Angie McKenna grew up near Neal in New Jersey and became his favorite harmony singer, also appearing on most of his solo albums. Their voices blended together beautifully and the sound of Neal, John Ginty and Angie together was really the hallmark of his early solo years.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, Angie?
Sure. I’m a singer-songwriter born and bred in Morris County, New Jersey, where I still reside. After high school, I started college, but dropped out soon after to pursue singing and songwriting.
When did you start to sing ? What was your introduction to music ?
I have always been obsessed with singing. As a very young girl, I would sit for hours in my room with a tape recorder just singing and playing it back and rerecording. It made me feel free and beautiful- it actually still does. Growing up, both of my parents were and still are huge fans of all kinds of music. We always had guitars around the house and records playing. When I was little, my mom sang for a local country band. The recordings of her singing and going to her practices are my first real memories of making music. She’d sing Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt and those musicians became my inspiration.
How and when did you meet Neal ?
I met Neal when I was 19 through a mutual friend, Greg Moreman who had a small recording studio where Neal had been recording demos. I had been writing songs, singing at coffee shops, local bars…anywhere I could, for anyone who would have me. Greg was mixing a friend’s album that I sang on when Neal began recording demos there. Neal was looking for female vocals and Greg recommended me.
What did you find in him as an artist?
Neal was really the first person that really believed in me and trusted me as a musician. Singing with him felt very natural and he really mentored me as an artist.
Were you impressed by the quality of Neal’s writing?
Neal was certainly on another level. His writing was sensitive and thoughtful. I knew that he was the real deal- his talent was unmistakable.
What kind of musical tastes you two had in common ? Was there a mutual bond beyond music ?
When I met Neal, I really was all over the map musically. The 80s were all about heavy metal bands which got pretty cheesy. But my roots were The Rolling Stones, classic and southern rock, the Grateful Dead, country music…which Neal also loved.
Sweet coincidence for a Stones freak to run into a singer named Angie!
That part never occurred to me but you’re right- I guess it was destined. My mom has always been a HUGE Stones fan and ‘Angie’ was actually released right around the time I was born. So while my parents named me Angeline after my great-great grandmother, when that song came out, I became Angie forever after.
You were younger and less experienced than Neal, right ? What did he teach you ? Did he refer, in terms of harmonies, to models? Gram & Emmylou, Tammy & George?
Yes, Neal was like my big brother and I had little training outside of what I had taught myself. He was always giving me something new to listen to. Gram and Emmylou were definitely the first harmony singers he turned me on to, but he introduced me to so much music- his knowledge base was extensive and he would follow the threads of musicians, songwriters and producers to learn more. I rarely left him without a new recording to listen to. I still have mixtapes he made me. He taught me so many things about singing and songwriting and playing- he loved to share anything he had.
As a singer, who has been your model or influence that helped shape your style? Those ladies of country were my original inspiration, but I looked to so many female singers- from Joni (Mitchell) and Stevie (Nicks) to Bonnie (Raitt) and Aretha (Franklin).
You two, along with Ginty, built together the Neal Casal sound of the early days….This was the core of Neal’s sound.
John is so incredible, isn’t he? I actually knew him long before Neal came into my life- he grew up nearby, we had a lot of mutual friends, and I used to follow John’s band- he has always been an amazingly gifted musician and genuinely nice person. When he started playing with Neal, it was like he had always been playing with him; his sound complemented Neal’s songs so beautifully. It all came together very effortlessly.
Can you tell us about the other players on the album. Jim Scott, Bob Glaub, Don Heffington… Did you know them before recording this album?
Jim Scott was always a big supporter of Neal and Neal’s music. He is such a positive person and just knows great music and how to get it. It has really been an honor and such a genuine pleasure to have worked with him. Bob Glaub and Don Heffington are legends, world class musicians- they have played with my idols. And they are both downright nice people. Neal was great about connecting amazing people.
Could you describe your average day during the sessions at that amazing mansion Palacio Del Rio ?
We had a lot of fun! Yes, it was such a beautiful place. It was once owned by one of the members of the Rat Pack, so it was a really interesting place to just explore. As much as we were working , we made time to have some fun dinners and parties. I remember one night we had a good old fashioned jam session. Everybody grabbed instruments just for fun and to blow off some steam. Neal lived his rock and roll fantasy of playing the drums. He was having a ball twirling the sticks and doing tricks. I think he stood up on the drum stool messing around…and fell off of it. That was a really fun night.
What is your favourite song on the album ?
I think “Feel No Pain” will always be my favorite. Neal loved it and it was one of the early demos I sang on with Neal so it is special in that respect. It also captures such a relatable part of the human experience- we’re all just trying to stay in the light and keep our loved ones safe. It’s beautiful.
And your own favourite contribution to the album ?
I love “Leaving Traces.” It’s so soulful and dynamic.
Were there any influences brought up by Neal or the team prior or during recordings ?
Neal was constantly exploring and studying musicians and following their inspirations and their players to find even more music and inspiration.
Would you call it a “country-rock” record ?
Well, you can’t deny it, the influences are there, country, folk, but I still feel like it’s rock and roll.
Was there a sense of making an “important” record ?
For sure, we knew we were a part of something magical and authentic.
And how did you react to his lack of impact at the time ? Did you feel any lack of support from the label executives ?
I wasn’t really a part of any of that. I was so proud of the album that it was hard for me to understand why it wasn’t getting the support it deserved.
Do you think Neal was very hurt by that ?
Of course. I mean, the album was great, the recording experience was amazing, and everything seemed like it was going so well, dreams were coming true. We were all upset that things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped, but Neal picked up and we kept moving forward.
You almost sang and beautified every Neal Casal album after Fade. What an amazing and long relationship in making beautiful music together….How did this experience help you, teach you for your own career ?
That’s really sweet- thank you. Neal was really like a big brother to me. He turned me on to so much music and tried to show me artists and styles to inspire me and challenge me. Through recording, playing, and just hanging around together, he was always helping me to find myself musically and teach me how to express myself in a way that was honest and authentic.
Neal produced your 1999 solo album Looking East. Can you tell us about that experience ?
Neal was a genuinely kind person and very generous with his time and talent. He was also a good friend and very supportive, so when I asked if he would listen to the songs I had been working on, he was enthusiastic. He had been experimenting with some recording equipment he’d gotten and proposed the idea of recording some tracks which eventually became most of Looking East. I was at his house everyday at that point anyway, so it was so easy to work on recording. He helped me bring my songs to life and helped put together something that I’m still so proud of.
25 years after its original release, what is your own personal opinion on Fade Away Diamond Time, is it a record that you have gone back to and played ?
Fade Away Diamond Time has a classic timeless sound that will never get old. I absolutely listen to it, especially in the last year. I feel so deeply grateful that I was a part of it.
What do you do now dear Angie?
I will always sing and write, but my main focus is my husband Dan and beautiful children McKenna and Brady. I teach high school English and still play in my spare time.