Words by David C. Obenour
Sometimes the best moment of inspiration can come from the complete disregard of filters. Throwing out concepts of what is the good or the previously thought of best way of doing things, and just doing it quickly enough that the nagging doubts in your mind don’t have time to establish a foothold.
After a number of recording sessions ended in frustration, Lael Neale found her answer by limiting the questions. Working with Guy Blakeslee to facilitate recording at her home, the songs on Acquainted with Night are raw, single takes. Alone with just her voice and an Omnichord, the album showcases her talent for twisting melody around lyrics that brim with imagery and emotion.
Off Shelf: Before getting into anything, I just want to acknowledge that it’s a very weird time to be alive. How are you holding up throughout it all?
Lael Neale: Yes, I agree, but honestly, it doesn’t seem all that much stranger than it has felt for the past 15 years or so. I started having a weird feeling with the advent of the smartphone. I’ve often felt things – technology, politics, society – were starting to move in a way that I did not like, that were utterly out of my control and so this past year has been strange, but not necessarily surprising.
The paradox of feeling isolated despite our ability to ‘connect’ instantaneously is something many of us have experienced. Now that our only point of connection is via airwaves, that experience is heightened. Perhaps there will be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction once we are able to be together in real life.
In many ways I’ve been extremely fortunate this year. I am lucky enough to have had a family farm to retreat to and I got a record deal which is extraordinary even in normal conditions. I think my perspective would have been very different if I had to remain in the city and I didn’t have this clear path unfolding before me. So I feel for people. The interesting thing is that we have this massive, overarching shared phenomenon happening but within that every individual is having their own unique experience of it.
OS: Your press release talks about your affection for poetry, so I wanted to talk about that a bit. First off, can you talk about a poet that is particularly resonating with you now? What about their words do you find moving?
LN: I haven’t been reading too much poetry lately, but one poet I return to over and over again is Rumi. But only the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi. Most other translations make me cringe in the way that saying Namaste at the end of a yoga class makes me cringe. I feel Coleman Barks tuned into the ‘scamp’ side of Rumi. The mischievous, irreverent but somehow most holy version of Rumi. He is a Sufi mystic interested in the transcendent, but his poems demonstrate that the only way to get there is through the everyday experience of life. One poem that comes to mind is “No Flag” which reminds me a little of Lennon’s “Imagine”.
OS: On Inauguration Day, I found myself really thirsting for art to express the weight of the hopes and emotions we were throwing on that day. Music resonated, but even moreso – I looked to poetry in a way that I don’t normally. It seemed to be able to carry that weight. Did you watch Amanda Gorman’s performance? What about poetry do you think helps us to tackle these larger concepts?
LN: A poem is a prayer, an incantation, a spell. I felt from Amanda Gorman’s poem that she was casting a beautiful spell over a country in need of resuscitation. I think she is a life-giving person. Her role that day was to breathe affirmation into an arena that loves condemnation. That’s the gift of poetry. It transcends politics and touches humanity. The form allows you to speak in an un-prosaic way. The secret is in the in-between meaning. You can hear a poem and not catch every word, but you get the feeling because the poet, if they are powerful and clear, conveys much more than word, they convey their soul.
Needless to say, I was very moved and it gave me great hope.
OS: It’s funny you mention that because I find myself enjoying hearing poetry performed but frequently am left behind with it. Like the weight of the words can’t sink in for me fast enough with their recitation. You feel that way too?
LN: Yes, definitely. I think that’s why I like music. There’s something about melody that helps to lodge words into your mind. I imagine that’s how Dylan was able to remember his interminable monologues. He married them to melody and the rhythmic structure. This is how poets memorize their work, but their melody and rhythm is more subtle. I prefer to read poetry for that reason. I had to go read her poem to fully catch it. But the beauty is that even if you don’t hear every line, you do get it because there’s a frequency conveyance, a message subliminally sent via the poet herself.
OS: Can you talk more about how you think music helps us consume poetry as lyrics?
LN: This was why I became a musician instead of a poet – besides the fact that I realized I wasn’t a truly great poet. People have looked at me with a mixture of pity and awe when I’ve told them I make music, but if I had said I was a poet they probably would have laughed. There is no ‘poetry industry’. Poets are pure, they are the mystics and the brahmins. They don’t require accolades and fame. They exist on bread and water. But I am not an ascetic and I want to reach people. I want to be accessible so I would rather speak plainly and let sound communicate for me.
Plus, music is much more fun! It is a universal language and in many ways more magical than poetry. There’s an alchemical reaction that happens when words meet melodies and tones. The cold, still word becomes something more, something moving and ineffable. Ultimately, I realized I could exist without poetry, but I could not exist without song.
