By Lee Zimmerman
Singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse maintains a certain decided legacy. Wait…let’s revise that. He maintains multiple legacies in fact. Rightly revered for his early efforts with the essential ’90s art-rock ensemble Spock’s Beard, and a prolific career that’s included later outfits such as Transatlantic (a superstar collaboration featuring Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and Marillion’s Pete Trewavas), his Beatles tribute band Yellow Matter Custard, its successor Flying Colors, and his own Neal Morse Band, he’s become a foremost champion of today’s progressive posturing.
At the same time, he’s maintained a sense of fierce devotion — both as a practicing Christian and as a cover artist whose passion for classic rock became his financial lifeline in the mid ’90s while performing solo in clubs and pubs at home and abroad. His latest project, aptly titled Cover to Cover Anthology — also featuring Portnoy and another continuing collaborator, bassist Randy George — was initiated a dozen years ago and has now expanded into three volumes, which have been bundled as a triple album. Featuring faithful interpretations of signature standards by the likes of The Beatles, Yes, King Crimson, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Cream, The Who, Jethro Tull, and Steely Dan, it finds Morse and company reaffirming their love for the seminal standards that inspired them early on.
It’s hard to keep up with Morse musically, given the fact that he’s recorded and guested on literally dozens of albums over the past 30 years. He’s an artist whose unquestionable enthusiasm and insatiable musical appetite has found him delving into rock, religion, heavy metal, conceptual collaborations, and a seemingly unquenchable desire to following his muse wherever it might lead him.
Morse appears unstoppable in that singular quest, Goldmine was grateful catch up with him recently while he was ensconced at home in Nashville due to the throes of the pandemic.
GOLDMINE: You have had such a long and prolific career. And the new covers collection is so remarkably well done, which is not always an easy task when it comes to sharing the standards. Our first question might well be how did you narrow down the list of potential tunes?
NEAL MORSE: That’s always the challenge. Many times when we get together and we’ll talk about the album we’re about to make. We don’t always have a lot of time, but we have a little bit of time to discuss the tracks, what kind of album we’re going to make and what we’re feeling, and then kick the ideas around. But invariably somebody will say, enough about that. What kind of covers should we play? Mike keeps a list of covers he likes to play, but it’s always been a challenge to find that extra time. So a lot of times it’s like what do we think would be cool and what do we think we can do rather quickly. I used to play a lot of covers to make my living in the early ’90s. A lot of it for me is how can I do a good vocal on this particular song. There were a lot of songs that Mike had that had to be rejected. They were great songs, but I couldn’t do them justice. So they had to be songs that I can sing. Everybody’s gotta agree on a song, or at least be willing try it. Mike can push things through simply based on his enthusiasm.
GM: So how long did these songs take
NM: Mike did all his drum parts in about seven hours. I worked on my parts for about two weeks, and then I sent it all to Randy to do his thing. I think it sounds great. I love it.
GM: And where did the idea to record these covers come from?
NM: We would usually record three or four songs at the end of an album session just to blow off steam. Sometimes we’d just blow off a couple of songs and it would only take one or two days to do it. Mike is really quick when it comes to that. But the first couple of covers albums were not made as albums. They were intended as bonus tracks. Then they were released as separate albums later on, and finally we complied them and released it all together. The third installment was, I believe, the only one we recorded in one shot.
GM: Did the fact that you used to play covers so frequently early in your career give you a feel of how you needed to approach them later on?
NM: Oh definitely. If you’ve played a song bunch of times and you know the vibe, it’s inevitable after playing covers in clubs for so long that you’ll develop your own version of it. So yeah, some of these things are direct throwbacks to those days for me. But there are some songs that I had never played before. So I actually had to learn some things to make this record. (laughs).
GM: Oftentimes playing covers is dictated by necessity. Club owners often insist that you maintain that familiarity factor, even at the expense of doing original songs. The covers bring people in the door. So was that at least part of the consideration back in the day?
NM: That was all of it back in the day. It was fun much of the time but not fun a lot of the time as well. Five sets a night, five nights a week. A lot of times I was playing in dance clubs. I played a lot of different kinds of gigs, but they all ended up being musical. It gave me a broad palette. I ended up playing a lot of music I never would have played on my own. I learned a lot of different styles, and I learned a lot of things about how these things were structured. It all comes out like a washing machine. You throw it all into the washing of it and it all gets turned around in the wash and comes out in a lot of different ways.
