A lot of ink is spilled about artists who are “on the rise.” Whether because they have a booming single, they land a sought-after festival slot, or even they get opportune articles in the right publications, we’ve all seen acts in the early stage of their career, with bright but uncertain futures brimming with possibility.
In some cases, the momentum stalls out or erodes before they can move to the proverbial “next level”; in others, it just keeps building.
There’s no objective way to predict which route an artist will take. The general chaos of the music industry ensures that.
But the first time I put on Neal Francis’ Debut Changes in 2019, I heard an act with a future. The record, an uber-funky modern take on classic funk and soul sounds (specifically those of 1970s New Orleans), grabbed me immediately with its hooks, songwriting, and killer keyboard-driven grooves.
It quickly became my go-to answer for the frequent question: “Heard any good new albums lately?”
On a broader commercial and critical level, Changes was a successful debut, getting a fair amount of attention before the pandemic. It also landed Neal and his tight band in front of receptive audiences on tour supporting a variety of popular acts such as Turkuaz and Black Pumas.
That set the post-pandemic stage for an excellent sophomore LP, In Plain Sight. Released in 2021 on ATO, that recording showcased a broader palette of influences, helping Francis find larger audiences for his lauded live show.
Though the album still pulls from the 70’s, the stylistic focus shifted from golden-age NOLA funk to other strands of vintage and modern pop, funk, and rock. Despite his evolving style, Francis’ playing and songwriting shine through, making it a rewarding listen top-to-bottom. Importantly, it remains very funky.
The success of In Plain Sight and continued organic buzz around Francis and his band’s live show have led to steadily larger gigs, both as a headliner and supporting acts like Amos Lee and Marcus King. At this point, the hype is very real and well-deserved.
On Saturday Night, Francis and his band will return to Saint Paul’s Amsterdam Bar & Hall for what is guaranteed to be a great show. Time will tell what exact arc Francis’ art and career will take, but right now, things are looking very bright.
The following interview with Neal Francis has been edited for length and consistency.
Music In Minnesota: I want to ask about the album In Plain Sight. I know it was primarily recorded in a church. Can you talk about the origin of that, and how it inspired the music?
Neal Francis: Yeah, I was an employee of the church. I was accompanist on Sundays. It was a very small congregation and at one point I just asked if I could live in the parsonage, which was vacant, and (the church) agreed. About a week later I moved in, and that was like October of 2019, so Changes had just been released. We had a full schedule, like a full year of touring we expected to do in 2020. And of course in March everything got put on hold and then I found myself in this magnificent space. I started assembling equipment, and with my band we started working on the record.
MIM: It’s a cool story certainly. Were there any particular challenges to recording in that sort of space versus working in a conventional studio? Any major differences?
NF: We recorded everything in the parsonage of the church (that’s typically where the pastor of the church lives), and we turned the basement into where the band did the live tracking. The dining room was where we set up the control room. And so it was actually pretty well suited. The only thing that was slightly challenging was the fact that the control room was on a different level than the tracking, which was downstairs.
MIM: I also wanted to ask one more question about your recording process. You’re a well-known advocate of analog gear. I remember reading about your emphasis on that around the recording of Changes. Can you go into why you feel that way and why you do that the way you do?
NF: I think it’s been an easier way to achieve the sound I’m going for. I think great records can be made in any variety of ways, but I like the way analog sounds, and I also like working with that equipment. Just like someone might prefer using pastels or oil paints or different mediums. That’s pretty much the gist of it.
MIM: I know that’s probably how you guys roll on tour, too. I’ve seen guys you a couple of times when you’ve come through town, right before the pandemic opening for Turkuaz, and then again opening for Marcus King last year. How long have you been with this same band on the road?
NF: The first time you saw us, we probably had a slightly different configuration. Since early 2020 we’ve had the same 4 piece band: Collin O’Brien on drums, Kellen Boersma on guitar, and Mike Starr on bass. We’ve been rolling steady since then. They’re on the records, too.
MIM: I imagine that continuity helps, especially playing your funky, sometimes improvisational style?
NF: Yeah, it’s super important. Everybody I play with is such an outstanding musician. I’m really honored to be playing with those guys. I can’t even explain it, it just comes together in a really special way. We’re reading each other’s minds, and everything just gets really tight. There’s no substitute for playing with the same guys every night.
MIM: With Changes being out for several years and with In Plain Sight over a year old, you guys have toured those records really hard. How have the songs evolved alongside that continuity in your show? Is it something where you feel the songs change as you go along?
NF: Yeah, we’ve definitely started to alter the arrangements a little bit here or there, sometimes drastically, just to keep it interesting for ourselves and for the fans. Even the lyrics can change their meanings over time. I could see how a song like “Changes” for example, which was written about my first time getting sober, could also be applied in other ways. Everything’s constantly being reassessed.
MIM: That definitely makes sense, it keeps you creative. I’m also curious, do you change your approach when you guys play as support versus playing a headlining set?
NF: Yeah, we definitely have a different approach opening, because it’s a shorter set, and we have to pack more punch into a smaller amount of time. When you saw us play with Marcus, I think we played for 40 minutes, and it was kind of a medley. In the headlining sets, we can stretch out on things, and it’s a little more relaxed for us, and I think I’m able to play a little better. Those were great sets with Marcus, though.
MIM: I hear a lot of New Orleans in Changes. What’s your relationship to New Orleans music, and what inspired that? You tap into that history very well.
NF: Yeah, I had been introduced to blues piano by a family friend and went, when I was 6 or 7 years old, to visit with a professor at Northwestern. He recommended a couple of pianists to check out: one of them was Otis Spann, and another was Dr. John. That was a gateway to lots of New Orleans Music. Later when I was 12 or 13, I met this blues piano player, and we would just sit and listen to his vinyl collection a lot. He had a lot of James Booker, Fats Waller, old-school stride and jazz. He expanded my appreciation. And then, in my late teens, I got into The Meters and Allen Toussaint.
MIM: It’s such a rich history, those are great players, and that definitely shows through in your music. Do you have a favorite Meters song?
NF: Oh man, I think lately I’ve been into the idea of doing a cover of “A Message From The Meters.” They just have so many monster riffs. Every time I go back to listening to them, I walk away feeling good. We were just on Jam Cruise, and I got to meet (Meters Bassist) George Porter Jr. It was so cool.