|From No Depression #5, September-October,
Sunshine in the shadows
Neal Casal discusses his music-biz nightmare and artistic reawakening
by Kevin Hawkins
At the time I wrote it, the line was no more than a cursory guess on my part. In wrapping up my review of Neal Casal's sublime Fade Away Diamond Time in the Winter '95/'96 issue of this magazine, I stated that "It's doubtful that Zoo Records will drop the promotional bucks on this release that American did with (Pete) Droge and the Jayhawks." In retrospect, it will heretofore be known as the biggest understatement of my life.
"It was the coolest part of that review, and you didn't know how truthful that was at the time," Casal confirmed in a recent interview. "When I read it, I was, like, 'Oh Jeez, what does this guy know?' "
I didn't know the half of it (at best). At that point, Casal had already endured an initial bout of label politics. A&R man Bud Scoppa (longtime music biz vet and journalist, and occasional No Depression contributor), who signed Casal to the label, was cut loose in a corporate downsizing, leaving Casal in the unenviable position of lame-duck artist. The question at that time was not one of promotional support, but simply if he would even be allowed to make a record at all.
"We really believed in Bud and he really understood where we were coming from, and that's the most important thing to me," Casal says. "So we did the deal, very happily. Unfortunately, about five weeks after I was signed, he was fired. It got really scary right there. I thought that I would never get to make the record, that this was it."
To Casal's amazement, Zoo still green-lighted the project. As a result of the label purge and an apathy about his music from most of those who remained, Casal was afforded the luxury of recording Fade Away without the watchful outside eye from anyone at Zoo. It wasn't until the record was in the mixing stages that anyone from the label heard what Casal and his band had been doing in the hills of Santa Ynez, California.
"I could say Zoo was great and they gave me the freedom to make the record I wanted to make. That's the diplomatic way of saying it," he says with a mix of resign and resent. "The truth is ... they didn't know anything about me and hadn't been keeping up like Bud had, so no one really knew. But I used that to my advantage and did make the record I wanted to make - and I'm so proud of it. I think it's a great record.
"There were no negative outside influences. When we made the record, there were no thoughts of commerciality or how to sell it or where it was going to fit into the marketplace. The music was sacred and entirely ours. Let's just say it was a really good record that was mishandled by a record company."
Not like it's the first time that's happened to an artist. And it's not as if Casal was oblivious to those possibilities. He was just hopeful that it would be different for him. But fate took a darker turn when he picked up a phone in a Nashville bar just before Christmas of '95 and his longtime friend and manager, Gary Waldman, told him it was over. Not only was the tour canceled, but Casal had been dropped from Zoo, less than six months after releasing his first record.
"There's so much sadness in the music industry, as far as the great bands and great records that just get buried," he says. "I've seen it happen to so many of my friends and people I know, and I always swore that I wasn't going to get in a situation like that on my first record. And I just did. Just right off the bat, my worst nightmare came true right away."
Overwhelmed by the experience, Casal holed up in his house for all of January and half of February. By then, hopelessness had been minimized to hurt, and it came time to move forward. "I went through the gamut of emotions that I could for that time, but I wrote a lot of songs. And it was one day in mid-February that I got up and said, 'OK, its over, forget it, move on, let's go. Let's get back to smiling and enjoying your life.' But the only way I could move on was just to get back in and record some new songs."
Fearing that he may become a musical footnote if he didn't keep his name out there, Casal got some money from his publishing company and headed back West to record with the same folks who appeared on Fade Away. The only difference in the new sessions was a conscious decision to elevate the accompaniment of pedal steel wizard Greg Leisz to full-time. Leisz's overdubs on a pair of tracks from the debut blew Casal away, and he made it a point to seek out his help on the new material.
"For this session, he came in and just brought all his stuff - he was part of the band for the five days we recorded," Casal recalled. "He was the catalyst for so many different textures and sounds, and what he brought to those sessions was just so exciting. He plays pedal steel, guitar, mandolin - anything he picks up, he makes magic with."
Unfortunately for fans of Casal (and Leisz), the nine songs that resulted from those sessions have only been made available to label folk thus far. Casal felt it wasn't the right time to drop another electric set; he had something more personal in mind. Upon his return home, he approached local indie label Buy Or Die Records about the possibility of doing an acoustic album for the label. Label head Jerry Balderson was already a Casal fan and was hip to the idea. He scraped a few thousand dollars together, and five days later, eleven new Casal compositions were committed to tape. The acoustic album, Rain Wind and Speed, was released on Buy Or Die in late May.
The new disc ended up being as much about experimenting with the setting his songs were presented in as it was a desire to simply release more music. Because of the obvious constraints of time and money, the album's core guitar and vocal parts were recorded live. While the flourishes of pedal steel, banjo and hammond organ are still there, the instrumentation is downplayed in favor of a more intimate setting: Basically, it's just Casal and the listener.
The minimalist approach accentuates Casal's talents as a songwriter and vocalist of serious emotional range and depth. It's not surprising to find a somberness hanging over these proceedings, but these vignettes of heartache and disillusionment are infused with an honestly and purity that few artists currently seem capable of employing. The resignation displayed in the album opener "Hands On The Plow" and the bitter resentment evident in "Break Even" weigh heavily, but you get the sense that those songs served as psyche realignment for Casal. And Rain Wind and Speed does end with the hopeful proclamation "I Will Weep No More" ("So let the memories just be / Like the leaves around the trees"), providing the record (and Casal) with a much-needed sense of closure.
"It came out far better than I expected it to," Casal says of the record. "I played all the acoustic guitar, and sang, live. And it's just been a goal of mine for a while now to be able to make a record and sing it live. Not to overdub, not to piece it together, but to tell the truth. There's just an immediacy that you can't get anywhere else. In a lot of ways, it's better than Fade Away Diamond Time, for that reason.
"And at the point that I was at in my life, back in March, making a record was a way for me to get it together. And that was the most direct way to do something and just bring everything back to the essentials - just to sit down and sing. It made me feel a lot better."
The nurturing surroundings of home, and friends who truly believed in what he was doing, got Casal back in the game and revived his optimism. This fall, the record will be released in Europe on German label Glitterhouse, and Casal is playing on a regular basis again in his large tri-state backyard of North Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. And the label types are starting to sniff around once again.
At some point, Casal may be ready to turn his work over to a label infrastructure, with hopes that the system will be a little kinder and gentler this time around. For the moment, however, he is content with "making small connections and small steps everyday. Which is rewarding," he adds, "because they're our own."
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