OS: As far as lyrics as poetry, do you have any favorite musicians that particularly resonate with you? What is it about the way they write that appeals to you?
LN: I am really in awe of how Cass McCombs writes. His gift is making the conversational become the transcendent. I can read his words and get just as much pleasure and meaning out of them as when he sings. He’s truly original in the way he strings together seemingly disparate thoughts. Some of his language is biblical, some esoteric, some every day. It’s the way he weaves them and makes connections that excite me.
OS: It’s really interesting that, in addition to large thoughts and days, poetry can be used for capturing much smaller moments. Acquainted with Night does a beautiful job of exploring some of these universal quiet corners of our existence. How do you find this meaningful and impactful when it comes to art?
LN: There’s nothing worse than a grandiose poem or song. The secret is in finding the Beyond in the banal. I think it’s more interesting to hear about the laundry hanging on the line and how the rusted clothespin left stains on the white sheets we once slept in than ‘I miss you like the moon misses the sun’. We have to notice our own unique experiences of these feelings without always calling on the archetypal. Though archetypal language can be powerful too. It’s all in the balance. Not everything should be cloaked in riddle.
For me a song starts like a little film in my mind. There is a feeling, a desire to emote, and it only comes into focus when I can see it in a tactile way. It must develop a sense of place so the listener knows where they are. Setting and dialogue personalize any universal message. While I love metaphor, I believe it needs to be grounded in place and approached at a slant.
OS: Acquainted with Night finds you performing primarily alone with an Omnichord, giving a real feeling of isolation or solitude to the tracks. Knowing that you wrote most of these songs in 2019 – before the rest of the world was forced to retreat to isolation – how do they hit you now, months into 2021?
LN: It’s funny how that tends to happen. I have often felt isolated throughout my life beginning with growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. And when I say that, I mean isolation in a neutral, if not positive, way. I like solitude. I have had more trouble adjusting to living with someone than living alone. But I never knew what real isolation was until now. The songs from the album sprung from a chosen isolation. Solitude as a companion. Now I long for my community, my friends, more than anything.
With that said, I don’t think this album is glorifying solitude at all. The songs are reaching out, they want contact, partnership, communion with strangers. But this revelation could only come from becoming truly acquainted with myself and the darker aspects of that aloneness. I had to turn around to face it.
OS: You also opted for first takes for many of these songs, straying away from earlier instincts for more produced recordings with full bands and mixing. What led you to that place? Did it take you a while to find comfort in the decision?
LN: I have perfectionistic tendencies and that’s what created the chasm between the first album I made 6 years ago and this one. I was holding on so tightly to the notion of an ideal recording scenario, while simultaneously handing the reins over to producers/musicians who had more technical skill than I. Eventually I got so disheartened and discouraged that I had to let go and surrender to what was clearly being asked of me. I realized that I had to do this myself. Interestingly, once I committed to that, Guy Blakeslee materialized as the ideal producer. It was conversations with him that led us to work together on this album. He heard me and understood that the most powerful approach would be the most minimal. He provided a 4-track cassette recorder & microphones and set them all up in my bedroom and taught me a rudimentary understanding of how to record myself. His encouragement throughout the process was reinforcing and when he mixed the first song I realized it was the first time I had ever heard my voice cut through in the sharp, ragged way I had always wanted it to.
The live performance/limited takes approach was easy for me because while I like control, I’m also very impatient so I only had the ability to sit there for an hour or so before I needed to get up & walk around.
OS: Do you think this lofi, immediate and personal way of recording is a setting you’ll repeat for future recordings? How do you play within limitations without being bound by them?
LN: Definitely. I can’t imagine approaching music any other way from now on. There’s a sense of urgency that brings life to what could otherwise be a stiff, mechanical performance. When you record something over and over and then, Frankenstein-like, sew different takes together you can create kind of an inhuman result. With that said, many many great songs that I love have been created in this way and it works for them. I guess what I’m understanding is that for me I feel more, I enjoy the process more and I sing differently when I know I’ve got only a few shots and I have no one in the room with me. The audience becomes an imaginal realm, a lover, an angel.
Limitation is creativity’s best friend. The secret is there are no bounds once you take away endless choices. The choices are what muddle and cloud an idea. Our modern life contains limitless choice and still we feel dull and unhappy. Advertising understands this and throws us more to fill the vacuum that is caused by the more. These ideas inform the way I want to live my life and create my work. I am grateful for choice, but choice is different from choices. I choose limitation and am more free.