Neal Francis is a virtuoso– a classically trained pianist who includes Bach in his practice regimen– but that’s not what distinguishes him from other pianists. He’s a songwriter first, an artist in love with the great American songbook, the 1960s and ’70s FM radio edition, the era when pop music began embracing a sophistication, ambition, and, perhaps most vital, a groove that carried songs past the sacred 3-minute mark. Here, musicians began giving melodies time to unfold, hooks the space to breathe, and arrangements the chance to explore the uncharted, even the psychedelic. Francis is refreshingly unapologetic about the music he loves– he understands who brought him here. While many artists dodge questions about influences, he’s prone to gushing when given the chance to talk about the artists who have moved him, from Allen Toussaint to The Beatles, The Meters, ELO, Sly and The Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder. He is also unapologetic about his heart-on-the-sleeve approach to songwriting, a philosophy that finds him reckoning with addiction, break-ups, upheaval, and perseverance. This adoration and honesty drive his albums, records warm with hooks and analog synths that belie the heady subject matter. From his debut Changes to last year’s In Plain Sight, Francis has given us music that is more of a prism than a pastiche.
Neal Francis plays Grant’s Lounge on Friday, April 8th.
In Plain Sight was considered by many critics one of 2021’s best albums. What’s it like seeing your name on these best-of lists?
I’m really grateful that people are listening and appreciating the record because we’re so proud of it. After a decade of toiling in obscurity, as they say, to have the last two records getting a lot of attention and appreciation feels really good.
Your sound is so hybridized and genre-defying. Did you envision finding this kind of success– or audience– with your sound? Was there a fear that your music was too multi-dimensional?
I didn’t really know if I had any expectations. Obviously, I want to succeed and have a creative sustainability, but the solace is that the music has an appreciation, and I’m just trying to synthesize elements of the music I like into what I create. Hopefully, by proxy, there will be an audience for what I’m creating.
Did you make great mixtapes when you were a kid?
Oh, dude, that’s a great question! Yeah, definitely! My dad had two tape decks hooked up to our stereo system, so I would take records and bounce them to cassette and make actual mixtapes. I was probably one of the last generations of kids to do that because I know that even during that time, I would bring a cassette to school and my buddy was like, “Well, I burned this on a CD.” Some of those I really wore out, ripping stuff off of Queen and [Pink] Floyd records, and Tommy by The Who and Stevie Wonder all sorts of stuff.
Your albums are lush with instrumentation. How do you take that one kernel idea and give it muscle and flesh it out?
Sometimes when I’m writing at the piano, it’s because I hear something in my head, and I hear it with full instrumentation and orchestration, like a recording in my brain. Then the challenge is: How do I preserve this idea? Usually, the first quickest way to do that is to make a demo on the piano and sing parts over it to try and record a snapshot of that idea, so when I go back to make a demo, I have that to remind my brain, “Okay, this is where this came from.” Then usually I can fill in the gaps. But yeah, that’s kind of a challenge there.
And then I’m always recording voice memos, most recently on guitar. I don’t have a piano here at the apartment I’m at currently. I’ve been challenging myself to fully write songs in that form– just one instrument and vocal and then waiting to make the demo because if I get too into recording the arrangement musically, then the song might get lost, and it might get contrived.
How do you avoid those contrivances or cliches?
I think they’re hard to avoid because I definitely want to bring elements of what I’m listening to into the work. A lot of times I’m like, “I could paraphrase this riff and plug in this chord progression.” I’m not too shy [about influences]– my music obviously speaks for itself as far as just what I’m into. There’s nothing new under the sun. Even the most contemporary pop music is a reflection of something that artist was listening to and inspired by. I’m not too shy to be like, “Well, here’s Curtis Mayfield coming to town…” (Laughs)
I know you have a classical background. How much of a role does music theory play into the songwriting process, versus feel and intuition?
I think it’s baked in. I think where music theory really helps from a technical standpoint is communicating with other musicians that are going to play my music. In the studio setting with my band, writing down a chord progression in a way that they can read it is important. Also, for auxiliary instrumentation, like with the first record, working with someone who could transcribe horn parts, for example, and get that down in notation was important. It makes the process smoother, so I’m not humming something to someone else in the studio, wasting a lot of time. But I’m not really thinking about that when I’m writing. I think the basic harmony and content of the music are coming from me, listening and trying to bring those elements into whatever I’m creating.
