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Singer-songwriter Neal Francis finds his groove on 'In Plain Sight'

Neal Francis plays Kenny's Westside Pub on Friday night.
Liina Raud
Neal Francis plays Kenny's Westside Pub Friday night

Singer-songwriter Neal Francis said he feels a kinship to 1970s soul, funk, jazz, and blues and the analog sonics available for recording during that time.

That sound coalesced on his just released "In Plain Sight" album.

Francis tells WCBU ahead of his Friday night show at Kenny's Westside Pub that "Alameda Apartments" from that album is a prime example of that coalesced sound.

The Chicago-based pianist said the lyrics recreate a surreal dream set in a 1920s style art-deco building with shifting walls following a romantic breakup.

They tell me that my new place is haunted
The walls move in the night and I lie awake waiting for the day
It remains to be seen if the ghosts are alright
Or if they want me to move away

“It had ‘Alameda Apartments’ inscribed above the entryway, much as you would see somewhere in Chicago from that time period. I'd never really encountered that name before,” said Francis, though time later spent in California when he discovered “that half the streets in California are named Alameda, so …”

“In Plain Sight” is likely where Francis will one day look back and recall when he found his sound. Not that soul, rock, jazz, and blues were not deep influences on his 2019 debut album “Changes.” He accepted the notion that the new album fuses those sounds in a way his debut was still striving for, while acknowledging his sound will continue to evolve.

“But this is probably closer to something more original,” he said. “I think my last album was more of a mannerist approach to recreating some of the sounds that I loved from the late 60s and early 70s. And then there's a spread of influences there like Shuggie Otis, J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, and Alan Toussaint. I was bringing more into the stew this time around. I love all sorts of music. And I love a lot of music from the 70s, to be sure, but within that time period is such an eclectic mix of things I like. I was just bringing more of those things to bear.”

Many artists and music lovers who came of age in especially the late 60s and early 70s remember that time as one of musical experimentation and fusion. It was a time you could hit the Fillmore West in San Francisco and see Sly and the Family Stone, Charles Mingus, Muddy Waters, and Jefferson Airplane on the same bill. Francis loves and celebrates that idea, but isn't one who wishes he was born 30 years earlier.

“Now, to be able to cherry pick the things we liked about that era … a whole decade of human beings making music … you can do that with any decade, I just I happen to like the production that was happening, the technology that was available, that people used for recordings in the 1970s just appeals to me sonically. And so that goes a long way towards me liking something, the medium of tape, and the tape machines that were made during that time period. And how they were used is something that just generally creates something that I like to listen to,” explained Francis.

"Can't Stop the Rain" is another “In Plain Sight” cut that blatantly incorporates that eclectic mix. It ends with a gorgeous jam that hint at something Sly Stone might have done 50 years prior while still sounding fresh. Lyrically, he seems to implore a girlfriend to understand that problems are everywhere. That is, “you can't stop the problems,” because as with rain, they are "always coming down."

“That's definitely a song that sort of evolved in terms of its meaning from when I wrote it in … I guess, May of 2019 after Jazz Fest. I wrote it with my friend David Shaw. It was definitely more episodic as something that just happened in my life. Then as the pandemic occurred, it became more of a general admonition to me to sort of just take things one day at a time and realize that this too shall pass, as George Harrison told us,” said Francis.

We last caught up with Francis pre-pandemic at the release of his “Changes” album. At the time he told the story of playing the organ in his Catholic church as a grade schooler. He said he enjoyed being able to chill at the back of the church during Mass while everyone else was looking forward, then spring to life when it was time to play music. A close inspection of his lyrics reveals references to God as well, for example.

Now I wouldn’t write a song about you
If I didn’t think you were sweet
And I must have done something to please the lord‘
Cause he introduced you to me
- She’s a Winner

Take time
Say your prayers
Take time
Soon the morning will be there
- Say Your Prayers

I’ve built up my life round the pretense

That belief in a God could save me from this ruin
And as much as it hurts it remains to this day that I love her
And that stays just the same
- Alameda Apartments

The onetime Catholic said he doesn’t subscribe to any particular religion right now, though he considers himself quite spiritual.

“I would say that I have faith in the good of humanity and the benevolence of the universe and I try and just live each day being the best person I can be. And that's how I'm of maximum service,” said Francis.

Neal Francis with special guest Doc Robinson plays Kenny's Westside Pub in Peoria on Friday night.

Jon is the Program Director at WCBU and WGLT. Contact Jon at lhjelle@ilstu.edu.