Frances England: Explore Your World

It all started when Frances England’s two sons made up a game one afternoon in San Francisco – Spot the Phone Drone. As they drove along, they began to count the number of people staring down at their phones instead of out into the world around them. Before too long, they lost count. There were just too many.

“To foster creativity, we need the quiet moments and moments of stillness. Those moments are now gone,” says the singer-songwriter. “We check our email or Facebook. There’s not that stillness where observation can happen.”

England began paying more attention to her own cell phone use. At the same time, she was recording ambient city sounds around San Francisco for a project.

The two activities inspired her fifth and favorite children’s album, Explorer of the World, which will be released April 1. It is a tribute to her hometown of San Francisco and a plea to pay attention to, and be inspired by, our surroundings. A companion activity book – full of photos England has taken around the city – gives families ideas for their own explorations.

England will play at the Glen Park Festival on April 24. For more information, visit She spoke with Bay Area Parent about her latest work.

What’s the message of the album?

The world can compete with technology – because it’s so fascinating and so full of wonder. … We just have to give it the time to recognize how incredible all these things are around us. Nothing holds my attention on my phone. Nothing is that interesting because everything is so interesting.

How did the sounds of San Francisco inspire you?

I was working on a show for XM radio and recording ambient sounds. I was wearing headphones and holding a handheld mike. One day, it was sprinkling and I could hear the music of the rain hitting the sidewalks. I went to Chinatown and all these different neighborhoods and would stand on a corner. I was really just listening to our city. … I started just trying to write melodies over these ambient sounds of San Francisco. They were critical for me in the songwriting process (though many of the sounds are no longer in the songs).

“Street Life,” my favorite track on the CD, has a lot of sounds recorded downtown – a bucket drummer on the Embarcadero, trains, the Ferry Terminal, the sounds of St. Mary’s in Chinatown.

I also wrote “Ballad for a Beatboxer” for Carlos Aguierre, a guy here in San Francisco who has worked with thousands of kids in the Bay Area beatboxing. We met through StageWrite, which works with kids on playwriting. It was awesome to collaborate with him. It’s a very unusual song – a folk song written for a beatboxer.

Why did you create the activity book?

I love taking pictures and have always wanted to make a book. All the activities are based on the songs. … I think the big theme of this album is remembering the slow and quiet art of looking around – and that is what the activity book is designed to do. All the exercises in it are for parents and kids to do together.

I always try to balance the whole family in my music. I have children first and foremost in my head ­ – ages 5 to 12 is the target – but I think of the parents driving them around, too. I’m hoping (the album’s message) sparks something in them, too. A lot of it is targeting them.

Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.

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