Neal Morse is beginning again
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Dave Schwartz
It's kind of funny how I came around to this interview. Publisher Dave is an ardent fan of progressive rock, while, although I admire most of the genre's musicians talents and can appreciate the work involved, I really don't get revved up about it. So when I was offered an opportunity to speak with Neal Morse (Spock's Beard; Transatlantic), I was interested in an artist level... that is until I heard his two-disc release, "Testimony" (Metal Blade Records).
I put disc one in my CD player and set about reading and working on the pile of stuff on my desk and then it hit me. As the stains of "The Land of Beginning Again" bounced around my brain, they struck a chord and got my attention. I found myself pushing everything aside, closing my eyes and just listening-- for the entire first CD. The orchestrations, the nuances, the deeply personal story, the genius! I knew I had to talk with Morse and also make the trip to see him and his band perform live.
Morse grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California. He also lived near Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, worked in Orange County and played at the now defunct Whittier Beach Club. He has been involved in music since he was a toddler.
"Did you come to music or did your father encourage you?" I begin.
"Not just my father, I have to bring my mom into it too. I wouldn't want to leave mom out," Morse lilts on the telephone from Europe. "The whole family is a musical family. My dad was a choir director and music was the focus of our family. You know how there's sports families? We were a music family. So everyone was singing and playing at real young ages. We were harmonizing, we were doing singing like madrigals at six; seven years old. He had us really doing tough things. When I was nine, I was in this opera called 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' by Menotti, which is a very intense, pretty difficult thing. So we were getting all that kind of training.
"I think it has a lot to do with what I do now, particularly how there's so many different styles, like on the 'Testimony' album there's so many different styles of music," Morse continues. "I attribute that largely to my dad and he always has pretty eclectic taste. In his choral concerts, he'd do a few traditional things and then some really out there Benjamin Britton thing, and then some Negro spirituals and then a pop song. He's always been like that, so I grew up thinking that that was normal-- to have a lot of different styles of music in one thing. I'm grateful for that because I think it keeps things interesting. It's not for everybody. Some people can't deal with having a melodic song and a country song and a classical piece all next to each other, but I think it's great."
Morse speaks well and his musicianship is awing, so I wondered about his education.
"I actually quit high school because I wasn't sure of what I wanted to do, which was go be a pop star, which didn't actually work out. My dad was right. My dad said, 'You should go to school, Morse, in case that doesn't work out and you have something to fall back on, besides it might be good to have that knowledge.' And, dad, you were right," Morse says.
"Later on in life, in my late twenties, I went to Santa Monica College for a while; I went to Valley College for a while. It was great because I was going just to learn, I didn't care about credits or anything like that. I took a conducting class at Santa Monica College and music notation and just strictly things I was interested in learning. It was great." Morse adds, "I never got any degrees. In fact half of the time I had out of town gigs so I missed a lot of classes, but it didn't matter to me, I wasn't going for a grade."
Morse shares some of his working days, "I once played ragtime piano at the Disneyland Hotel behind the 'Sergeant Preston Yukon Saloon and Dance Hall Show.' I subbed in that show for 10 days. That was pretty funny. I was wearing a little bowler hat. I faked my way through it, I can't play ragtime correctly. I think it was good for me, all the different weird gigs that I wound up doing just to survive. It gives you a little bit of a well-roundedness, you can fake your way through anything after a while. I got gigs playing standards, all kinds of things. I also worked in my brother's deli for a long time on Ventura Boulevard, it was a deli called Ellie's Deli, I worked there for four years, but I quit because I felt I was getting too comfortable. I was always trying to drive myself to do more in music."
We discuss the differences in the music scenes in Los Angeles and Orange County. Lately, I'm hearing comments from many bands on how OC is somewhat of a music mecca, whereas L.A. is fighting death throes. I don't think L.A. or Hollywood will ever completely die off, things evolve and change and hopefully, it will eventually come back full throttle. But OC has always seemed quiet until yet another of its local bands makes it big, so there's no lacking for talent in either area.
Morse is very devoted to his family, his wife Cherie, step-son Chad, 21, son Will, 7, and daughter Jada, 5.
"I don't go out on the road very much," Morse says. "I'm really into my kids and my family, it's not that conducive. I do like to take them as much as possible. We did this East Coast run, we all went in this van that I bought, it has a bed in the back, and that was awesome, it was so great. It was the greatest, we were just singing songs and stuff."
He tells me his children are also showing a talent for music.
"You want to hear something sad? My son and daughter are having a piano recital tomorrow and I'm going to miss it. It's Jada's first one. I've been to all of Will's piano recitals and I don't want to miss tomorrow, I'm bummed out about that. She's like, 'Daddy, you gonna watch the movies?'" Morse shares.
I try to cheer him and then ask him about how he writes.
