Neal Francis Reflects On 2019 and Looks Forward to His Return to St. Louis on 12/14
- Written by KDHX Staff
Chicago keyboard player Neal Francis will be bringing his rootsy, funk style back to St. Louis as he performs at the Atomic Cowboy Bootleg on Saturday, Dec. 14.
Chris Lawyer, DJ, programmer and host of Hip City (Wednesday, 2-4 PM) caught up with Francis in Chicago a few days back as he took a day off from touring for the Thanksgiving holiday and spoke with him about what's ahead.
Christopher Lawyer: Well, right on. Welcome back. Christopher Lawyer here, Hip City, joined by Neal Francis. Where are we talking to you today, Neal?
Neal Francis: Man, I am on Armitage and Kimball.
Up in Chicago.
Yeah, up in Chicago.
You're on a stop from the tour, I guess?
Well yeah, I'm home for a minute. Popping over to New York for five days just to hang, do some writing and recording next week. But yeah, I'm here until... Well, we come down to St. Louis on the 14th.
Excellent. And we caught you quite a while back. You came through – the album hadn't even been released yet. Speaking of "Changes" out on Karma Chief Records. I think when we first saw you here, when you came through the studio, you hadn't even had the album out yet. And was that at pretty much the beginning of your tour?
Yeah. So when was that? Was that March?
Yeah. It was a while, while back, that's for sure.
Yeah, it feels like a lifetime ago. But yeah, we toured a lot this year and we're going to be touring a lot more next year. I'm very, very excited. We got some really great opportunities on the horizon.
Well, that's wonderful. And the second time you came through town, I got the pleasure of seeing you open up for Lee Fields.
Yeah, that was a great show. That was a great crowd. And we loved playing with Lee. Took a masterclass every night getting to see him up there. You know, he's got 50 years of experience as a singer, and just getting a talk with him is like... All I can think the first thing that pops into my mind is just he's a sage, you know? He really has a lot of wisdom that he communicates. So I'm so grateful for those experiences with him. Hopefully we'll get to do something with him again very soon.
How many dates were you out with Lee?
So I think we've done a total of six now, maybe five actually. So there was an initial tour around the time that we saw you and then there was a second time, the other time we saw you. But yeah, there was one early in the year and one later in the year.
So we've gotten some good hang time with Lee. Both of those tours were kind of his like warm-ups for tours in Europe, and so they were kind of truncated by that.
Now, are you getting to play with him in Europe as well?
I don't think that we have any plans to do that currently, but certainly there's an interest in getting together and with him for sure.
Excellent. It was a wonderful pairing.
I've always been impressed by that band that he takes out with him, The Expressions.
It changes a little bit every tour that I see him, but certainly I'm sure those cats have a lot to share as well, or you can just pick up things by watching them work.
Yeah, those guys, I mean, they're the real deal. That's pretty much all I have to say. And you know, like I said, they're playing the style just so authentically and it's really a treat to get to see them a couple nights in a row.
Yeah. And for you to get to share their audience too. I'd like to think certainly the audience came out early to see you guys that night that second time you played St Louis. But certainly, it was a packed house and I'm sure you turned a lot of people on that night.
Oh man. Well, at this stage in the game I'm just so grateful for any time that we get to play in front of some people, because we're still getting the word out. The record is new, and even at that time when the record wasn't even out yet. Or I think when we played in St Louis opening for Lee, the record had just dropped.
Correct. Like maybe the day before or something. Because you said it from the stage, and in my mind I thought, "Oh there's something new. Newer than what we'd had here at the station for months." But it was just that was the official release date.
Yeah, we were selling the LPs but they were coming out the next day. And so we we did our album release like that Saturday. So that was a Thursday, then we played Kansas City and then we played in Chicago on Saturday. And then that was the album release party. So that was a crazy time in my life for sure.
I hope things are better.
Yeah man. I mean, just continually being presented with opportunities for growth in my personal life as the career gets going. And the themes of the LP, which are mostly centered on my experience getting sober, they've taken on new meanings with just sort of work that I need to do with relationships and the challenges that touring has presented with that. And just, I'm in a really good spot and everything is kind of leading in this unified trajectory. I don't know.
I'm very, very happy to hear that for you indeed.
