Neal Morse’s latest release, Life & Times, due out February 16 via Radiant Records, is rich with examples of his work as a vocalist and lyricist with breezy compositions that speak to his California roots. “Livin’ Lightly” brims with optimism and hope while others, such as “Selfie in the Square” and “You + Me+ Everything” are unabashed love songs. He does pause for darker fare, such as the moving “He Died at Home,” inspired by the suicide of a military veteran, its title a line that has become commonplace in soldier obituaries.
In some ways, the record seems poised to introduce the former Spock’s Beard and current Neal Morse Band leader to a different audience. Though Life & Times will appeal to longtime Morse fans, it seems likely that those who are largely ignorant of the music he’s made since the 1990s will find something to latch onto with the collection.
Calling from his home in Nashville, Morse spoke extensively about his early days as a struggling singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, his late success and how he’s managed to survive as an independent artist. As always, he’s jocular, reflective and given to crediting his Christian faith for his artistic and personal growth.
Jedd Beaudoin: You spent a number of years working as a singer-songwriter. Was there ever a tinge of disappointment that didn’t initially pan out for you?
Neal Morse: Oh yeah. I was trying to get a deal as a singer-songwriter all throughout my 20s and early 30s. I was tremendously disappointed. In fact, I thought my life was over. That’s how disappointed I was. That’s what I lived my life for. I was writing three songs a day, just going for it in L.A. Then I realized that I didn’t intend to become this kind of brooding singer-songwriter. I wanted to write big pieces of music. Musicals and progressive rock concept albums. So I started to forget about anything with the business and started to write these bigger pieces. That’s what became Spock’s Beard, the first commercial success that I ever had.
What were the things that labels, other people in the business felt weren’t working?
There was a guy at RCA, a big guy in the A&R department there. He really liked me. But he didn’t know what to do with me. They weren’t sure how to market me. You’re talking about the late ‘80s. Singer-songwriter stuff wasn’t that prevalent. The first “new” singer-songwriter I can really think of would have been in the early ‘90s and that was Marc Cohn. He made quite a splash. I don’t know. Maybe nobody liked me enough. You’d have to ask them. But I couldn’t get signed, couldn’t get a publishing deal. It was very sad. Very sad days.
Did you have a peer group that you’d commiserate with?
I had my musician friends but I didn’t really have any singer-songwriter friends. Maybe a couple. But they were usually girls that I was dating. That doesn’t really count. [Laughs.] That’s always been one of my problems with being successful in the business. I remember asking one guy I knew from around that time what he thought was missing my career. He said, ‘You know, Neal, most people are trying to climb the ladder of success. They’re trying to schmooze, they’re trying to get to know other people. You? You seem to think that you’re the ladder that everybody else needs to climb.’ [Laughs.] That was a surprise to me because I didn’t feel that way at all. I wasn’t very good at schmoozing . It was very hard for me if I was around somebody in the business or a producer or somebody that was famous, I could feel that I wanted something from them and they knew I wanted something from them. It was awkward. It was difficult for me to just relax and be myself.
You could be making art during the three hours spent at a party.
It was also in the mid-‘80s that I read the Ayn Rand books. They have characters that are so full of integrity and gift and talent that they don’t need anyone and they shouldn’t need anyone. I went through a period where I thought, ‘My art should stand on its own and that’s it. Nothing else matters.’ Maybe in principle that could be good but it wasn’t good for me. It started me down a darker road of sort of looking at people through a lens of disfavor. None of that was good for me.
You’ve been open about having lived through some dark times. Do you think that music was a tool that carried you through that?
I just wrote a song last week that I’m going to do on this upcoming tour about this. It’s about my whole childhood and growing up in music and wanting to make it and being so disappointed and then coming out the other side of that. One of the lines is, “Music and pain became closely related.” Music for me had become like an idol. Like, how the Bible talks about idolatry. Music was the thing that I looked to, that it was going to bring me fulfillment and happiness and acceptance and money. All of the good things in life were going to come from music. When that didn’t work out, I came to a place where I thought, “Well, why write anymore? Why sing any more of my original songs when nobody really cares?” I think there’s probably a whole world of artists that get to that place where they, “Man, what’s the point?”
