Drive along Cerrillos Road every other Wednesday and you’ll see the marquee lit up at the El Rey Court: “Tonight: John Francis and the Poor Clares.”
The bi-monthly residency has proven symbiotic for band leader/founder John Francis Mustain’s band as well as the historic motor lodge: Most events at El Rey’s bar space La Reina allow Santa Fe’s freaky denizens the chance to elbow down with the patrons who’ve arrived in town on a tourist junket. John Francis and the Poor Clares have been known to pack ‘em in with a combination of borderline beachy guitar riffs and pop sensibilities by way of a sorta-kinda Jackson Browne thing with some of that folk/Americana sound the Santa Feans love so much. Yes, we’re talking fingerpicking and pretty melodies. We’re talking acoustic instruments here, people.
The band has been around a minute, too, since well before the pandemic, but as the El Rey continues to become a stalwart musical oasis in Midtown (that Y La Bamba show over the summer was great), it might be time to assemble a timeline. In addition to the weekly residency at the El Rey and a slot at the upcoming Down to the Mine fest in Madrid, the Poor Clares have been in recording mode, both with an as-yet unheard set of songs recorded last year and with a newer self-produced record in progress at Santa Fe’s Kitchen Sink Studios. Why haven’t we heard these tunes just yet?
“You get so mired in the landscape of [mix, sound and orchestration] that it takes a lot of different experiences to get a more objective view of what it is,” Mustain tells SFR. “I felt that we all had a similar mutual sense of its mood. Like, when you put things into their proper place they can embody their identity with so much more clarity”.
Finding a worthwhile musical identity can be tough, and Mustain does it in the good old-fashioned ways, like recording to tape when possible and/or building a following in-person with live shows rather than on the internet. Much music these days seems to hinge on the apps and algorithms, but whereas the black holes of Instagram and Tik-Tok have proven both a crutch and buttress for making dreams come true one 60-second video at a time, Mustain arms himself with only a flip phone, a guitar, his singing voice and a handful of musical buddies. He says he’s found it difficult to participate in the online share culture of the pandemic. So how do we share and engage intellectually?
“I don’t think we have to,” Mustain says.
But let’s take it back to 2019, when the band first got the La Reina gig (the next three fall at 8 pm on Sept. 20, Oct. 4 and Oct. 18). Things started to propel forward quickly, according to Mustain.
“Musically, energetically—I think the whole band felt like something good was coming,” he explains.
In early 2020, Mustain and company set out to record their first album in an un-renovated suite at the El Rey, but we can guess where this goes.
“We were recording a week before the lockdowns,” he says. “I’d reached out to engineer [Jason Hiller] who specializes in analog recording, and he offered to bring out equipment from LA—namely, this vintage tape machine I loved.”
Band members scrambled to make it happen, but everything fell like dominos amidst the early COVID panic. Hiller canceled due to COVID concerns.
“It was a really difficult time in so many ways,” Mustain says. “Home, relationship; I mean, it just destroyed me. Years of waiting, preparing? It took a while to repair.”
A year later, he received another call from Hiller.
“He offers me that tape machine for free,” Mustain says. “It was such a beautiful act of redemption, generosity.”
Luckily, Mustain’s pal Rosa Pullman was heading to Santa Fe anyway and was willing to drive the machinery from Los Angeles. Even luckier? A friend of Pullman’s named Zeile August came shortly thereafter to visit. She fell in love with the Poor Clares sound and offered to pay for their next record.
“Basically, we lamented this whole saga: ‘I don’t even have the kind of money hanging around to buy the low end gear—I’ve just never not been broke.’” Mustain recalls telling August. “She called me a week later and said, ‘I wanna give you guys the funds to make a record.’”
Talk about a win. But it gets better. At a show not long after, Mustain met recording engineer Marc Whitmore, who had just moved to town to open his own private recording studio. Together, they created the tracks for an album with the working title Train Songs. That likely won’t stick, and with the Poor Clares working on new material already, it’s uncertain what their fate might be. In total, Mustain tells SFR, they kept four of the seven tracks they recorded with Whitmore. They might release them piecemeal in the lead-up to the full length they’re completing at Kitchen Sink—but no one’s in a rush. He wants the songs to be as good as they can be before taking the next steps.
Besides, he says, community is one of the most important byproducts of people playing music together. In a town like Santa Fe, where the rentals keep going up and the venues where musicians can thrive outside of positions as background music are few are far between, that’s practically non-negotiable—especially if younger people (read, not boomers) are going to continue to ply their trades here.
“There’s so much stacked against young creative people,” Mustain says. “We have to represent ourselves...just to show this city we deserve to live here. Because it doesn’t think that we do. We deserve to be supported as all these people did here 40, 50 years before us. We can’t just sell the image of what used to exist here; it’s shooing good, not wealthy, interesting people out of this town. Why don’t we just make art in defiance of that?”
Tunes inspired by classic folk and country music seem a good place to start—those genres are pretty rooted in rising up—especially when they’re as soulful and beautiful as these. Catch the band this Saturday at 4:30 pm as part of the Down to the Mine Festival in Madrid.
Down to the Mine Festival: Noon-9 pm Saturday, Sept. 23 and Sunnday, Sept. 24. $49-$89. Mine Shaft Tavern, 2846 Hwy. 14, Madrid, (505) 473-0743