I mean we talked about playing here in St Louis way back when and playing that music, and the album hadn't even been released. You've been playing this music now for seven, eight months. And I don't know how long before you even toured it, it was gestating and you recorded. Does the music get stale? I know you said you've got some recording and some time in New York coming up, but is it a challenge for you to still be doing the same stuff as a creative artist, playing the same every night for God knows how long you've been doing it?
Well, no. I mean, first of all, I'm really grateful to get to play my original music in a live setting professionally after so long playing in jobbing bands and playing covers every night. But right before I got on the phone with you, I was talking with my bass player Mike Starr, and we're just really focused on improving what we already got. The live set, getting that sharp for next year for 2020 to hit the road and really take a big step up with the show and make it something that people walk away from being like, "Damn, that was something."
You did that in St. Louis, that's for sure. I got a phone call just a week or two ago and somebody was remarking about your set.
That definitely felt like a great show, and we're just trying to make it even better. You know, take a page out of Lee's book, take a page out of the Black Pumas' book, all the great artists that we've been touring with this year. It's truly a great learning experience, and just so excited and grateful that all this stuff is happening.
And does that then fuel what you plan to do in New York City coming up in the short term, the recording? Is it inspired by certainly what you've learned?
Yeah, of course, man. Actually, one of the days I'm there I'm going to be recording with my friend Lucas who's playing saxophone on the Changes record, and we're kind of working on a separate project. But then on the 4th of December I'll be going in and tracking a song with the bass player from the Black Pumas. He has a studio called Hive Mind there. He was in Charles Bradley's touring band.
No kidding. And I've seen him and I got to see the Black Pumas play end of September down in Columbia, Missouri at a music festival.
Yeah. I unfortunately never got the opportunity to see Charles live, but Vince Chiarito, their bass player, is just like a great talent. I think he's a great engineer and so I decided to do a track with him in New York while I'm there. Also, going to see Bob Dylan, so I'm excited about that as well.
Have you ever seen Bob Dylan before?
I saw him in 2005, which is a while ago. And actually Merle Haggard opened, so that was-
It was really cool, man. You know? Yeah, I'm excited to see him again and I'm just excited to be in New York. I love that city.
Yeah, there's definitely an energy that you can't find anywhere else.
Yeah, man. And I'm grateful to be back in Chicago. After touring so much this year, it's given me a new appreciation for what a great town this is. And just driving around I feel a deeper connection after being away, as strange as that may sound.
So you're home for Thanksgiving, you're home for the holidays. What does Thanksgiving mean for Neal Francis and family?
Thanksgiving involves me driving up to the north woods of Wisconsin where my mom lives, and we're just going to have a small family dinner up there and then I'm coming straight back to Chicago the day after and I'm playing at the California Clipper on Friday with my buddy Cole. We're going to just do a bunch of New Orleans covers.
Oh, fun. Yeah, with the set here you kicked it off with the Meters' Same Old Thing. You had a Dr. John's Qualified spiced throughout the set too, so you certainly killed it that night.
Yeah, we're sprinkling it in. And I think for 2020 we're probably going to choose a new set of covers that may not be as New Orleans centric. But that's definitely been a consistent obsession throughout my life is the new Orleans music, particularly like the Allen Toussaint, Dr John, Meters stuff. So that like early 70s stuff is really what I have vibed with, especially for the first Changes record, you know?
Yeah, you can definitely hear the influences for sure. And as a keyboardist you could pick a lot worse role models than those cats from New Orleans, to be sure.
Yeah, for sure. And it's more than the New Orleans thing, like definitely Allen Toussaint is north star as far as my songwriting and production is concerned, but I draw a lot from Leon Russell, Billy Preston, JJ Cale, Bill Withers, Sly Stone. You know, the list goes on and on. I just love groovy music, man. I'm trying to make more.
I'm with you. There was a piece in the New York Times not so long ago, just a few weeks back about the resurgence of funk and how it has always been a music of unification and takes all comers, black, white, brown, everybody is welcome. But first and foremost, it's party music too, you know?
Yeah man. I mean, I just did my first... I was spinning some vinyl last night, and I picked like 75 of my favorite records and spun vinyl for like three or four hours last night, and I had such a fun time. Just like the music hits you in the brainstem, you know? It's something that we all have inside of us like really deep. It's just like the rhythm and it's sexy and it's just really fun.
Yeah. Somebody made the remark in the Ken Burns country music documentary that something about a type of music that you feel from the inside out.
And I think that sort of speaks to what you're saying.
