brent johnson speaks with the well-traveled musician, who has played with everyone from Willie Nelson to Ryan Adams …
Neal Casal has quite the musical resume.
As a guitarist, he’s played on records by legends (Willie Nelson), pop stars (Sheryl Crow), indie rockers (Duncan Sheik, Rufus Wainwright, The Jayhawks, Fruitbats) and even actresses moonlighting as singers (Minnie Driver).
He spent five years, four albums and an EP as a member of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals.
And in between it all, Casal has managed to record 10 solo albums — the latest of which is called Sweeten The Distance, a lovely collection of acoustic rock anchored by strong melodies, pretty vocals and a bed of ambient sounds.
Oh, he’s also recorded two albums with The Chris Robinson Brotherhood — the new group fronted by the former Black Crowes lead singer. One record is set for release in June, the other September.
Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with the Rockaway, N.J., native about his 15 years in the business, his second career as a photographer and why a certain Dr. John album deserves more attention.
Pop-Break: You’ve been a professional musician for a decade and a half now. Does it get easier or more difficult to write and record the more you do it?
Neal Casal: It’s a little bit of both. The recording gets easier in a lot of ways. The more experience you have really helps. Because you have more skills to dig yourself out of a corner. With the writing, it gets easier because the craft of it is improved. But it can also be tougher. After writing hundreds of songs, sometimes coming up with new ideas gets a little bit daunting — coming up with new things to say or new ways to say them.
PB: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
NC: I don’t remember the first one specifically. I remember the first batch of tunes I wrote for my little band in high school. It was an amazing feeling to know I can do this — that maybe I could be a songwriter. It was such an exciting process to get started on. I never really wanted to play other peoples’ songs. I was never interested in covers. It always felt cheap — like I was cheated. I really wanted to do it on my own.
PB: What inspired you to do music as a career?
NC: I’ve been obsessed with music since I was a little kid. I always had music embodied in my head. When I first started listening to the radio, I was fascinated with every song that came on. Everyone when we’re growing up, we’re all searching for something we can do. I was fumbling around in the dark, wondering what I would do. When I started playing music, I really knew this was something that could be mine — a place I could find my identity. I was about 12 or 13 when that hit me. Luckily, it still continues to this day.
PB: What would you do if you weren’t a musician?
NC: I’m a bit of a photographer, too. If I couldn’t play music, I’d do that.
PB: Would you ever take a break from music to delve into photography more?
NC: I wouldn’t take a break from music at all. Especially now. It crossed my mind a couple times when I was younger. But I never actually did it. At this stage in my life, there are no breaks at all. I’m actually more interested in music than I’ve ever been. I’m more committed to do it the rest of my life. As you get older, you see time running out. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. After 20-plus years doing it, it’s just getting interesting now.
PB: Why is that?
NC: Like master craftsmen, or painters or architects, wooodworkers — the people who really dig into their craft and come into their own a little later than life, after the initial buzz or excitement dies down, that’ when you settle into your true work. I feel that’s the point I’m getting to now. A lot of the anxiety of youth has left me. Now, I’m just here with the work itself. The only important thing is to do high-quality work. There’s no other flash around it. My singing has improved, my writing, the playing, the record-making skills, the producing — they’re all in my wheelhouse now. I want to use them calmly, with focus.
PB: Is this new solo album a reflection of that?
NC: In most ways. From a production standpoint, it really is. Most of the songwriting is. And I think the playing in this record is very good. There are no wasted notes here. Not one of them.
PB: What’s your writing process?
NC: I keep lyric books, journals all the time. Then I pick up a guitar or sit down at piano. I’ll start with one line and follow the trail from there. The melody and the entire song sort of comes together. But it starts with lyrical ideas I have on pieces of paper. I just spread them out in front of me and take it from there.
PB: Where are you from in New Jersey?
NC: Morris County. Rockaway.
PB: When did you leave the Garden State?
NC: I left when I was like 19. My mom still live out there. I go back a lot.
PB: You said you lived in New York when you were in Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. But you moved to Southern California three years ago. Which do you prefer?
NC: I prefer West Coast at this point. New York as a city is the best city in the world. I don’t think Los Angeles can touch New York as a city. I live in California not because of the city life. I live out there really for the country life and the ocean and the natural life.
PB: You’ve played with a long list of great musicians. Who’s the most fun?
NC: I think I’m having the most fun right now with The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. We play these long, three-hour shows. I have the ability to really stretch out on guitar in a way I never have before. Over the last year, it’s really been a great learning experience. It’s really stretched me beyond my musical limits. I have Chris to thank for that.
And playing with Ryan Adams, that was a really great time in my life. He’s a tremendous songwriter. We made good records together. We toured the world. That was a really great five-to-six years.
PB: It seems like Ryan makes an album a month. Was it hard to keep up with?
NC: It definitely felt like a lot of music. But it wasn’t hard to keep up with. I could definitely handle what he threw at me musically. It was a lot, though. I’ve never known anyone like it. I’ve never known anyone to have that much music pouring out of them and have a work ethic like him. That’s one thing about him people can’t see from the outside. He has a fierce work ethic. He’s a really hard worker. He’s deeply committed to it. But I saw a lot of people burn out around him.
PB: How did you hook up with Chris Robinson?
NC: I was in a band about 10 years ago called Beachwood Sparks. We opened for The Black Crowes. Ever since then, we’ve talked about working together. We had an instant musical rapport. We’re into so many of the same bands. He’s another inspiring person to be around. He’s always writing good songs. He always has the ability to come in with a mind-blowing song at any moment. He’s the real deal.
PB: When you started your career 15 years ago, the music word was a much different place. Since then, the Internet has changed everything, record companies have folded and music clubs have closed all over the place. Do you have any advice for musicians starting out today?
NC: My only advice would be to ignore all of those things. Just write your songs. Get good at playing your instrument. Get your aesthetic together. Get your talent together. Don’t get too caught up in whatever trendy ways to get your music out. That sand is always shifting right beneath our feet. You can’t get too caught up in that stuff. Social media and all that stuff was the kind of the same thing as when we were kids — when we put up fliers to get people to see our band. It seems different, but it’s not. Nothing will replace a good song. No Facebook page, no Tweet you can make can replace a good musical performance.
PB: Here’s a random question: Is it easier to put together a stage outfit or design an album cover?
NC: [laughs] For me, designing an album cover. Not a lot of thought goes into my stage outfits. It’s same the jeans, the same T-shirts and the same flannel. Stage outfits don’t last forever, but album covers do. You have to take time.
PB: And we’ll end with an old question you don’t hear much anymore: If you were stranded on a desert island and could take one album with you, what would it be?
NC: At this moment, it would be Dr. John’s [1971 album] The Sun, Moon & Herbs. That record to me is like a textbook of the best of American music. I feel like it’s a Bible in a way. That record has everything I would need to have with me for rest of my life on a desert island. I think that record is overlooked in his catalogue — and in general.
Neal Casal’s record release party is April 11 at Rockwood Music Hall in New York.