I was listening to Danny Champ on Bob Meyer's radio show last night and Neal Casal's name came up. By coincidence I'd come across this interview earlier in the day and thought I should post it. This interview dates back to 1998, and the first time Neal showed up in the UK. It originally appeared in BoB #51 which has been long out of print.
There are two ways of dealing with adversity. One is to wallow in self-pity, to whinge and take on the victim persona; the other is to believe in yourself and your inherent talents, to have another go from an alternative direction. If you take the first option you're probably lost for good; if you take the second it's amazing what you can do. Neal Casal won't thank me for praising him as an exemplar of the latter path, but I want to hold his hand up as a guy who took a heavy blow at a crucial moment in his burgeoning career and who's now back on the tracks stronger than ever.
Neal Casal is a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. He's in his late twenties and he's been playing music for over fifteen years. His parents split when he was young and his childhood was somewhat peripatetic, taking in Georgia, California, Michigan, and upstate New York. As far back as he can remember music captivated him:
"I became obsessed with listening to music as early as I can remember. My first recollections of really loving music was, I must have been three or four, and I had Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock' and Don McLean's 'American Pie', little 45s, made my mother play them and I would dance around on the bed. I remember 'American Pie', goofy song that it is. It's a long story song. I remembered the words even then just affecting me, and those images, I just thought about them a lot. The rhythm of 'Rock Around The Clock' was something I loved."
His Damascus Road moment came when he was thirteen:
"My ma had this little clock radio. One night I heard 'Sympathy For The Devil' coming out of that radio. I just heard that it really sounded dangerous, that guitar solo, Keith Richard's guitar solo that had that very shrill tone, coming out of the little speaker on my mom's radio. The radio was across the room and I almost ran to it, looking at the speaker, like something was happening to it. Then they said it was the Rolling Stones, I just went out and got all their records and that started me. Soon after my dad bought me a guitar, and the minute I got that guitar I knew the direction of my life was solidified right there and then. It was instantaneous. And I still remember the moment."
Back in New Jersey in his mid-teens he started to form bands with school friends:
"I wanted to be a guitar player primarily. I didn't want to sing. I didn't even want to play lead guitar that much. I just wanted to be a rhythm guitar player, because Keith Richard was my main inspiration. I'd read quotes of his: "the best way two guitars work together is when you don't know who's playing what". The identity in the guitar playing gets lost, and I like that idea, instead of the typical lead guitar hero thing which I never really got into".
Singing was initially forced on him:
“Young bands always have trouble finding a singer. There's plenty of drummers, plenty of guitar players, bass players are kind of hard to come by but you can always turn the worst guitar player into a bass player. Never find a good singer though.. Went through all these singers who wouldn't turn up, they'd be off drunk somewhere, and they'd show up three hours late. Finally out of necessity I took control, said I was going to learn how to sing. I started doing that and I burned my voice out there pretty good for a few months, and then I started to get the hang of it. I realised that I just didn't want to play covers anymore. This was the mid-eighties, the town where I grew up if you wanted to play in a band you had to play metal. I wasn't very into that either. So I figured that instead of having to play all these bad eighties covers, any covers, I wanted to start writing my own songs. Sixteen, I wrote my first song, and it never stopped from there. That band turned into an original band, We made a little local record and it all started from there. And the songwriting process became increasingly interesting, and now it's overridden everything else I do. It's the single most important thing I do".
