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Sept. 3, 2010
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It was in late July 2009 when I first heard Casey Neill’s music. My Best Friend and I were staying at a historic hotel in downtown Portland, Ore.
She was surfing the TV channels when she stopped on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The program was a new feature about Neill, his group and their musical journey.
Who are these musicians creating alt-rock magic with hints of political protest, I thought. The remarkable music, ranging from fiery to friendly, is genuine, not contrived. I grabbed a hotel notepad. I scribbled a note to myself to search for the group on iTunes when we returned to Arizona.
Since that chance experience, I have downloaded much of Neill’s music. His newest album, “Goodbye to the Rank and File,” is by his new group, Casey Neill & The Norway Rats. The CD was released in May.
Portland, Ore., is home for Casey Neill, right, and The Norway Rats, left to right: Little Sue (guitar, vocals); Jenny Conlee (accordion, keyboards), also of the Decemberists and Black Prairie; Jesse Emerson (bass), also of From Words to Blows and ex-Decemberists; Ezra Holbrook (drums, vocals), also of Minus 5 and ex-Decemberists; and Chet Lyster (guitars vocals), also of Eels and Lucinda Williams Band. Photo courtesy of the band.
The group’s songs, old and new, have staying power because they have grit and compassion. Creative energy is threaded through sometimes gruff but always penetrating lyrics. Neill succeeds in his goal to tell stories.
According to the group’s biography, Neill and the band are influenced by “post-punk energy, narrative storytelling, haunting ballads and whiskey-fueled rave-ups.” In the OPB feature, Neill says he also is drawn to Irish-Scottish music and the timelessness of folk music.
The music spotlights everyday people struggling with contemporary misadventures and pain. Listening to the lyrics, I imagine those on society’s frayed edges, the young and old struggling with dead end jobs, broken dreams, physical abuse, and love or careers gone sour.
Neill grew up on the East Coast. He later moved to Washington state, where he studied music in college in Olympia and graduated in 1995. It wasn’t long before he started recording.
Two of the group’s previous hits focus on the young homeless in Portland, Ore., (“Sisters of the Road”), and an aging tenant of Cubicle #40 in an old flophouse (“Stevenson Hotel”) in New York City. Journalist Dan Barry at The New York Times wrote about the Bowery flophouse.
Another is “Radio Montana.” Listening to it, I imagine driving some long and lonely highway on a moonless night. In the background, as the radio station fades, are the sounds of the wind and the wheels.
My other favorites include “Mingulay Boat Song,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Emma’s Garden,” “Guttered,” “Ouroboros,” and “Angola.” I also enjoy “Colville Blues” and an instrumental, “Destitution Road.”
I began wondering if Neill would share some insight into the creation of the group’s music. The elusive sources of creative energies always have intrigued me. How does a creative person – musician, artist or writer – attract his or her personal muse?
Creative energies, in my writing experiences, can be as elusive as the green flash sometimes seen at the top edge of the rising or setting sun.
I contacted Neill via his email, suggesting that I write about the group and their creative energies. What is the source of musical creativity? How do several creative musicians channel their individual energies into one musical creation?
Neill responded. And between his creative efforts and his group’s performance schedule, he cranked out answers to my emailed questions. Neill’s responses include valuable tips for writers as well as musicians:
Your songs have grit and compassion. What events or personal experiences are the sources of your songs?
“I am really focused on narrative and am constantly looking for stories. On the street, in the papers, things people say, and anything I can come up with out of the ether. But no matter what the thread is, I have to find a personal connection to it and an edge. While I have occasionally come up with just a good time party song, I usually need a point of tension. And the music that has meant the most to me as a fan has always had a toughness to it, so I strive for the same thing. But the story is the main thing even if sometimes it’s more abstract and sometimes more literal. I need to know where a song is set, for example, even if the lyrics never mention a specific locale. So much of what makes a good novel or movie also makes a good song. So I strive for the cinematic.”
Creative energy often is elusive. As a journalist, when I struggle to add energy to a human interest story, I sometimes set it aside until the next day, when I can start with fresh perspective. In your case, as a singer and songwriter, how do you hold on to the mood during a song’s creation?
“I generally need solitude, which is hard to come by. So I write a lot when driving alone, and will pull over to scribble out the ideas. Home can be good, too. I can’t write in hotel rooms for some reason. The process goes one of two ways – either it flies out quickly and is nearly finished but for an edit or two, or more commonly I have an idea kicking around for awhile and take multiple shots at it. I’ll play with the theme and the music – melody and time signature. This way it’s not just rewriting off one approach but trying multiple angles on the same theme. Lots of them never make it further than that. But when it works, I know I am happy with it. I suppose I didn’t used to labor so hard over them, but my standards for what a quality song is have become unreasonably high. There is so much great music made in the fledgling stages of a writer’s career because their inner editor is less harsh. The real trick is to turn off the editor in the moment of inspiration and then turn it back on to step away and take an honest look at what you have.”
How much of a team effort is the creation of a song?
“I bring the band finished songs – chords, melody, and lyrics. Then we deconstruct it together to make it an ensemble piece and not just players backing up a songwriter. When it’s most successful there are riffs or musical tags running underneath the melody that get it away from the strummed demo. On my new CD, “Goodbye to the Rank and File,” there is a song called “When the World Was Young” that became a series of riffs with the vocals riding over them which was a huge victory for me and entirely the result of working with incredible musicians. I am hoping to try a new approach with brand new songs developed with the rhythm section first and then building the melodies from that foundation, which should be interesting if it works.”
Is a song ever finished, even though you have recorded it? I would imagine that a song’s melody and lyrics are fine-tuned indefinitely, as long as you keep singing it.
