In 2005, Carlos Santana made a 10-year-old girl cry.
Francesca Simone didn’t know what was happening. She had been taken to his concert at the the HP Pavilion (now known as the SAP Center) by her parents for her birthday, and he kicked off the show with one of the long, sustained notes he’s known for on his guitar.
A surge of feelings started welling up inside of her, and, well…she cried. “At that point I had never touched a guitar, it was kind of like a calling,” she says.
Thirteen years later, she’s performing to similar, if not bigger, crowds than Santana performed to that night. As the guitarist for Beyonce’s backing band, she finds it easier to perform to stadium-sized crowds — as she did at Bey’s Coachella set that lit up the internet last month — than to the intimate rooms she started in. “I’m almost more nervous to play in front of three people than in front of 100,000 people.”
Simone grew up in Hayward, where, after that initial encounter with Santana, she asked for a guitar from her parents — and by the following Christmas, she got one. She spent her high school years studying jazz. She released her debut album, Playground, her senior year, collaborating with local session-musician luminaries like David K. Mathews, Karl Perazzo, and more — many of whom, in a strange twist of fate, had ties to Santana.
Having already studied music enough to record with professionals, it came as no surprise when she applied to and was accepted by Berklee. “It made sense for me to attend a music school,” she says. But after a few semesters, she says, she was itching to start her career. “I just felt anxious to be in the real world…I felt like I needed to make the move to LA.” She also felt a bit boxed in: Though she harbored ambitions to explore all avenues of the music industry, her name had become synonymous with her instrument. “I felt like at Berklee I was this guitarist…people kept calling me for guitar, guitar, guitar.” After two years at Berklee, she made the move West, staying with her cousin while she got her career off the ground.
But the calls didn’t come in as quickly as she’d hoped. In the summer of 2015, she had just retreated to her mother’s home in Washington, DC to reconsider her career. Then, she got a call from Beyonce’s music director.
Spoiler alert: She got the gig. “The way I got it was basically online,” she says of her current job. She had been uploading videos of herself playing guitar versions of popular songs to the web, and one of them — a version of Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” — starting making its way across Facebook. Someone in Beyonce’s camp caught wind, and made it happen.
Roughly a month later, she performed her first show with Beyonce’s crew at the Made in America festival in Philadelphia in 2015. “I went from playing in front of, I don’t know, 150 people to 100,000 people.”
Though she plays alongside the undisputed queen of pop, she still sometimes feels like she’s playing an old-fashioned instrument. “I feel like the guitar used to be a much more popular instrument,” she says. “It was the mainstream.” In the last decade or so, electronic influences have infiltrated pop music, even rock-leaning genres, where guitar used to be front and center. “In the mindset I’ve been in, I want to bring guitar back to popular music.” If there’s any way to influence people’s opinion, it’s by sharing a stage with arguably the biggest music star in the Western world.
Just this week she premiered a video for her original song, “Still,” her first official venture as a professional solo artist. With her own career solidified, she’s looking to collaborate with other artists soon — ideally, she says, Santana. Give her a call, Carlos.