Neal Francis released his first LP, Changes, in 2019. The title is apropos because of what’s been going on in his life as well as what happens within the music. Francis has been given a second chance – or a second coming – if you hear the revival in his music. Hooked on drugs and booze, Francis was in a dark place despite being the creative force at the time in his band The Heard. He knew it was time for changes, so he entered sobriety with a new lease on life, more energy, and a desire to exploit his great talents as a musician, songwriter, and showman.
Changes happened fast. It was November of 2018 that he played his first live show, and he was quickly signed by Paradigm Talent Agency. 2019 started with a North American tour supporting Australian band The Cat Empire, and festival sets at Summer Camp and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In New Orleans, he was invited to share the stage with The Meters, THE legendary funk band from New Orleans and one of Francis’ biggest influences. His LP, Changes, offers a great amalgam of soul, New Orleans style funk, and blues in an upbeat revivalist maner that makes it hard to stay still. I sat down with him after his set at The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, and asked him a few questions.
The first thing I wanted to know was about his rig. He plays a Hammond A100 organ with an Hohner D6 Clavinet. “The Clavinet is a keyboard with strings inside of it. We had it modded to have a whammy bar on top, which allows me to bend the strings just like a guitar with keys basically,” he said.
Adam: Who were the artists that influenced you the most?
Francis: When I was making this album, I really was turned on by artists like Billy Preston, Sly Stone, Allen Toussaint, and Leon Russell. But really, man, I continue to be influenced by a lot of artists like Curtis Mayfield and JJ Cale.
AS: Tell me about the record?
NF: Well, it’s a collection of songs I started writing about 3 years ago, and I got sober, I was working some random jobs. I never graduated from college, and my music career was kind of at a dead end. I felt like I needed to write about my experience getting sober with relationships. This stuff started coming out, and I decided to put a recording session on the books. I did 3 tracks. It started getting some interest, and I was able to record the rest of the record. Since then there’s been some really amazing opportunities coming my way man. I’m so grateful.
AS: So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
NF: Yeah, I’m an addict, and I’m addicted to everything man, like I just want more of everything. Sex, drugs, food, alcohol, you name it, you know, and I really struggled, but I’m really grateful for today. I don’t have to drink, and life is going well, and much better than it was.”
Neal opened the show at The Capitol Theater, and delivered a powerful set that started with “How Have I Lived”. The lyrics bemoan:
“How have I lived my life without you getting through to me.
How have I lived my life this long without you getting through to me
’cause I’ll keep getting high if it’s up to me.”
Mid-set, he launched into the album namesake, “Changes”, on which he sings:
“Changes, running through my life.
And you get farther and farther behind me.
But I’m not answering for anything I did anymore.
Changes, running through my life,
and it gets harder and harder to find me
But I’m not living the way I did anymore”.
It was great to hear Neal cover “Strawberry Letter 23” by Shuggie Otis. Shuggie is one of the great soul funksters around. He was a prodigy at 14, when he was playing guitar with Zappa and The Mothers. Shuggie effortlessly melds funk, blues, and soul along with a slick guitar virtuosity that’s unique and unrivaled. It’s no wonder Neal gravitated to him, and was cool to hear a keyboard version of it.
“So are there more changes coming?”, I asked Neal after his set. “Yeah, I have new songs I’m working on, some demos, I try to keep recording in Chicago too. Lots of festivals coming up this Summer, and a long ass tour that’s starting at the end of February. There’s a tour of Europe, and potentially a trip to Japan in the works. I’m living life beyond my wildest dreams today.”
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