Leaving the safe confines of her economics/finance degree, Francesca cut her teeth in the nightlife industry at a young age. Moving up the ranks to Head of Marketing at CÉ LA VI, her team successfully placed the rooftop club on industry magazine, DJ Mag which required much tenacity as it went head on with industry stalwarts with legacies and deep marketing budgets. All at the same time, her passion and drive has pushed her to develop her career as DJ Aurora, where she has played at various local establishments as well as F1 Singapore’s Twenty3 Lounge and the recent Tiger Crystal party.
Notably, together with her former colleagues, she has successfully opened two retro-themed bars, NINETEEN80 and PinBall Wizard that have been the tip of the tongues of many millennials. There is a lot of grit that goes into her work. Aside from the long hours, Francesca has to tune out voices that prejudice her worth as a young lass in a male dominated nightlife industry. She shares with us the importance of collaboration, surrounding oneself with people that uplift her, all whilst maintaining a long term focus wanting to impact Singapore’s nightlife scene.
Popspoken: How did you get into your current line of work?
Francesca: After I finished a degree in Economics and Finance comparatively early at 21, I thought of doing something ‘fun’ for work for a couple of years before settling into something ‘serious’. I managed to land a nightlife/F&B marketing position at KU DÉ TA (now known as CÉ LA VI), and it turns out that the fun also entailed lots of hard work, there was some serious career progression and I thrived in what I was doing. Over there I met my colleagues-turned-business partners, Joshua Pillai and Yafith A. Hamid, who were heading up the entertainment team.
We did some crazy things together at CÉ LA VI including putting its Club Lounge in the Top 100 Clubs list, and were able to pull off some pretty fun and interesting campaigns, entertainment programmes and parties. I even got to spearhead their rebranding as well as expansion overseas. After working my way up to Head of Marketing and spending nearly 5 years there, I was wanting to see what was next and in what ways I can flex my creativity outside the brand. Together with Joshua and Yafith, we wanted to explore original and quirky concepts within the nightlife sphere, and so we left and banded into A Phat Cat Collective to explore our creative juices, tapping on our expertise in nightlife. In short, taking a chance on a couple of years of ‘fun’ turned into a full on career in the business of ‘fun’.
As for the DJing aspect, it was a by-product of working closely with the entertainment team back at CÉ LA VI. I was surrounded by veteran DJs who opened up a whole new paradigm of music for me. I have always loved music and like a typical 90s kid, grew up on a diet of MTV. But there was something special in the Sunset Sessions at CÉ LA VI that just blew me away. Seeing DJs like Ramesh K, Brendon P, Joshua P and Anand go anywhere and everywhere from funk, soul, afro latin, lyrical hip hop, downtempo, house, nu disco so fluidly providing the soundtrack against the colours of the sun setting over the Singapore’s skyline. That was a musical journey I embraced. Eventually one of them must have seen something in the music I was picking up and relented to teach me how to DJ.
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Silent Disco at Neon Lights was probably one of my favourite gigs this year and a real bucket list moment too, having been a fan since I first heard of the concept! Got to do something a little different and dropped some of my all time favourite singalongs. Hearing the crowd singing it back to you in sort-of acapella – it was immense. Thanks for those who stuck through the #teamred channel, and thanks to @silentdiscoasia for having me! My spirit is super fueled and can't wait to get back on the decks again this Saturday at @straitsclan!
Popspoken: How does a normal day look like?
Francesca: The back end of running nightlife venues is really not as fun or glamorous as one might think. An average day would see me putting in office hours, which entails emails, meetings, giving brand direction or actually helping craft creative assets and copy, researching ideas and developing future campaigns and projects, liaising with partners, etc. Otherwise on event nights or weekends, I would then head down to the bar and to help run the event (my personal favourite is our Bobble Puzzle/Street Fighter II tournaments), entertain guests and friends, get some live stories on our social media and try to be sober while ingesting copious amounts of alcohol.
Sometimes if I have a DJ gig, I would prep and head to wherever it is – some of the gigs take me to pretty interesting places, the craziest so far being in a freezer room in the Tuck Lee ice factory! If I don’t have to be at the bar or play out, I try to make it back home for my mum’s cooking, or catch up with friends and perhaps try a new place.
Popspoken: What are the top 3 apps you use in your creative work?
Francesca: Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration and Notes to take down random ideas that strike suddenly! Also not quite solely for creative work, but I’m completely dependent on Style Theory, I go through a lot of outfits from being out at the parties, so their model on renting gorgeous dresses has saved my wallet and a lot of time!
Popspoken: What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative in Singapore?
Francesca: This isn’t particular to Singapore, but in my career, the biggest challenges came from people who discredited and prejudiced me because of my age/youth, my gender, or even simply for doing my job or gaining some form of accomplishment. The creative line can be all about egos, and while I was fortunate enough to advance quickly through my work – I became Head of Marketing just before I turned 25, owned my first bar at 28 years old – it’s hard sometimes to work against the grain to succeed. Some of those who claimed to elevate my career, were also the same people who demeaned my abilities and work to others.
Some said I was too young, or had it easier being a girl, I’m too nice, not nice enough, or even slammed what I wore and that I didn’t wear enough make up. You have to know your value, know what you have accomplished, and have a good solid support of people around you to remind you of your worth during low times.
Popspoken: What is your biggest creative pet peeve?
Francesca: The mentality that overseas talent is automatically superior than local talents. I have seen many locals being passed over for jobs just because of this, and there is honestly more immense talent cultivating here than people think! It is so sad that so many need to gain some form of international recognition before they are embraced in their own backyards. We need to do better in supporting those within our community more.
Popspoken: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?
