Spotlight: Neal Francis

Ryan Reed on November 22, 2021
Spotlight: Neal Francis

photo credit: Liina Raud

The sting of the pandemic quarantine was crippling for most musicians, and Neal Francis wasn’t immune. When the lockdown hit, the gifted pianist and psych-soul songwriter was deep into a tour behind his debut solo LP, 2019’s Changes—including a run of dates with the likeminded Black Pumas. But there was an obvious silver lining to being rerouted back home. He now had an excuse to settle into his digs at the now[1]defunct St. Peter’s UCC—a massive Chicago church that helped spawn his colorful second record, In Plain Sight. “It really was a gift,” Francis says of the space, where he started working as the music minister in 2017—a pretty sweet role for a gigging musician.

“At the time, [I was] looking for any opportunity to make some scratch,” he recalls. “And having a church gig is great because you can play a gig Saturday night and know that you are also gonna get some quick money the next morning. It was exactly what I needed. There wasn’t a rehearsal with a choir. It was just me and a vocalist—we’d show up an hour before the service and run through the tunes, and that was it. I did that for like three years.”

It turned out to be more than just easy cash: Francis, already a borderline keyboard virtuoso, learned how to “competently” read music, becoming “more serious” about his craft through this weekly structure. But it also seemed like a shame not to utilize the enormous building itself: an intricately arranged space housing multiple pianos, decorated with “beautiful woodwork and stained glass.” And the church became a more personal sanctuary in October 2019, when—after breaking up with his girlfriend and heading back to his hometown—he moved into the parsonage.

“Prior to the pandemic, I worried that I would have to move out before I got the chance to do something compelling with the space,” Francis says. “From the moment I moved in, I was like, ‘This is special.’ So it was a great spot to be trapped when the quarantine started. I knew it was something I needed to take advantage of creatively.”

So he did just that—workshopping his song ideas on the choir room grand piano, noodling around on the sanctuary’s pipe organ, inviting drummer Collin O’Brien to come stay with him, setting up a mixing board in the sacred space and learning to operate an eight-track tape machine borrowed from guitarist Kellen Boersma. “I had all my gear in the basement, so I started learning how to use that equipment and began demoing out the record,” he says. “That was wild too—I’d never learned how to record myself.”

There were also downsides to living in such an unusual place—he thinks one particular stairway might be haunted. But it was mostly an inspiring time. Francis demoed out all nine tracks—including the euphoric post-breakup anthem “Alameda Apartments” and the trippy epic “Sentimental Garbage”— before rerecording them with the full band in the church.

A centerpiece of the sessions became the spacey, deeply crooned “Prometheus,” which taps into a torturous tale from Greek mythology—by way of a modern psychological horror film. “I’d seen the [2019’s] The Lighthouse, about these two lighthouse operators who are going insane,” he says. “Collin and I were always going, ‘We’re the two guys from Lighthouse, sans drinking.’ It took until the end of the movie, but that’s when I realized it was a retelling of the Prometheus story, when he’s getting his innards pecked out by the seagulls. I read a fuckin’ Wikipedia article about Prometheus, and I was an instant expert. [Laughs.] I don’t even remember when it occurred to me, but I was excited when it happened. I’ve never given myself that—I was super stoked that I had a fuckin’ original idea for once.”

In Plain Sight exudes vintage analog warmth, with producer Sergio Rios capturing the band in a sepia-tinged glow. Everything musically was handled in-house, except for a few backing vocals (overdubbed in the spring at a Chicago studio) and a reliably smoldering slide-guitar solo that Derek Trucks recorded remotely for “Can’t Stop the Rain.”

“[Kellan] did the original slide part, and it was perfect,” Francis says. “A [mutual friend] was like, ‘Derek should play on this.’ And I was like, ‘Right.’ He said, ‘Let me send it to him.’” That turned out to be a good call: “We had a great conversation. [Trucks] was so humble. He wanted to play to the song. It wasn’t about him. It was really inspiring because he’s the world’s greatest at what he does. It was important for me to interact with him.”

The singer-pianist also connected with another bucket-list-level collaborator—studio god Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album at his personal studio. “I’d always been a fan of his records,” Francis enthuses. “I don’t have a lot of records from the last 20 years. And a lot of the ones that I do have are Fridmann productions: Tame Impala, Neon Indian. I just really like his stuff. I’m a huge fan of Allen Toussaint, Leon Russell, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers—producers like that, where you can just say, ‘That’s probably them.’ They have such a signature sound.”

Looking back at his “extremely weird” year-plus period of church living, Francis remains grateful for the unlikely opportunity—and the music it helped create. “It was a surprise,” he says. “And a miracle.