“It feels like we’re standing on shifting sand and I’m trying to remain positive.”
Neal Francis is both a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air. The Chicago pianist writes music that echoes a time when bell bottoms were in fashion (for the first time), but he also has a unique sound that sets himself apart from the current scene in other ways. In short, Francis is retro in how he goes against the grain of what independent artists typically do these days. It’s a rare fine line to walk, and he does so successfully.
This is all evident in Francis’ sophomore release, In Plain Sight, which came out last November via ATO Records. As part of his upcoming tour in support of the album, he will perform at Brighton Music Hall on Feb 17 with Austin rocker Emily Wolfe opening up.
Francis and I spoke about his musical influences, recording in a haunted church, enlisting talented musicians, and hoping to play more shows in the upcoming year.
Your music is very much a cornucopia of ’70s cool with the funk and r&b from that era definitely having a presence along with the singer-songwriter aesthetic from that decade also being apparent. What inspires this approach? Did you grow up on a lot of ’70s music?
I definitely did. That was most of what I was listening to along with a lot of classical music; it was a pretty eclectic mix of opera, classical symphonies, and pop from the ’70s.
With classical and opera, do you find them to influence the freewheeling structure you have in your songs? Especially with how you play the piano?
I was influenced by that early on and I still love that type of music. Most of what I practice now is material from [Johann Sebastian] Bach, which is kind of what I do to stay sharp but it’s always had an influence. It’s part of western pop, classical music has seeped into so much of it. For example, with Stevie Wonder it’s all over his music so it definitely has a presence.
In Plain Sight was created over the course of a year while living in a haunted church in Chicago. How did you end up in that church and what did you notice about the place that gave the vibe that it was haunted? Did you hear any bumps in the night while you were rehearsing on an organ? Were there strange sounds coming from the attic?
I ended up there because I worked as an accompanist for church services for about three years and I needed a place to stay, so I asked if I could live in the parsonage, which is usually the pastor’s residence, and they agreed to let me stay. I moved in during October of 2019; I was on tour a lot for the first couple months I lived there, then the pandemic came and I was there by myself a lot of the time. I think part of it was my mind running wild and being anxious about being in such a large space alone, but I also think there was some sort of palpable energy to the place. I don’t know if it was good or bad, but I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. There’s particularly one stairwell leading to the choir room where I would practice less frequently where there’s a landing that always gave me some sort of chills and strange feeling. I don’t know what it was but just being in the sanctuary at night, there’s no way for that not to be spooky in this big, open room. As humans, we create things that aren’t there but I guess I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
That must have been a wild experience. What was it like having David Shaw from the Revivalists and Derek Trucks from the Tedeschi Trucks Band involved in the making of the album?
I’ve known David for a long time. He’s been a really amazing supporter and booster of my career; I knew him before I started this current project when I was in a band called the Heard and we used to support the Revivalists. We used to also support David as a backing band when he was doing solo shows so I became friends with him and he was one of the first people I sent my music to when I was starting to make my first album, Changes. That’s what made it easy for us to write together; by the time I was writing “Can’t Stop The Rain” back in 20, during the end of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it was one of those things where David is a good friend and I can be honest with him, which I think is a great place to start during a co-writing session.
We can have honest talks about what’s really going on and end up with something less superficial. Derek was introduced to me by a mutual friend; we’ve never met in person, but it was during the heat of the pandemic and I had the track ready to go. My friend said that Derek would sound great on it and I didn’t really know that he had the ability to send anything to him, but he liked the track and agreed to put his sonic guitar on it. It’s really special so I’m super grateful for that.
Before you put out In Plain Sight, you released the single “Don’t Call Me No More” in July, which has you embracing sobriety and going back to those New Orleans music influences you just talked about. Did you feel a sense of catharsis while writing the song because you were putting away the vices in your life while trying to maintain a clear head?
That song has a lot more to do with a toxic relationship I was in. I’ve been in a series of toxic relationships because of my own inabilities, which has been as much of a work in progress as my path to sobriety. There’s this particular woman I was seeing before and after I got sober over six years ago and I think something that a lot of people can relate to is when a relationship is not working on many levels it will continue for a long time because our capacity for suffering is great. Basically what it came down to is I wrote that song the morning I was supposed to sing it and I felt like a fraud because I was thinking about this woman who kept calling me and the lyrics are a combination of that. I’ll just fake it until I make it and will this person please stop calling me?
Looking back at 2021, what do you consider to be your favorite moment from this past year and what do you want to accomplish in 2022?
There’s so many that I couldn’t narrow it down to one favorite moment, it’s so hard. I love my band so much, we’re really good friends and it would be difficult to choose. Walking out onto the stage at Red Rocks for the first time was a pretty singular experience in my life, I can distinctly remember how excited I felt and it wasn’t like anything I expected. It was a jolt of energy like I hadn’t experienced before so I think personally that was something that stood out in 2021. My goals and wishes for this year is that we see the pandemic stabilize or at least people’s attitudes towards it stabilize to the degree that artists and people in general can live their lives.
I want to be able to make plans and actually see them come to fruition because it’s been such a long period of doubt. It feels like we’re standing on shifting sand and I’m trying to remain positive about it. I think that live music is so important, I’ve seen so many people enjoy our shows over the last year and I want to play more this year.
Neal Francis w/ Emily Wolfe @ Brighton Music Hall. Thu, 2.17. nealfrancis.com.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.