Artists | Issues | CD Reviews | Interviews | Concert Reviews | DVD/Video Reviews | Book Reviews | Who We Are | Staff | Home
 
Progressive Rock Interviews

Neal Morse

Interviewed by Grant Hill

Interview with Neal Morse from 2011

MSJ:

I’ve met some artists through the years, and of course the discussion is always centered around the music. With you it seems like there is much more to talk about, especially when bringing up the issue of faith and how that relates to music as art and as a proclamation of belief. So, what are your thoughts on that?

Well, you know for me I can’t separate anything from anything (laughs). Music has always been, whatever I’ve written, or whatever I’m writing is generally, it’s unavoidable that I’m gonna express something that’s going on with me. You know, even in vague imagery oriented lyrics like prog lyrics often are, I hear where I was at in my life on all the albums that I’ve made. And so, whatever is going on inside of me is going to come out in my music. And so, if you’re living a life that’s turned toward God, and that’s what your focus is, then that’s what’s gonna come out in your music, and so that’s what’s happened in my case.

MSJ:

Your Jesus experience really took off when you were still a part of Spock’s Beard. Myself, I came to Christ at a young age, so I never, at least not in my memory, had a Saul-like conversion experience. I don’t think it’s possible to easily separate your message from the music as a medium of conveyance. Maybe you could elaborate more on your experience in becoming a believing Christian.

Oh, well, if you want to hear about it in really great detail, I’ve just written a book called "Testimony." And, that goes into great, great detail about my whole life and my whole coming to Christ, and all of that. And you can get it at my website (NealMorse.com), or at RadiantRecords.com. I’m not giving a commercial; if people are really interested in diving into that part of my life, that really is the best way to find out all about it. The short version is that I started going to this Pentecostal church near Nashville, Tennessee to be a good husband, because my wife, even though she was what you call backslidden, she wasn’t really going to church or anything. But, you know, even people that aren’t going to church, they like to go to church at Christmas and Easter, and stuff like that. So, we started going just every once in a while, and at one point I began to feel something. I began to feel drawn; I began to feel something I’d never felt before. I began to feel tingly. I began to feel electricity. I began to experience something that was beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. I was very intrigued by it and wanted more of it, and began to come more and more, and the short version is then I eventually gave my life to Christ. But, there’s of course a lot more to it than that, but that’s the short version.

MSJ:

Well, thank you for that. The Morse household must have been a pretty rocking place in the 1970s with your siblings. I have a musical household here; my fourteen year old is a multi-instrumentalist. How did your early musical development impact the creative path you’ve taken?

Oh, well, entirely! (laughs) It’s funny; all those years I spent as a, and I’m just going to be blunt, as a stoned teenager, sitting around listening to my favorite records which was King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, JethroTull, ELP, Genesis; all that stuff; sitting around listening to that stuff and just jamming. Me and my friends, we were all musicians and we just jammed all the time instead of playing basketball or football or whatever. That’s what we did, you know. We basically got stoned and played music. That’s what we did. And, then I kind of abandoned all that prog music when it all sort of died out toward the late seventies and I started doing, oh, you know, whatever was popular for a long time. I started doing rock and new wave music and pop. And I did a lot of singer-songwriter stuff. I finally settled into being a singer-songwriter sort of guy, but I never got a record deal doing that. And, then I came back to prog in my thirties! I came back to like what I really, really loved the most. I think in my twenties I was trying to make it, and there was of course no market for prog in the late seventies and early eighties and all that. You know, so it wasn’t until I gave up making it and started writing the music that I truly, truly loved, that I thought there was no market for,  that was when success finally found me, and my brother, and the band.
MSJ:

Obviously, your decision to finally leave Spock’s Beard shook up the band, and you ended up putting Transatlantic on the shelf for a few years, too. So you began sailing in uncharted waters. Were you frightened, and did you have any regrets about that, either then or now?

