Photo: Andrew Blackstein; from 9/22/21 at Brooklyn Bowl
Neal Francis was an industry veteran well before he released his critically-acclaimed debut solo record in 2019.
Among Chicago’s rising stars a decade ago, he had a steady gig as a keyboardist with underground funksters The Heard. In the years that followed, Francis lost his way with the bottle for a long, cold winter or three. A tailspin of self-destruction finally ended with an alcohol-induced seizure, an extended hospitalization, and an unceremonious dismissal from the band he led and loved. After the harshest of humblings, he set about getting himself sober and somewhat right.
During this wayward time, Francis caught lightning in a bottle with Changes, an aptly-titled debut record, and soundtrack to his personal revolution. From there, it’s been nothing short of a meteoric ascent for this Windy City son.
Now, Neal Francis is back with his sophomore album, In Plain Sight, a sack of songs brimming with analog sounds, big, fuzzy hooks, and his trademark laconic mojo. To mark the release of In Plain Sight, we caught up with Neal to discuss writing with David Shaw (The Revivalists) and Chris Gelbuda, recruiting Derek Trucks, working with producer Sergio Rios (Orgone), and how he wound up living and recording in the basement of the Chicago-area church as the record came together.
Check out a transcript of our conversation with Neal Francis below, edited for length and clarity, and listen to In Plain Sight via Spotify below while you read. The complete conversation will be available on a forthcoming episode of The Upful LIFE Podcast.
Neal Francis – In Plain Sight – Full Album
Live For Live Music: Let’s take it from the top of In Plain Sight. What’s the story behind “Alameda Apartments“, the song that kicks off the record? I live in Alameda County, CA, but I don’t sense that it’s connected to the Bay Area [laughs].
Neal Francis: Well, it came from a dream I had. I just remember the name of the apartment building from my dream, which is really strange to have that sort of detail in a dream for me. And so it was important for me to write it down at the time. I’ve since been reading A Hundred Years of Solitude by [Gabriel García] Márquez, and in that book, there’s an instance where this guy founds a city called Macondo and they talk about him receiving that name for the city in a dream. And he had never heard the name before. So I just came across that recently, but I was like, “This isn’t without precedent… in the human experience.” Now, I encounter that all over the place, especially in California, as you can imagine, so many things are named Alameda and I kind of like willfully mispronounce it in the song because I didn’t even know how it was supposed to be pronounced right.
Live For Live Music: That’s really interesting, what comes to you in a dream and then comes out of you in song. I am curious just how you ended up living and recording your latest album in a church in Chicago.
Neal Francis: I’m constantly thinking about how that happened, and what a strange and beautiful gift that was to experience. I inherited a job as an accompanist at this church, St. Peter’s UCC, back in 2017, from my friend Dom, who was moving to New York, and I didn’t really consider myself qualified because I’m a really poor reader of music. He was like, “You should do this.” And at the time I was just really hungry for jobs, basically. I took the gig and for two-and-a-half, three years, I was an accompanist at this tiny congregation. It’s a huge church, but a tiny congregation. There’s probably like a maximum of 20 people at that [church], depending on the service, and it was just me and a vocalist, I played piano and organ. I built a really good relationship with the, uh, the church lady, for lack of a better expression. Her name is Lil. I dedicated this record to her.
Live For Live Music: So, how did you end up moving in?
Neal Francis: There was a really traumatic breakup I had with my girlfriend in 2019. I knew I needed to immediately move out of my apartment in order for us both to regain sanity, and I knew that the pastor’s residence at St. Peter’s was vacant. I was like… so strung out because I had just played my album release party for Changes. Then, I had church the next morning. So I went to bed at like 3:00 a.m, and then woke up and got to church at like 7:30 a.m. And I was like, “I’m just going to ask if I can live here,” not really knowing what to expect and, you know, a week later I was moving in, so I made that space my home.
After moving in to the church, I immediately went on tour with Black Pumas, and so I was gone for a month, but I had this desperate feeling that I was going to miss out on an opportunity to utilize the space in a meaningful way, because we’re going to be touring so much in 2020. And then, of course, the pandemic occurred.
Instead of being on the road, I was really able to dig in [at the church], and we started acquiring gear. It was my drummer and I living there. I extended the offer for [drummer] Collin [O’Brien] to live there—you know, ’cause we had the bottom dropped out of our income. So that was very gracious of her. And I started acquiring bits of gear, like an eight-track tape machine and a 16-channel mixing board.
Live For Live Music: What was the process like in a church, versus recording in a proper studio?
Neal Francis: I just started demoing up the record, with all of our equipment in the basement, and Colin would lay down drums. By mid-May , my sleep schedule was completely nocturnal and I was just up writing and recording at night, and sleeping during the day. And I would start a song at like 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., and Collin and my girlfriend would be asleep upstairs.
Then by five or six in the morning, I’d have something serviceable. And Collin, I would just knock on his door and ask if he would come lay down drums on it. So it was, like, this really bizarre experience, and that extended all through the summer. Chicago was extremely, um, violent during the George Floyd protests. There were just police cars flying up and down the street, outside the church, you know, late at night, and they were just always flashing lights coming through. It was just like, “What the hell is going on?” Because I was in the church, and I had everything there that I could ever need to be engaged, it was pretty surreal, man. I can’t even believe it happened sometimes.
Live For Live Music: Let’s talk about your musical connection with Sergio Rios, such a masterful player and producer. He has cultivated a certain steez, if you will. I know he’s had a hand in both your records, and we can certainly hear his touch and influence.
