“Once you strip back all of the extraneous things, then you can reach something closer to the truth. So that was kind of my approach in writing the songs. And what I’ve spent years kind of figuring out is how to say the most in the least amount of space and leave room for something beyond what my small mind can convey.”
Lael Neale is talking about the songs on her recent long player Acquainted With Night, one of the albums of the year so far.
With all unconnected sound and production removed and recorded on an four-track – an extraordinary testament in itself – Acquainted With Night captures the human spirit with all of its flaws and struggle, yearning and questioning of its own mortality: it is both nakedly personal to Virginian native Neale and universal at the same time. It speaks to the contrast between the vastness of a city you can get lost in, with communities that hold the human connections. At a time of tragedy and gruelling isolation, when we have been huddled up alone for vast periods of time, this album offers a flickering light of hope that things will be OK in the future.
If you squint it sounds a little like a lo-fi Lana Del Rey or Mazzy Star chiseled down to its bare bones; add the distinctive omnichord and personal revelations delivered by Lael Neale’s unique voice then it’s in its own orbit and very special indeed. This subtle approach is contrasted by the cinematic grandeur and sense of space with which she imbues each song, as Neale reaches toward the transcendent experience with a vivid and emotional clarity.
“It’s very much like a personal song. For people to experience through their own personal lens. It’s talking about family and roots, like where you’re from” explains Neale of startling album opener ‘Blue Vein’. Haunting and isolated ‘Blue Vein’ is Lael Neal’s brittle late night revelation, her quivering vocal is utterly spellbinding and heartbreaking as her voice trembles upon the nature of living and overcoming the struggle of it. Scratchy sepia-tinged production as the LA artist’s extraordinary vocal is joined by an isolated guitar strum and woven with an omnichord motif.
It is a song that would fit perfectly on a David Lynch soundtrack, “some say the truth springs for reservoir seekers, but I think the truth sings to whoever listens” she sings at the end. This ode to living authentically despite the struggle is utterly crushing and one of the best things I have heard this year so far.
Lael Neale grew up on a farm in rural Virginia, but for nearly 10 years called Los Angeles home. Those years were spent developing her songwriting and performing in venues across the city. She worked with countless musicians, producers and collaborators, making entire records and eventually stowing them away.
She says, “Every time I reached the end of recording, I felt the songs had been stripped of their vitality in the process of layering drums, bass, guitar, violin and organ over them. They felt weighed down.”
In early 2019, Guy Blakeslee, who had been an advocate for years, facilitated the process by setting up the cassette recorder in her bedroom and providing empathic guidance, subtle yet affecting accompaniment and engineering prowess. Limited to only 4-tracks and first takes, Neale had to surrender some of her perfectionism to deliver the songs in their pure essence. Floating with wisps of atmosphere you can almost hear in in the background and the scratchiness of the recording.
It is lo-fi but given a grandiosity by the naked ambition of the songwriting and her piercing vocals coupled with the subtlety of the instrumentation.
“I think that the gift of using that technology is that it offers an extra element; you can’t really put your finger on what the sound is, and a plug in, I’m sorry, it doesn’t emulate that.” She also notes “That’s what created that sound and it wasn’t contrived in the sense that I wanted to make a record on a four-track player; I had it like on my desk in my bedroom. So it was very simple. And very easy for me, who’s not very technical, to figure out.”
Finding the ominichord quickened the songwriting process; its minimalism adds an intriguing textural palette to her sound.
“I had discovered the omnichord and then wrote all of the songs pretty much in the span of maybe a month or two or so,” Neale remembers. “What made me fall in love with it was that I’d been kind of searching for something like this for forever: It felt like something that would kind of give a lush and textural backdrop that my voice and words could kind of just sit on top of and it was ideal.”
For the last year during the Covid-19 pandemic Lael Neale moved back to the family farm to help muck in and make videos for her album on an old camcorder she found.
‘Every Star Shivers in the Night‘ is a wistful and reflective torch song that speaks of her time in LA. It looks over the skyline of the city and ponders the joy and darkness of its every corner. Framed in the light a solitary drum machine and mournful church organ, “I’m gonna love someone” promises Neale in a haunting and wonderous tone that aches with a longing. Wonderful.
“It is this song, probably, maybe more than any of the others that is about everyday life in Los Angeles and how much I really loved walking in that city”, remembers Neale. “Which a lot of people are just like, ‘what you walk places there?’, because it’s just not set up for that. But that’s what makes it special. So you kind of meander through all of these dead zones almost where expanses of road have just kind of been neglected. But then there’s all different kinds of buildings and different kinds of people as you walk through the different neighbourhoods. And so yeah, it’s like a walking song.”
But it’s also intensely personal to her.
