“Like, I still have a flip phone,” singer/songwriter Lael Neale casually mentions while speaking about her relationship with social media. “I’m talking to you on a flip phone.”
Not only is she digitally off the grid for the most part, but she’s living on an isolated farm in Virginia, in the town where she grew up. “I feel like I’ve been in quarantine my whole life,” she says with a laugh. She only recently moved back there at the beginning of the pandemic after losing her job at a cafe in Los Angeles, where she resided for about eight years.
“I don’t necessarily miss the noise,” she says about L.A., “but I miss the people and the constant interactions. Everyday interactions I really miss. Strangers are kind of my favorite group of people.” She recalls the many brief connections she shared with coffee buyers — people who were regulars, people who were lonely, people who talked to her about their day. “I was the passing-by point in a person’s routine.”
This idea is similar to her song “Let Me Live by the Side of the Road,” a hypnotic track from her latest album Acquainted with Night, her Sub Pop debut. The song is named after a poem by Sam Walter Foss. “It’s about being a nobody and being humble and being in service of the passerby and being a watcher. I definitely felt that,” she ruminates.
In many ways, it feels like an outdated dream — to be a nobody and be humble in an age where narcissism has become the norm. Most humans are on the grid, both physically by living in cities, and digitally by having a presence on many online platforms. “I put off being on Instagram and everything as long as I possibly could and then I saw that I wasn’t really proving anything to anybody,” she says with a laugh. “I want to be able to just use it as a tool and not be the tool. That’s really tricky because it’s designed to just keep us in there as much as possible.”
Her debut, I’ll Be Your Man, arrived in 2015, a collection of similarly serene songs that feel equally as timeless. However, she found herself lost as a writer in the aftermath. “I just didn’t have a strong vision for what I wanted and I kept bringing things to people expecting them to answer it for me,” she recollects, chuckling at her old self a bit. This confusion is what led to the nearly six-year gap between the two records. Clearly, the break was necessary and useful, what she calls a “fermenting time,” during which she was “underground.” When she learned to trust herself and her instincts is when Neale emerged, victorious and ready.
Acquainted with Night reverberates with a pure energy that feels far from social media and digital realms; it resembles an echo in a cave or the flow of a placid lake. The opening chords in “Blue Vein” are like calm winds; the rhythm in “For No One For Now” is like the skips of a stone on water.
Neale gathers inspiration from nature both personally and thanks to Mary Oliver’s poetry: “She’d make this big, grandiose statement but by using very small, little moments in nature,” she says. “And I love that.” It’s the type of writing that she’s most drawn to — what she describes as “this really concise way of conveying a really big idea,” or, more often referred to as “less is more.” Neale strays from overexplaining in her lyricism, and she even avoids doing too much sonically. “I’ve learned that some of the most powerful songs to me are songs that only use two chords,” she says.
The simplicity is part of what makes her record so beautiful; just her voice, her words, her electric guitar, and her omnichord are enough to put the listener in a trance. It’s evident that Neale is singing because she must — for herself.
“I was using it as a way to occupy my time,” she says about when she first began to make music, “and I was using the vibration of an instrument or my own voice to calm me down and ground me.” The sparkling second song, “Every Star Shivers in the Dark,” was the product of writing to help her anxiety, to unburden herself. She wrestles with herself throughout the ballad, asking questions like, “Why can’t I have some fun?” or “Why can’t I love someone?”
“I’ve definitely feared the pain of love,” she says on the topic of pain and fear. “I’m glad you’re reminding me of it because I have to go back to that all of the time to remind myself to push through.”
Her mantra is to welcome pain, welcome fear, and welcome challenges in order to get beyond and reach something bigger. It seems like in her music is when she’s able to achieve that; she’s vulnerable, honest, and facing some of the hardest things in life in a composed manner. By the end of that track, “Every Star Shivers in the Dark,” Neale repeats peacefully and determined: “I’m gonna love someone.”