No, I haven’t had any regrets about it; I felt like God has been leading me in wonderful ways, and really blessed me and my family ever since then. And, uh, it’s been amazing; it’s been amazing. But, you know, my whole life is uncharted waters. (laughs) Spock’s Beard was totally uncharted waters, you know. But the scary time is when you’re trying to make the decision. I would say it’s scary on the fence. Once you jump into either side, then you’re there and you’re into it and things become clearer. The period of time that was scary was when I was trying to decide if I was really going to quit Spock’s or not. I was feeling like God was leading me that way, but I was really scared not knowing what would happen to my family, our livelihood, but also what would happen with the band, and what would happen with the audience, and what would happen? “What’s God going to do with me,” you know? Very much of a diving off the cliff into the unknown; and, you know, it’s just been incredible. He’s blessed me creatively, spiritually, in every way.
MSJ: You were able to contribute to the writing of “The Emperor’s Clothes” on Spock’s Beard’s X. And also, Dave, Nick and Al did a nice job adding vocals on “Time Changer” on Testimony 2.  To me both pieces are a little nostalgic, yet they both sound totally fresh. It seems to have oddly come full circle in a way, don’t you think?
It is interesting. Well, you know with the passing of time and with them being on their own for so long, I just feel like the Lord has healed our relationship in a lot of ways, you know. I’m just so grateful for that. So they’ve asked me to do, you know, I’ve been involved with some things with them, and with my brother Alan’s solo album (Four O’Clock and Hysteria), and came to a place where I felt like I could maybe ask them to sing on my new album. When they said “Yes” I was still wondering, are they really gonna send their parts in? Nick was the last one. I mean, Nick sent his part in, I think while it was being mixed; I mean it was really just the last, really close to the end! So, I was biting my nails wondering if it was really going to happen all the way though, but they really came through and did just a great job. I think it sounds amazing, and yes, it’s totally nostalgic. I mean, what a trip! I mean it’s just too bad we couldn’t get together in the same room and do it. You know, they all sent me their parts from wherever they were from afar. But, it was really cool, man, and finally get to put all the vocals in for the first time and hear it all and go, “Wow!” What an amazing blend of voices and, you know, what an amazing bunch of guys.
MSJ: We do live with this very special but still obscure genre of progressive rock. And I’m sure Randy George can relate to this question, too, with his band, Ajalon. Do you think it’s easier to bring progressive rock fans to your Christian music, or to bring Christians to progressive rock?
Well, I don’t think anything’s easy in the music business. (Laughs) It’s all challenging in its own way. I think you have to just abandon all of those thoughts about bringing people what they’ll accept and what they won’t accept, and what they’ll like and what they won’t like, because I’ve constantly been surprised in my own mind. In the Spock’s days when I wrote the song “June,” I only wrote it because I thought that we needed to have something to give people’s ears a rest during our concerts. Because at that time when I wrote “June,” all we had was, like, um, pretty long pieces like “The Light,” “Go the Way You Go,” “The Water.” I thought, you know, “We need something shorter that’s a little bit easy on the ears.”  And the band, Nick, Al and I had been just singing had been just singing Crosby, Stills and Nash songs and stuff in our spare time and enjoying the vocal blend, and I thought of writing something like that. But I remember being very fearful because it was such a normal song that the prog fans might not accept it. You know, it’s like, “Oh, can we do this? It’s like a pretty normal song.” And, I don’t know if you know, but “June” is one of the most requested Spock’s Beard songs ever. It became what we closed our concerts with, because it was like the big thing that people liked the most. So, and it’s been like that way all along my career. I’ll think. Oh, people are really going to respond to this or they won’t respond to it. On Testimony 2, when I wrote “It’s For You,” I thought, “oh, this might be too far.” It’s like a friend of mine at church says, “Well, you done quit preachin’ and went to meddlin’!” Like, you’ve stepped over the line and now you’re in my face. I didn’t want to do that. So, I was concerned that non-Christians if they’d be able to hear that song. And, “It’s For You” is like the most popular song on the album, I think one of the most. One of the most powerful, you know. People really respond to it of all walks. I think if the power of God is in something or if the beauty of music is in something people will respond no matter where they are. And that’s the great thing about music.
MSJ:

With Randy George, I think his sound and playing are really fabulous and incredibly mature on Testimony 2. What are your thoughts about his contribution to the project?

