Like the much-acclaimed Daniel Johnston, Andrew Neil is one of the major faces of what’s been termed ‘outside artists.’ Just what that means and why it applies is open to interpretation. Without question, though, Neil writes highly individualistic and highly enjoyable music. He took time to answer a few of Skope’s burning questions.
Skope: “Sunny Side” is a repurposing of an old country music standard. What inspired you to write it, and are you a country music fan?
Andrew Neil: I have only begun to appreciate country music recently. My favorite country artist is John Anderson. I love the songs “Years” and “Seminole Wind”. I guess what inspired me to write the song “Sunny Side” is my overwhelming belief to always try be positive; to see the silver lining in dark clouds; to “keep on the sunny side”. My blood type is B+ so I think that was Gods way of telling me to think and live this way. The original country version “Keep on the Sunny Side” written by The Carter Family was brilliant, but to be honest, I didn’t even think about that song when I wrote “Sunny Side”. When I wrote my song “Sunny Side”…the lyrics just came to me organically, and they came to me quickly once I had a melody in my head. The message is universal, simple, and honest and was a fun song to write.
Skope: With “One Big Family,” who did you have in mind when writing it? Were you thinking about those that may not feel like they belong?
Neil: “One Big Family” addresses the human inhabitants of the universe. No matter what country they are from, this song spreads the message that we truly are “One Big Family”. If we all truly bought into this message the world, I think, would change for the better. Here is one of my favorite lines from the song: “It takes gloomy days to make things grow, the sun comes out and makes a rainbow, different colors come together as one, let’s pick up the flowers and put down the gun”.
Skope: Since you call one song “Heaven,” I wonder what, if any, are your religious beliefs?
Neil: My religious beliefs are evolving with time. I believe that the goal of the religion I follow is to master and understand what love is. When it comes to heaven, I believe life does truly go on after death. Life is like a sun and death is when it sets. I believe that a setting sun is also a rising one so life does truly go on and on.
Skope: When you write songs, does it start with a guitar groove, to which you write lyrics, or do you write out the lyrics first?
Neil: Yes, my songs almost always start off with a guitar groove. Then I chant a vocal melody. The hard part is translating the vocal chant into lyrics for the song. Then I begin to speak as I feel at the time and the lyrics begin to flow out.
Skope: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Neil: Neil Young, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Daniel Johnston, Nick Drake, Jackson C. Frank, James Taylor just to name a few.
Skope: When you decided to teach yourself to play guitar and piano, what prompted you to pick up these instruments?
Neil: What prompted me to pick up instruments was a longing to be heard. My heart was sad, and I wanted a way to express how I was feeling and see if others could relate. Songwriting served as a bridge, a bridge I could walk across and find healing.
Skope: What was the first song you wrote where you realized you had a songwriting talent?
Neil: I suppose it was a piano piece called “C’est La Vie”. It was a song about my high school girlfriend. That song showed me that “ok I really can write decent songs!!” I have always appreciated the power of words and phrases. This is from C’est La Vie:
But that was then, this is now
It’s amazing how
Time… goes by…so fast
How life… slips through… the hour glass
That’s how it will always be
C’est la vie, C’est la vie
Skope: The Sunny Side album doesn’t have many – if any – love songs. Do you prefer not to write love songs?
Neil: I wrote a few love songs early on. I think “It Kind of Turns Me On” is a kind of love song. Perhaps my next albums will have more. And to be perfectly honest with all I’ve been through in my 32 years I have felt to broken to be loved. I have felt discarded, shoved aside the normal road of life, onto the shoulder trying to get back in the lane. Perhaps one day I’ll put the pieces back together and find someone special…and someone who accepts me for who I am and can overlook the past baggage…and then I’ll write tons of love songs.
Skope: You’ve had kind of a tough life, yet your music is mainly positive. What helps you stay so positive?
Neil: Thinking of other people often and maintain positive self-talk helps me remain positive. The more we think of others the less we worry about ourselves. To love others, we must also love ourselves no matter how difficult life seems to be at times. During my time at the Central Virginia Regional Jail when I was an inmate in solitary confinement for almost 8 months and then behind the steel doors of an asylum for over three years, I learned to appreciate the simple things in life that many people take for granted. Even during my battle with cancer, I got through the pain by being grateful for my family, my friends and for the simple things. That is the essence behind my song “Thank the Lord”.
Thank the Lord for my friends
Thank the Lord for my family
Thank the Lord for the music
That lives inside, inside of me
Yeah, thank the Lord for the music
Thank the Lord for the love
Thank the Lord for the Angels
Watching me from above
Also spending time in nature and reading various spiritual scriptures helps my spirit and attitude as well. Positivity is contagious!
Skope: I have been termed an ‘outsider music artist.’ Are you comfortable with that label or not? Please explain your feelings about this categorization.
Neil: Yes, I am very comfortable being labeled an “outsider music artist” because I really don’t fit any molds. I don’t really think about the commercial viability of a song…..I just write what I feel. It is important to me to be honest and uncompromising when it comes to lyrics. As far as the guitar part, I never learned even the basic chords. I began to explore the sounds up and down the fretboard. I taught myself to play guitar my own way by writing songs. I essentially made up my own chord shapes…whatever sounded good to me. I wrote my first guitar song “Fire if Born” the day after I first picked up a guitar, and I have not looked back or taken the time to learn the basics as I was too busy writing songs. Sometimes it isn’t perfect and there is a bit of dissonance, but it works for my ears and hopefully for those who hear the final product. I have never played a cover song. I am on the outside looking in which can be lonely at times but also cool because it sets me apart.