At Work: Neal Francis

Justin Jacobs on November 18, 2020
At Work: Neal Francis

Neal Francis considers himself to be agnostic, but he still knows when to put his faith in something bigger—a reverence that dug him out of the depths of addiction and recast him as one of Chicago’s most exciting rising acts. He dropped his first solo album, Changes—a collection of shadowy, shuffling funk and blues tunes—in the fall of 2019, before COVID-19 stranded him back in the Windy City. Since then, he’s been working on a follow-up in his adopted home—a church.

“I played piano and organ here every Sunday [before the pandemic],” he says. “After my record-release party wrapped last year, it was 4 a.m., and I came to church a few hours later. I’d underwent a really painful breakup. I was in a dreamlike state, and I asked if I could live here. It’s been an incredible, life-changing thing: this beautiful parsonage house attached to the church with a pipe organ, grand pianos and stained glass.”

Francis first hit the road at 18, backing up blues artists across Europe and the U.S. He joined funk act The Heard in 2012, but heavy drinking got him kicked out—and his music career hit an impasse. He knew he needed to get sober and watching a transformative set by The New Mastersounds convinced him he needed to go solo. But it wasn’t an easy feat.

“Something saved me,” he says now. “[Sobriety] definitely wasn’t something I just decided to do. I didn’t have any money to record, but I was busting ass at The UPS Store and playing weddings, squirreling away my bread.”

With his meager savings, Francis recorded the first set of tunes for Changes, and used them as a calling card to assemble a new band. The finished record finds Francis grappling with a troubled past (“I’m not really sure how to live my life,” he sings. “I’ll just take it slow”) over somersaulting bass, driving percussion and crisp horns. It’s music that should make Dr. John and Allen Toussaint smile from the great beyond— impossibly catchy, church-organ injected, buttoned-up funk.

Since first sequestering himself in a house of God during the pandemic, Francis has emerged with nearly a dozen new songs and an even clearer mission.

“I’m still a work in progress, but I’m trying to be a better human being—for the people around me and their happiness, and for my own peace of mind,” he says. “I’m just trying to walk erect, like everyone else. But I’m locked into a healthy routine, and we’re gonna forge ahead from here.”