Photo: Joey Pippin

Neal Morse’s Language of the Heart Is on Display With ‘Life & Times’

Progressive rock mastermind Neal Morse talks with PopMatters about his return to his singer-songwriter roots for what may be his best solo effort yet.

Life & Times
Neal Morse
Metal Blade
16 Feb 2018

Neal Morse spent the first part of his career searching for a record deal as a singer-songwriter. The trouble was he was coming up in a time when troubadour deals were largely a thing of the past. Marc Cohn, Sheryl Crow and a handful of others squeaked into the charts but between leather-clad lads of the Sunset Strip and the gutter-and-moan rock emerging from Seattle, there wasn’t much room for a guy writing smart, sensitive songs like those Morse did. Instead, he channeled his gifts into the progressive rock act Spock’s Beard, delivering a number of challenging but always tuneful records that reinvigorated interested in the genre that punk killed.

But songs, even when they were 20 minutes long, were never far from Morse’s mind. And, between Spock’s releases, he issued a series of solo albums that could have/should have garnered attention from more pop-minded listeners. Though he’s never abandoned that form, his latest release, Life & Times, spotlights his gift for the well-told tale and infectious melody.

The record covers a wide array of emotions and experiences. Some tunes are reflective of his marriage and family (“You+Me+Everything”, “Selfie in the Square”), others touch on his own mortality (“If I Only Had a Day”), while another (“He Died at Home”) details a war veteran’s struggles with depression and succumbing to suicide.

Morse’s writing carries the material as does his sense of humor and appreciation for wordplay. Speaking from Phoenix, Arizona on a tour stop to support the record, Morse embraces the idea that the album has the potential to garner him new fans but stops short of saying it will. “That kind of thing really isn’t up to me,” he says. “I can’t think too much about it. My job is to write the songs and let other people do the work of bringing new listeners in.”

Morse, who turns 58 this year, instead focuses on the art of songwriting in this conversation, in which we discuss some of his early influences and how he deals with some of the tougher emotions he tackles in his work.

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What made this the right time to make a singer-songwriter album?

It felt like the right time in my life. I was writing a lot of regular length and normally structured songs on the last band tour. I wanted to record them. I wanted to make a record that was mellower, more of a record that you might put on when you wanted to feel happy. I wanted to make a warm and welcoming record. I think we really achieved that.

Who was it that made you first want to grab a guitar and figure out how to write songs?

The first guys would have been The Beatles. Then Simon and Garfunkel. I really liked Stevie Wonder’s songwriting early on. I started getting into the heavier rock stuff and the prog stuff but I also really liked James Taylor’s first album. I’ve always liked the really simple, really good songs. Elton John. Early Jackson Browne albums. More recently I’ve really liked John Mayer’s singer-songwriter albums.

It’s interesting to hear that you took influence from a more contemporary artist. There are writers who, once they’ve hit a certain point, turn off new music.

I think that’s interesting. Here’s what happened. A friend of mine, a young guy, said, “Hey, man, have you heard John Mayer’s Born and Raised and Paradise Alley?” I said that I hadn’t. He said, “Just get them. Check them out. I think that you’ll really like them.” I bought them both. I lived with them for a while. I’d put them on quite a bit because my family liked both those albums. If we were on vacation I’d put those on and everyone was in agreement that the music was cool and it had a good feel to it. But I think John Mayer was trying to make an early ’70s album with both of those. A lot of the stuff on this album that might sound more contemporary perhaps is me channeling John Mayer going back to the roots that we both have. It still sounds contemporary because he’s got modern players and modern production. It’s like a 1972 record with a 2018 spin on it.

You’re originally a California guy but you’ve lived in Nashville for a long time. Do you feel like the music of the place has crept into your songs? Not so much that you’re making country music but that those rural influences show up?

One influence would be the people that I draw on, that played on the record, they’re all from Nashville. I’ve got Scott Williamson on drums and he brought in Richard Brinsfield. These are guys who are working in the Nashville kitchen, so to speak. They brought their influence to the record. I asked Scott about a pedal steel player because I thought a lot of the songs could use that touch. He suggested Scotty Sanders. Chris Carmichael, the string arranger is also a Nashville guy. Part of it is the artisans you get to work on your house. They work in the way that they do and we’re all influenced by who we’re around.

I think the real surprise on this record is Terry Christian and Rich Mouser’s mixing. Particularly Rich’s. I wouldn’t think a guy that’s so known for prog and rock would do such a great job with such subtle mixes. If you listen to the mixes there’s a lot of subtlety going on. That was one of the things I really wanted to have on this record.