“That’s true. Some songwriters edit their songs on stage over time. We’ll rearrange the music sometimes, but generally try and keep the lyrics intact with only slight variations. I wrote a song called “Lowground” which has appeared on two live CDs of mine – one acoustic version and one electric. The Irish band Solas recorded a version of it too, with some slight lyric changes that I liked. Recently in our shows, the band slowed it down and (it has) this mean heavy groove that is really working for me. It’s a pretty drastic overhaul. There are many writers who are super uptight about folks covering their material and making changes. As long as it’s respectful, I think it is great. Unlike other artistic mediums, songs are not static and should have room to evolve accordingly. A songwriter I have great admiration for, Joe Henry, wrote a song called “Stop,” which Madonna reinterpreted radically and turned into a huge hit called “Don’t Ask Me.” That kind of thing is really exciting.”
Describe the inspiration and evolution of “Sisters of the Road.” The lyrics of the song make me think of the young homeless I have seen in Portland, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego and elsewhere.
“The inspiration came from two places. One is the Sisters of the Road Cafe itself in Portland, which has been serving the homeless community here for a long time. I was doing a benefit show for them with Utah Phillips and wanted to have something specific for the night, so I set to writing it. The song itself is based on a few kids I’ve known over the years. Portland is a hotspot for migrating homeless youth. The story of Silver and Trina is historical fiction that touches on many of the challenges this community faces – heroin, freight hopping, police harassment. The Cafe shows up in the last verse.”
Does the creative process wake you at night? For example, will you wake up at 2 a.m. and grab a notebook to write inspirations for new lyrics or riffs or chords?
“Not at night so much. I will write into the wee hours sometimes, but once I’m asleep I’m done. But sometimes I need to immediately excuse myself from whatever I’m doing to scribble something down. My life is filled with scribbled (notes) on bits of paper.”
What are some of your most unusual inspirations (personal experiences, news events, etc.)?
“By unusual you mean not other musicians and songwriters? The short stories of Breece DJ Pancake. The punk zine Cometbus. The comedian Craig Ferguson. Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki. Environmentalist John Muir. Some specific places – Shi Shi beach, Washington… the whole Olympic peninsula really, New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 80s and early 90s… Above all Portland, Oregon, my home, which is a pretty incredible place to live right now.”
What are your favorite songs, either by you or by other singer-songwriters?
“As far as my own songs go, my favorites are usually determined by what is the most fun to play live and what is connecting with people. Currently, “Ouroboros” and “Beautiful Night” top that list and are as close to pop writing as I get. The story songs are the hardest to write, so when I get one I am really happy about it. We already talked about “Sisters of the Road”. “Guttered” is currently my favorite. It’s the story of an aging punk kid drunk in a graveyard talking to a friend and trying to determine if the world is passing him by or if he has stayed true to some pure ideal.
“Other artists? That is a massive (list) and I could go on and on. But here are three:
“Incident on 57th Street,” by Bruce Springsteen.
“This could be one of countless songs he’s written, but this one kills me every time. The whole street novella plays out with romance, crime, betrayal, police, street fights… it’s all in there. There are 2 ways to look at cinematic writing like this – one is that unlike a novel or film you can sketch out a scene and let the listener’s imagination fill in the blanks, on the other hand you have a very finite amount of words and time to tell your story.
“Straight to Hell,” by the Clash.
“Another song that packs a lot in – race relations in England, the US, and Vietnam. The 3 chords are so catchy they have been sampled in 2 charting hits in the past couple years. A masterpiece. I’ve been thinking about this song due to the Gulf Coast. One of the least mentioned elements of the oil spill are the vast number of Vietnamese who work the Shrimp boats after siding with the US during the war and being forced to immigrate.
“England,” by The National.
“Here’s something from this year. I love a good summer song (there are two on my new record). This band is expert at stream of consciousness lyrics, less literal but incredibly evocative. This whole record is so beautiful and sad I can hardly listen to it. This song is a highlight.”
Reviews of Neill and his group offer comparisons to David Gray and a young Bruce Springsteen. I would rate Neill’s talents to some of the creations of John Gorka, James Keelaghan, or Lucy Kaplansky. Storytellers all, backed with a guitar or two, a flute, a piano and maybe drums, a violin or a mournful harmonica.
Neill’s band’s website says the new album is the first to include the full lineup of the Norway Rats, which features members of the Decemberists, Lucinda Williams Band, and the Minus 5. The group’s website is www.caseyneill.org.
The performers on the Rank and File CD, according to the group’s website, include Neill (vocals, guitar), Little Sue (vocals, acoustic guitar), Chet Lyster (guitar), Ezra Holbrook (drums), Hanz Araki (vocals, flute), Jesse Emerson (bass), and Jenny Conlee (piano, accordion). Holbrook produced the album.
The group’s biography adds that friends playing on the album include R.E.M. touring musician Scott McCaughey (who also is front man for Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows) and Talkdemonic’s Lisa Molinaro.
Neill has spent much of his life in the Pacific Northwest, although he refers to himself as a resident of Portland, Ore., by way of New York City, where he did his first gigs in the Lower East Side.
Topics on the new 12-track album include love, defeat, defiance, resilience and life in the Northwest.
“It’s about endless drives up and down I-5 in the rain at 2 a.m. after a show with 18-wheelers blowing walls of rain onto the windshield,” Neill says on the band’s website. “It’s about watching some people fall away and others stay with you.”
The Oregon Public Broadcasting feature on the band, originally broadcast in July 2009, is available at www.opb.org/programs/artbeat/segments/view/798.
The New York Times story that led to Neill’s creation of “Stevenson Hotel” is available at www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/nyregion/14bowery.html?_r=1.
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