His contribution was really huge. There’re things that Randy has added to all the albums that we’ve worked on together. You know, people are much more, if they are like Randy and Mike are, they’re much more than just players. They bring all their ideas to bear. Sometimes it’s funny! Just between the three of us, it’s hard to get an idea in, because Randy is so excited about the direction he thinks it should go, and Mike’s got ideas, and I’ve got ideas. And so, yeah, Randy has added a lot with all of his creative input into these records.

MSJ: I’ve been critical at times of Mike Portnoy because I think sometimes he’s been a little bit prone to overplaying. But when I listen to Testimony 2, he sounds very musical and everything makes sense. I just think it’s maybe the best drumming I’ve ever heard from him. Do you see, or hear, I should say, an increasing level of sophistication from working with both guys?
I don’t know if I hear them being more sophisticated or more musical. I don’t know, I may be too close to it all to see it that way. To me, Mike’s always been killer, and from the first record that Randy played on, I thought, though, the One album was as cool and interesting as anything that I’ve done. In fact, the One album is one of my favorite, favorite albums I’ve done ever for myself, personally. And, uh, so, I don’t really hear it that way, but I’m glad that you do.
MSJ: Yeah, my impression is that this may be your most cohesive and coherent work to date. I really like the way you voice and restate themes, and just everything lines up musically, I think quite perfectly. I think your meter changes are fluid. It maintains that grand scale epic kind of progression through the whole work. I told Dave Meros a few days ago that I think this work is a masterpiece. How do you feel about the overall trend in your work from a writing perspective these days compared to, maybe, I don’t know, five, six years ago, or whatever?
I don’t know, you know, I try to just not to compare very much and just to move into whatever I’m hearing and whatever I’m working on. I think, I think that my music has changed in some way. I think the pieces are maybe a little deeper, a little more involved. There may be more spiritual depth to some of it, and musical depth. But, I don’t know, I mean, it’s really, music’s so subjective, I mean it’s all in the ear of the listener. You know, I read reviews where some people think the Question Mark album is the best thing I ever did and everything else pales in comparison to it, or Sola Scriptura or, you know, some people think Testimony 1 was my best. You know, so they’re disappointed with other things. Other people have never been able to get into Testimony, you know. I don’t know if there seems to be particularly any rhyme or reason to it. I’m just glad that people are listening and receiving from it.
MSJ: You’ve got some other things on the horizon. I hear there is some talk of a rock opera?
Well, yeah, about three years ago, now, a friend of mine from New York, a guy in the record business from New York; He called me up and he said, “Neal, I’ve been listening to Jesus Christ, Superstar, and I thought somebody should do a new one. You know, not redo that one, but do a new Jesus rock opera, and I thought who better to do that than Neal Morse?” (laughs) And I laughed and I thought, well, I’ll consider it. At the time I thought, well that’s been done so many times, I don’t know. But after I while I thought that it was a good idea and it was what God wanted me to do. So, I wrote this. It wound up being two and a half hours long. I wrote this rock opera sort of thing based on the Gospels, and Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, and the raising from the dead and the whole thing. And, then I gave it to this man from New York to shop. He shopped it around for a while and got a lot of conflicting interests about what we should do with it next, and so it’s just been sitting and I’ve been praying. In fact, last year when I came home from the Transatlantic tour, and I was praying about what to do next, I was, like, “should I work on that next? Should we try to get that staged somewhere? Should we record the album? What should we do? “I don’t know! I’m not even exactly sure what the Lord’s will is with it, and I’m still there, although there has been some movement. There’s been some interested people, and it’s looking like something may happen with it in the coming year. So, that’s it on that; just right now it’s just sitting, waiting.
MSJ: If it weren’t progressive rock, what would your musical genre of choice be?
I’m really into classical right now. I find myself just really enjoying putting on, you know, a Brahm’s symphony or some Mozart. You know, the real classics. I’ve just been really enjoying that. I love going to the symphony and, you know, so that and pop. I enjoy a good pop song. My daughter, Jayda, is really into Taylor Swift. And some of Taylor Swift’s pop songs, I think, are really well written. Her song, “White Horse,” for example, you know, I hear ‘em all the time because my daughter is so into it whenever we’re driving round. She plays me all this Taylor Swift stuff. And I think she’s really good! A good songwriter, she knows how to turn a phrase and tell a story in a real effective way. So, I like anything that’s done well and with heart, really.
