“I’m just overwhelmingly grateful because I struggled to get anything going for a long time in my life,” says 33-year-old Chicago musician Neal Francis, who is about to kick off a massive tour, which includes headlining dates, festival stops, and a run supporting Amos Lee. The dates are in support of In Plain Sight, his sophomore album, which dropped last year. Although he considers his musical career to have had a relatively slow start, during a recent phone chat with Francis — who’s become known for his take on retro funk, R&B, and blues – the singer/songwriter tells me that in recent years his accomplishments have exceeded any of his youthful expectations.
“We’ve opened for members of The Meters; we played a set at Red Rocks in 2021; I got to play onstage with Wilco at their Sky Blue Sky festival and I still can’t believe that happened, just to have them appreciate what I’m doing and invite me to do something with them… David Fridmann mixed and recorded the new album and I’ve just been a fan of his for such a long time. It’s been amazing, these moments of disbelief and gratitude. I mean not long ago I was just a sideman, playing weddings and bar gigs and hustling.’”
Neal Francis first made a name for himself with 2019’s Changes, an album inspired by New Orleans R&B, which had BBC Radio 6 calling him “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint.” While that record chronicles Francis’ battle with addiction, In Plain Sight documents a breakup with his longtime girlfriend amidst his 2019 tour, which led him back to his hometown to do some intense soul searching. With no place to say, he took up residence in the parsonage of St. Peter’s church, where he began working a music-ministry job in 2017, despite a lack of personal religious identity. Although it wasn’t the plan, Francis wound up staying at the Chicago church for about a year, where he wrote and recorded the majority of In Plain Sight with his longtime band (guitarist Kellen Boersma, bassist Mike Starr, and drummer Collin O’Brien) and producer, Sergio Rios, also responsible for production duties on Changes.
Despite the familiar crew, Francis tells me that the recording of his sophomore album was an evolution of sorts: “Changes was a little bit of a different process. I flew to LA and was working at my producer, Sergio Rios’ studio. For In Plain Sight I built a studio inside the residence where I was and Sergio flew out there to Chicago.” He also tells me that lockdown gave him a lot more time to work on the album and do everything his preferred way: “Where Changes was analog, this was 100% on tape, which is how I like to record.” And he feels as though this helped him produce some of his best work yet: “I’m proud of the whole thing, but the song ‘Asleep’ is just an example of my growth as a writer and the track right after that, ‘BNYLV,’ is more in a dance direction and I’m heading a little more in that direction for my new music that’ll maybe wind up being my third album.”
While In Plain Sight has earned overwhelming acclaim from both critics and those responsible for it (“I’m just really grateful… The overall response has been positive from everybody. I know all the guys who worked on it are really proud of it.”), Neal Francis tell me that the struggles associated with making a sophomore LP are legit: “It’s a real thing with your second record! You have all this time to write your first record because you don’t necessarily have a career, so you kind of write it piecemeal.” However, he tells me that once you’ve established yourself and taken your work on the road the pressure intensifies exponentially: “A lot of bands struggle to write that second record amidst being so busy.” He goes on to cite lockdown as a blessing of sorts for the time it gave him to work on In Plain Sight: “I had 180 shows on the books for 2020, but then they all got cancelled because of the pandemic and all of a sudden I had this gift of all this time.”
Neal Francis’ current batch of dates will have him headlining The Music Hall at World Café Live on Friday, February 18th. He will be accompanied by Ciaran Walls’ “fuzz-funk” project, Lady HD, as local opener, in addition to recently profiled blues-rock guitar virtuoso Emily Wolfe as direct support, of whom Francis is already a big fan: “Emily is fantastic. My agent was looking for support in that region of the country and she submitted her music, and I was thrilled.” While this jaunt does have a number of stops that Francis is especially excited about – including a CBS television program that he’s appearing on in NYC just before the tour kicks off at Music Hall of Williamsburg and an appearance at North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands – he tells me that, after the pandemic, he’s trying to keep his excitement at bay and take everything one date at a time: “I try to remain in the present as much as possible… I’m hesitant to look at my tour dates, with everything that’s happened in the past two years [laughs].”
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