There is a deep connection between Francisâ€™s childhoodâ€”his obsession with boogie woogie piano, his fatherâ€™s gift of a dusty Dr. John LPâ€”and the songs heâ€™s created. The result is an astonishing collection of material without parallel in the contemporary funk and soul scene. The influences are unmistakable: the vocal stylings of Allen Toussaint and Leon Russell; the second line rhythms of The Meters and Dr. John; the barroom rock â€˜nâ€™ roll of The Rolling Stones; the gospel soul of Billy Preston; the roots music of The Band. Francis pays tribute to the masters but has his own story to tell: â€œItâ€™s the life Iâ€™ve lived so far.â€
And what a life itâ€™s been. Born Neal Francis Oâ€™Hara, the piano prodigy found himself touring Europe by the age of 18 with Muddy Watersâ€™ son and backing up other prominent blues artists coast-to-coast. In 2012, Francis joined popular instrumental funk band The Heard. With Francis at the creative helm, The Heard transformed into a national act, touring with boogaloo progenitors The New Mastersounds and chart toppers The Revivalists and appearing at Jazz Fest and Bear Creek. As The Heardâ€™s star rose, however, Francis sunk deeper into addiction. Once a promising sideman, by 2015 he had been fired from his band, evicted from his apartment, and was perilously close to self-destruction. â€œWhen you get close to death like that you can feel it,â€ Francis recalls. An alcohol-induced seizure that year led to a broken femur, dislocated arm, and, finally, the realization that he needed to get clean.
The journey from a hospital bed to launching his solo career was neither predictable nor straightforward. There were musical fits and starts, relapses, and broken relationships. Yet the overwhelming passion driving Francis in this second act has been an abundance of creative energy. â€œDrinking held my music in a half-cocked slingshot. I was always so consumed by drugs and alcohol that I didnâ€™t have the time, money, or creative energy to do it. Sobriety let it loose.â€
Determined to realize the songs swirling in his head, Francis assembled a crack team of musicians, calling on bassist Mike Starr (The Heard) and drummer PJ Howard (The Revivalists, The Heard). He linked up with producer and analog-obsessive Sergio Rios (Orgone, Cee Lo Green, Alicia Keys) and self-funded a trip to Killion Sound in Los Angeles to record the initial batch of material. â€œI learned to trust my instincts in that room,â€ says Francis. Buoyed by classic horn arrangements and Riosâ€™ fierce guitar work, the resulting tracks illuminate a lifetime spent studying the masters of rock and soul music.
From the RMI electra-piano riff that kicks off â€œSheâ€™s A Winnerâ€ to the screaming organ swells of â€œThis Time,â€ Francis and company let it all hang out. This is fun music, dance music. Yet verse after verse and chorus after chorus, Francis wrestles with his past in a straightforward manner: â€œItâ€™s 5 oâ€™clock in the morning, but Iâ€™m not home/ Iâ€™m surrounded by people, but Iâ€™m really alone.â€ Like Toussaint and Russell before him heâ€™s married the upbeat rhythms of New Orleans R&B with the lyrical approach of a confessional singer/songwriter. The refrain on â€œThis Timeâ€ serves as a foxhole prayer for a better future:Â â€œLet me get it this time/I wonâ€™t let you down/Let me get it this time/I wonâ€™t fool around.â€
Francis finished recording basic tracks forÂ ChangesÂ in Los Angeles in February of 2018 and spent the following months doing overdubs in Chicago with engineer Mike Novak (who also recorded demos for the project). Soon after he was eager to begin his touring career. After signing with Paradigm Talent Agency, Neal played shows across North American supporting Australian band The Cat Empire. He has received praise on several notable radio outlets including KEXP, KCRWâ€™sÂ The Morning Becomes Eclectic, and BBC Radio 6. Francis and his four-piece band recently performed during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, sharing the stage with The Meters and other legends. In 2019 alone he hit the road with Black Pumas, Steel Pulse, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Dumpstaphunk and others. Francis pledges to tour relentlessly to promote his own music. â€œIâ€™m doing this to fulfill a drive within myself, but also to pay tribute to the gifts Iâ€™ve been given. And it comes from a place of immense gratitude.â€