If you’ve ever met someone whose presence immediately captivated you, then you know my first impression while watching a performance by upcoming country artist, Stephen Neal, at the eminent Joe’s Bar in Chicago. Though he is fresh to the country music world, he is no stranger to the country life. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, smack dab in the middle of the city and cornfields, and spent many of his days growing up on his grandparent’s farm in Iowa. Recently, his hard work has landed him several opportunities to open up for country artists such as Chris Young, Michael Ray, and Craig Wayne Boyd. Stephen Neal emanates passion and talent both on and off the stage, and he clearly has that fire in his belly for success.
Though he grew up with a passion for music, playing music wasn’t always on his radar in terms of a career, until recently.
“I didn’t do anything musically inclined until my freshman year of college. That was a rough year for me, and writing music was a ‘less girly’ way, in my own mind, than writing in a journal. Songwriting was an outlet for me to get things off of my chest. After I got hit in the face by a pitch during baseball, I came home from college and went to a local college and continued to play ball. During that time, someone in my family encouraged me to pick up and play one of the guitars in the house. So, I went on YouTube and taught myself how to play. My junior year of college, I was playing my guitar outside of school one day, just messing around, kind of humming along. Someone overheard, and invited me up to the studio on campus.”
So, why did he specifically choose to play country music?
“Pursuing country music was a no-brainer for me because musically, that was my first love. I grew up listening to Christian music at home with my mom, and hair metal with my dad in the car on the way to sports games, but country music was my thing with my grandpa. I wanted to be a farmer like him, and that’s what rooted me to country music. What I love about country music, and what attracted me to it out of every genre, is that country music is music for everyday people just living their lives, talking about heartache, love, working just to get to the weekend, fun stuff. I thought, why not sing about what makes you happy, what draws the bad out?”
As an artist in his 20s, Neal is inspired by a culmination of 90’s country artists, and contemporary country artists alike.
“The first artist I can look back and remember hearing and liking (one of my grandma’s favorites) is Alan Jackson, I like the steel guitar, the twang. Then, going into high school, the first artists I can remember listening to, were, Toby Keith, Dierks Bentley, and Brad Paisley. My First concert was Dierks in 2009. As I watched him perform, I admired his passion, and I thought, man, that guy just loves what he’s doing. At that point, I thought my career would be baseball (had a scholarship to play in college), never did I think I would be doing something like he was doing, in my future. As I have become in-tune to writing, Eric Church’s songwriting is insane. I love that he does what he thinks is right, and I think that is so important. He is his own person, and that is so respectable.”
Stephen described the process of creating an EP, and how he is using that experience to prepare for future recording sessions.
“Writing, in general, can be a shot in the dark. I have written over 200 songs, and most of them I’ll never show anybody. That being said, you just keep writing. That’s how you get better at anything. In getting serious about my music, I realized I needed to take the next step and create an EP. One thing led to another, and I was at Oceanway Studios in Nashville, with some of the best guys in music beside me, narrowing down songs to create my first EP. The downfall was that I only had two days to get everything recorded, and the one thing you lose when it’s happening so fast like that, is the ability to sit down and pin-point your sound. That is not taking away from anybody that played on this EP, or anyone that worked on it! I think we came out with really great stuff! All of those songs were written by me, about different experiences, and it was fun to hear them come to life. Everyone that was a part of this EP, top to bottom, was incredible to work with. I learned so much, and I am so eager for the next step, to put out new music focused on my new sound.”
After spending a few minutes with Neal, you will quickly find out that though he is focused and driven, he also has a playful side. In my opinion, this contributes to his personality on stage, and being able to connect with fans on a different level. I asked him if he had only one wish, what would it be? After trying to debate his way into getting ‘unlimited wishes’ as an option, he chuckled and commented:
“This is the most unimportant thing ever, but I love eating. Being from the Chicago area, I love pizza. Also, birthday cake. I wish I could eat those all day and not see any nasty effects on my body. You would probably see me eating on stage if that were the case!”
Neal is currently in the process of writing for his next adventure, and he let us in on a little secret: his new music is going to have a more sensual twist to it, comparable, perhaps, to a “countrified” version of Marvin Gaye.
“I’m trying to dial it in for my next EP and make the lyrics and overall sound more personal, creative, different. When people hear one of my songs, I want them to say, ‘that’s Stephen Neal.’ The first four seconds into a Jason Aldean song, you know it’s him. That’s my goal. I don’t want to potentially have a hit or two on the radio and just fizzle out because it sounded like everyone else. I want to drive my own distinct path and say that this is the sound I like, this is me.”
That mindset is certainly a quality of someone determined to pursue music for the right reasons, and I think that will propel him forward. In regards to when his new music will debut, he responded:
“I’m going to do a 15-song stripped-down EP, but I will release it in five-song segments at a time. That will give me more time to work on it, listen on it, and the opportunity for everyone to hear the music during shows. I’m super excited about this because it will give me more time to fine tune everything over the next year. I’m hoping to put all of my songs on Spotify (old and new) as well as on iTunes. I’ll also be doing cool YouTube videos to accompany the songs. I just want to keep people intrigued and entertained and I want to put out music that is more ‘me.'”