This band, Exire, a pun on Exile as in ...On Main Street, was basically a high school band and on graduating Neal wanted to move on, fearing that he'd find himself stuck in the rut of a local circuit, so he left the band:
" I went to work in a music store, far away from where I lived, in Pennsylvania. There was a guy in there, in his forties, he managed the place, he was a great guitar player, had played with Leslie West, a great electric guitar player in that old Leslie West, Cream-era Clapton school, that thick toned, slow handed kind of style. He was a great acoustic guitar player as well. He heard me play and thought I had something, and I went and worked for him. I studied under him for a year. He was much older and much wiser, and that was what I was looking for. I knew that I had a lot to learn and this guy was a big mentor to me. I was going back to the first music that I loved, sixties stuff, The Stones, Allman Brothers. I saw the Woodstock movie on public television when I was a kid, and I loved all those bands. Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Santana, and where that music leads you. It goes back to the blues, goes back to country music. If you're into the Stones you'd inevitably hear about Gram Parsons, that lets you into a whole other world of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard and on down the line. From the Woodstock movie I loved Arlo Guthrie and I found out he's Woody Guthrie's son. So I start listening to Woody Guthrie, and that takes you to Leadbelly and the whole folk tradition that eventually leads you to the English guys, and Led Zeppelin of all bands. I start reading between the lines, Jimmy Page into Bert Jansch. This is what I started with and it got derailed and distracted in the '80s. But I couldn't find band members that wanted to do what I wanted to do. So I just performed by myself. I was making a lot of demos, recording a lot, get musicians to help out, or do it by myself,. I was learning a little about engineering, and how to produce myself, and learning how to sing in the studio".
Neal became friends with Gary Waldman who in time was to become his manager. Through Gary he got a publishing deal with Warner Chappell which allowed him the freedom to go on making demos. On the West Coast Bud Scoppa, then at Zoo Records, got to hear them and immediately took an interest, though he didn't think Neal was ready to be putting records out:
"It took me a couple of years to get to the point where I was ready for a record deal. I could have made a record, I had enough songs, in '91 or '92, but it wouldn't have been a fully realised record. I think if I'd made it then, I would regret it now. So Bud just kept up with me for a couple of years. I did a batch of demos in Summer '94, and he went, 'alright, you're ready to go, do you want to come with me?' "
Neal signed up to Zoo, but before any recording took place Bud Scoppa was gone, the victim of down-sizing. It's often the way that if the guy who signs you goes from a label your days are numbered, but Zoo initially stuck by Neal and he got to make his first album in 1995 in the idyllic surroundings of Palacio Del Rio in Santa Ynez, California. He'd initially been booked into Shangri-La in Malibu where the Band used to record, but Porno For Pyros already in residence refused to leave on schedule. So they were found this other massive place:
"It was this big old Spanish mansion up near Santa Barbara, used to be Dean Martin's house, and Jimmy Stewart's before him. When we got up there, up the mile long drive, and realised that was where we were going to make our record we just about fainted. The place was just insanely huge, about ten bedrooms, a tennis court, pool. Decadent. We set up in the living room, lived there for a month, we held colossal parties, made great music, no record company people were around to spoil the fun. It was really one of the greatest times of my life. David Crosby lived up the road and he came by one day".
The album was produced by Jim Scott and some great people worked on it: apart from a band including John Ginty and Don Heffington, there were guest appearances from Greg Leisz, Julie Christenson, and George Drackoulias:
"That cast of musicians was a dream for me. It started out with Heffington because I really wanted him to play on the record. We got Bob Glaub who'd played on some of my favourite records. Leisz, who's probably the most amazing musician I've ever worked with, without a doubt. Drackoulias came by, he's real fun to hang out with. We had a great day listening to Humble Pie records."
The album that came out of these sessions was Fade Away Diamond Time. It's a most stunning debut album, full of curiously valedictory songs, fine singing, fine playing, lyrically simple but so well crafted. Evocative and empathic, and universal. We've all had to let things go, and take other roads. Sadly it's now a great lost album, because soon after it was released by Zoo so was Neal. He found out by phone in a Nashville bar around Christmas '95. The story gets told that it was a devastating blow. Neal denies that now:
"It's been written about me a lot that this was a horrible time but I don't remember it that way now. I remember it as a great time in my life. The whole thing that happened was disappointing and a bad time, but I don't even look at it like that now, I don't let it embitter me or even impede my progress. I think of that as a great time. I got to make my first record exactly the way I wanted to do it. I had a particular sound in mind. I loved to play slow at that time. I had a big slow groove in mind. Listening back to that record I think it was a collection of really good songs. It could have benefited from an uptempo song or two, but that's hindsight."
