By Janis Fontaine
Rhea Francani isn’t a tough-talking Texan or a boot-scooting Okie but she loves country music like one.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., the youngest of three sisters in a close-knit Italian family that put on “full-blown concerts” in the living room of their modest home, Francani, 28, now of Boca Raton, just released the first single from her soon-to-be released second country album.
“We’re a very musical and creative family,” Francani said. “We listened to Motown and R&B, we loved Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Whitney, Mariah. We dabbled in a lot of genres.”
That dabbling included a love of musical theater, and Francani breathed life into Belle in her high school production of Beauty and the Beast. Active in choir and jazz band, after high school, Francani followed her sisters, Elisia, eight years older, and Adria, four years older, to New York City to pursue music. “We’ve always been very close,” Francani said. “Family is important.”
The high-achieving songbird graduated with honors from Wagner College on Staten Island with a degree in musical theater and fell in love with teaching when she helped her sisters in their work. Francani decided to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College specializing in music education, which surprised no one.
But as much as Francani loves the theater and teaching, when she sits down to create her own music, Francani feels at home in country music. She says she became a fan of country/pop group Lady Antebellum when the trio released its blockbuster crossover hit “Need You Now” in 2009, and she has followed Taylor Swift’s trajectory from country to pop to Folklore.
After Columbia, Francani followed her heart to Nashville to co-produce a self-penned 12-track debut album called, appropriately, Now or Never, and released two singles: “Dizzy” and “Shotgun Baby,” which showed fans her grasp of two of country music’s staples: catchy hooks and upbeat, toe-tapping rhythms.
But the reality of working hand-to-mouth as a singer/songwriter in dog-eat-dog Music City when you have a passion for teaching — and a master’s degree from a prestigious university — doesn’t make financial sense, especially when you can refine your craft at the same time in a supportive and sunny environment like Boca Raton.
Francani accepted a challenge from the Alexander D. Henderson University School, a public elementary and middle school on the FAU campus, to rejuvenate its music performance program. The school, established in 1968 as a developmental research lab school specializing in improving outcomes, hadn’t devoted much attention to music electives in recent years until Francani joined the middle school in 2016. She started with 65 students in her elective classes and now has more than 200 in chorus, dance and musical theater.
Henderson has chosen to begin instruction this year virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One advantage Henderson has, Francani says, is “we’re great with technology.”
When she’s not teaching, Francani is working on her craft. Among artists she admires, Francani calls out some of country’s strongest contributors: Carrie Underwood for “class and intelligence”; Marin Morris, “who had time for me and was very kind”; and Kelsea Ballerini “for her ‘it’ factor.”
Francani says that her second album will be quite difference from her first. “The first one was super-raw. I was young and those were the first songs I written. I’ve grown up a lot since then.”
Francani says she moved around a lot, studied her craft and that “a lot happened to me in my life” since the first album. For one thing, Francani fell truly in love for the first time, and that love inspired the first single from her upcoming album.
“I’ll Go,” a romantic pop-country road song showcases her strong vocals, with a simple but catchy hook. It’s the kind of tune that makes you roll the windows down, turn up the volume and sing along to as you’re leaving town.
Francani says she plans switch gears and release a ballad next. And that’s one key to her success: Always keep ’em guessing.