L.A. DJ Francesca Harding Spins Sam Cooke’s Legacy

Photo Credit: Sarah Taylor

Los Angeles-based DJ and music supervisor Francesca Harding had been wanting to dive deep into her favorite artists’ discographies. “This is a perfect time,” she says on a recent phone call; while clubs and bars in L.A. have closed and the people who frequent them are staying at home, Harding went to work, digging into the catalog of her favorite singer, Sam Cooke.

“I’ve been falling down this Sam Cooke rabbit hole,” Harding says. “He’s always been this large figure for me in terms of what it means to be authentic, what it means to hold space,” she says. “I really feel that what he did is still an example that we can all look to, even today.” That’s something we can all appreciate thanks to Harding’s latest mix, “Francesca Presents: Sam Cooke,” premiering today on Audiofemme. She intends this to be the first in a series of listening sessions dedicated to specific artists.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Cooke wrote and recorded hit singles like “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” He was an innovator, often considered to be one of pioneers of ’60s soul music, and even started a record label focused on releasing other artists’ music. Cooke was also a civil rights activist; his song “A Change Is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the era. Although his life was tragically cut short in 1964, his music has endured in the decades that followed. His songs have been frequently covered and his recordings sampled. All of that presented Harding with a challenge: “How do you do a best of mix when someone has shifted culture with their music in such significant ways?”

Harding, who wrote an artist statement about the mix that describes her personal connections to Cooke’s music, recalls hearing the singer as a child, when her mom would listen to his music. “It stays with us,” she says. “It forms us and we end up returning to it and loving it.”

As a DJ, Harding became known for playing Afro-Latin music and global bass with parties like Bodega and CULos Angeles. About two years ago, she began working in music supervision for film and television. “Luckily, for me, I have to sit down and go a little bit deeper in music just for the job description,” she says. But, through this mix, Harding gives listeners a chance to dive into Cooke’s repertoire with her.

Initially, Harding thought about organizing the mix like a more traditional club mix, starting with slower tempo songs, building up and then slowing down again. When she first recorded it that way, though, it didn’t work for her. “In doing this Sam Cooke deep dive, I kept coming across audio with him speaking and I’m like, this is perfect,” says Harding. “I was able to use Logic to chop up that audio to break up some of the segues of the mix.” She adds, “I like listening to him chit-chat and talk about soul music or what it means to be an artist.”

Harding cleverly follows various threads of Cooke’s career in a way that makes it easier for listeners to pick up. While it began as research project for herself, she’s hopeful that others might hear it and want to dig into Cooke’s work on their own, especially now that traditional in-person channels for experiencing music are on hold for an indefinite period of time.

“There is so much music to ingest and digest. If there’s ever a time for us to do that, I think it’s right now,” Harding says. “We’re in our homes. A lot of us aren’t working and we want the music. We’re hungry for the music. There’s so much music and so many genres out there.”

She’s curious to see how this extended period of listening to music at home will impact nightlife when it reopens. “I’m kind of excited about what will come out of this in terms of listeners, audiences, shaping their tastes because they’ve had more time to consume different types of music. What will it look like after this?” she says. “If I play Sam Cooke at midnight, maybe people will be more receptive to it because of this time. It will be really interesting to see how this all translates to the dance floor, for sure.”

It’s a mix made for anyone, but also one that comes from a very personal passion. “He’s such a gift and has been since I was young,” she says. “I just wanted to honor that gift.”

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