“I feel like I was dealing with the point in my life where I was very, very suspiciously putting my toes in the water of a new relationship and not feeling anything. And being like, what’s wrong with me? I can have these interactions that are so meaningful and powerful and loving with strangers, but I can’t get to love this person or whatever? So that’s kind of what I was dealing with at the time that I wrote the song.”
Apart from the outsiders view of LA and Hollywood, Lael Neale got to the heart of the sprawling city streets and communities offbeat and away from Lala Land. One can imagine her walking from Dodgers Stadium to downtown, observing strangers and her own strangeness but determined to find communion with others.
“That’s what’s so amazing about this city is that it’s so huge!” she enthuses. “The kind of exploited version of Los Angeles is such a specific neighbourhood, you know you can say which streets it starts and ends on. It’s kind of a surreal place to drive through. It feels very much outside of my experience of Los Angeles because I lived in a little hamlet, a tiny community where you kind of see the same people walking down the street, it’s like a suburb. It’s a really interesting place and I did not expect to like it when I moved there. I had moved from San Francisco, which is one of the most beautiful cities you could imagine, but I didn’t like it at all up there. But Los Angeles was kind of this warm, inviting place; the people were so warm and open. And I love the palm trees and the bright sun every day.”
Signed to Sub Pop Records, it has been a long time coming for Lael Neale.
Her debut album I’ll Be Your Man was released in 2016, and follows a more traditional Americana songwriter approach; clearly the talent was there but she hadn’t quite found her voice or a way to strip it back to the truth of her artistry.
“The production on the first one was much more; just kind of your run-of-the-mill, bass, drums, guitar, sort of folky Americana.. I think that that’s definitely what I was because that was six years ago. I spent a lot of time really working to undo the programming that I had with the way that I made music, because I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like being considered a folk artist. I mean, not folk, but the ‘singer-songwriter’ type.”
The first song she recorded was ‘For No One For Now’ which calls to mind the agitated beat of driving fast on the freeway against the backdrop of the San Fernando Valley with its bent palms.
“My songwriting kind of happens all at the same time; writing the melody and chord progression helps develop the tone”, Neale explains. “Then you get a feeling from it and then the words will just kind of naturally come out with that tone. Then later I’ll go back and make more sense of it, and then flesh it out. But I think the initial spark of an idea comes with the instrument, like the music and melody, and then some initial words, that flashed through my mind or feelings or something.”
Approaching songwriting as a craft, Neale works at it with regularity and a dedication that allows her to be the conduit.
“It’s just an interesting approach letting it almost come through you. I don’t know, there’s certain artists that have talked about that as well. I have to be in a pretty strong routine of writing every day. Something will come and then it’ll be just a bunch of nonsense for days maybe. And then something will just kind of happen and you’re like, Whoa. But you’ve been working kind of through stuff, I think. So with these songs, ‘Every Star Shivers in the Night’ and ‘Blue Vein’ and a couple maybe ‘Acquainted with night’, they all kind of just happened. And I was just there to kind of let it happen. But then also it’s just the initial spark. Then I actually kind of go in and edit and take away what’s unnecessary and created an arc, because I think the songs I write aren’t verse, chorus, verse chorus, or whatever. They’re, they’re kind of just whatever.”
“I feel like I’ve always been kind of self-conscious about that and not not really having a proper chorus or whatever, but I kind of care less and less about that now.”
Lael’s lyrics hold a poetic grandeur and a knowing philosophical resonance. But who are her favourite poets?
“I think the one that has the most influence on the songs that I write is Rumi, who is a Sufi poet. But, but he’s from the 12th century, so very long time ago, and there are only translations of his work by contemporary people now”, she explains “So the translation that I like is by Coleman Barks and if you go and look up Rumi quotes there are a lot of times they can be used as really cheesy statements from like a yoga class.”
“Then also, I think Mary Oliver has had a big influence on the songs, because she’s kind of a nature poet. And so she brought in kind of everyday moments, zoomed in on things that were kind of banal or ordinary, and then kind of brought it to this, this level beyond. Those are spiritual poets that I like, when they’re talking about something deeper in the human experiences.”
Lael took advantage of the limitations imposed by the last year. She re-discovered her Sony Handycam from high school and is using it to make impressionistic companion pieces to the songs she recorded in Los Angeles.
She continues, “I am enjoying the strong contrast between the songs I wrote and recorded in California and the videos I am making for them in Virginia. It offers something unexpected”, notes Neale of the videos she has produced for the record on a shoestring budget. “I think the exciting thing to me was actually this enforced period of having to do everything myself, because I knew a lot of people who made music videos in MLA. But I think that just being forced to do it myself has been really strengthening the whole for the piece as a whole, because even if I can’t do it very well, at least it’s mine, you know. I think that there’s truth to that, and truth is more important to me than high, quality or like the greatest thing that you can make, you know?”
Photo credit: Guy Blakeslee