On his new album In Plain Sight, Neal Francis offers up a body of work both strangely enchanted and painfully self-aware, unfolding in songs sparked from Greek myths and frenzied dreams and late-night drives in the depths of summer delirium. True to its charmed complexity, the singer/songwriter/pianist’s second full-length came to life over the course of a tumultuous year spent living in a possibly haunted church in Chicago. The result: a portrait of profound upheaval and weary resilience, presented in a kaleidoscopic sound that’s endlessly absorbing.
The follow-up to Francis’s 2019 debut Changes—a New Orleans-R&B-leaning effort that landed on best-of-the-year lists from the likes of KCRW, KEXP, and The Current, and saw him hailed as “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint” by BBC Radio 6—In Plain Sight was written and recorded almost entirely at the church, a now-defunct congregation called St. Peter’s UCC. Despite not identifying as religious, Francis took a music-ministry job at the church in 2017 at the suggestion of a friend. After breaking up with his longtime girlfriend while on tour in fall 2019, he returned to his hometown and found himself with no place to stay, then headed to St. Peter’s and asked to move into the parsonage. “I thought I’d only stay a few months but it turned into over a year, and I knew I had to do something to take advantage of this miraculous gift of a situation,” he says.
Mixed by Grammy Award-winner Dave Fridmann (HAIM, Spoon, The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala), In Plain Sight finds Francis again joining forces with Changes producer and analog obsessive Sergio Rios (a guitarist/engineer known for his work with CeeLo Green and Alicia Keys). Like its predecessor, the album spotlights Francis’s refined yet free-spirited performance on piano, an instrument he took up at the age of four. “From a very early age, I was playing late into the night in a very stream-of-consciousness kind of way,” he says, naming everything from ragtime to gospel soul to The Who among his formative influences. Changes led to such triumphs as performing live on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” sharing the stage with members of The Meters at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and touring with such acts as Lee Fields & The Expressions and Black Pumas.
Recorded entirely on tape with his bandmates Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass), and Collin O’Brien (drums), In Plain Sight bears a lush and dreamlike quality, thanks in large part to Francis’s restless experimentation with a stash of analog synths lent by his friends in his early days at the church. “My sleep schedule flipped and I’d stay up all night working on songs in this very feverish way,” he says. “I just needed so badly to get completely lost in something.” In a move partly inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, In Plain Sight takes its title from a track Francis ended up scrapping from the album. “It’s a song about my breakup and the circumstances that led to me living in the church, where I’m owning up to all my problems within my relationships and my sobriety,” says Francis, whose first full-length chronicles his struggles with addiction. “It felt like the right title for this record, since so much of it is about coming to the understanding that I continue to suffer because of those problems. It’s about acknowledging that and putting it out in the open in order to mitigate the suffering and try to work on it, instead of trying to hide everything.”