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Black Pumas Biography:
Sometimes, a mystical, life-changing connection can be closer than you think.
In 2017, Grammy Award-winning guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada had recorded some instrumentals in his Austin studio, and he started looking around for a vocalist -- he knew a lot of singers, but he wanted something different. He reached out to friends in Los Angeles, in London, but nothing seemed right.
Meantime, Eric Burton had recently made his way to Texas. Born in the San Fernando Valley, he grew up in church and then got heavily involved in musical theater. He started busking at the Santa Monica pier, where he brought in a few hundred dollars a day and developed his performance skills. Burton traveled through the Western states before deciding to settle down in Austin -- setting up his busking spot on a downtown street corner, at 6th Street and Congress, for maximum exposure.
A mutual friend mentioned Burton to Quesada, saying that he was the best singer he had ever heard. The two musicians connected, but Burton took a while to respond (“My friends were like ‘Dude, you’re a mad man, you need to hit that guy back!’“) Finally, he called Quesada, and started singing to one of the tracks over the phone. “I loved his energy, his vibe, and I knew it would be incredible on record,” he says. “From the moment I heard him on the phone, I was all about it.”
The results of that inauspicious beginning can now be heard on the self-titled debut album from Black Pumas, the group that Quesada and Burton assembled, which has become one of the year’s most anticipated projects. Described as “Wu-Tang Clan meets James Brown” by KCRW, Black Pumas were the winner of Best New Band at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.
Quesada has a storied reputation from playing in bands like Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, accompanying artists from Prince to Daniel Johnston, and producing such acclaimed projects as 2018’s Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade Of Texas Soul. For the tracks that kicked off this project, though, he had a different direction in mind. “I was looking for somebody with their own identity,” says Quesada, “who liked Neil Young as much as Sam Cooke.”
Burton’s taste, range, and experience proved to be exactly what Quesada was seeking. “We just take to the same kind of music,” he says. “I listen to East Coast hip-hop, old soul music, folk music. When Adrian sent me the songs, it was like I had already heard them before. We were on the same wavelength from the get-go.”
The first day they got together in the studio, they recorded the dusty funk that would become the Black Pumas’ first two singles, “Black Moon Rising” and “Fire.” Quesada had written the music for “Black Moon Rising” on the day of the 2017 solar eclipse, and Burton took that concept and ran with it. “Right away, the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” says Quesada. “I knew, ‘This is it -- this is the guy.’”
Burton sensed the potential, as well. “When I saw that Adrian played with Prince and had a Grammy,” he says, “that he was a serious, respected artist, I knew that I would do my best not to squander that. If you can do it on the street, for a long time, without making yourself crazy, you can do it with a guy who’s won a Grammy.”
The duo also knew that they didn’t want their sound to be too retro or imitative. “We didn’t want to just do throwback soul and pretend that hip-hop never happened,” says Quesada, noting that it was listening to Ghostface Killah that initially triggered him to start writing this material. “It had to feel sincere coming from us. I have a certain aesthetic in the studio, Eric has a voice that evokes a certain era, but I don’t think we reference that too directly.”
“Adrian has had the time and the interest to really dive into a specific sound, to recreate something he heard on a Motown record,” adds Burton. “And because of that specific knowledge, he provides an interesting sandbox for me, whose background is in theater, to do something super-unorthodox -- to be an art student and play with all the colors I have, but to put it on something that’s more familiar to listeners’ ears.”
With Black Pumas having evolved from an idea to a session to an album, they decided to put a band together and see how this music sounded live. They booked a residency at C Boys (a sister venue to Austin’s famed Continental Club), initially playing every Thursday for a month. “We only rehearsed twice, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” says Quesada. “But with the first show, we knew it was unique, special -- the chemistry and fire were there immediately. And what Eric could do as a frontman was like nothing I’d ever seen.”
