By Angela Izzo
In recent years, Casal’s profile has risen substantially in the jam scene because of his role as lead guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, where audiences have also been exposed to his smoked honey voice – as perfect a harmonic foil for Robinson as ever heard. Others may know Casal from his years filling a similar role in Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, but the truth is he’s been a prolific solo artist since his 1995 debut, Fade Away Diamond Time (one of the finest first outings rock has witnessed). To date, Casal has released ten studio albums under his own name, three with his funky power trio Hazy Malaze, and made studio guest turns too numerous to recount. Heck, we’ve been championing Casal for years [check out our first talk with him from 2003], and it’s heartening to see real talent like his win out over time and reach more folks.
JamBase: Let’s dig into the meat of your work a bit. After all these years, you still seem to gravitate to an emotional ground that’s real. A word that always comes to mind when I listen to your music is bittersweet. The highs are there but they’re tempered by reality, though there’s a pronounced increase of positivity on Sweeten The Distance.
Neal Casal: The title cut is one of the most positive things I’ve ever written, and that leads off the record.
JamBase: You’re no longer singing about bleeding right through your clothes like on The Sun Rises Here (1998).
Hope crops up all over this record. “Reach out and grab a star tonight” is kind of a magical phrase, and the sentiment of “Let It All Begin” has real upswing to it. Nothing is too obvious, but actual hope has to sneak up on us a bit.
That’s right. I’m hoping these things come through on this record. It’s not just this melancholy trip for me anymore. I’ve changed as a person, and I’m actually a lot more positive than I used to be. I had a much bleaker outlook when I was younger. I made a turn a few years ago. There was a point in my life where I realized, “How is this going to go?” I realized I was getting older, and nothing gets easier as that happens. There are things about aging that are liberating, but in other ways it’s really, really hard. Every move you make is a lot more important because as you run out of time, you run out of latitude for mistakes.
You begin to see the ripples from the earlier decisions you’ve made, and you understand that each new choice will send out new ripples. Understanding the ramifications of one’s past understandably makes one more cautious about new decisions…
The sentiment “sweeten the distance” is just a good thing to think and say. In my work and in all aspects of my life really, I’m trying to add value. That’s a theme that runs through this record. As I move on in life having left a lot of people and eras behind, I now have friends all over the world. To put one sweet thing in the path between me and one person I’m far away from or I haven’t seen in a while is valuable.
There’s value in open letters like these new tunes. They let people know they aren’t alone and that they are loved and cherished in some ways. I feel buoyed, lifted up, whenever I finish listening to Sweeten The Distance, and I can’t explain exactly why that is. And that’s good because if I can get too intellectual about it I’ll probably find a way to undercut that feeling [laughs].
The impetus for the record, the song that I instantly knew was the centerpiece and inspiration for this record, was the title track. That song is an open letter, as you say, to the world. Not like in a “We Are The World Way,” but as an offering to do my best to reconcile my past with my present, to deal with all the mistakes we’re talking about and get okay with where I’ve been. It’s a beacon for moving forward in a better way, and hopefully others can draw light from that, too.
(Chris Feinstein 2nd from right)
My buddy Todd Snider says that when we realize we’re doomed that’s when the real dancing begins.
Yeah! Now we can get to work here because we’re not so caught up in egotistical thinking…or whatever else you’re fuckin’ worried about! Knowing where your head is at is a liberating factor towards doing your best work and doing things with purposeful abandon.
You really work with great musicians on your records, too. It’s hard to believe more people aren’t aware of – and nuts for – keyboardist John Ginty.
It’s cool to see Jon Graboff (pedal steel, electric guitar) playing on Sweeten.
One of the many great things to come out of my Cardinals days is my friendship with Jon. Before that I didn’t know him, and now he’s like family to me. He’s such a great player and such a great musical soul. He’s doing studio work and he’s on the road with Shooter Jennings right now.
One of the challenges you’ve faced in getting your work across in America is that you don’t make one-man folk albums. You make lushly textured, artfully crafted pop-rock records, and it’s hard to get that across by yourself with a single acoustic guitar in the live setting – which is how you’ve had to tour largely out of necessity.
In a way, your deftness as a collaborator has often put your own work on the sidelines. It’s a testament to your great skill as a bandmate that you’ve excelled in working with Chris Robinson and Ryan Adams – two legendarily idiosyncratic musicians.
