Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Blessed By The Music: Talking With Neal Morse

Neal Morse is one of the most prolific artists, in any genre, in the last twenty years. Since coming on the scene with Spock's Beard, Neal has released countless albums with that band, on his own, and with Transatlantic and Flying Colors. He is also one of the most spiritual lyricists working on the prog scene, a facet that not only sets him apart, but imbues his music with a feeling unique from most everything else out there.

With the upcoming release of the DVD set chronicling the epic Morsefest 2015 event, I had the chance to pose a few questions to prog's preeminent songwriter.
The new Morsefest 2015 DVD set chronicles the second event celebrating some of your solo albums. What is it that draws you to writing these big, conceptual style albums that you've done so often?

When I was a kid, I was involved in a lot of big musical projects through the connections with my father. I sang the lead in an opera when I was nine years old when I saw “West Side Story,” and was quite taken with it. I think I've always wanted to do "big" pieces of music, and I love writing to a story. It's something I really calls to me and calls forth the music as well.

The Neal Morse Band is a different entity than where you were making those albums as a solo artist. What do Eric and Bill add to the performances of the older material?

Perfection! They play all the music with such passion and skill it's amazing. Also, their voices are so great and the vocal blend between all of us is so special we can bring that to the older material as well. Really brings it to life and a great way. 

You've performed suites of "?" before. How hard is it, as a musician with so much material in your catalog, to pare down the music to fit in the time-frame of a single show?

It is a challenge when many of your "songs" or 30 minutes long! It makes it very difficult to pick an encore! But at Morsefest, it is generally easier, because we choose what albums we are going to play far in advance so there isn't a lot of discussion about it. We know what we're doing.

Between the success of Morsefest, and the reception "The Similitude Of A Dream" received, do you feel you have found momentum in your career, and that your profile is growing?

It seems so. To quote this song, "we've got some new momentum, we better keep on going!" Yeah, it seems like with the new album and all the concerts going so well that the band is really killing it right now. I mean that in a good way of course. :-)  It's pretty amazing what is happening and I'm just trying to fully appreciate it and soak up the blessing of this time.

You've made countless albums with Mike Portnoy. It's well-established how close a relationship you have with him, but I'm curious; what is it he brings to the writing and recording process that makes him so invaluable?

Mike is so much more than just a tremendous drummer. He brings incredible arranging skill as well as musicality and vision to all of our projects and albums. He's also really enthusiastic, like when he loves stuff he just loves it times 10! And that can be really helpful in the studio maybe when everyone's confused and wondering whether what we're doing is right and good or not, Mike very often with his enthusiasm will push things through that are very good. He also has an incredible intuition about him about what the right approach is and where the piece should go next. His contribution to our many albums is highly valued.

Having released so many albums, are there any that have been received by the public in a way you weren't expecting, either for better or worse?

Yeah, sure. I was pleasantly surprised how well received THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM has been. Man, people are really going for this album in a big way. I've been disappointed sometimes with the response to some of my song oriented albums like SONGS FROM NOVEMBER. I always think if you really put your heart into an album and do it really well and it's got really good songs on it that it will eventually do well, but the sales on that one were pretty weak. I still think it's a great album. Oh well… Onto the next!

One of my favorite songs of yours is "The Change". Is it difficult to have great songs like that one which weren't on one of your bigger prog albums, so they don't get the appreciation or attention you might think they deserve?

It's strange in my world that what is generally thought of as commercial is uncommercial in my world and vice versa. So, yeah, it's weird that some of my songs that are a little more normal, if they're on an album of normal songs they don't get heard as much. I'm just glad to have an audience at all actually and to be able play music for a living is amazing so, praise the Lord!

These involved prog albums aren't all you do. My favorite of your albums are actually your singer/songwriter works, "God Won't Give Up" and "Songs From November". Are those albums you make for the enjoyment of it, or do you think there are lessons to be learned for your prog albums from writing simpler songs?

I just like to mix it up. After I've done a big Prog epic many times I'd like to just sit down and write some simple songs, you know? So I like to do different things and not always the same kinds of projects. So, yes I guess it is for my own enjoyment! :-) Hopefully it's for other peoples enjoyment too. 

As a songwriter myself, what I love most about your music is that you focus on writing great songs and great melodies, which can be rare in prog. Do you think that prog musicians now, who can grow up listening to nothing but prog, miss out on the advantages you had growing up in a time when music was less segregated, and you could be influenced by more different sounds and approaches?

Possibly, I don’t know, but I do always try to tell younger musicians and writers to always have a song in their epic pieces. It's really important to always have singable melodies and catchy song parts in amongst the instrumentals. That is something that people tend to drop out these days.

You are an incredibly busy musician, with the Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors, and Transatlantic. Do you have any plans, or thoughts, to making another singer/songwriter album in the future?

I do have a lot of half written singer-songwriter type songs right now. While I'm on vacation I'll just sit down and plunk out a few ideas. So I have quite a backlog of that right now, but I don't know with all the touring going on how long it will take me to get into all those ideas and finish them. We shall see.

Finally, less of a question this time. Your music is important to so many people, both spiritual and not. I think that's because of the positivity and the joy you put into it. What does it mean to you to be able to bring that happiness to your listeners?

It’s funny. When I was trying to get a record deal as a singer songwriter in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my music became more and more somber. I feel like I became a brooding songwriter. You know what I mean? And now I'm in such a different place that I can write from a place of deliverance and joy. It's really great to be able to impart that to others, but really all I can say is glory to God, because I was not like that before! It's really something that he has done in me and I'm glad it comes across in the music that I'm writing because I think that that's the greatest feeling that I could share. 

Thanks a lot man! God bless,

For information on everything Neal is working on, including ordering the Morsefest 2015 DVD set, go to Radiant Records.

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