"That's a good question, an open question," Morse responds. "I write in a lot of different ways, but mostly I just hear stuff. It's really a God given thing, I just hear different things. Sometimes I'll just be sitting around watching TV and I'll be noodling on the guitar and I'll play something. I keep a hand-held recorder around all the time. In fact, I have a little bit of a funny story.
"My friends tease me about this one time, right around the time I was getting the inspiration for the 'Testimony' album, I was helping a friend move, lifting the couches and stuff. I didn't have my tape recorder with me and started to hear that theme, that one theme in 'Testimony' that I really love." Morse sings, "Da da dee da da dee daa-- It's all over the record in different forms, but I was hearing it in cello. I was like, 'Hey you guys, excuse me, I think I've gotta go.' I was scared because if you don't tape it right away, sometimes you lose them. Sometimes you won't remember it. You think, 'OK, I'll just keep this in my mind, I'll remember it.' But someone will talk to you, the phone will ring or something and you're like, 'What was that again? Oh no! I forgot it!' So I left. They always say, 'Don't ask Neal to help you move, he might hear a cello.'"
Morse hears his music in the instrument he ends up writing it for and often in full orchestrations.
"I'll almost hear what you hear on the CD. The hardest thing is to get what you hear from your mind onto the CD in the way that you hear it," Morse says.
I mention I understand because, as a musician as well, I often get inspired when I'm driving on the freeway and have to sing or hum until I can stop to write it down or record it.
"I changed my whole relationship to L.A. traffic. I didn't move to Nashville until '95 and I was driving from Sylmar to Newport, it was crazy some of the driving I did. I had a little Casio keyboard and tape recorder in the front (of the car). A lot of the early Spock's Beard albums were written in the L.A. traffic," Morse laughs. "I also think there's something about driving and running. My brother Richard calls it 'occupying the robot,' you occupy the machine and somehow it frees up the creative mind and don't know why that is. A lot of times I'll get inspiration when I'm doing something like that."
At Morse's Web site, www.nealmorse.com, he discusses how "Testimony" relates the tale of his relationship with God. He believes that God called to him and was pushing him toward a new direction. This led to his parting with Spock's Beard. I ask Morse if his creativity was turned immediately.
"There was quite a long period, there was a whole period before I told the band," replies Morse. "There was about an eight month period when I was working on the 'Snow' album and praying about it and sometimes wishing it would go away. I had a long period of 'What am I going to do? How am I going to feed my family? Where am I going to find musicians to play with? Lord, do You not want me to play, what do You want me to do?' I just found that sometimes the Lord just leaves you there for a while, I think maybe as a test of faith, I don't know. Sometimes you have to wait, the Bible talks about waiting on the Lord. You have to wait, He'll show you the way after a while, you have to be patient.
"So there was quite a long period. In fact, I told the band in June 2002 and I recorded a contemporary Christian kind of album because I was feeling some songs along that line. I write other songs as well, everything I write isn't a big epic." Morse goes on, "It's like stuff that was on my previous solo albums, I had two solo albums, the self-titled one and then 'It's Not Too Late' and that's got the pop side of me on there. So I recorded the album like that only with a lot of lyrics about God and Jesus, but I didn't really feel like it was it-- 'Is this it?' I was searching on 'What is Your will, what is Your will for my life?'
"I remember running one day and He said, 'It's time to make My album, I want you to make My album.' I was like, `OK. Show me.' It wasn't too long after that that I got this flood, this insane flood of inspiration hit, the likes of which I don't think I've ever experienced before. I filled up six or seven 90-minute cassettes of music, it's all the rough ideas that became the 'Testimony' album. There was so much that there's actually a bunch of things I didn't use. It may seem kind of funny, but I don't really like to do such long pieces of music." Morse laughs, "I'd just as soon have it be shorter. But both with 'Snow' and with 'Testimony' that's where it seemed it wanted to go. It didn't seem complete, 'Snow' didn't. I had the first disc done and it was like, 'It's not time.' And with 'Testimony,' when I hit the end of part four, I was like, 'That's enough. How much can people sit though?' But I felt like the Lord was like,'No, wait, there's more, check this out' It's like I'm following, He's leading. That's how it is for me."
"Has faith always been a big part of your life?" I query.
"No. I wasn't raised with any particular religion," says Morse. "My parents were good people with high integrity, but they don't, I wasn't raised in church. Not any particular belief, my parents' thing was always be open and tolerate all points of view."
"So when did you come round to faith?" I prod.
"That's what the 'Testimony' album is about, but it doesn't give you any dates," Morse replies. "I would say that I really became a Christian in the year 2000. I was becoming one between I guess, '97 and '99. It would have been in '98, I'm trying to get my dates straight, Jada, my daughter, was healed in '98. I talked about that at the show last night in London, by the way. I said, 'Something touched my heart, I was thinking about Jada when I was singing "Oh, To Feel Him."' I didn't stop the song, I said, 'Just play this part for a while. There's something missing from "Testimony" which is that my daughter was born with a big hole in her heart.' So much so that they were going to have to do open heart surgery on her. We had to rush her to the hospital a couple of times because they thought her lungs were collapsing and she was in congestive heart failure. It was a huge thing, it was gnarly. It was really hard on our marriage frankly, because people react differently and it was just a really difficult time.
