It’s one thing to have the moves like Jagger — it’s another to wow Mick Jagger so much he starts dancing in the studio. However, such pinch-me moments have become common for “Sugar” singer Francesco Yates, whose musical rise has also seen him make his mark with Drake, tour with Justin Timberlake, and get memorable advice from Sir Paul McCartney.
“I feel like people think I’m lying about some of these stories, but I’m not,” laughs the Scarborough, Canada, native, speaking to us before performing at California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, opening for the Backstreet Boys on their “DNA” world tour. “I feel very lucky.”
The 26-year-old musician’s also pinching himself about being back touring after COVID-19 brought his star-studded climb to a halt. Of course, the pandemic couldn’t dim the drive of a performer who was just two when he began singing and strumming away at a toy guitar. Mesmerized by the Led Zeppelin, D’Angelo and TLC CDs his father played, Yates attended a music camp where he “fell in love” with live performance at 11. “It was one of the only things where I felt I knew what I was doing,” he recalls. “It felt like home.”
Learning Beethoven on a piano his parents bought him, Yates left school to pursue music, having realized he was too short for his other passion – basketball. By then, he’d become enamoured by the “larger-than-life musicality” of Freddie Mercury, Steve Perry, Marvin Gaye, and Prince.
“I love the whole Minneapolis sound and the versatility Prince had,” says Yates, whose vocal coach helped him get signed by Nelly Furtado’s manager Chris Smith. “I saw him live twice and it taught me about simplicity and space. He was jamming on the piano and said, ‘Funk music is space. It’s what you don’t play.’ It was like a free music lesson.”
Before long, the singer-songwriter was signed to Atlantic Records, releasing his self-titled debut EP (co-produced by Pharrell Williams, who heard about Yates through colleagues), winning awards and playing Ultra Music Festival, thanks to his Robin Schulz collab “Sugar”, which interpolates Baby Bash’s “Suga, Suga”.
“That was out of the blue because there was this loop floating around and I went, ‘Why don’t I try my hand at this?’ then recorded and left it. Three months later, it started charting in Germany and Europe and took on a life of its own. It was nuts.”
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But it was opening for Timberlake’s 2018 “Man of the Woods” tour, which proved a masterclass in touring. The two, both managed by Wright Entertainment Group’s Johnny Wright, spent downtime in catering chatting about Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
“What I learned about the inner workings of a tour of that magnitude was invaluable,” says Yates. “He knows all about the lighting and ins and outs of his show. That attention to detail made me realize it’s the tedium that makes a great artist. All the little things add up to the big thing. I watched him and soaked everything in.”
Like Timberlake, Yates has navigated the transition from teen accomplishments to pursuing long-term success. While doing so, McCartney’s words ring through his mind, having performed for the icon at a Hamptons fundraiser. “He pulled up a chair and we had a good half-hour conversation,” says Yates. “He gave me the ultimate quote: ‘You’ve got to remember, it’s just music, right?’”
“If you take yourself too seriously, you get lost,” Yates continues. “And starting young, you have to keep your head straight, because you’re doing it in your formative years and learn a different type of normal. You have to build a solid foundation and not derive your value from this job. People make the mistake of thinking this is something you are, not something you do.”
Yates notes how the business eats up “even the nicest people,” sending his well-wishes to pal Shawn Mendes, who halted his tour amid mental health struggles.
For Yates, staying mentally strong is aided by retreating to his semi-farm near Toronto, where he bikes, plays basketball, and grows zucchinis and cherry tomatoes. He’s never touched alcohol, having witnessed the dark road such vices led close family and friends down, so on tour he’s most likely found on his bus, producing music using the mobile studio he carries around in his backpack.
Having released his Superbad EP in 2020, he’s now working on a new album, Neon Blonde, which features his latest single, “Jimi”. While the upbeat jam honours Jimi Hendrix, it was while staring at his “Purple Rain” poster, wondering, How do I draw on Prince today? that lyrics like “I’m on that Jimi Hendrix, I ball way out in Mars, I think I love you baby, like I love my guitar,” came to Yates.
Who does he love like his guitar? “My girl, Terin,” he smiles. “She’s great!”
Followup single “Ex-Boyfriend” will drop in September, ahead of Neon Blonde in the new year.
“It’s two worlds,” Yates shares about the album. “One is electric, up-tempo and the other is subdued ballads. That’s something I liked about Michael Jackson’s albums – you’d have ‘Thriller’ then ‘The Girl Is Mine’.”
Yates is working on Neon Blonde during the “DNA” world tour, which sees him performing alongside DJ Lux (Brandon Mashburn), Aaron Space, Ragan Crawford and Vara Gianna as part of ATCK, a side band started by Mashburn and AJ McLean and featuring rotating members.
He currently has folders of songs he’d love to do with Dua Lipa or the Weeknd saved on his laptop. He also loves Drake, whom he ran into when the rapper joined the Backstreet Boys onstage in Toronto.
“He was walking out with his entourage and his diamond necklace was glowing – the most beautiful piece of jewellery I’ve ever seen,” says Yates. “I said, ‘Hey boss, what’s going on?’ and he stopped and went, ‘Yo, what’s going on? You doing good?’”
“The funny thing is the first time I met him, we were in a hallway at the 2015 Much Music Video Awards and everyone was pushed to the wall as if the president was coming, then he walks by in a tracksuit and goes, ‘Nice to see you. You been good?’ But I hadn’t actually met him before! I had worked with his right-hand guy ‘40’ though, so maybe he said something.”
Having Drake appear familiar with him before they’d officially met was almost as surreal as Jagger checking out his music while the two were in neighbouring rooms at a Los Angeles studio.
“As he was leaving, a writer I was working with went, ‘Mick, we just need 15 minutes of your time to check out this song,’” Yates says. “We go back into the studio, play it for him, then Mick Jagger starts dancing to it. I was like ‘What is happening?’ Then he goes, ‘Hey, thanks man for playing that for me. It was really good.’”
As for what became of the song that got Jagger jiving, “It’s in my vault,” says Yates. “Maybe for the new album!”