Paul Harcourt, vicar of All Saints' Woodford Wells interviewed renowned US prog rocker NEAL MORSE about his latest album.
"One of America's national treasures" came to London at the beginning of February. Music critics have said that if America's Neal Morse had been born in a different age, he would be a household name combining as he does many of the gifts and talents of people such as Lennon and McCartney. Singer, songwriter and multi instrumentalist, Neal always wanted to make it big in the music industry but finally came to experience success in the less fashionable genre of progressive rock. Playing music in the tradition of bands such as Yes and Genesis he was beginning to break into the big time when, in 2000, he left his many projects in order to concentrate on his solo career and make music inspired by his new-found Christian faith. Since then Neal has issued a string of recordings that have received critical acclaim and built up a loyal fan-base across the world. Arriving at All Saints' Woodford Wells as part of a European tour of churches that took him to Germany, Norway, Holland, Belgium and the UK, Neal played an evening of acoustic worship for church members and existing fans who had travelled from as far away as Cardiff and Dublin. The focus of the evening was very definitely on worship, despite the fact that Neal has a new album to promote. 'Sola Scriptura' is his fourth full studio solo album. It is a concept album that tells the story of the great German reformer Martin Luther. I spoke to Neal after the service about his new album.
Paul: Can you tell us what led you to the story of Martin Luther?
Neal: I have this friend who turns up at my house every once in a while and says, "I've got an idea that I feel like God has laid on my heart to give to you." And the first one was, "I think you should do a concept album about the tabernacle." Which I thought was really crazy but after a while I thought it was a good idea and I wrote the '?' album. When he came to me last year and suggested something about Martin Luther I thought, This time boy, for sure, I'm not going to do another concept album because I've done I don't know how many in a row. Like six or something! It's crazy. But, anyway I just put it out of my mind and thought it was another crazy idea of my friend. Well, you know, after I prayed about it for a couple of months it began to feel like it was God's will so that was really why I did it. It was that I felt like the Lord was in it and parts of it wrote itself and parts of it seemed like it was hard to get through. There were certain points where I thought maybe I should just scrap the whole thing, you know, just toss it all in the waste basket and do something else. But, I kept feeling the Lord at my back to finish it and so I finally did. It took me quite a while. I spent a whole year working on it. I wrote it for about six months and then worked on recording it for about the same so worked on it longer than other albums. I think it turned out good.
Paul: What's the overall message of the album?
Neal: The overall message really is that I'm just focussing on the things that Martin Luther did between 1517 and 1521 - you know, the nailing of the 95 theses to the [Wittenberg] Door up to where he makes his famous speech in the city of Worms, Germany. And as I developed the story I used him as a picture of the overcoming Church and as opposed to the false church, false religion and kind of this battle between good and evil and then good winning in the end - as we know that it will.
Paul: How does it compare to your previous solo albums?
Neal: Well, musically, it's a little heavier. It's kind of strange, I never would have thought that I would have gotten heavier! You know, what I think from 'Testimony', 'One' to '?' to 'Sola Scriptura' has gotten a little heavier musically. So that's been different and certainly not anything that was really my intention, it just seemed to be that way and as I began to delve into the subject matter and to write the thing it just seemed like that was how it wanted to be. The subject matter is a little heavier too, it's kind of going into some dark things and the darkness and light is really contrasted on this one. That's what this whole thing is about, conflict and resolution. You know what intrigued me most about Luther is the conflict in his heart; how difficult it must have been for him to go up against, basically, the entire Church world at that time, for something that he saw was true. And what I explored was what may have been going on in his heart because I know that all Christians and myself, I have struggled with those times when maybe you feel the Lord telling you to tell somebody something and you just don't want to. It would be so much easier just to stay home. And so one song that comes to mind is "Keep Silent", you know, "how can I keep silent when I know the truth?" It just burned inside of him and must have just burned until he had to get out there and speak. I appreciate that.
Paul: Given that Luther was a monk and so probably he was fairly committed to the Church, is there a theme about divided loyalties in there as well? Is that anything you can relate to?
Neal: Well, the way I see him is that he's really sold out to God. Of course I couldn't know his heart for real but I'm gonna be using him as a type, almost, of somebody who is seeking God's glory only and not the glory of men. There's a part that sticks out in my mind where he sings, "O God I seek the glory that's from you and from you only," that's where his heart is and the difficulty, I think, is like, "O Lord I can't justify what the ones above me do, O Lord I can testify nothing more or less will do. You know, I'll be your witness Lord and the dragon stands in front of me." And that was partly my friend's idea, now that I think about it. Luther was like, the hugeness of the enemy and this one guy, like the classic David and Goliath tale or something and that intrigued me as well.
Paul: You toured with the '?' album. Are there any plans to get a band together to do something like that for 'Sola Scriptura'?
Neal: Well, you know, there's possibilities. There's a few things I've been discussing but I'm just praying about it to see if it's the Lord's will. So I don't know yet, we're just praying and seeing where God will lead next.
Paul: You've worked with some really spectacular musicians, not all of whom share your faith. What do they bring to the creative process and who do you want to work with that you haven't worked with yet?
Neal: Mike (Portnoy of Dream Theater) and Randy (George of Ajalon). we've been working together since the 'One' album and Mike before that. I get to a point where I write the thing and I demo as it is but a lot of times I just had this feeling in my heart that it's not just how it should be. I feel that those guys are great at keeping me on and checking me. Sometimes they'll go, "This section's good but it's too much like this other section that you did on this other record. Maybe we could change it up a little bit." So they've been awesome about helping me arrange the music. Of course the guest on this album is Paul Gilbert - I didn't feel to have a bunch of guests like I did on '?' which was awesome. I love it because the way I collaborate these days is rarely face to face, I send tracks. With the '?' album and with this album I just sent the tracks to the guitar players - of course Mark and Randy are there, we track it together, we work on it together, that's why they're listed as the band. And then there are special guests. The special guests are the guys that get sent tracks and then they play to it and send it back. Paul Gilbert did an extraordinary job, you just wait till you hear what he did, it's just unreal. He was keeping me on the edge of my seat because I sent it to him in September and in October he still hadn't sent me anything back and we had to mix. I think I got his stuff like two days or one day before I had to send the mixes off. I was really getting nervous but when I finally got his stuff I was like "Oh man this is just incredible, I think people are gonna love it."
Paul: What is next?
Neal: We're doing this church service tour and it's just phenomenal, I feel like the Spirit of the Lord is really growing and touching people as we go. Every time we come it seems like the Lord is getting stronger and it's just really exciting. People are getting saved and filled with the Holy Ghost, it's just incredible. We're gonna finish up this church service tour and go home and get some rest. I also just did this Christian folk song album called 'Songs From The Highway' that's probably not going to be available in stores unless something happens and somebody wants to pick it up because it's not a prog album - it won't being going through my usual outlets but you can get it at radiantrecords.com. it's a very unusual album for me. It's like nothing else I've ever done, it's just acoustic guitar and vocals and it's almost like an early Bob Dylan album or something with a lot of words and simple songs with a lot of verses. Some people think it's the best thing I've ever done so I like to tell people about that in case they would be blessed by it. Anyway we'll just be onto the next thing - whatever the Lord has for us.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.