GM: And of course there’s that dichotomy between the familiar and the unknown as far as the audience is concerned.
NM: Of course. You could be playing a Rolling Stones song and everybody’s into it, and then you play one of your own songs, and everybody starts talking. It doesn’t feel very good.
GM: Is it ever intimidating when you tackle something as timeless as, say, a Beatles song and there’s clearly been high standard set by the original version? Do you feel some trepidation about measuring up to that bar?
NM: Always. In many of these cases, we’re tackling some of the greatest records of all time. We do a track off the Red album by King Crimson. That’s one of my favorite albums of all time. So trying to measure up to those amazing performances can be a bit intimidating. So yeah. We know we’re not going to do it better, but if we can do a different version, that makes me feel great. I’ll be honest. I’m often surprised how good the songs come out.
GM: When people are so familiar with the original versions, it must be a fine line between capturing the essence of that song and the adding your own imprint to it. That has to be a difficult divide, no?
NM: Yeah, but it does feel natural. You play it and sing it and it just comes naturally. If you listen to Smokey Robinson’s version of “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and then you listen to The Beatles’ version, they didn’t really change it, but it still sounds completely different. And they’re both really good.
GM: You are a champion of prog rock’s second coming, so to speak. So who were the early influences that steered you in that direction?
NM: It’s no exaggeration to say prog changed my life. My dad was a choir director and a classical music guy, and my uncle was in a jazz vocal group called The Hi-Lo’s. So my family was into a lot of jazz and classical music. And then of course, the whole Beatles thing was going on. So to me, the idea was to somehow bring it all together so you could have it all in one place. Really good rock and pop vocals and good harmonies, and the power of rock with the complexity of classical music and the creativity of jazz. I was blown away by The Beatles for a long time, and then ELP was the next one I got into. I got into all kinds of prog that was popular in the early ’70s — Zappa, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, King Crimson... I was actually a major music snob. We would get in actual fights about whether Keith Emerson or Chick Corea was a better soloist. I remember one of my roommates storming out of the room because he was a big Keith Emerson fan, and I made the suggestion that Chick Corea was better. Those were the kind of things we would argue about. (laughs) And then I got out of it like the whole world did when I was trying to get a record deal as a singer-songwriter in the ’80s. But that didn’t pan out, and then in the early ’90s, I had this spiritual awakening, and an awakening of my whole creativity, and I realized what I wanted to do was bigger pieces of music than just pop songs. That’s when I wrote the first Spock’s Beard album.
GM: You always seemed like a real journeyman. You’ve ventured into so many different musical realms and played with so many different people. Is that a fair way to characterize your career? Are you a restless sort as far as your creativity is concerned?
NM: I don’t know. I kind of just do what I’m feeling in the moment. I wake up with music in my mind, and certain things will make me sit up in bed and think I better put that down somewhere. I was visiting relatives last weekend, and I woke up with this melody in my mind, so I just put it in my phone and I went for a walk. That’s typically how my creativity works. I go for a walk and I think about that melody, and I think about what words might go with it. And as it takes shape in my mind, I think, “Oh, this could be a song about my daughter leaving.” So as I’m walking, I start singing it as a kind of tribute to her. Then, when I get home, I finish it. So there you go.
GM: You also embraced Christianity, but that particular music market is very much a niche. Rock is a broader arena. So how do you choose which direction you’ll pursue at any particular time?
NM: To be honest, I’ve never entered the Christian market. Never. I make the records that I feel compelled to make, but the truth is I’m really terrible at marketing, and the business decisions are like third or fourth in my list of priorities. (laughs) I just don’t think about that stuff. I’ve had enough success where I just feel like if I want to make a record, then I’ll make that record and put it out there. I make prog albums, I make pop albums, I make Christian albums with progressive themes, but from a business perspective, I’m most firmly established in the prog world. And that’s fine. I really love the prog world. People in that world really care about the music.
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GM: So what else is brewing in your world?
NM: I’ve finished a new solo album called Sola Gratia (this year). It’s kind of along the lines of my album Sola Scriptura from 2007. It’s kind of my COVID-19 album. It was the first time we made a record remotely. The creative flow is what it is, and we have to keep flowing with it, and it’s all good. You just have to roll with the changes and make the best of it.