NEIL MACLEOD: Opening Windows
An interview by Sarah Kidd.
Every so often an artist comes along that you just can’t ignore. New Zealand is currently in the grips of a wave of astounding musical talent, and from those cool blue waters we have been delivered Neil MacLeod.
This Wellington based songwriter has already captured the hearts and minds of many with his clever compositions and laid out bare lyrics. There is an intensity to MacLeod’s writing that draws you in and invites you to stay awhile and watch as each song is laid out before you like an offering.
I caught up with Neil recently to discuss all things music-like in his realm;
My first question which is rather an integral one; is where did you get that voice? Your voice is like good coffee, it’s strong, full-bodied and yet smooth as silk…
“I don’t really know…I just started singing at maybe thirteen, fourteen and just developed I suppose. I did a little bit of training here and there but I was pretty bad at showing up to those classes”
But you did have a little bit of formal training?
“Yeah, so I did a little bit of formal training in my later years of high school but I got pretty tired of it, thought it was way too restricting. I kinda wanted to play with my voice more rather than just do it as I was meant to do it, you know?”
So what prompted you to even start singing at that age?
“I think it started out with choirs actually, I have a decent background in choral music, like I just did these Christchurch Boys Choir events or kinda like big school things or little group things at school; and that was great for a while and then I grew tired of that as well and wanted to start expressing myself in a more free way.
So when I was in maybe year eleven or twelve, no eleven I think it was, my music teacher showed me how to use Logic Pro and it pretty much changed my whole course of life! I think I wanted to be a chef before that (laughs) and then it was like all of a sudden this huge revelation that I could make pretty much whatever I wanted, in my bedroom! And I just did it and just expressed everything that I wanted to express”
Through many of your songs I can hear both piano and guitar; how did you become started on both of those?
“Yeah I play piano; I did the Suzuki thing when I was maybe seven and then I, I think I wanted to play guitar because it was cooler; I think that was my reasoning! So I have like a tiny, tiny little bit of piano training, but I just got really into jazz music about two years ago and that just kinda inspired me to figure out how they were doing it you know? Like I didn’t really research the proper theory or anything, I just played until it sounded right, using seventh chords and changing up chord progressions and stuff”
Speaking of your music, I particularly enjoy the intro to your song ‘Friends’; for me it’s very early acoustic Pink Floyd – is that a possible influence of yours?
“Not so much these days as in a direct thing, but I think the music that I listened to when I was young is perhaps the most influential. I grew up listening to a pretty wide range of music; my Dad was into pretty heavy like almost heavy rock slash heavy metal sometimes and then I think my Grandmothers partner enlightened me to Pink Floyd.
I don’t know if you have heard of Bert Jansch before? He’s a folk singer and guitar player from … I think he was Scottish and he was in this group called Pentangle. I remember just learning about these folk musicans and also people like Pink Floyd and it just formed this really rich musical foundation, so yeah influence in there for sure”
That’s a really nice mix of musical influences actually…
“Absolutely, folk music is big; I started off pretty much just making very bare boned, acoustic voice”
I also like the vocal effects on the track ‘Bathers’. What inspired you to give it that treatment – the first half of that song is just so alluring.
“That was part of the motive; I – this was back when I was in Christchurch – had a funny little set up in the side of my room, it was probably really bad for mixing; I don’t dare to listen to that song again! But I had just recently bought a synthesizer and you could run a microphone into it and it had like a thing called a foreman shift and it could go down or up an octave.
So I put it down an octave and just sang into it, like freestyled over this backing track that I had made and it just grew organically! I did it once through the down pitch and I just thought it sounded cool. I thought it was really cool basically and I wanted to keep it, I didn’t really care too much whether it fitted with everything else that came before it”
I don’t necessarily think that songs always have to fit together. Different tangents can give the listener a new avenue to explore and provide an alternative view of your talents.
“I remember releasing it and I did feel like a little bit anxious that some people might not take to the change nicely, but I think at the end of the day it’s in keeping with my personality. I’m influx; I’m always making this or that, I don’t really feel like I have got to one hundred percent sit somewhere.
I think it’s quite true as well, I think it suits some people to just find their thing and just do it and that’s cool. But for me, because the music listening that I do is so wide, like it’s Hip Hop, its jazz or its folk music or whatever and I like all those genres quite equally; I want to make them equally as well. So I cannot imagine just making one thing!”
Now songs such as ‘Knowing’ and ‘Don’t Listen’ are beautifully soulful and are quite rightly I have noticed by many of your followers described as “dreamy” – that’s a word that pops up a lot with your fans. Is it a terminology that you are happy with? Is it how you see yourself?
