Neal Morse, Sola Gratia, September 11, 2020, Inside Out Music
Tracks: 1. Preface (01:28), 2. Overture (05:59), 3. In The Name Of The Lord (04:27), 4. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones) (02:43), 5. March Of The Pharisees (01:40), 6. Building A Wall (05:01), 7. Sola Intermezzo (02:10), 8. Overflow (06:27), 9. Warmer Than The Sunshine (03:22), 10. Never Change (07:52), 11. Seemingly Sincere (09:34), 12. The Light On The Road To Damascus (03:26), 13. The Glory Of The Lord (06:17), 14. Now I Can See/The Great Commission (05:17)
Last Saturday, August 29, 2020, I had the great opportunity to talk to the magnificent Neal Morse about his new solo album, Sola Gratia. Morse is perhaps the most ubiquitous artist of “third wave” progressive rock. You’d be hard pressed to find contemporary progressive rock artists that aren’t influenced by him in some way. His latest solo effort proves why. The lyrical and musical songwriting is in peak form.
As a sequel to 2007’s Sola Scriptura, this album finds Morse exploring the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christians to the faith’s most ardent missionary. It is a profound story of God’s grace. Morse explores the drama of this story as Paul (then called Saul) wrestles with the newly founded Christian church and the sincerity of its followers. While Paul is on his way to Damascus to persecute more Christians, Jesus appears to him. Paul then converts and repents. The album ends with Paul converting and glorifying God, leaving us on a cliffhanger of sorts for a possible part 2 in the future.
The album pulls a few lyrical and musical highlights from Sola Scriptura, but, as Morse says in the interview below, they are merely sprinklings. It is enough to be familiar without sounding like a retread. The music gives room for the listener to breathe and think about the lyrics, which makes this an enjoyable album to return to. At just over an hour long it isn’t a chore to return to as a double album might be. The music has its expected complexity with the usual suspects playing on the album – primarily Mike Portnoy and Randy George – but the lyrics are the highlight here. There are a lot of calm moments that allow you to reflect. I found that quite appealing about the album, and it has quickly become one of my favorite Neal Morse solo albums.
But enough of that. The interview covers the background of the album, how it was written, and its connections to Sola Scriptura. We talked a bit about Paul, and Transatlantic and Flying Colors came up a few times as well.
Bryan: Hi, this is Bryan from Progarchy.
Neal: Hey how you doing man?
Bryan: Good how are you?
Neal: Good! Good good.
Bryan: Thanks so much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it. I know you’re a busy man.
Neal: Well, you know, got a couple things going on. That’s alright. I’m sure you do too.
Bryan: Well I don’t have an album coming out every month. [laughs]
Neal: [Laughs] Yeah.
Bryan: So tell me about the background for your upcoming album, Sola Gratia. I’ve had a chance to listen to it several times, and it’s fantastic.
Neal: Oh thanks man. Thanks, I’m glad you like it. Well I mean I started getting these ideas while I was on vacation – sort of half vacation half work actually. We did some gigs down in Australia, and then we took a trip to New Zealand and I was just getting a flood of ideas.
One thing that was going on was I had been talking to the guys – you know it was really interesting – towards the end of 2019 we were all talking about – we started planning the next year, you know, and so we were talking about what we could do, and it was looking like we couldn’t do Transatlantic like we had hoped. We couldn’t do any Transatlantic touring and live shows. Originally I wanted to have Transatlantic, the logical thing would be to have Transatlantic at Morsefest – this is before Covid or any of that stuff. But it seemed like nothing that I was trying to put together, or we were trying to put together, seemed like it could happen. Everything wasn’t working. So then I started to get this idea, well, because I like to debut things at Morsefest if possible, or do something that’s in season and fresh, and I was like “well if Transatlantic is not going to come out by then, maybe I could write a whole other thing and have it come out.”