It’s almost like another good melody is like a curse. What did I used to call it? “Oh, great. Another baby to put in the closet.” It was really God that delivered me from all of that. When I started to hold music in the place where it should be, which is that it’s this wonderful gift and it’s a beautiful expression, it’s so magical and beautiful and you can express so many different things with it. It’s such a great, great thing. But it’s not intended to provide what I was looking for it to provide. Then it became a burden. Through the process of becoming a Christian and all of that the burden got lifted, thank God.
Now I can play music and not have it be so heavy.
That is one thing I think this record reveals, that you can have a singer-songwriter record that has patches of heaviness but it doesn’t have to be deep and brooding all the time.
Like I say on “Livin’ Lightly” I wanted to write a song that would make you feel relaxed and good because that’s what I enjoy. When I go on vacation with my family I’ll put on John Mayer’s Paradise Valley. There’s depth in there but there’s a lot of it that just feels really good. I wanted to make a feel-good album and, with the exception of “He Died At Home,” which is the ultimate doesn’t-feel-good song, I think I did. A lot of the songs, even if they have a tinge of sadness of what have you, I was going for a warm album that you might want to put on when you’re hanging out with your wife or your kids.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary singer-songwriters?
My very favorite it John Mayer. I think he’s the best artist of the last 15 years. I think Paradise Valley, Born and Raised and his newest one, The Search For Everything, is just great. I think the songwriting’s great. The grooves are great. I love a lot of pared-down production. I was very, very influenced by him on this record, actually.
That’s refreshing because there are people who shut themselves off from influence. They don’t listen to new music.
If you’re familiar with those albums he’s channeling his inner James Taylor and Neil Young, so it’s very ‘70s-ish. That pulls on my heartstrings because I’ve never made an album that was simpler, less instrumentation. Just leave it at an acoustic guitar. I really enjoyed the contrast of this album and the big, epic albums that I’ve made recently.
I think that this record has the potential to introduce you to a different audience. Is that something that you’ve thought about?
I hadn’t, really, but I pray so. That would be great. I do what I do, put it out there, do the best that I can and trust The Lord for the rest.
A large part of your career has been as an independent artist. You’ve survived. How?
I just follow the desires of my heart mostly. And I follow the guidance of God as best as I can at every juncture, since 2000 or so. I think The Lord has opened doors and made it possible for me to have a voice with people and get the music out to people. It’s really a miracle, especially so late in life. I thought that the music business is a young man’s game. When I was 34 and nowhere, I thought, “Well, it’s over. What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” All of these things happened slowly, gradually, at least most of the time. It wasn’t like there were a lot of breakout things. I give God all the glory. That’s all I can say.
We got in on the last plane out, to quote Kevin Gilbert. The progressive rock audience is the tail end of people who actually still want to buy music and buy physical product. It’s pretty much over. The companies are all folding, the stores are all closing, it’s over. So now we need to look at the new paradigm, the new world. How can we best serve people in this atmosphere? How can smaller artists like me make a living with most things being given away? It’s definitely a challenge. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m hopeful. I think we all just need to be more creative. Somehow. Not so much in the music but in how we market things. The problem is, I’m not a marketer. [Laughs.]
You mentioned Kevin Gilbert, who died in 1996. I know that Spock’s used his studio and that drummer Nick D’Virgilio collaborated with him. Did you know Kevin pretty well?
I knew him pretty well. We hung out some. I have very fond memories of him. I remember being at, I think it was a birthday party for Nick. We’d set up basic rock band instruments in somebody’s living room. At the time, Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” which he’d co-written, was close to being Number One on the charts. We wanted to hear him do Toy Matinee songs, stuff like that. He said, “Nah, man. It’s a party,” and started playing “Play That Funky Music.” He was very much about others. I remember seeing him outside Progfest LA ’95 or something like that. He’d let everybody else use his Hammond organ and he was loading it into a truck. Just him and a kid at three in the morning. I thought, “Man, what a servant.”
It seems that you have a fan base that has stuck with you through a number of changes. That must feel good when you can look out and see many of the same faces year after year.
It’s amazing. I do a music festival here in Nashville called Morsefest—that was so named by Mike Portnoy—and when I do those performances you can really feel the community vibe and the appreciation and love of the people. It’s really amazing. It’s an amazing experience. It’s very spiritual.