Lael Neale :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

It’s a rainy Wednesday in Chicago and Lael Neale has just got in from Cincinnati, where she played her first show as an opener for Kate Bollinger. I show up early to Schubas Tavern to sit in the empty bar, hearing soundcheck noises from the other room. As we meet, Neale and I share our mutual appreciation for tonight’s venue: the old Schlitz brewery-turned-music-venue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Although hailing from Virginia, this is Lael’s first tour here in the states.

“I’m very much routine-centered, a homebody,” she tells me when I ask about touring. “But it’s so good for me to see new places and people and challenge myself a little bit, I expand from doing that.”

Lael Neale’s musical career has been something of an expedition, one that lead her inward rather than outward, towards precise simplicity rather than unnecessary complexity. She currently has two albums released with a six-year gap between them. Her first album, I’ll Be Your Man (2015) is a praiseworthy folk debut of songs evoking celluloid memories of artists like Joni Mitchell. Her second album, Acquainted with Night (2021), was released during the height of the pandemic by the renowned label, Sub Pop. In this sophomore release the acoustic guitar is gone, replaced by a stable layer of fuzzy 4-track static hiding behind the sustaining resonance of Lael’s vintage Suzuki Omnichord.

During the time in-between albums, Lael tells me about her experience creating different songs, but struggling to find the right direction for her music to move in.

“I did make one full album myself using my old iPod touch to record everything,” she tells me of those years. “That sound was my first step in the direction of moving to cassette tape—it was highly compressed and highly lo-fi which I loved.”

If her first album was a noteworthy indie debut with roots in folk, her sophomore album was a complete transformation in style, one stripped of any superfluousness, each track boiled down to Lael and what she had to play for us. We were all locked up indoors when this album was released, and that context coupled with lyrics like, “I’m going to get real old / Go watch a garden grow,” really ties together an album of melancholic appreciation. 

“It’s more internal,” she talks of Acquainted with Night. “It made sense for the couple of years when people were going within themselves a little more.”

A year having gone by, Lael’s next project is close to completion. With her most recent standalone single “Hotline,” we hear Lael’s signature style stirred up, moving in a direction where the next album looks to be going. 

“It’s a little more up-tempo, it feels like a return back to life and living,” she says of her new album. “I feel like I found the formula for the last album by recording to 4-track cassette tape. That just clicked, like, ‘This is perfect. I will never do anything else.’ But now I guess the next batch of songs that I have is asking for a little more, and maybe a little bit higher fidelity. The hissing of the tape is getting a little bit crazy because every instrument layer that you put on contributes more hiss and white noise, so it’s kinda been more of figuring out how to make it the way I want to while maintaining the same style that is lo-fi but not so lo-fi that it’s unlistenable. It’s been more a technical challenge than a songwriting challenge.”

Multi-instrumentalist Guy Blakeslee of Entrance Band joins Lael on this tour, playing guitar, keys, and a little percussion.

“I sometimes ask if he needs a whole suitcase of pedals,” Lael speaks of Guy’s setup. “But it works. I’m a minimalist so I always feel overwhelmed by any extraneous things but it’s really worth it.”

Onstage, Guy provides exactly what’s needed to compliment Lael’s voice and Omnichord. They balance each other out to provide relatively simple arrangements that sound full, and even orchestral at times. 

“Guy was the first person to kind of zoom out and see how the music would be best served,” Lael explains. “He’s continued to be that guiding force. He’s amazing, and philosophically we just agree on the same things and the same aesthetic. Nobody gets and cares about the songs as much as Guy. I feel really lucky.”

Growing up, Lael learned the guitar largely on her own, understanding the process of making a song while holed up in her teenage bedroom teaching herself other people’s music. It was maybe this method of learning songwriting that left Lael with a growing need to feel more connected with her own songwriting. 

“With the first album I was still finding my voice,” she says. “I’m sure everyone feels like they are in a box and the next thing they do transcends the box. That’s probably just a natural thing artists feel like they’ve done, but I really felt like I was in a box of ‘This is how you’re supposed to sound.’ It was like I was mimicking or imitating a specific sound, and it felt like my voice wasn’t coming through in the right way. Then I started taking voice lessons, which I had kind of avoided in the past, but that completely unlocked my voice, not only in a literal sense but also in a figurative one. I don’t know how else to describe this without sounding cheesy, but I felt like I found my voice. 

“I don’t listen to a ton of contemporary stuff,” she continues, “But I remember hearing Angel Olsen’s first record Half Way Homeand just loving it so much. It was the first time I heard something and thought, ‘Her voice is true and pure and she is what she is.’ It felt like I was getting license to do that.”

Lael moved back to her hometown in rural Virginia during the pandemic where she’s been able to carry out a peaceful routine on her family’s farm. I ask her of her favorites parts of living in Virginia as a passing SUV’s horn promptly interrupts our conversation. 

“Being in nature. The quiet. I walk everyday and don’t see anybody and don’t hear anybody and it’s truly isolated and beautiful. I have so much freedom. I have time and it feels very abundant. But the biggest thing I really miss is being in a community of people doing the same things as me. I really don’t have that at all in Virginia. I lived in LA for 8 or 9 years and loved it, but I was ready to retreat from it at the time. Now going back I am just reminded of how special it really is. You know, your priorities shift, and having a country lifestyle feels really good. Low cost of living for sure, but again you’re giving up a lot of things too.”

This month, she left the farm, heading to the West Coast to begin a residency at Zebulon Café in Los Angeles. She hopes to have the new album wrapped soon, but as her work as already demonstrated, patience benefits Neale in creating her music, just as it benefits those listening to it. | t cundy

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