Interview: Neal Casal
By Diane Gershuny
Jersey born, So-Cal based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Neal Casal has crafted a fruitful career as a solo artist with nearly a dozen releases to his credit. His collaborations, on stage and in the studio, have partnered him with artists including Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt, Lucinda Williams, Duncan Sheik, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Mia Doi Todd, Willie Nelson, Minnie Driver, Mark Olson and more recently, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB). His latest, and 10th solo outing, Sweeten the Distance, was released in April of 2012. Casal’s playing is featured on two June releases from Beachwood Sparks and CRB, who he’ll be touring with this summer.
On the launch of your 10th solo outing, what would you say sets this gem apart from some of your previous releases?
The production. Thom Monahan has elevated my music in a way that no one ever has before. He’s one of the very best producer/engineer/mixers in the world today.
How would you describe the music to someone not necessarily familiar with you as an artist?
Oh I guess it’s just a folk rock record, but I think it’s a solid piece of work that was built to last. It’s gonna sound good 20 years from now, so I think it’s worth listening to.
What was the impetus for this collection? Is there a driving force, underlying theme or statement you’re hoping to make with the songs as a unit?
I don’t really think about big statements or anything, I’m just trying to make a worthy contribution to the world of music that I’ve dedicated my life to. There are certainly more than enough songs and records in the world now, so when I set out to make a record, I try to make it something of value. When the dust settles, I want my body of work to be solid, that’s the only statement I guess.
Let’s talk tech… Where did you record and how long was the process? Do you have fully realized songs when you enter the studio or just sketches that evolve during the recording process?
We did basic tracks at the Hangar in Sacramento, a fantastic space loaded with insane gear. We overdubbed at Thom Monahan’s WACS studios in LA, and then went back to the Hangar to mix.
The entire process took about six months. It could have gone faster, but Thom and I wanted to take our time and really get everything right. I’m not into making records quickly anymore, I like to work slowly and make sure they’re fully realized.
The songs were all written before I went into the studio. The last song written was “Feathers For Bakersfield.” I wrote it in my head on the drive from Ventura to Sacramento the day before the sessions started. The first time I ever played the song was when I showed it to the guys on the first morning of tracking. I didn’t know if it was any good, the song was completely untested. But it ended up being the first song we cut, and it’s one of the strongest. That was something I’d never done before, it was a really cool moment.
Any interesting anecdotes about the making of the record? Did you adopt any unusual techniques or use any offbeat gear to get sounds on a particular song?
Thom certainly has a lot of highly involved recording methods, most of which I don’t even understand. As for me, it’s all I can do to just play my instruments and sing with any efficiency, so I’m usually just hanging on for dear life trying to get my parts down. However, there was a particular delay pedal that really shaped the sound of the record. It’s called the El Capistan, an amazing little device crafted right here in southern California. Thom turned me on to it and it really resonated with me. I use it all the time now.
Favorite songs or album standouts you’d like to draw attention to? Any interesting stories about their creation or inspiration?
I think that “White Fence Round House” is one of the strongest songs I’ve ever written. I wrote it after nearly drowning during a surf session with my friend DJ in San Diego County. It really shook me up and humbled me. I’d been going through some personal turbulence at the time and when I got home, I picked up a guitar and the song poured out of me in ten minutes. It’s like I wasn’t even writing the song, it just came streaming through. The power of being held in the ocean grabbed my unconscious and rattled that song out of me, it was something of a heavy experience.
In general, what inspires you as a songwriter?
I have no formula for that, it can be anything at all. That’s the best part about it really. I’m always on the lookout for life’s details. I write it all down, keep mental notes, and see what comes through when I sit down to write. Songwriting is a total mystery to me. I’ve been at it for more than half my life and I still only have the slightest understanding of it. There are few things more rewarding than writing a good song.
As a player, where do you draw inspiration? Are you an avid listener of music and other player’s technique? Who are some of the standout ones for you? Do you study other styles?
I listen to music constantly, I’m completely obsessed with it, always have been. I have a large collection of vinyl, thousands of CD’s and I even still have my cassette collection from the 80′s and 90′s. I study other forms of music, songwriting, guitar playing, all of it. I’ll be a student of music forever. The list is very long when it comes to talking about standouts, tough to even know where to start. Lately I’ve been getting into Kevin Ayers, Cass McCombs, Ernie Graham, Peter Walker, and revisiting the A Gift From Euphoria record.
You wear a multitude of hats, from singer-songwriter to side-guy… where does your passion lie and what takes priority on any given day?