Is there a difficult juxtaposition between your classical and pop backgrounds?
No, I don’t think so. Recently, we were listening to Electric Light Orchestra on the way back from Georgia, actually! We stopped in Macon overnight on our way back from Tampa a few days ago– and me and the bass player were riding in front listening to Electric Light Orchestra’s first couple of records–and that’s straight-up borrowing from Johannes Brahms, putting it in a rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation, and I was really inspired by that as a kid like, “Roll Over Beethoven” by Electric Light Orchestra, like super cheesy!
But Jeff Lynne is completely serious… (Laughs)
Dude, yeah, he’s one of the best at that, and of course, I love a lot of classical music. That was a huge part of my upbringing as well. I’m a huge fan of Bach, in particular. The crossover from when Wendy Carlos started recording Bach on a synthesizer [Switch-On Bach] was such a perfect pairing of that music with that instrument. It’s always going to influence. Western classical music is really in the mix, for me at least.
And I think another aspect of that is a lot of classical artists writing orchestral music pre-1900 were borrowing folk melodies for their serious symphonic works. Those folk melodies are also the basis of what mixed with African rhythms in the 1800s in this country. All human music together, we’re at the tip of the sphere. We have the benefit of looking back and being influenced by all of this stuff. So, it’s pretty cool.
In what ways are you still a student of music?
I’m trying to get better at guitar. I just bought a Guild acoustic here in Chicago that I’ve really fallen in love with, and I’ve been playing guitar for a while now, but I’m really starting to get comfortable with it. I’m always trying to learn more there and become more competent on guitar. But piano, any opportunity yet to run my routine, which is like major scales to different minor scales, reading through The Well-Tempered Clavier, which is a Bach collection of piano works. That, especially over the pandemic when I had a lot of time at my disposal, really enabled me to level up as a musician, just getting those rudiments because prior to the last few years, I was really not very up on my technique. I really had an opportunity to dive deep on that as a result of the pandemic. And also the job I had in the church, being an accompanist and learning how to read better.
I read that you focused on architecture in college. Are there some parallels between that world of architecture and maybe the world of songcraft for you?
Absolutely. Yeah, I’m glad you asked because it’s been coming up a lot. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, which was home to Frank Lloyd Wright between 1889 and 1909. As a kid, I was giving these Junior Interpreter tours of his home and studio, and I was just fascinated with architecture. I think it stood out to me that Frank Lloyd Wright was a lover of music. He has a player piano in his house because he couldn’t play himself, but that was one of his major influences on his work.
And there’s that Goethe quote, “Architecture is frozen music. ” I think about that a lot because it’s when you look at the exterior of a building, you can see there’s a rhythm and structure. I sometimes think the foundation of a track is the rhythm section, and then the function is the lyrics, and the chordal structure and the emotion communicated there, and then the ornamentation is auxiliary instrumentation. Brass or strings or anything else you add to it makes it pretty.
That’s mainly why I was into architecture as well. That’s kind of why I didn’t remain in architecture school, not only because I was consumed with partying too much– that was the main reason I dropped out– but the other reason was that I just wanted to make pretty drawings, and there’s a lot more to it (laughs)! I’m just trying to make music that I would like to listen to.
You mentioned partying, and I’ve read that you’ve dealt with addiction in the past. Was there a concern when you got sober that your creativity might suffer? I know some artists worry about that when they get clean…
Yeah, totally, man. That was totally a lie. With my condition, I would rationalize my drinking and my using drugs to say, “Well, I need this. I need to inflict this upon myself for my art,” and I think that’s such a load of bullshit because my creativity was non-existent at the peak of using. I wasn’t really capable of much of anything outside of getting my next drink. It did take some time though because it was like it was a shock when I was playing those first gigs sober, but my abilities have really improved by leaps and bounds since then.
I feel like I’m always putting a biographical element into my songs because that’s the way I create the most compelling work, at least to my own ears. It just feels genuine that way, and I can really dive deep into whatever I’m going through, or I can borrow from a time that really stood out. And hearing me, whatever I’m going through, when you hear what somebody else has experienced, you relate to a lot of people that way. I find that in the music I’m listening to. The meanings of songs evolve throughout my life. It’s like, “Oh, that’s what John Lennon is talking about.” Sometimes I wish I could write songs in another way, but really I’m just trying to impose what I’m going through and what I’ve been exposed to into what I’m writing about.
