Born Neal Francis O’Hara, the Livingston, NJ-born, Chicago-based singer/songwriter and pianist best known known as Neal Francis can trace the origins of his sound and approach to his childhood: he was obsessed with boogie woogie piano — and as a result, his father gifted him a dusty Dr. John album. O’Hara quickly became a piano prodigy, touring Europe with Muddy Waters‘ son and with other prominent bluesmen across the States when he was just 18.
In 2012, Neal Francis joined the popular instrumental funk band The Heard. With Francis at the creative helm, The Heard quickly became a national touring act, sharing stages with The New Mastersounds and The Revivalists, and making stops at New Orleans Jazz Fest and Bear Creek among others. As The Heard’s profile rose, Francis sunk deeply into addiction. By 2015, he had been fired from his band, evicted from his apartment and was inching perilously close to his own destruction. “When you get close to death like that you can feel it,” Francis recalls. An alcohol-induced seizure that year led to a broken femur, dislocated arm, and, finally, the realization that he needed to get clean.
Although he identifies as not being religious, Francis took a music-ministry job at St. Peter’s UCC in 2017 at the suggestion of a friend.
Francis’ solo debut, 2019’s Changes was released to critical acclaim with the album landing on Best-of-the-Year lists of KCRW, KEXP and The Current while BBC Radio 6hailed him as “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint.” Adding to a breakthrough year, Francis toured with Lee Fields and The Expressions and JOVM mainstays The Black Pumas. He shared a stage with members of the legendary The Meters at New Orleans Jazz Fest. And he did a live session on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Despite having breakthrough success with his career, Francis broke up with his longtime girlfriend while on tour to support Changes. When the tour ended, he returned home to Chicago and found himself with no place to stay. So, he headed off to St. Peter’s and asked if he could move into the parsonage. “I thought I’d only stay a few months but it turned into over a year, and I knew I had to do something to take advantage of this miraculous gift of a situation,” he says.
Francis began writing new material, a series of songs that’s both strangely enchanted and painfully self-aware, inspired by Greek myths, frenzied dreams, late night drives — and a possibly haunted church. (More on that in a bit.) The end result is the Chicago-based artist’s highly-anticipated sophomore album In Plain Sight, an album that derives its title from the title of a song that wound up getting cut from the album. “It’s a song about my breakup and the circumstances that led to me living in the church, where I’m owning up to all my problems within my relationships and my sobriety,” says Francis, whose first full-length chronicles his struggles with addiction. “It felt like the right title for this record, since so much of it is about coming to the understanding that I continue to suffer because of those problems. It’s about acknowledging that and putting it out in the open in order to mitigate the suffering and try to work on it, instead of trying to hide everything.”
Continuing his ongoing collaboration with Changes producer Sergio Rios, a guitarist and engineer, who has worked with CeeLo Green and Alicia Keys, the album spotlights Francis’ restrained yet free-spirited piano playing. “From a very early age, I was playing late into the night in a very stream-of-consciousness kind of way,” he says, naming everything from ragtime to gospel soul to The Who among his formative influences.
Recorded entirely on tape with his backing band, Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass) and Collin O’Brien (drums), In Plain Sight is also fueled by Francis’ restless experimentation with a stash of analog synths lent by his friends during his early days living at the church “My sleep schedule flipped and I’d stay up all night working on songs in this very feverish way,” he says. “I just needed so badly to get completely lost in something.”
By the end of his surreal and sometimes eerie experience of living at the church—“I’m convinced that the stairway leading to the choir loft where I used to practice is haunted,” he says—Francis had found his musicality undeniably elevated. “Because I was forced into this almost monastic existence and was alone so much of the time, I could play as often and as long as I wanted,” he says. “I ended up becoming such a better pianist, a better writer, a better reader of music.” Dedicated to a woman named Lil (the de facto leader of the St. Peter’s congregation), In Plain Sight ultimately reveals the possibility of redemption and transformation even as your world falls apart.
In the lead up to In Plain Sight‘s Friday release through ATO Records, I’ve written about “Can’t Stop The Rain,” an uplifting and shuffling boogie woogie featuring a Southern rock influenced arrangement that nods at Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama,” complete with a soaring gospel-tinged chorus and a smoldering slide guitar solo from Derek Trucks. Underlying the whole affair is Francis’ unerring knack for crafting infectious hooks paired with lived-in songwriting. Of course in the case of “Can’t Stop The Rain,” the song expresses a deep, hard-won sense of gratitude, for experiencing the difficult shit and somehow surviving.
In Plain Sight‘s latest single “Problems” is trippy synthesis of 70s piano balladeer pop, AM rock, psych pop and blue-eyed soul featuring twinkling synth arpeggios, a strutting bass line, Francis’ easygoing yet plaintive falsetto, and a big book. But underneath the infectious and easygoing vibes, is a song with a narrator, who begins to realize that he ultimately is the cause and solution to his problems — and that he has the power to change his life.