Neal Francis doesn’t consider himself religious. But the Chicago singer-songwriter says he gained a renewed level of hope and clarity while residing — yes, residing — at the now-defunct St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Belmont Cragin. This unlikely life-changing experience is captured thematically on his new album, In Plain Sight.
“The process of writing about what’s bugging me helps me work through it,” Francis says.
That includes a broken heart, which is what led to his unique living arrangement. In the fall of 2019, Francis’s longtime girlfriend broke up with him while he was touring in support of his debut album, Changes. He returned home depressed and lost. “It felt terrible. I was completely unmoored,” he says.
He knew he couldn’t return to the apartment they had shared. Recalling a positive experience working as a music minister at the church in 2017, Francis inquired whether he could move into its parsonage. “A combination of sleep deprivation and emotional exhaustion emboldened me to ask. I knew the parsonage had been vacant for a while, so the proposal wasn’t entirely outrageous. Still, I was very surprised when they agreed.”
What was intended to be a short stay grew into something longer, with Francis living there until last July. A former architecture student, Francis instantly fell in love with the craftsmanship and detail of the building. His bedroom window looked across a small courtyard toward the chapel and bell tower. In the sanctuary, the walls were “punctuated by huge stained-glass windows, which threw brilliant shadows all over,” he says. “It was a magnificent place to be alone.”
He often practiced in the choir room, a large, vaulted space with a grand piano and great acoustics. “Early on,” he recalls, “I spent most of my time practicing scales and reading Bach pieces on the piano and the pipe organ in the sanctuary.” Francis, 33, started playing piano at the age of 4, and he credits his parents and their diverse vinyl collection — everything from classic rock to ragtime — for getting him into music. He lists Allen Toussaint, the Meters, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Sly & the Family Stone, and Funkadelic among his influences.
Francis invited his bandmates over to the church to workshop ideas and eventually record the songs. He reteamed with veteran producer Sergio Rios, who had produced his debut, and together they created a dynamic sound that runs the gamut between rock and soul.
The church played a key role in attaining that sound, providing both ample room and time to perfect the material. “The parsonage had thick concrete walls and was far removed from any other residences, so we could make noise around the clock,” says Francis.
“In Plain Sight,” the song that gave the album its title, ultimately didn’t make the cut, but Francis says it still speaks to the album’s theme: “The song itself is about this great reveal that was occurring, where all of my sins and character defects are exposed. The acknowledgment and acceptance of these issues are the first step towards progressing beyond them.”
Francis moved out of the church after it was sold to the Miracle Center, a nonprofit. He now has his own apartment, and a return to the road has him in much higher spirits. Last summer, Francis played Lollapalooza’s new-artist-focused BMI Stage, and he spent the fall touring as an opener for the Grammy-nominated band Black Pumas. He’s grateful for the chance to play in front of larger crowds.
“The thing that has gotten easier is letting the music take me for a ride,” he says. “I think the audience can always tell when I’m feeling ‘in it.’ I’m so happy every day I get to do this, and I just want the people who come see me to feel that.”
Details Neal Francis Jan. 14. Thalia Hall. Pilsen. $23–$75. thaliahallchicago.com