What are some of those songs whose meaning has changed for you over time? Or maybe an artist that you have a different relationship with now?
Sure, like Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers, and just listening to them or Marvin Gaye, just listening to these songs. I had no connection to the black experience being a white guy, but hearing all the songs, being in love with the melody and the song, and then actually listening to the lyrics, and even if they’re not talking about the black experience, but talking about life experience and relationships, and you can’t really relate to a story about heartbreak if you’ve never been through it. There’s countless examples of that– songs that you weren’t ready to hear the way that they were written. But that is a testament to the strength of the music. Even as an eight-year-old kid, I was like “Pastime Paradise” is a fucking masterpiece! This is just amazing!” And having no idea where those lyrics are coming from and then realizing, “Oh, it’s this disillusionment with spirituality and religion and dogma and community!” I’m still undergoing that process with lots of music I listen to.
You brought up Stevie Wonder. Did you see the Summer of Soul documentary?
Oh, God, yes! That was actually the first movie that my girlfriend and I saw in theaters in Chicago after things opened up against last year. We walked into the movie as Stevie was doing that drum solo at the top of the film– and I’m getting chills right now! There’s so many moments where I was just brought to tears by the beauty of those performances– The 5th Dimension and Mavis singing with Mahalia Jackson, Sly, and Nina Simone. It’s like so, so incredible to see such a quality performance captured like that.
I’ve read that the last records were inspired by these earthshaking, profound events that you experienced– break-ups, sobriety, living in a church when you made In Plain Sight. Do you worry that you need those types of events, those upheavals, to inspire creativity for your next record?
I’m grateful to say that I’ve been having a real spurt of creativity lately because I was worried about that, you know? I moved out of the church in July, and I was like, “Shit, man. Is the well dry?’ I think I have to have that moment of doubt after I finish a creative project, whatever it is. I’m thinking, “Am I going to be able to do something again that’s compelling?” I guess the answer is life is still happening. I have no shortage of things to talk about and reflect upon. A lot of the songs I have been writing are just unabashedly joyful. And then the challenge is, “How can I make it not cheesy as hell?”
That’s a fallacy as well. I don’t think I need to be a tortured artist because, obviously, the creative process has its own inherent suffering because of what it is, so I can write about that. I can write about anything that’s going on.
What’s it like performing when you’re revisiting your old self in these songs?
Sometimes, I feel a little bit of disconnect from the lyrics, but for the most part, I just really enjoy playing with my band. We’re always trying to improve the arrangements and get better at playing together, so I don’t think about that too much. And then, of course, I’m just focused on writing new stuff, so I’m excited to bring that into the set.
Do you learn anything about yourself after you finish making a record?
Well, going back to the idea about songs changing in meaning… The song “Changes” off my first record is still ringing through. I could apply that to many things I’ve been through in my life– the concept of hiding from myself and having things revealed about my base tendencies to myself. The song “Can’t Stop the Rain” was about a relationship, but now it more feels like it’s a generalization of how you can’t stop life from happening. I think the songs themselves are a process of discovery, just within that writing process too because I start at a point, and I don’t really know where I’m going to end up.
Your song “Alameda Apartments” is considered a break-up anthem. What are some songs that carried you through a break-up?
Ah, man. I usually go on such a tear musically (laughs)! Musically, going through break-ups, nothing could fail to make me cry and reflect! The first thing that popped in my head was this Syl Johnson song called “I Let a Good Girl Go.”
Rest in peace, Syl…
Yeah, man, he’s another Chicagoan who was an ultimate badass. The music that I connect with, it’s almost like I’m not even in control of what I’m exposed to, and then something will pop up. And here I am listening to it…
Here’s a great example, going back to what we were saying– John Lennon, specifically, the song “Cold Turkey”, which we cover now. I used to enjoy that song, but then getting clean and sober, it’s like, “Oh, he’s talking about withdrawal. He’s not talking about lunch meat.” Not that I ever thought that was the case– but you know what I’m saying? I think the universe introduces me to what I need to hear at any given time.