The dumping came in the middle of a tour. He cancelled a few dates, honoured a few more, ended up stuck in a blizzard in Pennsylvania for three days. Then home in Jersey:
"Home with no record deal, but it didn't take me long to figure out what to do. I wasn't going to sit around and let a negative situation ruin my life, feel sorry for myself, stop dead in my tracks. I wrote a whole bunch of songs, went to a friend of mine with a record label and we agreed to do a record, so I just went right in and did it in five days and that album is Rain, Wind and Speed. It got me over the situation really quickly. The premise was play and sing live. I didn't want to overdub my vocals. It was a goal of mine to just sing a song, all the songs on the album, 100% all the way through, no fixing, no nothing. Just sit down, sing your song, tell the truth. If there's something a little out of tune you just leave it. It was a goal. I wanted to sing my songs and know that I'd made it all the way through, that there was a continuity there. It's the way I was feeling at the time. It's what I needed to do. I just poured it out in a couple of days and it was good. And by the Springtime we had that record out. I already had my mind on something else. A new record and a new place to go, instead of thinking, 'oh I lost my record deal'. Self-pity is not something in my character. It's what I needed to move on. Otherwise the only record I had to hold in my hand was Fade Away Diamond Time, which was never spoiled by what happened. So now I had this other record, and I achieved my goal which was to sing live, whether it's any good or not I don't know but I did it. That was the best way to move on."
Rain, Wind And Speed, an essentially acoustic album, came out on the small New Jersey label, Buy Or Die. An advert in No Depression was spotted by Reinhard Holstein at Glitterhouse, who was a big fan of Fade Away Diamond Time. The end result was the German label distributing Rain, Wind And Speed in Europe, then putting out the compilation of archives Field Recordings. In 1997 Neal did a solo tour of most of Europe. Returning to the States he produced an EP for his backing singer Angie McKenna, did some co-writing with Parlor James' Ryan Hedgecock, and recorded and toured with James Iha. In early July he went back to California and with many of the same musicians from Fade Away Diamond Time he recorded the songs that comprise his new record The Sun Rises Here.
The Sun Rises Here is his finest release to date. There's a blending of styles and musical genres, the willingness to sing about himself which began to surface on Rain, Wind And Speed is much more in evidence. In essence it's a mature work:
"The sound of the record is different, a cross between the two previous records. My goal was to make a folk band album, and I tried to sequence it, to have more variety of songs and tempos on it than my other records. It's a spare kind of record. Lyrically some of my best moments are on this record. There's some very truthful moments for me. Some of the lyrics I really believe in. I'd play them for anybody, 'Last Of My Connections' and 'Real Country Dark'. A few albums down the line my experience is starting to show through."
Neal made his first London appearances a few weeks ago, two nights supporting Kelly Joe Phelps and a brief in-store at Rough Trade in Portobello. Just him, his guitar, and his harmonica. At Rough Trade he held us spellbound through 'Eddy & Diamonds', 'All The Luck In The World', 'Maybe California', and 'Today I'm Gonna Bleed' which he wrote after Shawn from Hazeldine dubbed him "Mr. Poetic". What he is is a singer-songwriter from the old tradition, but he can rock more than a bit too. I saw him at first as a cross between acoustic Neil Young and Jackson Browne, but I fancy there's a lot of young Bob Weir in there too. He's currently in Europe with his band, let's hope they get to England fairly soon.
Fade Away Diamond Time (1995) Zoo
Rain, Wind And Speed (1996) Buy Or Die/Glitterhouse GRCD 409
Field Recordings (1997) Glitterhouse GRCD 429
(1000 limited/mail order only)
The Sun Rises Here (1998) Glitterhouse GRCD 430
Glitterhouse, Gruner Weg 25, 37688 Beverungen, Germany.