“Dreamy? I like dreamy, I think it’s cool. I think for me they’re not dreams, they’re quite like specific for me at least but I think it’s nice if people feel that sort of comfortable dream like state.
I get that from a lot of music; maybe they’re talking more about the mental state that they’re put in rather than the lyrical content at least? I’m not sure, I don’t dislike it, it’s what people feel so that’s cool for me”
Let’s talk your upcoming EP which is being released on November the 3rd.
“It’s called Sonder and that word, I found it on the internet on this website called ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’. I don’t really know how they arrive at the words but basically they try and give words to feelings that people have that there isn’t already a word for!
So what Sonder refers to is: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own” and I’ve experienced that quite a few times and it’s quite a strange sometimes melancholic, sometimes inspiring feeling.
I get it on public transport sometimes; you’re looking at everyone go past, you can see into people’s windows and you kind of like get this funny realization of how small you are and how many other people there are. So I’m trying to put that feeling into the listener, by talking about quite personal and specific events and things in my life. I want the listener to feel like they are looking through the window, looking into my life, may be getting that feeling” [of Sonder]
That’s quite honest and giving to do as an artist; to open yourself up like that and say ‘Here it all is’.
“I think I have to do that at the moment, I think it’s the only thing I can do! Also because for me, music is a very healing process, once I’ve made a track it’s done its job for me. I’ve gone through a healing process with it and then it’s kind of not mine anymore, it’s like I don’t have any use for it after I have finished it. But I can go back and listen to it when it’s done so it is almost like a journal entrance, but with this journal I’m like opening it to the public”
Your upcoming show on the 12th – you are headlining so no pressure there (mutual laughter) can you tell me about the artists that will be performing with you?
“Yeah Charlie is a really good friend of mine; he’s one of the most unique musicans I have ever met. He’s got something very special, and like when we’ve hung out together or made music together we almost don’t need to talk about things, we just get it, we just get what each other is about.
So for those reasons, I want him to start, I want him to be part of it for my nerves as well you know? It will be good to have such a close friend and it’s just quite a beautiful thing I think; it’s like giving each other opportunities to play. I really think that Charlies vision is worth sharing. I’ve never met someone who has seen him play live who hasn’t been at least kind of mind blown to a certain extent! They’re really interesting sets, like he does some really unique stuff with sound!
Maxwell, I’m super lucky to have him like he … I should really be opening for him he’s got quite a large fan base, but he’s friends with Charlie and I’ve met him since and so we have become friends as well. A few months back Charlie mentioned that he was a friend and I asked Charlie ‘Do you think Maxwell would wanna open’ because I had listened to his music and I admired his music and I thought that he had that honest ‘thing’ that I’m super interested in and Charlie was like yeah I reckon you just hit him up so I hit him up on Soundcloud and I was like ‘Would you like to open for my show?’ and he said ‘Yes’ which was crazy! (gentle laughter) He’s so humble, he’s just such a person!”
One last thing before we go, I note that you don’t have a lot of background on line about yourself?
“No I don’t, that’s sort of a deliberate thing I think. With music I want – you know how I was saying before about how the EP is like a window in? I think an important thing to emphasise is that it is not an ego thing, like I’m not doing it so that I gain some sort of sympathy or whatever.
It’s more about revealing perhaps truths that are within a lot of people if that makes sense? Like you’ve probably listened to music and you’ve thought ‘Wow that’s me!’ Those are the sort of people I am trying to reach; it’s not so that people think ‘That’s Neil’, it’s so that the people are like ‘Oh wow, I can relate to that!’ And so for that very reason, I don’t want it to be all about me. I need to use my name to reach people and whatever but it’s more than that. So I think it would be slightly perhaps too self-involved to give a whole artist bio. I would rather just get to know people”
Yes well your voice gives the impression of someone who has seen a bit – even though you are quite young…
“I have been around I think a little bit. Perhaps I did a lot of my growth quite young so to speak; I’ve got a lot still to learn and I know that. I definitely did go through some things at a young age and that has informed me – it’s given me a real desire to be as productive as an adult would be because I think once you really get what you are passionate about and you’ve got something you want to vocalize then you’ve got to go just one hundred percent”
It’s shaped your character…
“Absolutely … hopefully a nice shape”
With his EP entitled ‘Sonder’ due for release on November 3rd, Neil MacLeod will be performing his first ever headliner show this Thursday, October 12th at Wellington’s San Fran with a full band and support from both Maxwell Young and Charlieso.