My passion lies equally in every one of those things. I started out as a guitar player, so my love affair with that instrument will always be home base for me. Singing came a bit later but is no less important. There is no instrument more powerful than the human voice, when I discovered that it really hit home. Songwriting is the highest thing to aspire to, the pinnacle. It’s the current that runs under everything. Being a supporting musician is a just result of making such good friends through my life in music, so that has to be honored as well. I like to think of there being no separation. It’s all one long song, and we’re all in one big band, do our best to make a valuable contribution.
How do you balance promoting your voice as a solo artist with doing the collaborative projects, especially what seems to be long term ones like the Chris Robinson Brotherhood?
It’s quite difficult to balance everything, but I do my best. Something always suffers in this juggling act, and typically it’s been the promotion of my solo records. That’s a bummer for sure, but everything works itself out, and I think my records will all get their due eventually. I try not to worry about these things and just get on with the act of making records and playing for people.
As a contributor/collaborator (I hate the word ‘Hired Gun’), you’ve amassed quite a lengthy list of credits for projects you’ve contributed to… any standout sessions or anecdotes worth repeating?
I’m not a hired gun… that term carries negative connotations that don’t apply to me. I only play music that means something to me, and I don’t get involved with projects that I have no connection to.
The sessions with Ryan Adams were always inspiring. The guy is such a great writer and creative spirit, it was tremendous to a part of his world for awhile. To watch him work and see how hard he commits to a song was mind blowing. The Cardinals were a great band, and we really had a few great years there.
But my most recent work with The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is where my head is at now. We just finished up two records that are about to be released and we’re stoked. We played 120 shows last year and created a fierce band that we’re all really proud of, borne of hardwork and belief. Chris is one of the best singers around and he comes in with great songs all the time. He’s such a commanding presence onstage, I’m learning from him all the time. Our sessions with Thom Monahan were some of the best of my life. I’ve never gotten to play guitar like that before and it’s been so freeing. And to be around musicians like Adam, George, and Muddy, is just unreal. These guys play so well and bring so much knowledge, it’s ridiculous.
Anyone artist you’re dying to work or collaborate with?
I’d like to sing some more with Amanda Shires, an excellent songwriter/fiddle player from Lubbock, Texas. We did a little bit on my new record, but not nearly enough. I feel like there’s a lot of potential in that collaboration.
What’s on the horizon in the immediate future for you? I see Robinson dates and a UK road trip to promote your new recording…
A UK solo tour, the first CRB record will be released on June 5th, then CRB dates for the rest of 2012. I also played on the new Beachwood Sparks record that’s being released in June, and I’m really stoked about that. It’s a beautiful record.
Any awards or accolades worth bragging about?
I ‘Hung Five’ on my surfboard the other day… that was rad!
Can you speak to the benefits (and perhaps the downsides) of being an indie artist in this day and age… as the state of the music industry continues to ebb and flow? Are you excited about the opportunities you have to broaden your base through the vastness of the Internet, or is it a challenge to rise above all the noise?
It’s a bit of both. The Internet has made a lot of things logistically easier, especially touring. I love that part. But it hasn’t helped record sales, and I’m not convinced that more people know about my music now than before. Not that I care much anymore, and I never really did to begin with. I mean, I care deeply about making songs and records, I’ve dedicated my life to it. But the part that requires a lot of raw ambition to get noticed, I’m not really cut out for it. Never was, even when I was younger. So I’ve noticed that the Internet, as powerful as it is, isn’t powerful enough to change that part of me.
I took note of that. But I will say, it’s good to be able to put up photos, videos, and press, instantly and easily. It’s great for learning about certain things. Lyrics, chords, instruments, etc. It’s also interesting to see how the music business has changed and the ideas people are coming up with. Everyone is scrambling around trying to stake out a piece of this no man’s land. It’s fascinating on a certain sociological level. But in a lot of ways, it’s just a bunch of noise and some days I just wanna erase all of my Internet stuff and shift away from this constant stream of information, much of which is useless. But overall, I’m glad to be living through the birth of the Internet age. It didn’t exist at all when I was growing up, and now it dominates our lives. So for that reason alone, it’s holds a modicum of interest for me.
What’s on your iPod, turntable or car CD changer in regular rotation? Any guilty pleasures you’d cop to?
The upcoming Beachwood Sparks record, Tarnished Gold, has been playing a lot lately. Chris turned me on to Kevin Ayers’ Whatevershebringswesing, and that’s knocking me out too.
Guilty pleasures? Aerosmith’s first five records. But there’s really nothing to feel guilty about there. It’s just kick ass rock n’ roll that no band anywhere is capable of playing anymore. I grew up on that shit, and I’ve found myself going back to it a bit lately. It makes me wanna take a bunch of acid, drink of bunch of beers, smoke a million Marlboro reds, and ride my BMX bike for hours in back of the factories down the street from where I grew up in New Jersey.