Catching Up With Lael Neale

When I’m listening to Lael Neale’s new album Star Eater’s Delight, it makes me think of the duality of “resistance.” There’s resistance in the sense of restraint: the songs are skeletal, tenuously built on Neale’s hovering voice, unchanging drum machine, Guy Blakeslee’s minimalist guitar scribbles, and the Omnichord, which drones and decorates the edges. There are no cliched, here’s-the-big-chorus tricks here. Neale and Blakeslee let the songs unfold, and I lean in closer.

But this restraint is also a form of resistance, as in: Neale is fighting against something. Maybe modernity, with all of its hollow digital worship—Star Eater’s Delight, like her previous for Sub Pop, was recorded on cassette, and tape hiss acts like a third band member here. She sings of flowers, rivers, seas, and trees; holy water, perfect deaths; bells of time, patience, and the speed of medicine. Carried by words and rhythm, she’s barreling towards something just beyond the horizon.

Before embarking on her first European tour, Neale called in from a tour stop in Baltimore to talk about hiss aesthetics, finding her voice, and how Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jane Eyre seeped into her timeless minimalism. | a levy

Aquarium Drunkard: Just off the bat, I just wanted to say I really love this record. It’s been really cool to listen to. I have an eight month old at home and I’ve been listening to it with her, and she’s dancing to it, loving it. So you have a fan in an eight month old.

Lael Neale: Amazing. I have succeeded!

AD: So you’re currently on tour, is that right?

Lael Neale: Yeah.

AD: What’s it been like to bring these songs to a live setting since they have such a specific aesthetic to them? Has that been kind of interesting? Unless you’re, like, piping in cassette hiss.

Lael Neale: Sometimes I feel like the live performance kind of makes up for the lacking hiss. That’s why I like tape hiss because it feels alive in a way, you know? But I play with Guy Blakeslee who produced the album and plays all over it, and we’ve just kind of found the space for it to all sound as close to how the record sounds as possible. And not to be too technical about stuff, I don’t even really understand it, but everything’s kind of in the mid range. It’s EQed either high or mid, and there’s not much low end in it. Then as far as the instrumentation and stuff, I play mostly the [Suzuki] Omnichord, which actually is its own atmosphere, its own world of sound. And then Guy plays the Nord [keyboard], [and] a lot of loop pedals that have ambient sounds in it, and then lead guitar. So we’re super minimal, but I think we’ve kind of found a way to make it sound full.

AD: That’s really cool. Do you feel like the songs change in the live setting? Is there a new energy to it when you’re on stage with them?

Lael Neale: Yeah, they feel more energized. I think that’s typically the case with live versus recorded music. But I mean, I try to record in a way that is as live as possible because I just do single takes and it’s meant to be kind of a live performance as far as the recording goes. And there’s definitely differences in how the songs sound, unique flourishes and stuff that Guy does. I pretty much am steady and do the same thing every time, all the time. I’m kind of a one trick pony as far as playing goes.

AD: All the songs [on the record] sound like the first take in a good way, you know?

Lael Neale: Cool.

AD: Have you always been that way or is that something you had to find through time? Because I know for some musicians that’s their philosophy: “I’m not going to do it any more than that.” And others can get bogged down in the perfectionism.

Lael Neale: I spent a lot of years doing the “right” way of recording, where you just sit there and try a bunch of things. I started officially recording probably when I was like 20 [years old] or something. And I was doing it with these older session guys, and I must have done 20 to 40 takes. They spliced together each of the lines—like the words, or half of a word. So that was how it started. And by the end of it, I was like, “Oh my God, this sounds dead like a robot. Robotic dead.” From that extreme, it kept moving toward this final philosophy. It has become a philosophy because I’ll never do [the prior way of recording] again. What’s important to me about recordings is that they feel as present and as alive as possible. That’s why we record on tape cassette.

And honestly, it took years of looking for a producer to help me record things until Guy came along and was like, “I’m just going to give you my tape machine, set it all up, teach you how to press record, and I think that that will solve your problem.” So he was the first [producer] after many, many different tries with people who are amazing, who I think are great producers and everything, but he was the first one to make me see that this was possible.

The previous album [Acquainted With Night] we did on tape machine [too]. Both of us were shocked when Sub Pop wanted to put it out because it is so hissy. This one’s hissy, Star Eater’s Delight, but that first one…I listen now and I’m like, “Oh my God!” That’s so cool that they let us put it out as it was. I think that’s a huge reason people don’t do it this way, because it’s so lo fi that it’s almost like our ears aren’t accustomed to it.

AD: Did you have any sort of overarching idea for this record when you were starting it?