Yeah, country works its way in there too, man. I mean, that's what I love about Allen Toussaint specifically, is he could work all of those stylistic elements, gospel, blues, funk, country into his solo material. And I'm not trying to be beholden to any specific sort of genre, especially for the next record. I'm taking it to the next level. Writing it now. Just recording demos here in Chicago and talking with people about my aspirations for the next record is really exciting.
It's very exciting. Is there any music for you that typifies the holiday season? Is there anything you listen to this time of year?
Okay, so some of the music from the holidays gets a little stale as everybody can probably agree. But I certainly love This Christmas by Donny Hathaway. That's probably my favorite Christmas jam. And the Jackson's Christmas and James Brown Christmas and there's a couple of records out there that I really vibe with that they're also pretty kitschy and funny. But you know, a great Christmas song is like great folk music of our current time. Everybody knows these songs no matter what creed or ethnicity are your backgrounds.
Yeah, everybody can agree, no matter what side of the political aisle, we can all get together on Christmas songs. That's one thing we can agree on.
Yeah man. It's the great pagan celebration, man. Let's all get involved.
Well, so you're coming back in town December the 14th, I believe, playing at the Atomic Cowboy. Now, you've got the same band? You've been fortunate enough to keep the same cats with you throughout the tour and on?
Yeah, this band is going to be the same cats that you saw in St Louis last time. Mike Starr on bass, Colin O'Brien on drums, and Kellen Borzma's my guitar. We're really starting to hit our stride, and just so excited every time I get to play with those guys. And we're just hitting the shit here in Chicago. so it's going to be a great show.
Do those guys write as well? Do they add to the compositions?
You know, the guitar player, Kellen Borzma, and I just did a track in Cincinnati at our record label Colemine Karma Chief, and we're starting to build that up. But that was like a true collaboration. And you know, everybody adds their own little flavor to the mix. They're my compositions but I give everybody kind of an editorial role. And that's why I hire those specific people is because I know they can bring something to the table that's going to bring the music up to the next level, you know?
Sure. Now where did you record? Did you get to record at some famed recording studio in Cincinnati? There's a long history of important recordings being made in Cincinnati back in the day, whether it were by Hank Williams, or certainly James Brown and King records. Where did you guys record there?
So we actually recorded at Terry Cole who owns Colemine Karma Chief, he has a record store in Loveland, Ohio and above the record store is a little studio he's built out. It's all analog and super vibey. He's got like a Tascam 388 1/4 inch tape machine up there, and so we did like a little kind of gospel funk track that has yet to have lyrics written for it. But it's super vibey and I can definitely hear it on the record. And the other recordings I've been doing are just here in Chicago at Chicago Electric Piano Company, where I've worked restoring Rhodes and Wurlitzer instruments. But a friend Mike Novak has a nice recording rig over there. So I'm just trying to get in as much as possible, write as much as possible. And I'm just so grateful that this is my daily life is getting to focus on this stuff, because a couple of years ago I was just hanging out pushing paper and wondering what I was going to do. And I'm just so grateful things have trended this way, you know?
That's fantastic. And we are as well. We have been enjoying the Changes LP here in St Louis, your performances, and look very much forward to seeing you guys again on the 14th at the Atomic Cowboy. And yeah, where can they find you? Where can people find your record? You've got a website, you've got all that jazz, people can track you down?
Yeah. So Nealfrancis.com. Or you can also go to plaidroomrecords.com. You can find it on all the streaming services, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, et cetera. And we thank you guys for supporting the record and playing it on the radio. And we're just getting hit up all the time by new people who are hearing this all over the country and all over the world, and it's like I got to pinch myself because this is very unexpected and it's a dream come true, man. The response has been overwhelming and I'm just really excited.
Well, it's probably going to be on one of my top 10 of the year list as we think about that here toward the end of the year. It certainly has been one of my favorite recordings. So thank you for sharing your music with us. We all have much to be thankful for.
Yeah, yeah. I agree Chris, and thankful for you and thankful for everybody over there. And yeah, we'll have a nice Christmas gift for you when we come down.
Looking very much forward to it. Thanks for your time, Neal.
Yeah, man. Yeah, likewise, Chris.
Be sure to check out the KDHX SoundCloud page to hear Neal Francis performing live at 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis on January 31, 2019. Hosted by Chris Lawyer for Hip City. Sound by Andy Coco and Taylor Perkins.