I don’t really know how that happened [laughs]. I had both those guys on my energetic radar for a long time. Chris’ music meant a lot to me. 20 years ago, The Black Crowes’ music was big for me. They influenced and inspired me a lot, and it turned out that he and I had a lot of mutual friends and were just a few steps away from each other. Eventually, it just seemed natural for us to work together. Ryan was the same thing. Jim Scott produced records for both of us, and we had all these other musical connections. It seemed like there was this magnetic pull that was beyond me that drew us together. It’s a similar feeling in both cases really.
In both instances you’ve told me that working with the CRB and Cardinals felt like real bands, which is in contrast to some of the extensive studio work you’ve done where you’re brought in to fill a specific role and that’s that. In both the Cardinals and CRB, you’ve been a full-fledged collaborator.
What’s it like to write with Chris and Ryan? Not many people – even with all the musicians they’ve played with – have gone that extra step and composed with them.
With Chris, he sees all the things I do and he respects that and is cool enough to let me into his process. I love working on music with Chris. He’s so passionate as a music listener, and he’s just SO into it all day long. He’s so intelligent and so energetic about it all, and we have a lot in common with the music we both like. I just have a certain way of communicating with people that he appreciates. I love writing songs with him. It’s so fun!
Ryan seems like someone who likes to keep a pretty tight grip on the reins.
Uh yeah [laughs]. Chris does too, but in such a different way. It doesn’t look likely that there will be more Cardinals stuff. Ryan seems to have completely moved on.
One thing the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has done is make people more aware of you as a guitar player. Folks are calling you a shredder now, and rightfully so.
It’s a much more extroverted style than one is used to with you but it’s really cool.
I went into it reluctantly but I had his amazing force of will and character behind me. I went in a lamb and came out a lion with it. It started to pick up steam as we did more shows, and by the end of [last year] I was saying, “I can do this! I am doing this! I love this!”
It’s put you in contact with some of the pillars of the jam scene. You’re playing with guys from the Grateful Dead with some regularity.
Tell me about translating what the CRB built at 118 shows in 2012 into studio work.
We just approached the studio exactly as if it were a show. We brought the same battered gear we’d been dragging around with us for a year into the studio, and we made a rule that we weren’t going to use anything else. I think the record sounds like an enhanced gig. It sounds like the band people know and love. It sounds really true to what we do with a little sweetening.
It’s an unexpectedly cool combination of musicians. Each of you has been great in other settings but I had no idea initially what the mixture would sound like together.
That’s not the nature of this type of music. It’s not the template you’re playing with. It’s a different kind of song structure. The CRB taps into some of the same musical ground that Grateful Dead explored because they wrote songs to be open-ended experiments. The studio version of “Dark Star” bears almost no resemblance to live versions but the logic at their core is consistent. I don’t think the CRB is doing the exact same thing but I do think this band is engaged in making malleable shapes together.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s some super cool moments that come out of this kind of rock.
It’s weird that 10 solo albums in – plus two Best Of collections – that this may be the time that the general public realizes that you’re more than that guy who plays with Chris or Ryan.
You have recognition in England, France, Japan and elsewhere, but in America you’re still viewed as a “new kid” in terms of your solo work. Do you have any theories about why that is?
I may be too close to it to have any accurate theories [laughs]. It’s a certain shift in my consciousness that’s hopefully going to change that. For awhile there I was making records that I never got to do anything with in the States. Two of them came when I was super deep in the Cardinals world [No Wish to Reminisce (2006) and Roots and Wings (2009)], but the bigger picture is somewhat beyond me.
In some ways, the music you make isn’t classic rock enough for what’s left of FM radio to slot in next to Tom Petty, and yet it’s also not indie rock. You’re not trying to be the next Fleet Foxes.
I think that’s part of the reason writers use classic touchstones like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell in talking about your work. One could be a rock musician rubbed shoulders with other genres and still be a viable commercial artist. Diversity wasn’t a scary thing, but in this era of compartmentalization and marketing minded thinking it’s much harder.
I guess I am one of those people that work the middle and pull in influences from a bunch of different places so it doesn’t add up to one specific thing. You can call it American Music, I guess. For awhile there I was making a lot of music but I was kind of afraid to play out live. I had some issues that kept me from being really ambitious and getting a record out there like you’re supposed to. But I’m ready for that now. I like the studio world a great deal, but I’ve learned that this is what I do and it’s worth the legwork to get the music out there. Sometimes I think of doing [that work] not just for myself but for fans and the people at my labels that believe in me and are willing to go to bat for me. It’s important that I recognize and honor that. It’s a little bit of growing up. It’s part of my appreciation of where I’m at and how grateful I am to be doing what I do for a living.
Nice version of “Sweeten The Distance” over here.
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