You’ve worked with Rich for how long now?

About 20 years. He’s an amazing artist. That’s the bottom line. You can say, “I want this to have a Madman Across the Water vibe” or “I want this to sound like Jackson Browne’s The Pretender” and he knows exactly what you’re talking about, what you’re going for. You could also say you wanted a Zeppelin thing or something like Yes’s Close to the Edge and he’ll totally get it and be able to produce it. It’s amazing what he can do.

I wasn’t sure who should mix this record because it was so different than anything I’d ever done before. So I sent “Livin’ Lightly” to Rich and Terry and two other guys. I did like a mix shoot-out before we started. I had people listen and I didn’t tell them who had done which mix. Rich’s mix was usually first and Terry’s second and I wound up using them both.

I know that this isn’t intended to be a thematic album, but I guess if there is a theme throughout its love, one way or another.

I think it is a connecting factor here. It’s the deepest emotion that we have. Since music is a language of emotion you want to be singing about the deepest kind of love. That’s why I sing about God’s love a lot of the time. I think it’s the deepest love. This album is not a concept album so each song is kind of its own thought. But there are a lot of songs about enjoying spending time with my wife and reflecting on where we’ve come from and where we’ve come to.

“JoAnna” is a song about my son’s relationship with his girlfriend who had broken up with him and me imagining how he was trying not to show his pain but I could tell that he was hurting. And “He Died At Home”, which is about a soldier’s suicide. There’s a lot of different ground.

It also struck me, listening to “If I Only Had a Day”, that this is not an album necessarily about prayer but a song like that has a prayerful element.

I think I saw something on television about someone who only had six months to live and the next morning I started fumbling around with what became “If I Only Had a Day”. It was really kind of a fun and interesting process because, at each point, I thought, “Well, what would I actually do?” If I had a year, maybe we’d sell everything and go on a really long trip and come back to spend time with everybody. If I only had a month was something else. A week. It was prayerful in a way. The challenge, of course, is to live every day as though you only had that time.

There are powerful emotions behind “You+Me+Everything”. When you sing a song like are you moved or does there comes a point where you say, “I’ve got a job to do and it’s time to let other people feel what I was feeling when I wrote this”?

There are some songs I can’t ever get through without crying. There are some songs that I cried and cried through as I wrote them. “You+Me+Everything” was one. “He Died at Home” was definitely one. “If I Only Had a Day” was one. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but if you perform them a lot you can get through them without crying pretty easily. I think that’s probably good. You don’t want to be a blubbering mess up there. I ask God to help me with this, to have the right level of emotion.

You don’t want to get to the point where you’re just going through the motions but you don’t want to not be able to sing the song either. I’m just trusting God with it all. But sometimes I wish I could have a song back the way it was when I had just written it in my own heart. But after you’ve recorded it and performed it several times it does change.

There’s a turning point where it’s no longer yours.

Right. And I think especially when you’re performing, sometimes a little bit of a distance happens. I think sometimes you feel like you can’t get too close to the song. When I sing “He Died at Home” I have to distance myself from it or I’ll just cry. It’s so sad. It’s so touching. It really happened. It’s all real stuff. The other night I was singing a song I’ve sung a whole bunch and something jumped into my heart and I got choked up a little bit. I think some of that is good. We’re dealing in the emotional realm. That’s what music really is. That’s what it should be. I just try to let it flow however it comes.

I’m often struck by a quote I heard from Townes Van Zandt once. He said something about wanting to go away and write a bunch of songs that were so good he didn’t even understand them. It often occurs to me that sometimes we put something out there and then, maybe years later, we go, “Oh that’s what that’s about.

I’ve had that many times. There’s lyrics that are still coming alive to me. “Whoa, I’m having a new relationship with this lyric!” I had that last year when we did a bunch of older songs of mine on the first night of Morsefest. We did Testimony 2 and some really older stuff. I remember going, “Whoa. It has a totally different meaning to me than when I wrote it.”

We talked earlier about how much of the new album is light with exception of “He Died at Home”. Then, right around the time it was released, you wound up writing “What If It Was Your Child”. You wrote that about the Parkland school shooting. Was it a matter of, “I’m so moved by this I have to express something”?

It was the day after and I was crying and feeling so sad for all the kids. I’d actually started that song after the shooting in October in Texas. I never finished it, never played it for anybody. Then it kind of came back to me after Parkland. I finished it then. We write from the heart so whatever is going on in there should come out in your art.