Lael Neale: When I sit down to write in a concentrated period of time, the songs all are of a piece, but I’m not really intending that. And I would say that Guy has a better sense of the overarching tone and the theme or thesis statement of it all in terms of sound. I’m way more intuitive. I really don’t think about about it too much and that’s what’s cool about working with Guy. As I was writing those songs, we were playing them together so they became what they are very organically. I don’t think he had to do too much thinking about it either.

AD: Neil Young said, “when you think, you stink.”

Lael Neale: I love that! That’s great.

AD: There does feel like there’s a theme to these songs. I was just struck by your lyrics. They have so many images in them, bringing images to my mind when I’m listening. Was there anything that you were watching or reading when you were writing these songs that you think fell into the songs?

Lael Neale: At the time, I was reading this biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson called Mind On Fire [by Robert D. Richardson, Jr] . [I don’t usually have] an attention span for biographies, but I love Emerson so much, and this biography was incredible. Definitely looking back at the book now, I see that I underlined a lot of things that ended up cropping up in the songs a little bit. I definitely write songs based on what I’m reading at the time. I’m always reading bits and pieces of poetry and stuff. But something like [the song] “In Verona” was really surprising to me. That just kind of flowed out in the way that it was. I don’t know where that comes from, but I’m sure I was influenced by a number of things I was taking in. And going on really long walks. I was living on my family’s farm and there’s a rhythm to walking and words just kind of flow in that way. That’s how some of the songs feel. They’re moving in that kind of rhythmic way. I was [also] watching a lot of period pieces, which is maybe where [the song] “Faster Than The Medicine” comes from.

AD: What kind of period pieces? Like PBS?

Lael Neale: No, not quite PBS but Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, stuff like that.

AD: The record does feel timeless in a good way, like it’s pulling from all these disparate eras. I can kind of hear Jane Eyre in a weird way.

Lael Neale: [Laughs] I know, like a carriage going across the cobblestones or something.

AD: A lot of the songs have such a momentum to them and they do feel like a stream of consciousness. They don’t need a chorus, they don’t need anything else. It’s just a unique way to write.

Lael Neale: Thank you. I don’t know what a chorus is.

AD: [Laughs] Well, good.

Lael Neale: I would like to write a chorus someday.

AD: Well, I was going to say, “No Holds Barred,” sounds like some classic 1950s, 1960s song. How did that song come about?

Lael Neale: I write a lot of the songs on Omnichord, and that was the first time I picked up a guitar in a while, so that’s why that song is a little different than some of the other ones. I got so bored with the guitar after years of playing it that I just kind of put it away. So now when I pick it up again, I’m like, “Oh, this is fun.” And then different rhythms kind of come together. [“No Holds Barred”] just showed up. I was like, “Am I ripping off Buddy Holly?” I did get that feeling when I was writing it, “Is this a song already?”

AD: I was also just digging around on your website a little bit. I love your paintings and your artwork. Do you feel like that plays into your music at all? How do those balance together?

Lael Neale: Balance is a good word, because I feel like when I’m sick of music, I paint, and when I’m tired of painting, I do music. They kind of activate different parts of my brain or something. So I’m sure they help each other, even if only to keep me imaginative and creating. A lot of the times I would feel guilty if I wasn’t playing music or not super disciplined. I painted when I was young and I didn’t start again until maybe five or six years ago. Once I found that again, now I can always do something. I can always be creative, even if I don’t feel like playing music. So they help each other and then I can kind of work through any blocks I have by doing one or the other.

I find I’m more productive in a way, even though I’m not maybe writing [as much]. I used to make myself write a lot, and it was just not fun, you know? So now [painting] reminds me to just be playful about it all.

AD: That’s interesting. The record sounds playful, and even though there’s a momentum to it, it sounds real relaxed. It’s not trying to be anything else than it needs to be, if that makes sense.

Lael Neale: I’m so glad the record resonates with you. I mean, I feel like it’s a specific person that it resonates with, and it’s definitely not for everyone. I always feel instantly connected to anyone who connects with it because it’s not mainstream or whatever.

AD: I imagine that could be hard as a musician, because you want everybody to hear the record. Have you ever struggled with that idea, “maybe I should make this more mainstream?”

Lael Neale: I think I used to care [about that] and I think that was just because I hadn’t really found my my voice. And then once you find your voice, it really doesn’t matter. It’s way more gratifying to have someone feel like they’ve found something that maybe other people wouldn’t care about or know about. It feels like sharing a secret or something. Of course I want people to hear the record, but I only want the people who are into it to like it. I think I’m always kind of surprised and really grateful for people who connect with it.

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