Chicago’s Neal Francis Talks Lollapalooza And His Career [INTERVIEW]
Don’t miss NEAL FRANCIS at Lollapalooza on the BMI stage 8/1 at 2:10pm!
Dennis: Good day Neal, I hope you’re doing well today! Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to answer some questions for me today! How are you?
Neal: I am doing great, feeling relieved to be here and done with moving!
Dennis: I bet, moving is never fun, especially from the great space at the parsonage of St. Peter’s UCC you’ve been at, that is too bad. It is really exciting to see you’ll be at Lollapalooza this year on the BMI stage, a stage as chill as your sound and the shade will be a sweet bonus! Now, you’ve performed at many festivals, but never Lollapalooza yet, have you attended Lollapalooza any time before?
Neal: The first time I attended Lolla was two years ago as a guest of the Revivalists. As long as I have lived in Chicago I have never attended. I’m really psyched to be playing though!
Dennis: Will you be attending the whole four days?
Neal: I hope to get to the fest as much as possible but with all the rehearsing and preparation we’ll be doing for our set I’ll probably only make it for Sunday the 1st.
Dennis: Will you be taking any extra precautions for COVID-19 while on site?
Neal: I have been vaccinated and I’ll be following the recommendations of the CDC with regards to masking etc. To anyone reading this who hasn’t been vaccinated, please go get your jabs so we can all move on!
Dennis: You recently announced the incredible news that you’re joining ATO Records (congratulations!!) and that a new album is ‘in the can’. We’re so excited about this and cannot wait to hear it! I expect we’ll get to hear some selections from it at Lolla, right?
Neal: Thank you! I am very excited as well. They’ve been fantastic to work with. We will be playing mostly new material.
Dennis: What is the name of the album and what else can you share about it?
Neal: The title is still a secret…. It is nine new original songs.
Dennis: Where was it recorded?
Neal: I recorded the album entirely in the parsonage of St. Peter’s UCC in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood. I lived there for a little over 18 months starting in Oct. of 2019.
Dennis: How long were you writing and working on it and did you have any guest appearances?
Neal: I began writing the material in May of last year and we started recording in October. We did four recording sessions totaling about a month of total studio days. Mixing and mastering were finished in May of this year.
Dennis: I expect you’ll be putting this on vinyl too, right?
Neal: Yes there will be a vinyl release.
Dennis: So, your musical background is very unique to say the least, with having been exposed to piano very early on in your life. When did you first realize music was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Neal: I started getting serious about it maybe 5 years ago. I was working random day jobs and playing weddings and bar gigs as a sideman. I realized that the type of career I wanted wouldn’t materialize unless I began reaching out and recording my own music. Luckily I had a network of people in the industry to help me get started.
Dennis: You received lessons, right? Where from and for how long?
Neal: I took lessons for about 14 years age 4 to 18. My first teacher taught me classical piano at her school in Oak Park and I had two other more jazz oriented teachers in Chicago.
Dennis: How much of a difference did those lessons make for you especially since you still relied on playing by ear too?
Neal: I avoided learning how to read music until recently because I was always able to “cheat” using my ear to learn pieces. It really hampered me in some situations. I’m grateful for my teachers however, because they all exposed me to great music that I wouldn’t have encountered on my own.
Dennis: How was it growing up for you with school and your love for music? Were there any difficulties, or conflicts between the two?
Neal: I was lucky to attend an elementary school and high school with strong music programs. I never felt like I was lacking opportunities to play and learn. I spent most of my college years and the years after confused about what I wanted to do, however.
Dennis: Were you a good student overall?
Neal: I could be but it was inconsistent. I was diagnosed with ADD and medicated…. I have always loved to read and write and draw. I did good work when i applied myself to something I was interested in.
Dennis: Who were some of your early heroes (musical or otherwise)?
Neal: My earliest heroes were Mozart and Scott Joplin
Dennis: When did you write your first ‘official’ song and is it something you play these days?
Neal: I won a composition competition when I was 12 for a ragtime piece that the juror had to make sure wasn’t plagiarized from a Scott Joplin tune…. But I’ve been making stuff up from the moment I touched the piano. Trying to mimic styles I liked.
Dennis: Was your first band, The Heard then? Or had you been in other bands previously? If so, what was their name(s) and where did you perform in Chicago?
Neal: My first band was called “Whitewater Stills” in High School, then I joined a band (also in HS) called the Reverend Funk Connection. The drummer from that band, James Krivchenia, is now in a band called Big Thief. The horn players, Bryant Smith and Lucas Ellman played in the Heard with me and Lucas plays Tenor Sax on Changes. I was in probably a dozen bands as either a writing member or a sideman over the years after high school, we played in DIY venues, apartments, basements, bars, clubs….
Dennis: How would you describe the Chicago music scene, both then and now?
Neal: My experience was a lot of great musicians collaborating across multiple projects. Everyone knew someone who played with someone. Gigs were like parties for all the musicians to come out and hang with each other.
Dennis: How does Chicago compare to L.A. as a music city (for you)?
Neal: It always seemed like a struggle to make it out of Chicago with an original project. Lots of musicians I knew moved to New York, Nashville, or LA to pursue their higher career goals. There are so many insanely talented musicians here in Chicago though!
Dennis: What makes a great song to you?
Neal: So many different ways to answer this question. Like a good film I think a good song causes you to suspend disbelief and inhabit another emotion or reality for a few minutes. It’s everything. Production, groove, lyrics, and performance.
Dennis: How has the fan response been to Changes (Instrumentals) as opposed to the full regular album?
Neal: I’ve taken some shit from people who just want to hear new original material and think we’ve been milking this too long. The vast majority of people have dug it though. It’s gotten lots of playlist attention. I’m excited to release the new record.
Dennis: Can you describe the power of music and its ability to impact change in people’s lives?
Neal: I have been overjoyed to hear from fans who connect with Changes and reach out. If an artist is vulnerable, it leaves the opportunity there for the listener to connect and not feel like they’re going through their struggles alone. Music can also be a vehicle for escape. Some of my highest moments are in a huge group of people dancing and losing myself for a little while.
Dennis: Well, one thing is for the sure, your music has a lot of great power, and we’ll get to see that power unleashed with Carlile and Cole Degenova on the BMI stage this Sunday, right?
Neal: Yes, I am so lucky to have them. They are two of the most talented musicians I know and two of my favorite people to boot. Add them to the already formidable core of four and I think we’ve really got something going.
Dennis: Believe me, there is so much more I’d love to ask you and talk with you about, but I know your time is super short, so hopefully we can carry on again sometime soon! Stay safe and I look forward to seeing your set!
Neal: It’s my pleasure! See you there.
Don’t miss NEAL FRANCIS at Lollapalooza on the BMI stage 8/1 at 2:10pm!
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“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.”