Francesca: It’s important to surround yourself with people who uplift, inspire and champion you, that you can bounce ideas off of and share values with. Don’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.
Talk to people, network, collaborate. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, share your ideas and don’t pass up good opportunities just because you’re unsure or think it may be challenging. Some may be surprised by this, but I am an introvert at heart and can be a little shy. But I like to think I’m a good listener and that’s how I learn from others and cultivate deeper connections. I try my best not to play it safe and took huge leaps of faith with bold (yet calculated) choices when I could.
Also, one of the biggest lessons I am still learning: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly”. A lecturer from Lasalle shared that, and it’s a mantra I definitely need to constantly remind myself. When you have an idea or committed to something, put in your 110%, but always learn to let go and move on when the time comes or if the idea isn’t working out.
Popspoken: Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
Francesca: I like checking out new restaurants and bars, going to arts festivals or gigs and watching plays/musicals. And of course, travel! Inspiration can strike at any time when you least expect it. NINETEEN80 was conceived when a friend took us to an arcade bar in Los Angeles, and it was not only something that we felt would work in Singapore, but we had so many ideas how we could elevate the concept by tapping into nostalgia to make it even more engaging and thematic.
Popspoken: Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?
Francesca: Truth to be told, in the recent years I mostly only have a growing pile of books I’ve only read mid-way waiting to be finished. Beyond some of the frivolous fiction I enjoy, I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Animal Farm but that was utterly mind-blowing and still so pertinent today even though it was written in 1945. For creatives, I would recommend reading A Director Prepares by Anne Bogart. It’s a textbook for some theatre students but honestly, there is so much wisdom in there that I take with me in life and it really helps you better understand and deepen your creative process, whatever your trade is.
For blogs, I enjoy Vox. I love their video series that basically serves up current affair issues and how things work in bite size pieces. I especially love their Earworm series that explores little known topics on music.
Popspoken: What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Francesca: There are probably two momentous things that comes to mind, first would be CÉ LA VI’s first campaign to get into DJ Mag’s Top 100 Clubs ranking. It was such an ambitious undertaking at that time to catapult CÉ LA VI among the international big guns of nightlife, and we didn’t have the strong history that Zouk had and or support from the relevant national boards or bodies. But we powered through and the inaugural campaign I helped to lead successfully allowed CÉ LA VI to enter among the world’s Top 100 Clubs since then.
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Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore! I don't know how we made it here, but 11 months ago, we made a little thing called @nineteen80bar. And today, we sat with the big boys among Zouk, Manhattan, 1-Altitude and Smoke & Mirrors as nominees for Best Nightspot Experience at @visit_singapore's Sigapore Tourism Awards. We were the only ones who weren't backed by a hotel group or part of a hospitality corporation. We sat there as wide-eyed, first-time business owners supporting our baby that not long ago was just a cheeky idea. We didn't win this time, but that didn't matter to me. What really mattered was that I stood here with my two partners-in-crime at this fancy awards ceremony, laughing at the time I dismissed our chances of getting in. I mean, NINETEEN80 isn't even a year old yet. And that somehow, life gave us a massive sign that all the risks we've taken up to now have been worth it. Dayummm. Thank you to those who work with us, support us, love us. This was the night of a huge win for me.
The other and biggest proudest achievement on a personal level is opening our first concept, NINETEEN80. While the process did feel like we were fumbling about for the most part being our first owned bar, we knew we had gotten it right by tapping into the 80s nostalgia, with its instant success and getting nominated for Best Nightspot at the Singapore Tourism Awards within a year of operations. To have people come up to us and tell us that they haven’t been able to relate to a nightclub in years before we opened. It’s a proud feeling that you’ve made a difference to the scene in some way.
Popspoken: How do you get stakeholders on board?
Francesca: Be able to justify your point of view; a lot of the time it’s about how strong and convincing your case is. Have visual aid of similar ideas/cases if possible – humans are visual creatures and it would help to have a representation of the perspective you’re trying to achieve.
Popspoken: Is there anything you want to promote?
Francesca: We have just opened Pinball Wizard at the basement of Sim Lim Square, a dedicated pinball bar and club. Pinball Wizard has been particularly interesting to me creatively; besides incorporating the 90s to noughties music of our childhood (I am a 90s kid after all!), we really tried to push the boundaries on Pinball Wizard’s offering to be creative and experimental in a fun way.
We chose Sim Lim Square because it was unconventional and has a certain underground charm that will spark curiosity, and it’s located in such an artistic district near Lasalle, NAFA, DECK, Selegie Arts Centre and Stamford Arts Centre. We also tried to play around and be out-of-the-box with the cocktails, my favourites are the Banana Julius Flip and our glitter shooters – the Peanut Butter & Jelly one is a must try!
Popspoken: Where can people find you?
Francesca: I’m often at Pinball Wizard and the surrounding Rochor area these days, or NINETEEN80 and the Tanjong Pagar (apparently just named one of the 50 coolest neighbourhoods in the world!)/Telok Ayer area. For digital stalking, it’s @francescaway.
Popspoken: How would you like to be remembered?
Francesca: I haven’t really thought of how I’d like to be remembered, but I would like to at least put in some value or improvement to this world and community from when I came into it. At the end of the day, if my work, words, music and/or friendship has helped a person in their life, or if our concepts made an impact to Singapore’s nightlife scene and formed lasting memories and relationships for our guests and team members in a positive way, I’m content.
Creatives In The Lion City is a series hosted by Sheryl Teo on Popspoken. Read exclusive interviews with artisan souls in Singapore, as we get behind-the-scenes with the dreamers and doers in various artistic spheres and creative disciplines.