MSJ: You obviously have a very active church and family life, and the 3 AM party days seem to be quite long over, so how do you relax outside of that and what are you interested in doing?
Well, I go for long walks with my wife. I like to play tennis with my son, and go swimming with my daughter. Well, we do a lot of different things together. We have a lot of friends that we like to gather with. With have a lot of gatherings in our house. I like to just relax and watch a movie, you know, pretty normal stuff.
MSJ: It’s been a rough ride for both established and emerging musicians today. I read in one of the major financial journals recently that music industry revenues are down over 70% from a decade ago. What do you think can be done from an artist standpoint to effect change, and how can we create a viable, sustainable music industry that rewards hard working talent and actually gets this great music to people’s ears?
Well, I think the first thing is, again, for people to pray, and just try to come from the most honest place and do the most excellent work they can do, regardless of the market. I think if you do something that’s truly excellent, you know what I mean? You go the extra mile, you make the recording as great as you can within your limitations, and just focus on doing the best work that you can, that’s the first thing that we can do as artists. You know, put out the highest quality thing you can put out and trust God for the rest. Um, as a people or a nation I would say educate and encourage people about downloading. I mean, the bottom line is, you know, a lot of people aren’t paying for their music anymore. The record company I had over in Europe said, “Hey Neal, did you notice that attendance at your Transatlantic concerts were maybe thirty to forty percent higher than last time you toured?” I said, “Yeah, that was great! We sold out a bunch of places.” He said, “Yeah, do you notice that the sales are about the same? So where are all those people getting the music if they know all the words to the album?” (laughs) Right? You can just look around and you can see that people are getting the music because they show up to the concerts, you know, but the actual CD sales aren’t what they used to be. So people are getting their music from somewhere, and it’s hurting everybody. As my advances go down, because they don’t have the money to give me, it’s harder for me to make the quality of record that I’ve been making. I literally have to call around to  the people I’ve been working with for years, and say, “Hey, man, you know my budget isn’t what it was, will you do it for this?” So, they cut their fee, thank God. People have been very kind. I’m talking about mixing people, mastering people, you know all the other people that work on these albums. You know, everybody’s trying to make a living, and deliver the best thing that they can deliver. And so, you know, I think all we can do is just try to educate people. And, like “hey, you know if you’re downloading, you’re hurting the entire music business, and ultimately it’s gonna hurt you.”
MSJ: What advice would you render to young artists who love music and are working hard to become great at what they do?
Well, I would say practice, practice, practice! Work, work, work. Whatever your focus is, whatever it is, whatever gift God has given you, work on it. Flesh it out. Keep trying. Keep going. Don’t quit. That’s the main thing. The only reason I didn’t quit is because I didn’t leave myself any options. If I woulda had an option, I surely would have quit, because it got so depressing. If you read my book, you can read all about how rough it was. I mean, I was doing nothing but music all my life, and didn’t even get my first real record deal until I was like 37. You know, that’s like a long time to be rejected. (laughs) So, just keep at it. Keep going. Keep praying. Find that voice of God within you, and trust that.
MSJ: Who haven’t you performed with that you think you might like to?
Oh, well, there’s millions of people. Right off the top of my head, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, I love Christian guys like Steven Curtis Chapman. I like Michael W. Smith, too. You know, I like a lot of artists. I’ve been very blessed to play with a lot of really good people, too.
MSJ: Any closing thoughts?
Trusting God, it really all comes down to that. You know, in all aspects, that’s what my music career came down to, ultimately. (laughs) You know, just keep going, keep trust that somehow, through all of it, God will see you through, if you really trust what he’s given you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
More Interviews
Metal/Prog Metal
Non-Prog
Progressive Rock
 
Google

   Creative Commons License
   This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

    © 2020 Music Street Journal                                                                           Site design and programming by Studio Fyra, Inc./Beetcafe.com