"And I told how my wife took her up for prayer." Morse goes on, "We'd taken her up for prayer before and hadn't really felt anything, I was really moved. I was out on the road with Eric Burden and I was still partying and stuff. I was going to church some, I was feeling something. I was like, 'I'm feeling something, but I don't really know what's going on.' I went through a period like that, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to give up things. The whole thing about 'is this really for me?' I was in that kind of state for a while.
"But to make a long story short, I was over here playing in Europe and my wife took her up for prayer and had a special moment with the Lord for her. She was like, 'I give You my child even if You take her. You can take her from us and I will still love You and serve You.' She had this whole spiritual breakthrough that day." Morse continues, "It was so serious with Jada that the hospital was testing her every five days. Within the next time she took her in from the five days previous, it had closed in a way that was a complete miracle. The specialist doctors never, doesn't happen, it just closed up.
"He did that for me. He died while we were yet in sin, but that's part of how He was wooing us. He was working with us. I believe that was part of His whole plan," Morse says. "That's what blows my mind, the way He did that for us when I didn't really believe. I immediately thanked Him in my hotel room. Once God does something like that for you, it changes you, it makes you want to do whatever you can for Him. That's part of what set me on the whole road that became the 'Testimony' album."
So what is the point for listeners of this effort?
"The love of God, that would be the main thing," Morse simplifies. "I'd like for people to really feel something spiritual when they hear it, that's what I would like. Maybe that's kind of a tall order for a CD, if people just enjoy it, that's OK too. I want it to be for people, a contribution to their hearts whatever way that can be."
We return to a discussion of the music scene.
"I think it's great the way it's turned out that basically I gave up making music," Morse comments. "The whole Spock's Beard thing was about, well, we failed, we might as well do what we love. That's where I was coming from. It was the only success I ever had. And now the 'Testimony' thing is like we've got a little success, but God wants me to give it up, so I was willing to do that. Now 'Testimony' seems to be catching on and having a little success so I'm grateful."
"I'll tell you what I think of the music business." Morse goes on, "I think it's great that the music business is in such a state that someone like me can find an audience. The record companies that I deal with don't question me at all, they want to hear the demos, but pretty much I'm allowed total artistic freedom. I'm in charge of the artwork. I can pretty much do whatever I want. And I like a lot of the music I hear nowadays, I like a lot of the CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) stuff that's on the radio. I think there's a lot of quality creative recording going on, I think it's wonderful."
I remark that the Internet probably helps him to reach more people.
"Totally," Morse agrees. "It's almost a totally Internet audience. Some people did a poll at one of our gigs about how many people had heard of us and I think it was 100 percent Internet, it wasn't even like 99. Which really changed me because we were always like, maybe we should advertise here, maybe we should spend money. Print advertising is very expensive, I don't mind doing it if it's effective, but it seems like the Internet, for what I'm doing, is pretty much it. I could reach more people, different people, if I had more profile in that area, but right now I'm just counting on the Lord. If this thing's going to have legs and live and find a larger audience, it's going to be Him that does it, not us."
Over the holidays Morse will be directing his church choir. His brother Richard is also coming out for a visit and the two are planning to do some recording. But what else does the future hold?
"I'm just praying about it," Morse says confidently. "In the Bible it says a lamp for your pathway, a light for your footsteps. I think a lot of times He just shows you the next step, but he doesn't show you a floodlight to the future, so I'm always just looking for that next step."
We talk about Morse's live band lineup for his show in Whittier, California. He's excited to be performing with drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater; Transatlantic), Mark Leniger on saxophone, percussion and vocals, Randy George on bass and vocals, Biola College music instructor Eric Brenton on flute, pedal steel, guitar, mandolin, violin and more, cello player John Krovosa (Yanni; Plant and Page), Burt Baldwin on keyboards and vocals and Christian artist Rick Altizer on guitar and vocals.
"It's like a mini-orchestra, it's way more than a band," Morse bubbles. "It's really unique. I don't want to seem like I'm blowing my own horn, I just want people to understand what a unique experience this is, what an amazing musical thing this is. I don't know if it will ever happen again. It's a rare opportunity to see this performed in this way. I'm just thrilled every night."
(The concert was terrific, see our review in Guts and Glory).
We chat for a few moments about the adventures ahead.
"What He has for us is so much better than we can imagine," ends Morse.
Learn more about Morse, his band and "Testimony" at www.nealmorse.com
Return to DaBelly