In Plain Sight Neal Francis
- 1Alameda Apartments04:39
- 3Can't Stop the Rain04:06
- 6Sentimental Garbage06:06
- 9Say Your Prayers04:20
Info for In Plain Sight
On his new album In Plain Sight, Neal Francis offers up a body of work both strangely enchanted and painfully self-aware, unfolding in songs sparked from Greek myths and frenzied dreams and late-night drives in the depths of summer delirium. True to its charmed complexity, the singer/songwriter/pianist’s second full-length came to life over the course of a tumultuous year spent living in a possibly haunted church in Chicago. The result: a portrait of profound upheaval and weary resilience, presented in a kaleidoscopic sound that’s endlessly absorbing.
The follow-up to Francis’s 2019 debut Changes—a New Orleans-R&B-leaning effort that landed on best-of-the-year lists from the likes of KCRW, KEXP, and The Current, and saw him hailed as “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint” by BBC Radio 6—In Plain Sight was written and recorded almost entirely at the church, a now-defunct congregation called St. Peter’s UCC. Despite not identifying as religious, Francis took a music-ministry job at the church in 2017 at the suggestion of a friend. After breaking up with his longtime girlfriend while on tour in fall 2019, he returned to his hometown and found himself with no place to stay, then headed to St. Peter’s and asked to 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.
Mixed by Grammy Award-winner Dave Fridmann (HAIM, Spoon, The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala), In Plain Sight finds Francis again joining forces with Changes producer and analog obsessive Sergio Rios (a guitarist/engineer known for his work with CeeLo Green and Alicia Keys). Like its predecessor, the album spotlights Francis’s refined yet free-spirited performance on piano, an instrument he took up at the age of four. “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. With a prodigy-like gift for piano, Francis sat in with a dozen different blues acts in Chicago clubs as a teenager, and helmed a widely beloved instrumental funk band called The Heard before going solo. Along with earning lavish acclaim (including a glowing review from Bob Lefsetz, who declared: “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS!”), Changes led to such triumphs as performing live on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” sharing the stage with members of The Meters at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and touring with such acts as Lee Fields & The Expressions and Black Pumas.
Recorded entirely on tape with his bandmates Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass), and Collin O’Brien (drums), In Plain Sight bears a lush and dreamlike quality, thanks in large part to Francis’s restless experimentation with a stash of analog synths lent by his friends in his early days 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.” In a move partly inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, In Plain Sight takes its title from a track Francis ended up scrapping 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.”
The opulent opening track to In Plain Sight, “Alameda Apartments” makes for a majestic introduction to the album’s unveiling of Francis’s inner demons. “I started writing that song maybe six years ago, before I got sober,” he says. “I was going through another breakup and getting kicked out of my place, and I had a nightmare about moving into an art-deco apartment that was haunted, where the walls were all shifting around.” A prime showcase for Francis’s piano work, “Alameda Apartments” simulates that dream state in its untethered melodies, luminous grooves, and lyrics that drift from despair to detached curiosity (e.g., “It remains to be seen if the ghosts are all right”). “The craziest thing is that I’d never encountered the name ‘Alameda’ in any time in my life prior to that dream,” says Francis. “It’s bizarre that I even remembered it, especially since you don’t dream very often when you’re getting fucked up.”
On “Problems,” In Plain Sight eases into a brighter and breezier mood, with Francis mining inspiration from early-’70s Sly & the Family Stone and the glistening soft rock of Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac. But in a stark contrast to the track’s radiant synth and rapturous harmonies, “Problems” centers on Francis’s exacting introspection. “It’s about being half-in and half-out of a relationship, and how untenable that is,” he says. “I wrote it at a time when I really couldn’t maintain a relationship, because I had too many issues with myself that needed to be addressed.”
Graced with a smoldering slide-guitar solo from the legendary Derek Trucks, “Can’t Stop the Rain” arrives as the first unabashedly hopeful moment on In Plain Sight. “I wrote that with my buddy David Shaw, who came up with the refrain and this idea that even though life’s going to throw all this shit at you, there’s still so many things to be grateful for,” says Francis. Propelled by the track’s cascading piano lines and wildly soaring vocals, that refrain takes on an unlikely anthemic power as Francis shares a bit of gently expressed encouragement: “You can’t stop the rain/It’s always coming down/It’s always gonna fall/But you’re not gonna drown.”
On the guitar-heavy and glorious “Prometheus,” Francis nods to the Greek myth of the Titan god who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to the humans. As punishment, Prometheus spent eternity chained to a rock as an eagle visited each day to peck out his liver—which then grew back overnight, only to be eaten again the following day in a neverending cycle of torment. “That song came from the lowest ebb of quarantine, when Chicago was literally on fire,” Francis says. “It came to me while I was driving around all these abandoned streets in the middle of the night, and turned into a song about facing my problems with addiction and feeling like I’m chained to this set of compulsions.” Threaded with plainspoken confession (“It’s not in my nature to try to do better”), the track features a sprawling synth arrangement informed by the many hours Francis spent playing the St. Peter’s pipe organ. “I call that section of the song ‘The Pope,’” he says. “It’s this grand, powerful entry that’s sort of sinister, and then it just drops away.”
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 notes—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.
