“I spent 229 days at sea in 2013,” Tom Franek told me. “I know—I just did my taxes.”
When we spoke last week, I was sitting at the Current’s snow-crusted St. Paul studios, and Franek was in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. We’d arranged a conversation via satellite phone so that Franek could tell me more about his unusual status as Northfield, Minnesota’s most well-travelled twenty-something singer-songwriter.
“Music chooses you instead of you choosing it,” said the St. Olaf grad, 29. “I graduated in music and dropped into a gig playing keyboards at Valleyfair.”
“It was a little bit repetitive,” Franek admits. “The show was called Hit Mix 2006. We did ‘Hey Ya!’, we did some Black Eyed Peas, we did ‘Love Shack.’ We did the same show five or six times a day, six days a week.”
That gig ended when the Shakopee amusement park shuttered for the winter, and Franek contacted an instructor who’d taught him at jazz camp, a guy who Franek knew had played on cruise ships. “He made the call, I got the audition, and the agency put me up with Princess Cruises. That was October of 2006, the year I graduated from college.”
Franek’s first on-ship foray proved a little rocky. “I was in the show band, the band for all occasions. Whether there was a guest set, a big band set, a Dixieland set…we were the band.” That gave Franek the opportunity to hone his keyboard chops in a range of styles, but there were personnel transitions and he was suddenly switched between ships. “I persevered through that and got a great review, and I said, okay, no more ships.
“There are a lot of drawbacks to [playing in a ship band]: it’s very hierarchical, it entails in-port manning—they need crew on board for emergencies, so you can’t go on shore—there are safety drills, all kinds of little things. You wear a name badge, you can’t go in passenger areas…” And—I asked—I presume there’s to be no fraternizing with the customers? “You’re not supposed to get into any promiscuous situations with passengers. You’re technically not supposed to dance with them or [even] touch them, depending on your position.”
Returning home in 2007, Franek started making the rounds of central Minnesota piano bars. Wondering about his next step, he learned that Princess Cruises owned a land-based resort in Denali, Alaska. “I called the general manager of this lodge, and he said, ‘We can put you in our bistro. You’ll be singing and playing like you do on cruise ships.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, no problem’—but I’d never learned songs. I had none in my arsenal. I hung up that phone and said, ‘Okay, I’ve got a month to learn some songs.’ I learned 150 songs in a month, and I went up there and my first night I went through two-thirds of them. I thought, ‘I’ve got to learn some more songs.’ It was trial by fire.”
After the Alaska gig, Franek went back to sea—this time as a singer-entertainer. “They got me a trial spot on a ship for a couple of weeks, and that went well—the rest is history. I’ve been doing this job with the ships since 2008. I’m a pianist-singer-dancer-comedian-entertainer.”
Though he’s still based in Northfield, Franek travels all over the world. “I’ve been pretty much to most continents.” Being American, he’s typically scheduled for cruises on which a majority of the passengers will share his cultural references. That means a lot of Caribbean and Alaska cruises, but he’s also gone to South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
What’s the secret to pleasing a seaborne audience? “I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I play to my strengths.” Specifically, “I put on a Minnesota schtick. I draw on the spirit of Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor. I’ll throw in Ole and Lena jokes. I have a sign that says, ‘You Betcha.’” Entertaining an audience in a cruise ship lounge, says Franek, is kind of like being a DJ. “You read the audience and follow the flow. Over the years, you get better at that.”
He’s had some memorable encounters. “One time a lady came up to me and said, ‘You play my brother’s songs.’ I said, ‘Who’s your brother?’ She said, ‘Pete Seeger.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me! He’s one of my greatest inspirations!’ She said, ‘If you ever want to visit him, let me know. There’s only one way to get [to where he lives], and and that’s by word of mouth.’” (Just a few days after my conversation with Franek, Seeger died at the age of 94.)
Though Franek’s interactions with audience members are almost always positive, live performance does entail a certain risk. “With the spontaneous joking around, I’ll just comment on whatever’s visually apparent. I’m not meaning to make fun of people; it’s just that everybody likes a laugh, and I’m trying to find a laugh. I’m very careful to show that I’m not meaning harm or insult, but sometimes you hit a button.” For example, commenting that a staff member dressed up for country night bears a slight resemblance to Woody from Toy Story. “I got back to my room and had a message: ‘Next time you need to comment on my appearance…!’ I apologized.”
Franek’s first CD was “just something cruise ship passengers can take home, with popular songs. There’s no original material there.” For his follow-up, 2013′s Let’s Part In Love, Franek mixed several covers with five original songs. To get the word out, he realized, he needed to make a music video.
“Little did I realize what I was getting myself into, ” Franek admitted. “It was a lot of work, and it started with a Google search: ‘How do you make a music video?’” Eventually, Franek learned what he needed to know and enlisted a number of collaborators—both professional and amateur. “All the people featured in the video are my friends. I found a director of photography, a camera man, I found and booked locations, I got wardrobe set up, I found the remaining crew, I got catering…it was one thing after another. We filmed for two marathon days.”
For the video’s dance scenes, Franek tapped some of his friends from the social dance scene. “If I’m home, I’ll go out dancing. Specifically the Lindy Hop or swing dancing, but within that umbrella there’s Balboa, there’s the Charleston….those are all subgenres my community does.” Anthony Chen created “great choreography that represents the lyrics pretty well too.”
About that nude scene. “We were going to show a number of scenes of incompatibility. The nude thing came up because it was such a keenly visual thing. Ideally what I was imagining was that, you know, it’s like I’m a nudist or something, and [the woman I'm breaking up with] is like, oh my God! Then, in the fantasy sequence with ideal partners, the woman in my sequence would also be nude. But she was just my friend, and she had a boyfriend, so…we just got her in sort of suggestive pajama clothing and rolled with it.” Despite appearances, Franek isn’t technically nude in that scene either. “I had a dishcloth Scotch-taped in my lower groin.”
Though Franek enjoys performing on ships, “it’s always nagged me that I’m working so hard, but for [people who didn't see the live show], it’s like it never happened.” The video “is something I can be proud of, and I can call every part of it my own. It makes me feel really good that there’s something out there that will live on.”
What’s next for the Northfield native? “I’m imagining—maybe this sounds really bad or pretentious, but I’m imagining bigger and bigger things. Becoming a recording artist, maybe getting on TV. Maybe Vegas, maybe movies. I’ve had little bites for things, like the Jerry Lee Lewis role in Million Dollar Quartet, but so far those haven’t quite taken fruition. I’m waiting it out, grinding my teeth.”