Though rooted in the poetry of the everyday, Lael Neale’s songwriting has a way of unearthing feelings that are both sacred and timeless. Following the release of her 2015 debut I’ll Be Your Man, the Virginia-bred, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter struggled with figuring out where to take her sound next, completing full albums only to shelve them. “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,” she explains. “They felt weighed down.” For her new album and Sub Pop debut, Acquainted with Night, she’s pared things back, harnessing the lush intimacy of a vintage Omnichord and a 4-track cassette recorder to create a series of vignettes that feel at once ethereal and down-to-earth, as if drifting through the mists of time. Spilling over with wistful, sun-soaked melodies and subtle production flourishes, the album captures a kind of longing that can’t be contained but finds a home in the solitary splendor of Neale’s spectral compositions, which echo Sybille Baier’s reel-to-reel tape recordings or Adrianne Lenker’s songs and instrumentals. “I’m never lonesome,” goes the refrain of ‘Sliding Doors’, letting us in on the simple pleasures of an introverted life.
We caught up with Lael Neale for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her new album, nature, and dealing with the fear of death.
Are you in Virginia right now?
Yeah, I am. I’ve been here since last April, so it’s been a bit of time.
How has it been there during these months?
It’s been really nice, because this area of Virginia and our farm in particular is really isolated. You kind of step outside of time and everything that’s happening in the world. I mean, everyone’s being asked to, but you can kind of just exist in your own imagination out here.
Something that a lot of people talk about right is how their relationship to their hometowns has changed during the pandemic. Has being back in Virginia made you think about your upbringing in a different way, or brought back memories that you realise have gone on to shape who you are now?
Yeah, definitely. That’s been a huge realization in coming back, is that I had kind of forsaken the town I’m from because it was so small and there was no culture, and not really anything happening. And I kind of felt like I didn’t really belong; I had friends, but I didn’t really find my people until I moved to Los Angeles. That’s kind of how it felt. But throughout my life in the city, I was always yearning for nature. That was a part of me that was so intrinsic to who I am that I really always felt that there was something missing, being in the city. And I feel like maybe that’s what’s happening with people now, is that living life in the city doesn’t have any of the sparkle or magic because you’re not going out, you’re not engaging with people, you’re not going to cafes or to clubs to hear music or anything. So it’s kind of like, well, what’s the point and living in this concrete mess? And obviously, some cities are kind of beautiful and nature, too. But Los Angeles especially is kind of like, why would you stay here if you can’t even have any of the benefits of the culture of that place? And so, I think reconnecting with my rootedness in the earth and in nature, that’s been really enriching this year.
Do you remember feeling connected to nature in that way at an early age?
Yeah, definitely. And I kind of thought that that was what I was going to do with my life. Because I really was an environmental activist from when I was very little – I was really worked up about the environment and humans’ interaction with nature and what we were doing to it. So I kind of always had a very strong passion to reframe the way that humans interact in the natural world and trying to to a place where we could be in harmony again. That’s definitely been a huge part of my identity and sense of self. And I think that through writing songs and making music, I felt that I could have more of more of an impact in the way that poets and writers have influenced and inspired me. So I thought, instead of shaming people or yelling at people in a Greenpeace boat outside of a ship or whatever, that it would be much more fun and probably more effective to broadcast my ideas about nature and the environment through songs. I kind of do it in extremely subtle ways. But I think if you listen, it’s kind of there throughout the songs; I’m definitely referencing nature often, and a more idealized version how we live in the world.
I think it definitely comes through; I’m thinking of songs like ‘White Wings’, for example, or ‘Sliding Doors & Warm Summer Roses’. And and you mentioned songs, but I’m curious – because I read that at first, it was more just writing or reading writers who were close to nature. You used the word “broadcasting”, but to what extent was it also just a way of processing your surroundings?
It was probably more about processing it. And I think that’s the conclusion that I came to, which is what most teenagers come to – because teenagers are so fervently enthusiastic, and think they know everything about everything, and that’s how I was. And I think that I came to a little bit of humility, in terms of my ideas of what was right and wrong, and being much less black-and-white in my thinking. So I think that through reading poetry and works about nature and the environment and humanity, I just realized, I don’t really know anything, but I can offer my perception of it. And songs are kind of the best way that I could find to invite people into my own process of figuring things out.
When did music and songwriting become an active part of that process?
Probably when I was 19 or 20, and I moved out to San Francisco. I was living with a boyfriend who was a musician out there, and I kind of was dropped into his world. I really didn’t have a place or a vision for what I wanted to do. I was really frustrated and depressed at that time. But through living with him, I guess through osmosis, I was like, “Oh, I can live this life.” You’re completely free from any kind of really structured life, you can be floating around in this like, realm of art and music. So I became enthralled by that lifestyle, and the life of someone who’s interested in thought and philosophy and art. I didn’t have to have a really strong career decision, I could be fluid, and so I guess it kind of came from that. And then, moving to Los Angeles, it solidified my idea that the music scene was probably the one that I wanted to live in. The people I was meeting in that in there were inspiring and exciting to me.
During those years, how do you feel that experimenting with different sounds and meeting different people affected your outlook or process? How did that evolve over time?
I went through a pretty rapid growth period in the space of meeting the guy who actually produced my first album, which came out six years ago. But I think through meeting him and his friends, who were all art school students, that kind of introduced me to a whole other realm of making music in a pretty specific way, with a very clear vision of how you’re going to write and how you’re going to present yourself. I was kind of all over the place, and this helped streamline my writing and realize this is what I am. It still took years to kind of hone that and I think that’s a big part of why it’s taken so long for another album to come out, because I knew that I was still needing to shed some extraneous parts of myself or my process of writing. So, I think the exciting thing about this album coming out is that it really does feel like it’s been stripped away of anything unnecessary. And I feel like the point I needed to reach now, and then it can flesh out as I go on, but it’s exciting to start at the skeleton.
