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Music Helps Soul Artist Neal Francis Work Out The Changes

Neal Francis plays Jazz UpFront Thursday night
Neal Francis plays Jazz UpFront on Thursday night.

Oak Park native and organ aficionado Neal Francis infuses his original music with the classic soul vibe of the 1960s and 70s. His debut album “Changes” is accompanied by lyrics that document his work to overcome addictions and other demons. A year later, his new single continues that effort.

But before he addressed those serious songs, Francis talked with WGLT about his early keyboard training, which included playing the pipe-organ as a grade-schooler during biweekly masses at his Catholic Church in Oak Park.

For many Catholic school kids, it was a dream assignment to be able to sit in the back of the church paying scant attention to the mass until it was time to play.

“Especially when I got a little older, I started messing around. I would just blast that thing and play it really, really loud. It would really piss off my classmates when I would play all five verses of a hymn because they were trying to get out of church service,” chuckled Francis of the fond memories.

He now plays the Hammond A100 organ professionally. The warm groovy sound is often at odds with his lyrics that look back on rough times that include various addictions he is not shy to address. His new single, a leftover from the sessions that produced 2019s “Changes” album, is titled “Don’t Call Me No More.”

Give the people what they want I’ll keep telling lies until I make it Do you think I got what you want Everything I have is for the taking

Francis said the song is about a “clandestine” relationship with a woman he needed to relinquish.

“The lyrics now seem harsh and two dimensional,” said Francis. “But I wrote it the day of the recording session and was going through this instance where she kept hitting me up and it was really hard for me to not indulge and go over and see her, even when I knew it was something I shouldn’t be doing.”

Lying and cheating is one of the many issues Francis said he’s been working through his entire adult life.

“At times it’s difficult man, I’m just trying to write about it and be honest about it,” said Francis.

In a way, this piece is a companion to the 2019 WGLT interview where Francis talked about his love of funk and soul music and only hinted at some of the personal issues he was dealing with at the time. But lyrically, the “Changes” album very directly addresses the inner wars he was battling and had battled to bring himself back from especially substance abuse that got him kicked out of a band.

There’s a lot of people round and they’re saying That there’s something not right with me Just sitting here hoping and praying That you’ll be the one to see Taken a wrong turn once or twice And I’m not really sure how to live my life I’ll just take it slow, I’ll just take it slow “Changes, Pts 1 & 2”

The music helps Francis work through those issues, but he was adamant that he’s still wrestling with the demons that sidelined him in the past.

“I haven’t had a drink since October of 2015. I’m not here to make anyone uncomfortable, but I want to be transparent about my life … I feel I help more people that way and I get more out of it that way. It’s something we all deal with, we just try to wake up and do better the next day and mitigate the daily suffering that’s attached to all these things that I think I want,’ said Francis.

He added that after he’d written and released those songs, they have since taken on new meaning.

“’Changes’ is an apt title to the album, I have a really cosmic attachment to it. Now the next record is going to be about things that have to do with my relationships in sobriety. I’m writing that material now and learning so much about myself and trying to stay committed to my own mental health and spiritual growth,’ said Francis.

And that music is leading to even bigger and better things, including events he said he couldn’t share now.

“I’m living a life beyond my wildest dreams,” said Francis. “I want to keep that, and grow and go back and show my gratitude for everything that has happened to me, because I still feel like I’m living on borrowed time every day that I’m sober.”

Neal Francis plays Jazz UpFront in Bloomington on Thursday night. Taylor Steele and the Love Preachers open.

The complete interview with Neal Francis.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.