By Max Stewart
Neal Francis is our favorite discovery of the last few years. Something about Francis’ sound draws from so many great sonic influences, from The Meters to Elton John to Sly & the Family Stone to Allen Toussaint, while adding his own unique flavoring. His soulful approach to keys arrangements with melodic vocals really come to life in a live setting, which we witnessed firsthand in Atlanta when he played a joyous late-night set at The Masquerade followed by a high-energy afternoon set at Shaky Knees Music Festival. Francis just released his new album, In Plain Sight, which he recorded himself during the pandemic while figuring out how to record entirely on tape. The new album expands on the many musical layers of his first album (Changes) and features the legendary Derek Trucks on slide for the song “Can’t Stop the Rain.” The variety of downtempo and upbeat tunes on ‘In Plain Sight’ are proof that Francis will be a mainstay in music for years to come.
We caught up with Neal Francis while after he performed a Saturday afternoon set at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees. He spoke about his new album and music that influenced his new songs, some of his Chicago influences, working with Derek Trucks, and how grateful he is for the success that he has already experienced.
MS: First off. Your [Shaky Knees] set today was phenomenal.
Neal Francis: Thanks man. It felt really good, I have to manage my expectations for my own well-being but I was almost in tears at some points because I was just so filled with gratitude that I am doing what I am doing.
And looks like you are on tour for …
NF: The foreseeable future. We’re very excited.
How did you harness your musical energy during the pandemic? Did you dive head first into recording the new album?
NF: I hunkered down and learned the process of recording, and I learned the rudiments of engineering. I wrote most of the stuff for the new record too.
So how did you figure out how to do the recording aspect of it yourself? I usually turn to YouTube for anything I don’t know how to do…
NF: I did watch a lot of YouTube videos, but also my guitarist left an 8-track at my house… Dude, it was a crash course. I was just calling buddies too, like my buddy Oliver works over at Studio 606 which is the Foo Fighters studio, and they’ve got the old Neve console. He was walking me through stuff and I was learning how to use the tape machine.
But we did the whole record on tape. We bought the 16 track to finish the record cause we were at a point where we had everything on 8 tracks and we were gonna bounce to digital and finish the record digitally like Changes, the first record. And we had this 16 track that went for sale that actually used to belong to Wilco and we bought that. We had to buy two because they were being sold as a pair. It was a 15ips and 30ips machine, and we just recorded on the 15ips and sold off the other one to finance it.
Very impressive. Amazing you got Derek Trucks on the new record too, how did that all come to be?
NF: Well my friend, Jesse Lauter… he is one of those guys that is so humble and will never name drop, but he works with Derek [Trucks] and Susan [Tedeschi]. I always bounce stuff off of him because I respect his taste, and he said ‘This sounds great, and it would sound really great with Derek Trucks on it.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah cool, I think that would be pretty cool too…’ But he made it happen and I got to talk on the phone with Derek because he did it remotely and that was one element that was not recorded analog. It’s an honor man. I mean everything could just end right now and that would be something to stand on.
I know you are from Chicago, a city that I love that has so much character and a deep musical identity. How has that influenced you?
NF: Thank you for asking that question. Obviously the blues heritage is what a lot of people know about Chicago, like Chess Records, Muddy Water, Junior Wells, Little Walter. But there is also a fucking killing jazz scene. Like Sun Ra and the avant-garde scene but also Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson did a really killing record in the Sixties. I mean I could go on and on about it, but especially the thing I have been into recently is the jazz side of the Chess label that was called Cadet [Records]. And they released the Rotary Connection, which featured Minnie Riperton on vocals and Phil Upchurch on guitar. Those two musicians in their own right have great solo catalogs, but its psychedelic, jazz soul. And Dorothy Ashby, the harp player. That was all recorded in the same room as the blues stuff.
And of course like Curtis Mayfield had his studio there. There was some seriously cool stuff happening in Chicago. And of course in the 90s too, like Steve Albini and the grunge bands and a lot of rock resurgence.
Wow, that’s very cool. My wife and I were in Chicago this summer and really enjoyed visiting the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, seeing guitarist Joel Patterson.
NF: Hell yeah! He’s a badass. There’s a lot of solid, world-class musicians that are working out of Chicago.
And so it’s your home base and you recorded everything in Chicago? Any more material you have ready to release from that time at home?
NF: I have a lot, but lately I have been interested in other types of music. So some of that stuff I have on the shelf might not be appropriate. We will put some time on the calendar to get back in the studio at some point.
The joy of playing live versus nailing something in the studio are wildly different. Do you have any preference or just enjoy the thrill of both?
NF: Dude, I love both. I love the studio, especially now that I know how to record myself, which is totally a product of the pandemic. I love analog recording because I don’t have to look at a screen too.
Were there any influences that helped inspire the sound of ‘In Plain Sight’?
NF: For this record, I was thinking about The Kinks every now and then, especially for “Alameda Apartments.” The Who. Pink Floyd. Always Parliament Funkadelic, more Funkadelic really, which is the harder rock side of that equation. Roy Ayers is a huge influence on me. Donny Hathaway. The list goes on and on. We are cherry picking the best shit. What is nice about living now is you can reach back and say ‘This Pointer Sisters track from the 80s is dope, let’s do a little bit of that.’ I incorporated synthesizers a lot into this record. And so Wendy Carlos is a huge influence there, she did soundtrack stuff for Kubrick and versions of Bach pieces on synthesizer. Todd Rundgren too.
You and your band seem very tight. Have you been with those guys a while?
NF: Yeah, they are my homies. I used to work with guitar player (Kellen Boersma) at a place where we would restore Rhodes and Wurlizters. He is an autodidact, where he can just do anything… like tile a bathroom floor or fix a clavinet. And our bass player Mike Starr and I were in a band back in the day. And Collin O’Brien (Drummer) and I lived with each other during the pandemic, and have known each other for over 10 years. It is such a great hang.
You and the band definitely won over some fans in the crew I was watching your set with that had not heard you before.
NF: Great man! I am so grateful for it, really. We have played a lot of empty rooms, man. And we have learned how to have fun in that situation. But anytime we get to play in front of a big crowd, I think, ‘I can’t believe we get to do this.’ This is my wildest dream of how my career would go.