And from what I understand, a big part of that was the Omnichord. Was it kind of like a revelation, almost, discovering the instrument and the raw intimacy it has? Or was it more of a process, arriving at that point?
I think it was a little bit of both. But the great thing about the Omnichord was that it kind of contained everything that I needed in one in one machine. On one hand, I didn’t need that much, but on the other hand, it kind of had a lot because like you said, the record, though it’s sparse, it still is kind of lush. Because of that organ sound and the drum tracks, it fills in space, without really needing to be too much. So the Omnichord was a huge part of that revelation, like I can be totally contained in this and still create something that’s big enough.
What was it like learning how to construct songs with it?
It was like being a kid again. Because I think we forget how to be beginners at things, you know. It takes so many years to learn the guitar or to learn the piano or to learn any instrument, and by the time you’ve mastered it, a little bit of the excitement has been drained away. And with the Omnichord, because it’s so simple, and it really is kind of made for a child, you can play chords on it having no clue how to play music. And because of that simplicity, it kind of opened up this whole new realm of creativity. I was also excited by it in a way that the guitar and piano had kind of lost their luster a little bit.
I know you worked with Guy Blakeslee on the album. What do you feel he brought to these recordings?
He and I started talking a couple years ago about the best way to record the songs, because he was coming to my shows and was frustrated that I hadn’t been able to make recordings. I was like, “I’m frustrated, too.” [laughs] And so, he and I kind of spent a lot of time drinking coffee and talking and having meetings together, and then eventually, he was like, “I’m just gonna bring over my four-track to your house. I’m going to set up the microphone, and I’m going to leave it, and you just kind of play around with it.” And the four-track machine was something I finally understood, I was like, “Oh, you just press record and play.” There’s nothing complex or technical you need to know. So he gifted me with this whole safe space to make the record, and then would drop in and mix the song. He was a huge part of making it all happen, largely because he created a protective bubble around me and kind of kept his hands off, which I think is actually a really difficult and rare thing for a producer to do. He was just so kind of supportive and had faith that the thing that I was going to do would be the right thing.
My favorite song right now on the record is ‘Every Star Shivers in the Dark’; I just feel like the lyrics of that song have a resonance that’s very universal. And I love how, towards the end of the song, the line goes from, “I’d like to love someone” to “God made man to love someone.” Which, regardless of religion, I think captures how that longing for connection is something that’s ingrained in us, like it’s part of our nature.
I’m glad it struck you, because that was the intention with that line. When I wrote that song, I was really feeling this longing to experience love, and then I was trying to figure out where that comes from, why are we always reaching for it, and no one is going to satisfy it. No one person. So I think I come around to something that we all know, but that it’s just the experience of itself and it doesn’t matter, the object of your love. My idea is that that kind of is why we’re here. And there’s something powerful about the archetypal idea of Adam and Eve being made by clay, and what are they made of, you know? What is the clay? Is it clay, or are they made of love? I just like thinking about all that stuff and our own mythologies and archetypes, and why they have such resonance with people. And using those words is intentionally trying to touch on that common, universal experience that we all have.
I have one more question, but it’s kind of grim. It has to do with something you mentioned in the notes for ‘How Far Is It to the Grave’, this practice called Jeopardy. And I hadn’t heard of it – to be honest, I couldn’t even find anything about it online. But it seems rooted in this very common idea of like, living every day it’s your last, which sounds cliché but is actually really hard to put into practice. So I’m just wondering where you how you came across that.
Well, I really like grim questions, first of all. I came across that in this weird self-help book called The Tools, and I must have found that in some library book sale or something and I got drawn in. And there were, I think, four tools to living a better life. But that was one of them that really stuck with me. Another one was about the pain wall and how we don’t do things because we come against the pain wall. And so part of the tool was saying, “I love pain, pain sets me free.” And that sounded so crazy to me. But at the same time, I could kind of understand why that works, because you’re like, “I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning because it’s too cold out or whatever,” you know. But you need to do all these things, you have to break through that pain wall. So that’s a minor one that we all do. But it ratchets up to like, big things that we’re afraid of, or that are painful.
And so then, part of getting through the pain wall included this Jeopardy, which was part of the motivation to do the thing that was difficult to do would be to envision yourself on your deathbed, every morning. And then having that instilled in your consciousness from the minute you wake up makes everything in your day more precious and more vital. And you don’t want to waste any moment because you’re like, “Well, this is going to be me someday.” And, you know, “Maybe I won’t even be lucky enough to have a deathbed, I might just, you know, be knocked out by a bus or some—” you know, anything could happen. I don’t mean to take death lightly at all, it’s not that. And it’s also not instilling fear of death, it’s more of an appreciation, like you said, it’s become so cliché, but living every day like it’s your last. But it has worked, because it kind of sticks with me. And as you make decisions through the day, you kind of have that in your mind, like, “Is this important enough to get all freaked out and worried about?”
Is that something that you’ve found a way of integrating into your life?
Yeah. And I think that song is kind of my integration of that, my processing of it. I don’t know, it’s also a weird time to talk death and stuff with everything that’s going on, so I really don’t mean to take anything lightly. But I think it’s something we’re all going to experience someday and the fear of it, to kind of acknowledge it and look at it is actually a really helpful thing, because the fear of it is what causes so many problems in our own personal lives and with each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.