"I know that for some musicians, writing songs is like therapy and the way they get their emotions out," says Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Robert Francis. "But for me it's more than an outlet -- it's a way to keep me from completely losing my mind." Such an intense statement may sound like the drama of being 21, which Francis is, but listen to the two albums that he's created, 2007's indie release One By One and his upcoming major-label debut Before Nightfall, and it becomes clear that it's true. As NPR has noted about Francis' modern take on timeless American rock: "He has laid himself out in song and created some incredibly moving and beautiful musical moments." "Honesty is what makes a good song," Francis says. "I don't think there's a reason to write unless you're writing about something that's deeply important to you. If I write anything, it has to be 100 percent heartfelt. There's not a shred of anything within my songs that isn't 100 percent genuine." Francis' work pulses with an undercurrent of forceful candor that cannot be faked. The songs on Before Nightfall are so personal that Francis has trouble explaining the specifics of what they're about, but he does offer that One By One came out of the emotional turmoil he suffered after a failed relationship, whereas Before Nightfall looks back on that relationship through the healing prism of time and finds hope in starting over and moving on to something new. "Songs like 'Darkness,' 'Climb a Mountain,' 'Junebug,' and 'Keep On Running,' are about knowing that the person you love is out there on their own and you can't do anything about it," Francis says. "They're about how impossible love becomes more impossible. But I think there's optimism in the songs; I don't think of them as sad. I think they're kind of uplifting." Francis' frankness goes down easier than you'd think thanks to his husky baritone voice, finger-picked acoustic melodies, and uncluttered arrangements. Burnished by his keyboard work (Francis plays piano, Mellotron, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, Farfisa organ, and Solina synth), bandmate Graham Lathrop's elegant pedal steel guitar, and backing vocals from Francis' sisters Juliette and Carla Commagere, the songs on Before Nightfall glow with an earthy, homespun quality that draws on everything from country, to folk, to blues, to roots rock. Highlights include the aforementioned "Climb a Mountain," which features slide guitar from one of Francis' early mentors, Ry Cooder (his sister Juliette's father-in-law), the heartfelt country-tinged "Playground," and closing acoustic ballad "Do What I Can," where the emotion is so palpable, you can hear Francis' voice quaver as he slides into his upper-register. The intimate sound is deliberate, Francis says. "On the records I love, the vocals are right there. It sounds like you're in the room with the person and all the other instruments support the story. The greatest records were made like that. In no way was I trying to make a '60s or '70s throwback record, but the songs called for that intimate vibe. I wanted to get the band in a room, do it live, and make it sound as immediate as possible." To help him achieve that immediacy, Francis enlisted Grammy Award-winning producer D. Sardy (Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, among many others), whom he credits with "helping me come into my own with my voice. Sardy helped me sing out and make the vocals as raw and intense as possible. He was not the guy who was going to spend three hours on some crazy synth sound. He was the guy who said, 'Let's do this -- but just you guys. Let's make an old-school rock record.'" Sardy and the band (bassist Alex Kweskin, drummer Richard Gowen, and guitarist Graham Lathrop) kept the proceedings relaxed by making the studio feel like home. "I basically brought my living room to Sunset Sound," Francis says. "We brought all the rugs and some posters and lamps and recreated this little world that felt just like where we rehearse. We set up in a circle, stocked up on what we needed, and went to town." It was the way Francis imagines his favorite artists, like The Band, Gene Clark, Bob Dylan, and Greenwich Village folkies Karen Dalton and Dino Valenti made records. "There was a time when a few amazing artists moved up to Bearsville to get away from the city and really just make beautiful music," he says. "They weren't concerned about what was going on outside their bubble. They created their own universe. And that's what I wanted to do ? to forget about everything and just concentrate on four guys in a room making music the way we wanted to make it."