Chicago-based pianist and singer Neal Francis embodies all things retro, and he’s got a Roger Waters haircut to prove it.
On Lollapalooza’s final day, the accomplished pianist (as a teenager, he toured Europe with Muddy Waters’ son) delivered a throwback set reminiscent of 1970s funk with tinges of Brit Rock and jazz rock. Imagine Allen Toussaint meets the Doors meets Sly and the Family Stone.
Redacted Magazine caught up with Francis before his Lollapalooza set to talk about his musical influences, his forthcoming album and more. Read the full conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to become a musician? And was there a moment that you knew you wanted to make this your life?
Yeah, I’ve been playing piano since I was 4. I can’t really remember a time before being interested in music. I was in bands in high schools, jazz ensemble in high school. I’m just generally really nerdy about music and found fellow music nerds. And then in college I decided to pursue architecture because I thought it was more of a… I just never really thought of studying music in college. There’s some complex around that, I’m not really sure where that stems from. But anyway, I flunked out of school, and then spent my most of my 20s sort of in between things. Gradually I got to 27 and I was like, you know, I should really give this a shot, proper. It was like crisis realization.
How many instruments you play?
I play keyboard, I sing, I play bass, guitar and drums.
I don’t want to age you, but how many years ago was that realization?
So I’m 32 now and that was when I was 27.
Are there any bands or artists that you think inspired you to do music?
I mean, I grew up listening to Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Doors. I was just in love with that music, it just made me feel excited. I was really into that whole mythology around Jim Morrison, but I’ve come to view it as a tragedy. Just a lost opportunity to see what he was really capable of, or that band, rather. I’d say the same thing about Jimi Hendrix.
I know you’ve struggled with addiction. Do you think that’s part of the reason that you see these artists as tragic figures?
Well, it’s interesting because when I was in my teens, the 27 Club had all of its sex appeal, it was romanticized by film and the music industry. Just like being this wasted rock star and having the drugs be an avenue for your creativity. And by the time I actually got to be 27, I saw why lots of people who were addicts die at that age. That’s when it really stops working for you. You’re at a crossroads physically and mentally. I had been using for 10 years at that point and it wasn’t fun anymore. It was something I had to do rather than wanted to do, and it wasn’t fueling any sort of creativity. It was taking everything away from it. When I look at Jimi, he was able to create such passionate, fiery music in spite of that heavy addiction. And it’s totally in spite of it, not as a result of heroin opening the door for him. I used psychedelics and I got everything I needed out of that first time tripping acid, you know, to see that there was like all this other shit. But I could talk for hours about this.
Well you’re sober now, right? How do you think that changes the music?
It makes me able to really work on it at all. When I was using drugs and alcohol, I was spending all my time on finding the next hit, or whatever. I didn’t have energy for anything else, sadly enough. Now, I find pleasure in other ways. One of those things is really enjoying making music.
So let’s talk about music. Your LP Changes came out in 2019. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I wrote that material following the breakup of my band The Heard. I was newly sober, sort of wondering what I was going to do with my life. I had some songs kicking around my head, and I had some really menial jobs at the time that allowed me to think about music constantly. I was just plugging away, and [Changes] is just about where I was at that time in my life.
Sonically, what were some of your inspirations?
Allen Toussaint for sure, his two solo records in the 70s, his productions for Dr. John in the mid-70s. Leon Russell’s first two solo records were really big influences. As far as horn arrangements, definitely looking at Allen Toussaint.Definitely looking at Billy Preston in terms of keyboard instrumentation. JJ Cale in terms of vocal delivery and songwriting.
What are you most excited to play live from that LP?
The only thing I’m going to be playing today from that LP will be this the title track “Changes.” The rest of the material I’m playing today is on my forthcoming LP, which I’m not allowed to name right now. But that’ll be coming out later this year. We’re performing with a six-piece band. Typically, we roll as a four-piece, so I’m excited to have the added firepower with these amazing musicians.
What are the two additions?
We have Emily, who also has her own project called Carlile, I highly recommend everybody checking it out. She’s going to be playing MS-20synthesizer and singing. And then Cole DeGenova, who also has his own solo project here, which is wonderful. He’s going to be playing keyboards and singing as well.
I know you’re based in Chicago. Are you from Chicago?
Yeah, I grew up in Oak Park.
Do you think Chicago has any significance on your music?
Absolutely. I’m influenced by the blues. Super influenced by Ramsey Lewis, Curtis Mayfield. I grew up playing in blues clubs here. I played Kingston Mines, I played at Rose’s Lounge, I played at Lee’s Unleaded on the South Side. Basically any hole in the wall bar in Chicago, I’ve played there.
Have you ever played Lollapalooza?
No, I haven’t. I actually have never even been to Lollapalooza.
Did you ever think you would play Lollapalooza?
So how does it feel to be playing here?
It’s an honor and it’s also kind of like a feather in my cap, being from this area. It was sort of this big, shiny scene that I never felt I was gonna be a part of.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I don’t know. Pay your taxes. They’ll come for you.
If you could play with one artist, living or dead, who would it be?
I’d really love to play with so many people. This is so hard. I mean, right now I’m really into Khruangbin. I’m a huge fan of that band. You should check them out. They play like, psychedelic funk. Initially, they kind of had this Thai flavor.
What were your plans pre-pandemic? And how did you adapt when everything shut down?
So we had a lot of touring booked. Two tours of Europe, a festival in Japan that we had booked. We were really looking forward to all of that stuff, and then all of it was canceled. It took a long time to figure out how to shift gears. Having no structure is really bad for me, so I was just riding this listless wave of depression. Then finally, I started acquiring recording equipment in the church I was living in and started recording the new record.
You were living in a church?
Yeah, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, the now defunct Chicago’s St. Peter’s United Church of Christ. They let me live there throughout the pandemic.
Were finances ever an issue?
That made it way easier – having a roof over my head. Because I was in the company at the church, and I was performing in exchange for rent. I dedicated my new record to the woman there who let me stay. I’m so eternally grateful.
Do you have any shows coming up in Chicago?
Yeah. We’re playing Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on September 9. We leave for tour on the fifth and we’ll be joining Black Pumas for nine dates. Bonnaroo, Outside Lands. And then we’re doing headlining dates for the rest of the month and for the rest of the year.
Featured image: Erika Goldring for BMI
Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.