On a break from playing music on a recent morning on 88.5 FM Los Angeles (KCSN), hosts Nic Harcourt and Jet offered up a pair of tickets to see rising Chicago rocker Neal Francis play the Teragram Ballroom, but Harcourt had to take time to clarify.
“There’s two Neal Francises that we’re playing,” he explained. “One is an artist from Chicago and the other is a band from Los Angeles. Which Neal Francis is this?”
“This is Neal with an ‘a’ and Francis with an ‘i,’” Jet clarified.
Similar confusion occurred across town at another public radio station, KCRW, which has also been spinning both acts, premiering Neal Francis’ “Can’t Stop the Rain” back in August 2021 and naming Neil Frances’ “Dancing” ‘Today’s Top Tune’ one day in March.
Pop music history is littered with name conflicts. In 1965, a young Englishman born David Jones opted to change his name to David Bowie so not to be confused with David Jones, who was already starting to make a name for himself, even before he joined the Monkees a year later and adopted the more casual Davy Jones moniker. In the early ’80s, the British ska band The Beat changed its name to the English Beat in the U.S., so not to be confused with the Los Angeles-based power-pop band, also known as the Beat, which in turn identified itself as Paul Collins’ Beat in Europe. And yes, before Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic turned the rock world upside down with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, there was another Nirvana, from England in the ’60s.
While some of those situations led to conflicts and artists modifying their names, the Chicago-based rocker Neal Francis and the L.A.-based modern pop duo Neil Frances are embracing their similar sounding names as they both experience breakout moments.
Francis, a soulful singer/keyboardist who released his second album, In Plain Sight, last November on ATO Records, has charted two songs on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart – “Can’t Stop the Rain” last fall and recently “Problems.” He also made his network TV debut in mid-February, performing those songs on CBS Saturday Morning‘s Saturday Sessions.
Neil Frances the duo, meanwhile, released There Is No Neil Frances, its debut album for Nettwerk, in January. Aside from the airplay on public radio, the band is racking up impressive numbers on Spotify. The duo has more than 2.8 million monthly listeners and their top track, “Music Sounds Better With You,” from the 2021 Stay Strong Play Long EP, has been streamed more than 73.7 million times.
Neal Francis O’Hara grew up in the Chicago area, where as a young man he played in blues bands under his full name. When he began considering his solo recording career, he thought it might be a good idea to drop his last name when he signed his first recording contact with Colemine Records in 2018.
“I was reaching out to a lot of people at that time,” Francis recalls. “‘Hey, should I be Neal O’Hara? Should I be Neal Francis O’Hara on should I be Neal Francis?’”
Francis said he got two major votes of confidence for Neal Francis — one from his girlfriend at the time, which he says “was probably the most important. She was like, ‘Well that sounds sexiest.’” Also chiming in was Frances’ friend David Shaw of the Revivalists, who served as a mentor during this process. “He was like, ‘Man, Neal Francis just has a nice flow to it.’”
While they were close to wrapping everything up, Francis’ team discovered the duo Neil Frances, consisting of Australian-born Jordan Feller and Southern California native Marc Gilfry.
“Their manager reached out to my manager and they were like, ‘Hey, would you consider changing the name of your project because we think there’s a potential that it might confuse the marketplace,’” Frances says. “We seriously considered it too, because it was like, well these guys are established. They already have an existing fanbase and they do very well on streaming platforms, but I was reticent to do that, just because it is my name, and it’s spelled differently. There wasn’t any sort of legal recourse because it wasn’t literally the same name, so we decided to proceed.”
Feller and Gilfry formed Neil Frances in 2016. Though the title of their debut album is There Is No Neil Frances, Gilfry admits “that a lot of people think I’m Neil Frances because I’m the lead singer and I’m out in front.” Like Chicago’s Neal Francis, the duo’s name has strong personal ties. “Neil is my dad’s name,” Feller reveals. “And Frances, spelled like that, is my mom’s name. When we were thinking of a name that was the one that sort of stuck and made sense to us and felt kind of cool. It meant something. There was a little bit of deeper meaning behind it.”
Feller acknowledges that the Neil Frances camp did ask the Chicago singer/keyboardist if he was willing to change his name, but didn’t press too hard when they realized his first and middle names were actually Neal Francis. Still, they didn’t want to change their name: “Marc and I were already too far down the path,” he says.
Of course, the similar sounding names have led to some confusion. 88.5 FM Los Angeles PD Marc “Mookie” Kaczor recalls being pitched Neal Francis by ATO and shortly thereafter the promo rep from Nettwerk pitched him Neil Frances. “I said that’s going to be confusing and he said what’s even funnier is they’re both on the festival circuit and they’re on the same bill together,” Kaczor recalls.
Not only were both acts on the lineup for last year’s Outside Lands Festival on Oct. 31 in San Francisco, they played the same stage on the same day, one after another, but both acts took the billing with a sense of humor. Francis even took to social media and posted, “Hey NEIL FRANCES; consider this war DECLARED” along with a hilarious video clip of him assuming the guise of a professional wrestler, shirtless and wearing gold lamé short-shorts, calling out the duo with a string of obscenities.
— Neal Francis (@thenealfrancis) October 30, 2021
Funnily enough, the Chicago singer/keyboardist had a minor crisis prior to his set. His usual gear was still en route from Florida and the amp provided to him didn’t cut it. “Marc was already on stage, staging his gear and he was like, ‘Dude, use my guitar amp.’ He had a Vox AC30 he let me use…He pushed it into place and really saved the day,” Francis recalls, “so there’s some camaraderie.”
There’s even talk that Neal Francis and Neil Frances may collaborate in some way in the future with a remix, single or tour.
And by the way, there’s also another artist, a Brit named Neil Francis, on Bandcamp, but we won’t go there.