NEAL MORSE: Discusses Life & Times and MORE

In mid-January I caught up with Neal Morse for an enjoyable and extended discussion on his forthcoming release Life & Times and so much more. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of talking with this man of never-ending musical projects, and you can find my previous discussion HERE. Yes, this is in no way a rock or metal release, but Neal’s work is worth covering, even when he leaves the hard rock realm like this.

While what follows is a lengthy read, can you ever really have too much of Neal Morse? I can’t, so I included the bulk of our conversation. As you will hopefully see, Neal, for being as involved in so many projects as he is, and obviously a very busy man, is still very gracious and patient to spend the time he did with me. You will hopefully also see a man with a heart for God, who in all things seeks to determine and follow the Lord’s leading. 

Jeff McCormack: I know we’re speaking today to discuss your new Life & Times album, but the timing couldn’t be more better to at least start off asking about the new Neal Morse Band album since you guys just spent the whole weekend together for it, and we’re seeing what Mike (Portnoy) has been saying online about how he is “blown away.” What can you tell us about it? He says it is a single disc, but is it a concept album or what details can you share?

Neal Morse: Well, we haven’t written words yet. There are a lot of recurring things, but I do not think it will be a concept album, but I am taking a step back from it for a few days to then come back to it with fresh ears. I want to pray about it, and feel out for what it wants to be. I’m really not sure at this point, lyrically.

Neal Morse Band writing session Jan 2018

JM: Mike says he is blown away, do you feel the same way? With the last record being praised so highly it makes the follow up tough, do you think you’re on track to blow people away?

NM: I think so, yes, when we put it all together. It is really raw right now, but Mike is very gifted at hearing through rawness, he is much more gifted at that than I am frankly, at hearing the potential. I think he is right, it is really going to be a great record.

JM: So, this is the third time around as the Neal Morse Band idea (as opposed to just Neal Morse), has the chemistry of the band changed much? Do you find they are contributing more as a band than when it was mainly you running the show? Is there more being brought to the table by everyone?

NM: Yes, it feels like a real team effort this time around. It takes longer. With more ideas, it took us longer to sketch it out this time, I think even longer than with Similitude which was a double. It just takes longer if you are going to try everyone’s ideas.

Spock's Beard - Snow Live Morsefest

JM: So you recently released the live Morsefest performance of Spock’s Beard’s Snow in its entirety, as well as recording the new “Falling for Forever” track with them a couple years back. Any future plans on more work with Spock’s Beard for you?

NM: I don’t know, we haven’t talked about anything. There hasn’t been any discussion, and they’ve been working on a new record. Plus I’ve been busy with Life & Times and the solo concerts and everything else.

JM: And on the topic of other bands, any near future plans with your other bands Flying Colors or Transatlantic?

NM: There hasn’t been any talk actually. I haven’t heard anything, and my plates been a little bit full for the time being, I’m just waiting to see what other people are feeling, and see when the time seems right and when we can make some music again.

Neal Morse - Life and Times

JM: Okay, let’s talk Life & Times. Last time we spoke, I asked about the, at that time, recently released similar styled, Songs from November. You mentioned it hadn’t been as well received, or wasn’t selling as well. So why release another one along the same stylings?

NM: I did it because I felt like it needed to be done. I was inspired to write the songs, and it was in me to do it. I don’t do these things for sales. We cannot serve God and mammon. You can’t spend too much time worrying about whether things sold or not, to me it is more about what God wants me to do at this time, and I felt like since I had been inspired to write these songs, and they were really good, I felt like I needed to make this record.

JM: Well, you already kind of answered my next question, but what would you say is your agenda, you purpose in releasing albums like this, or albums in general? When you sit down to write songs, is it with an intent to have a specific message, just to put out what is on your heart, or just something for pleasure?

NM: Their all a little bit different. Many of the songs on Life & Times I wrote while I was on vacation. When I go on vacation with my family, a lot of times we listen to what I would call “feel-good” music; music with a nice groove. I really enjoy that stuff, it just has a good feeling to it. I’ve always wanted to make a singer-songwriter album with that feel to it, and with this album I am really seeking after that. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as I know more about prog, which is like the opposite kind of thing. Where you want to do things that are more intricate, even though parts still have a really good feeling. But to do these songs that are just a light and good feeling, like “Joanna,” “Livin’ Lightly,” and “Selfie in the Square”…I want people to put it on and just go aaaaaaaahhhhh. To feel like they can just relax and enjoy life a little bit. With the exception of “He Died at Home,” which is the heavy song.