“When I started the process of writing these songs, I was so emotionally out-of-sorts and really kind of hopeless that I’d be able to come up with anything,” says Francis. “But then I sat down and started working, and embraced whatever inspiration came my way. Sometimes it felt like beating my head against a wall, but I tried to trust that it would lead somewhere. The whole thing was like a weird dream—this very strange time of terrible, wonderful isolation.”
“The reincarnation of Allen Toussaint.” Craig Charles, BBC Radio 6
“Think New Orleans meets the Midwest with a little bit of California sun shining in the background.” -TwinCitiesMedia.net
“There’s a good chance you’ll have heard of Francis by the time the year is over…classic Funk, Soul and R&B.” Cincinnati CityBeat
“…gleefully mired In 70s style funk.” - NPR
“Soulful style…uplifting vibe…” - Dusty Groove
“Instant Americana-funk classic…R&B, blues and touches of gospel and good old fashioned funk merge into pure beauty and soul here, making the appetite and excitement for whatever Francis does next all the more intense.” - Record Crates United
“I just wanted to be honest about everything, from my musical influences to my story,” muses Neal Francis. After years of dishonest living—consumed by drugs, alcohol, and addiction—such sincerity is jarring from the Chicago-based musician. Liberated from a self-destructive past and born anew in sobriety, Francis has captured an inspired collection of songs steeped in New Orleans rhythms and early 70s rock n’ roll. His music evokes a bygone era of R&B’s heyday while simultaneously forging a new path on the musical landscape. Ohio-based Karma Chief Records (a subsidiary of rising soul label Colemine Records) released his debut LP Changes in September 2019.
There is a deep connection between Francis’s childhood—his obsession with boogie woogie piano, his father’s gift of a dusty Dr. John LP—and the songs he’s created. The result is an astonishing collection of material without parallel in the contemporary funk and soul scene. The influences are unmistakable: the vocal stylings of Allen Toussaint and Leon Russell; the second line rhythms of The Meters and Dr. John; the barroom rock ‘n’ roll of The Rolling Stones; the gospel soul of Billy Preston; the roots music of The Band. Francis pays tribute to the masters but has his own story to tell: “It’s the life I’ve lived so far.”
And what a life it’s been. Born Neal Francis O’Hara, the piano prodigy found himself touring Europe by the age of 18 with Muddy Waters’ son and backing up other prominent blues artists coast-to-coast. In 2012, Francis joined popular instrumental funk band The Heard. With Francis at the creative helm, The Heard transformed into a national act, touring with boogaloo progenitors The New Mastersounds and chart toppers The Revivalists and appearing at Jazz Fest and Bear Creek. As The Heard’s star rose, however, Francis sunk deeper into addiction. Once a promising sideman, by 2015 he had been fired from his band, evicted from his apartment, and was perilously close to self-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.
The journey from a hospital bed to launching his solo career was neither predictable nor straightforward. There were musical fits and starts, relapses, and broken relationships. Yet the overwhelming passion driving Francis in this second act has been an abundance of creative energy. “Drinking held my music in a half-cocked slingshot. I was always so consumed by drugs and alcohol that I didn’t have the time, money, or creative energy to do it. Sobriety let it loose.”
Determined to realize the songs swirling in his head, Francis assembled a crack team of musicians, calling on bassist Mike Starr (The Heard) and drummer PJ Howard (The Revivalists, The Heard). He linked up with producer and analog-obsessive Sergio Rios (Orgone, Cee Lo Green, Alicia Keys) and self-funded a trip to Killion Sound in Los Angeles to record the initial batch of material. “I learned to trust my instincts in that room,” says Francis. Buoyed by classic horn arrangements and Rios’ fierce guitar work, the resulting tracks illuminate a lifetime spent studying the masters of rock and soul music.
From the RMI electra-piano riff that kicks off “She’s A Winner” to the screaming organ swells of “This Time,” Francis and company let it all hang out. This is fun music, dance music. Yet verse after verse and chorus after chorus, Francis wrestles with his past in a straightforward manner: “It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, but I’m not home/ I’m surrounded by people, but I’m really alone.” Like Toussaint and Russell before him he’s married the upbeat rhythms of New Orleans R&B with the lyrical approach of a confessional singer/songwriter. The refrain on “This Time” serves as a foxhole prayer for a better future: “Let me get it this time/I won’t let you down/Let me get it this time/I won’t fool around.”
Francis finished recording basic tracks for Changes in Los Angeles in February of 2018 and spent the following months doing overdubs in Chicago with engineer Mike Novak (who also recorded demos for the project). Soon after he was eager to begin his touring career. After signing with Paradigm Talent Agency, Neal played shows across North American supporting Australian band The Cat Empire. He has received praise on several notable radio outlets including KEXP, KCRW’s The Morning Becomes Eclectic, and BBC Radio 6. Francis and his four-piece band recently performed during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, sharing the stage with The Meters and other legends. In 2019 alone he hit the road with Black Pumas, Steel Pulse, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Dumpstaphunk and others. Francis pledges to tour relentlessly to promote his own music. “I’m doing this to fulfill a drive within myself, but also to pay tribute to the gifts I’ve been given. And it comes from a place of immense gratitude.”
This album contains no booklet.