Neal Francis: Yeah man, Orgone is, like, the greatest live band, right? I knew from the start, after doing The Heard record with Sergio, that we were on the same page, musically. He has a much greater depth of knowledge, in terms of just where he’s drawing from … a longer history with exploring, crate digging, just getting into the real cutty stuff. But we like a lot of the same stuff, and we like a lot of the same things about production. Sergio knows how to engineer those things that I like, so there was this immediate connection on that level. And a lot of the communication was made easier by the fact that I didn’t have to mince words about what we were going for. I’m just like, “Allen Toussaint, in 1971! Okay?” And he’s like “So, right. I’m going to use this on your vocals, then I’m going to use this on your drums…”
It made it so much easier to realize that project [Changes] because I just knew he would be able to achieve it. I knew he was a Meters nut, you know? So he was going to lock in the bass and guitar tones the way they needed to. And he played guitar on that record [Changes]. You said it, he’s just a master.
Live For Live Music: Sergio also had a role in In Plain Sight?
Neal Francis: Dude, we had such a crazy time making In Plain Sight, because he flew out during the pandemic and the first time he flew out, I got deathly sick. The first day he was in the studio recording with us. It was not from COVID, I just got tonsillitis. Hands down the sickest I’ve ever been in adulthood. Sergio was downstairs with the band tracking in the basement and I was upstairs bedridden, like in and out of consciousness. We just made a decision to reschedule the session and, like, he flew back to LA and then six weeks later came back to Chicago. Those were long days, man. He’s such a hard worker. A Sergio day is like, minimum, 13 hours. Then, it inevitably becomes nocturnal. Especially the vocal sessions, it was just me and him and the tape machine.
Live For Live Music: How about writing with Chris Gelbuda? He’s also very gifted, and loves working with you, too.
Neal Francis: That’s another guy that was, like, the first minute we met… Yeah, I just knew we were going to be really good friends. So, from what he tells me, his writes are like an-hour-and-a-half to two hours. We spent like eight hours together writing “Problems” and, you know, it was a first write. I was just so proud of the song that we walked away with. He’s got such a gift for lyrics. So grateful our songs are on the record.
Live For Live Music: David Shaw and Derek Trucks are on “Cant Stop The Rain”. Big-time collabs! I knew you co-wrote with David, but how did it all go down?
Neal Francis: It was Jazz Fest 2019 and I was in New Orleans for a couple of days. It was, like ,this weird thing where I kept trying to leave, and then I’d be out at a late-night show and then I’d wake up at one [o’clock]. So I couldn’t drive back to Chicago starting at 1:00 PM [laughs]. So I was just, like… staying day after day. And then eventually David invited me over to do a write. We wrote this song together. David had the hook sort of in his back pocket. He’s just got, you know, a whole notebook full of banging hooks! We were just messing around with it, the song came together. We basically just had a voice memo of us playing it, solo, acoustic, piano, and singing. I went back to Chicago, I recorded a demo of it, sort of more to my own flavor. For the recording session, we were in isolation, and produced the track as a four-piece.
Live For Live Music: Where does Derek Trucks get involved? Feels like such a natural fit. Then again, Derek makes any and everything sound effortless.
Neal Francis: My friend Jesse Lauter heard the song. He does production with Derek and Susan [Tedeschi] and he was like, “Oh, Derek would sound great on this.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I think so” [laughs], not even realizing that Jesse actually had the power to make that happen, ’cause he’s such a humble guy. Jesse sent Derek the track, and he liked it enough to grace us with his guitar playing. That was one of two elements that were recorded digitally, just because we had to bounce it to him to record in Jacksonville.
I got a chance to speak to Derek on the phone, the day he recorded his part. Such a humble and kind person, and also the greatest at what he does. So it was inspiring to talk to him, just to sort of be conscious of that, and his attitude, and wanting to bring that to my interactions with people.”
Live For Live Music: My favorite section of the new album is the combo of “Asleep” right into “BNYLV”. “Asleep” is almost like a departure. The song is so unique, it’s delicate and vulnerable, it kind of gets me high—in this intangible way. Then, “BNYLV” kicks in, and it’s just like, “Boom. Now we’re gonna dance!” Was that sequencing intentional? It’s a helluva one-two punch—deep into the record, too. What can you tell us about those compositions?
Neal Francis: I don’t know if the sequence was engineered quite like that, everything sort of came together gradually. It felt like things congealed at a certain point, like, “Oh yeah, of course! This is how it has to be.”
I’m really glad that we’re talking about “Asleep” because I’m very proud of that song. I wrote “BNYLV” and “Asleep” in the same week, I think two nights in a row. I was on one, you know, like in the studio at night, when “Asleep” came together. I was playing around with this Beethoven-inspired thing, and my girlfriend was sitting there, and she was like, “That’s really cool.” And I was like, “If she thinks this is cool, then I should explore this idea,” you know [laughs]? And so she went to sleep, and I tracked the entire song, including the lyrics. And that is such a deeply personal song man, about being in a new relationship and still thinking about the old one.
So that transition, it’s like, you know, the hope that things are gonna be okay. “BNYLV”, it was one of those instances where I’ll never forget putting that together. While it’s happening, I’m like, “This is awesome,” and I just knocked on Collin’s door at three or four in the morning, just like, “Hey man, will you track drums on this?”. He’s like, “Oh hell yeah!” We were just jamming to it, into early in the morning. I’m smiling so hard, because I relish that experience, making those demos.
But anyway, “Asleep” and “BNYLV”… it’s my favorite part of the record, too, I think. Certainly live. I really enjoy playing those.
– As told to B.Getz
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