JM: Let’s talk about some of the songs. Some of them sound very autobiographical, some maybe not so much. So are they coming from experience, or just from watching too many hallmark movies? (laughs) “Livin’ Lightly” is pretty self-explanatory; a feel good, slow down and enjoy things song. But “Good Love is on the Way,” I doubt it is autobiographical, unless you had a man-bun at some point. (laughs)

NM: It’s kind of an interesting story. The album was done, and I had borrowed this guitar from my friend’s shop, and it just felt good to me. I don’t even know why I was playing it, I just picked it up while I was talking to him because he has a lot of guitars around. It was a Tele, and I had never really played a Telecaster before, but it just felt so good in my hands. So I said “Hey, can I borrow this?” — I just had a feeling about it for the album. And I used it on almost every track on the album — that guitar through a little Fender amp, because I wanted to get a smaller sound because it was a smaller sounding album.

Then we went on this coffee-crawl with our church, where we went to all the main coffee places in Nashville one day just to have fun, and give, and be together. So I was in all of these coffee places with groovy pretty girls and groovy dudes all working there. At the end of the day, the guy from my church who loaned me the guitar (Roger) said “I feel like you’ve got one more song to do on that guitar, so I’m going to leave it with you.” Then he looked me in the eye and said — “Really.”

The album was done, and was going to mastered on Thursday, and this was Saturday. I had written “Good Love is On the Way” about two days before that, but the album was in the can pretty much. So I just kind of wrote that with some of the impressions that I had, like the little romances budding in these places. A lot of these young people have come from all over the country to make it in Nashville, and I’ve talked to quite a few of them, and I know their stories, So that is where that song came from.

Then I started thinking, “Maybe I should record that song,” and so I began to pray about it, and I didn’t feel like I had some kind of mandate about it particularly, but just decided to take a step. So I emailed Scott Williamson, the drummer, and asked “If I got you a track, could you play drums on it at home and send it to me?” And he emailed me back right away and said, “Sure!” So I got up Sunday morning, laid down a scratch vocal and a scratch guitar and a click track and sent it to Scott, and I went off to church. When I got back from church I had a drum track, and so I spent all day Monday recording everything else that is on that song.

The miracle of miracles was when I contacted Christ Carmichael, the strings player. He is always booked for months in advance, it seems. He is super busy but I sent him an email on Monday saying “Hey, I’ve got this song, I think it could use strings, but I am sure you’re too busy, but if by some miraculous reason you could do the strings tomorrow, maybe Rich could mix it on Wednesday, and master it on Thursday. Chris just sends me back an email saying, “There may be a miracle in the offing.” So I sent Chris the track, he sent Rich the strings, and “Good Love is On the Way” is like this last minute thing that just happened.

JM: Wow, that is an amazing story, I’m glad I asked, and thanks for sharing. Moving on, “Joanna” — who is she, she sounds great. Real or fiction?

NM: Joanna is my son’s (Will) girlfriend, and she broke up with him last February I believe. They were broken up until about May I believe, and they were apart. Now, my son plays his emotions pretty close to the vest, so he acted like he was okay. So what I am writing in Joanna is my sense of what Will really felt about her and about them being broken up. I know that he thought they were going to spend their lives together, and that he was probably never going to feel that way about anyone else. So I was writing that about Will and Joanna.


JM: Wow, another great story, and it appears to be having a happy ending. So, “Selfie in the Square” sounds pretty obviously to be something you went through. My fifteen year-old daughter heard the song when I first played it, and said “He is too old to be singing about selfies.” (laughs)

NM: Yes, ha ha, I read that in your review. That’s funny, because I didn’t really think about it because I take selfies all of the time because I’m travelling by myself. I am literally always taking selfies and sending them to my wife.  I had actually considered calling the album either “Selfie” or “Selfie the Square” since it is kind of autobiographical; almost like a travel log. I think it was Sherry (wife) that said “Uh, the whole selfie thing sounds like you’re trying to be too young, and a little bit girlie.” (laughs)

JM: So I guess my daughter picked up a little on that too. (laughs)

NM: Yeah. So I got a laugh out of that one when I read it (in my review – JM). Whether I am too old or not, it is what I did, it is the truth, so we can rest in that.

JM: You’ve already kind of mentioned “He Died at Home,” and the video has more of the story, but is there anything or anyone personally that you know that influenced you to write on the topic?

NM: Yeah, there are three things that contributed to that song. Years ago I was in a prayer meeting near Fort Campbell in Clarksville, and a lady got up and said “Would you please pray for our men, we’re going to a funeral almost every week,” and they’d just say he died at home. So that always stayed in my heart.  And then I had lunch with a friend who asked me to pray for his roommate Marcus, who was an ex-military guy who was troubled and taking drugs and what not. And then when we were on the Similitude tour, we were in Paris, and I got a text saying “Marcus is dead.” He had overdosed.

So I was walking around Paris, and I was crying, and praying about that whole thing, and I just started to sing some things in that song. But I realized I didn’t really know that much about PTSD, so I went to Starbucks and Googled soldier suicides, and I ran across this article in the Guardian about William Busbee. I read the article and was really touched by it, and went back to the venue and wrote the song.

