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Performing backstage: The artistic journey of the girl known as Naff

Francesca Perlov, photographed in 2012 by Sarah Belclaire

“Naff” is the middle school moniker of Francesca Perlov. She is an artist and musician from Brooklyn, New York--by way of Marshalltown, Iowa. You might think of her as an art school girl with an acoustic guitar and a hauntingly rich alto voice, which together make her seem both amateur and expert, raw and flawless, all at the same time.

Though it appears obvious when first speaking to her that art is in her bones, her creative journey is peppered with inquiry into her own identity. Born in the Midwest, she was adopted as a baby and raised a New York girl. But, at heart, she lives in a city all her own, a very personal inner-world where her creative mind has run wild since the earliest days of her childhood.

The girl known as Naff was a city kid raised on The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Tom Jones: childhood road trip music and tunes discovered on vinyl albums among her grandmother’s possessions. She never stopped loving music. Like most of us, she was not a prodigy. Still, she pursued music--even as a child--like it was her destiny. By age 10, she was hooked on the songs of Michael Jackson and asked her piano teacher Debra Barsha to show her how to write music.

In high school, Francesca traveled back to Iowa to meet her birth mother, began exploring her heritage, and took on the middle name Katelynn in homage to her roots. It was at this time that she also took her music to the stage, appearing at venues all over New York--everything from church basements to the Knitting Factory.

However, by college she found herself coming to terms with one of the least-talked-about realities of artisthood: anxiety. To this day, Francesca fully believes that, to be an artist, you can’t suppress your inner-self:

“You can tell when an artist is holding back or keeping some part of themselves hidden, and I think it can weaken the work.”

She realizes that, during that time, she wanted to express herself but struggled to relinquish the comfort and privacy of life off-stage.

In the midst of this inner-conflict, in Spring 2012, I had the opportunity to photograph Francesca as part of a culminating project in my undergraduate photography program. When I invited her to be shot for this series, she was feeling vulnerable. However, she declares, “I sucked it up” and came to the shoot. In the basement of the Traina Center at Clark University, I photographed Francesca in front of a black felt backdrop with a small hot light in a reflector dish pointing upwards in a soft splash of illumination. I tinkered with the angle of the reflector dish several times between shots, attempting to bounce a hint of light off her necklace--a silver chain clasping the letters “N A F F.” I didn’t know what NAFF meant. I had no idea that it was a nickname left over from her childhood. She was, in a sense, wearing her heart on her sleeve--but in a secret language I couldn’t decode. That intrigued me.

As an artist, Francesca’s presence and work are equally intriguing.

She is not a child prodigy, not a social media hyper-influencer: she’s not peddling an image or a talent, but sharing a bit of herself.

Now, with the advent of multimedia social networking for musicians--SoundCloud, YouTube, and the like, Francesca is ready to face the camera again. She is crooning soulful covers of pop standards and hammering out anthems dedicated to her musical icons. If an artist’s journey is reliant upon finding ways to express one’s self, then Francesca believes that the ability to be vulnerable should be their “most beautiful strength.” Her music reflects and defends the artist’s right to place themself on display. It’s raw, and it comes from the heart of a girl whose musical coming-of-age story serves as an example of how one might unearth charisma in the absence of ego.

(Turn on your speakers and sit at attention: Francesca sings "La Vie en Rose.")


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