As word got out, the C Boys shows turned into a local phenomenon (“the hottest party in town,” according to the Austin American-Statesman), with lines around the block despite the fact that the band had only released one song. The reaction to the group’s recent South by Southwest appearance helps explain the mania -- the Chicago Tribune called Burton’s performance “a whirlwind of movement and gesture,” while Rolling Stone, in naming Black Pumas “One Of The 30 Best Bands We Saw In Austin,” wrote that “the hometown six-piece’s grooves were funky in a thick, viscous way, oozing out in ambitious jams that wandered into heady territory without meandering” and praising Burton’s “tireless, charismatic energy.”
The other, unexpected result of the C Boys residency was that Burton presented more of his own songs to help fill out the set, which led Black Pumas into new territory. “Eric had all these other songs based on other styles, going back into what he was doing when he was busking,” says Quesada. “It was a real spark that we could huddle around him and his songs, too, and get a real sense of what our sound was.”
In fact, the final song recorded for Black Pumas was “October 33,” a tense, pleading ballad by Burton. “I didn’t feel like we had the right last song,” says Quesada, “we needed something with more of Eric on guitar. I said ‘I want to put down one more, do you have anything?’ and he texted me back exactly what I was imagining -- it was almost unspoken.”
Quesada and Burton both return, over and over, to this almost mystical connection they felt from the beginning. It’s this sense of common purpose, of shared vision, that gives Black Pumas its focus and power -- and that points to great things ahead.
“It’s so seamless, it’s like we’re musical brothers to some degree,” says Burton. “It feels so easy to meld together that what’s most important for us now is to continue to look for new sounds -- to make sure we’re feeding ourselves the knowledge to continue to evolve. Every time we get together, it’s better than the last time.”
Neal Francis Biography:
“I just wanted to be honest about everything, from my musical influences to my story,” muses Neal Francis. After years of dishonest living -- consumed by drugs, alcohol, and addiction -- such sincerity is jarring from the 30-year-old Chicago-based musician. Liberated from a self-destructive past and born anew in sobriety, Francis has captured an inspired collection of songs steeped in New Orleans rhythms, Chicago blues, and early 70s rock n’ roll. His music evokes a bygone era of R&B’s heyday while simultaneously forging a new path on the musical landscape. Ohio-based Karma Chief Records (a subsidiary of rising soul label Colemine Records) released two songs, “These Are The Days” and “Changes, Pt. 1,” in early 2019 and will follow with the full LP Changes on September 20, 2019.
There is a deep connection between Francis’s childhood -- his obsession with boogie woogie piano, his father’s gift of a dusty Dr. John LP -- and the songs he’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 ‘n’ 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: “It’s the life I’ve lived so far.”
And what a life it’s been. Born Neal Francis O’Hara, the piano prodigy found himself touring Europe by the age of 18 with Muddy Waters’ 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 Heard’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. “When you get close to death like that you can feel it,” 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. “Drinking held my music in a half-cocked slingshot. I was always so consumed by drugs and alcohol that I didn’t have the time, money, or creative energy to do it. Sobriety let it loose.”
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. “I learned to trust my instincts in that room,” says Francis. Buoyed by classic horn arrangements and Rios’ 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 “She’s A Winner” to the screaming organ swells of “This Time,” 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: “It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, but I’m not home/ I’m surrounded by people, but I’m really alone.” Like Toussaint and Russell before him he’s married the upbeat rhythms of New Orleans R&B with the lyrical approach of a confessional singer/songwriter. The refrain on “This Time” serves as a foxhole prayer for a better future: “Let me get it this time/I won’t let you down/Let me get it this time/I won’t fool around.”
Francis finished recording basic tracks for Changes 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 America supporting Australian band The Cat Empire. He has received praise on several notable radio outlets including KEXP, KCRW’s 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. This summer he performed at Summer Camp and Chicago’s Chi-Soul Festival, and hit the road with Lee Fields & The Expressions, Dumpstaphunk and others. Francis pledges to tour relentlessly to promote his own music. “I’m doing this to fulfill a drive within myself, but also to pay tribute to the gifts I’ve been given. And it comes from a place of immense gratitude."
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