JM: Wow, another great story. While I have never personally known anyone who has gone through that, you really make me feel like I did with your song.

NM: A lot of the lyrics were taken directly from the article, I didn’t make a lot of that stuff up.

JM: Cool. Okay, so moving on. Since what you have told me about Joanna, I now wonder, is “She Changed Her Mind Again” about her?

NM: (Busts out laughing) Ha ha, uh… I can’t talk about that one. (laughs) But Joanna did change her mind, and they are back together.

JM: Not fair, not I am enticed even more, but fine, moving on. “Wave on the Ocean,” pretty self-explanatory, fun loving, groovy song.

NM: Yeah, just recalling my July trip to California, and driving up the coast with my wife — recalling the feeling of that and being with her, and the joy of the Lord.  

JM: “You, Me and Everything” seems apparently autobiographical, and “Manchester” tells briefly the story behind the confusion of the chorus. Anything you’d like to say about those?

NM: Yes, “You, Me and Everything” is totally autobiographical about the early days with my wife in the early days when we were so poor and all of that. I wrote “Manchester” while in Manchester on the Similitude tour, and I was just enjoying looking at things and writing about them. So a lot of the lines are from the street signs and billboards there. I wrote a lot more verses that didn’t get used.  The funny thing about the whole “Manchester By the Sea” deal, is that the film won an Academy Award not so long before that, and the phrase was in my mind.

Manchester by the Sea

So I wrote the song, and was singing it to myself and enjoying it, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that it was a different Manchester. That is the Manchester on the East coast, and there is no water near Manchester, UK. (laughs) So then I was stuck. I liked the melody, and tried to think of alternate lyrics. I mentioned it to my friend in UK, and he said to send it to him and he’d see what he could do, since he is also a song writer. So I sent it, and he immediately sent back that whole part that became the last verse and chorus, which is so funny. “Manchester’s got no sea, that just some bad geography; This Manchester’s got no bay, that’s the one in the USA.” He really saved the song, because I was ready to scrap it since I couldn’t think of any else that fit to say.

JM: “Lay Low,” another laid back, self-explanatory feel good song. But “Old Alabama,” a beautiful song, but who is from Alabama?

NM: A good friend of mine, a bass player I was in a cover band with in LA back in the day, George Poppanastos, and he was from Alabama. We used to ride to the gigs together all of the time. And he would tell me stories about Alabama. I probably wrote that song about 1993 when I was dating a girl who was a country singer that asked me to write some songs for her. That was one I wrote for her. It was one I always really liked, but it never fit anywhere to be released before, so I was determined to put this song on here.

Julie Harrison, who sings it on the record, is a dear friend of the family, and we sing in church together a lot. Sometimes we end up being on vacation together, and so my son, she and I like to sing three-part harmonies, and “Old Alabama” is one we’d always sing by the campfire. I’m really happy to have it see the light of day.

JM: Then you end things up with “If I Only Had a Day,” which as I mentioned in m review, reminds me of your previous song on November, “My Time of Dying.” Why the reoccurring theme?

NM: Seize the day is always a good message, for all walks of life. But what happened was, a year ago December, we were working on Flying Colors 3, and I was in Florida. I had watched something on television the night before about someone who only had like six months to live, and when I woke up the next day, I just wanted to write a song from start to finish. A lot of times, with the prog stuff and the bigger projects, it just doesn’t work out that way. I just had this burning desire to just sit down and  write a whole song, to not get up until I wrote the whole thing. So I just started tinkering around on my guitar, and I wrote “If I Only Had a Day.”

Neal Morse - Life & Times vinyl

JM: So, with all of the interviews you do, is there ever a question that you never get asked, that you wished you were asked?

NM: Oh wow! I suppose…well, even that I get to talk about occasionally. My favorite topic to talk about is Jesus, and God has put me in such a cool place, because I talk to a lot of atheists.  So I’ll be talking to an atheist (interviewer) and they’ll ask, “So please tell me, why did you become a Christian?” I’ll be like “I’m so glad you asked.” It is what most Christians would be loved to ask, but a lot of times you don’t get the opening to share what God’s done, in a way that you feel people might be willing to receive it.

JM: Sadly, you are not a “name” in the Christian industry. You don’t find your material on the shelves of most Christian retailers, but are still mostly popular in a secular market. Do you ever feel a pressure to cater your lyrics to fit a more secular fan-base, and not necessary a Christian one? Do you consciously write differently because of that?

NM: No, I don’t feel any pressure in that way. I feel like the people that I work with, and everyone that I’m involved with, understand where I’m coming from and are supportive. Mainly, it is kind of like, I pray more for wisdom. I want to have the wisdom to know what to say and when. I pray a lot about the lyrics, and ask “God, what do you want me to say here?” Its wanting to say things in a way that will be received.

JM: Perfect, thank you so much for your time.


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