lipp said. “That was my first time rappelling with all my film gear in the pitch black darkness as well.”
Lipp said the crew was racing against the sun and the freezing wind as they were careful not to drop their equipment on climbers below them.
The last shot of the music video uses a drone to get a wide angle that reveals Frances’ height and suspension off of a steep mountain. To get the perfect angle, Lipp had to ascend the mountain before filming, while Frances remained on the portaledge.
“Flying my drone off of that was actually the most nerve wracking and exciting part for me,” Lipp said. “Lillian’s freezing still on the portaledge, so it’s getting super windy, and she’s there for an hour because I’m ascending, getting back to the top and then [I] finally get up there. I have to set up my drone. It actually wasn’t working properly. The compass or something was not calibrating, and I was kind of stressing out, trying to yell down to Lillian like, ‘I almost got it, stay there.’”
Lipp said she was not surprised by the attention their video received.
“I just felt confident about it. I thought we had a really great film,” Lipp said.
Riding the wave of success from the NPR feature, Aug. 11 Frances released “Direct Sunlight,” — a song she said was an “ode to the outdoors and adventures.”
“I wrote it because I was figuring out how much sunlight all my plants needed because I was growing an indoor garden,” she said. “And in the process [I] was also discovering how much sunlight I needed and how much outdoor play time I needed.”
This fall, Frances is teaching an online music production course, releasing an EP with accompanying music videos and hoping to schedule more performances for next year’s festival circuit.
“There’s very few people I think you can say, ‘Wow, that is their passion. They’re true to the bone with their passion.’ And that’s Lillian,” Krovoza said. “You just never know where she’s gonna go, but you know it’s gonna be good.”