So I started to get the idea then, and I was getting all the inspiration and writing a lot of music, but I didn’t know where it was going. And then I remembered, as I often remember little things that people say to me – I’ve become like the progressive rock concept album guy, so if anybody has an idea for a concept album they’ll share it with me at the meet and greet, you know. A lot of people have shared with me about doing one on Paul, so I started to consider it and started singing ideas into my phone about it. That’s where it started, and then when I came home – the second half of February and then in March – that’s when I wrote it and it really came together. Then we tracked it in April, and now you’re listening to it.
Bryan: So from the start did you envision it as just a solo album, or had you thought that maybe it could be a Neal Morse Band album?
Neal: Well I was already thinking that it might be good to do an album like I used to. I hadn’t written one completely on my own in a lot of years, and I was always thinking that might be a good idea. I mentioned something – my wife and I were kicking it around on vacation, and she said from the other room “oh yeah it’d be good to do another solo album,” and I thought she said “Sola.” And then I had the idea, and I was listening to Andy Stanley’s book, “Irresistible” in my morning walks, and he talks about the five solas, and I was like “oh there’s five solas?” They’re sort of the battle cry of the early Reformers of the Christian church in the 1500s. And so he was talking about that, and it was sort of on my mind that there were five solas. When I misheard her I thought “oh I could do another Sola. Maybe it could be a series.” [Laughs]
Bryan: Yeah you could do all five. You end with Paul’s conversion. The next one – you could do Sola Fide for his missionary journeys and everything.
Neal: Totally. I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time before his conversion when I started writing. It just kind of happened that way. I don’t really know – you know I kept getting ideas. Part of it was the music I guess that was leading me. I don’t know – it just turned out that way. I didn’t mean for “Seemingly Sincere” to become as long a thing as it did, but you’re kind of exploring, and you explore the music and then the feeling and then you think “well what thought would this be about” and you start writing the lyrics, you know. And it’s like an album begins to take on a life of its own.
Bryan: That track in particular – the stoning of Stephen from, well at that point Saul’s perspective, it’s a pretty powerful song. It’s kind of dark in a way – not musically but thematically. [The Apostle Paul was known as Saul prior to his conversion to Christianity.]
Bryan: It’s very dark. It’s about murdering someone.
Neal: Yeah, well, you know, I like the drama of that. I like music that’s dramatic. When I had that idea… [chimes in the background] sorry I’m sitting out on my porch and we have this little wind chime thing. Maybe I can – let me put that up. I think it might be a little distracting. I think I can – there’s a way for me to hook this so it doesn’t ring as much. Let’s see if that’ll do it. [Laughs] It’s a really nice wind chime, but yeah it’s going to stop I think. It’s a little windy out here.
Well anyway, I like the drama of that and I wanted to talk about – explore my thoughts about how Paul felt. And I feel that in one place it says that, in one translation anyway it says that Jesus says to Paul, “it’s hard for you to kick against the pricks,” or to kick against the jabbing. I feel like the Lord was dealing with Paul’s heart for quite a while. So that was really an interesting thing for me to write about. I figured that part of what must have been touching his heart was Stephen’s sincerity. Thinking about how wrong Stephen must have been – “well he seems sincere but obviously he’s a heretic and wrong so we gotta kill him.” [Laughs]
Bryan: I don’t know how you couldn’t be touched by that. Most people, if they didn’t fully believe it, if it wasn’t real, they wouldn’t go through, they would’ve denied Jesus at some point. He was sincere because it is real. I’m a believer myself, so your music profoundly impacts me. The sincerity of your lyrics comes through in every song that you do. It is very dramatic both musically and lyrically.
Neal: Thank you, man, thank you.
Bryan: Speaking of the music, do you write that first? Do you have the idea and then go to writing the music? Do you go and write the lyrics first, or both at the same time? How does that work?
Neal: Sometimes it’s at the same time. A lot of times it’s – with this album it’s very lyrically driven, so I didn’t want to leave very much unwritten before I moved on, so I wrote a lot of the lyrics as I was writing it. For other albums where it’s more musically oriented and the lyrics are certainly second place, I’ll leave a lot of the lyrics until later. Not on this one so much. But still I don’t get all the lyrics right at once. I might do a draft. There was a short little draft of what became “Ballyhoo” from that vacation. It was just [sings/chants] “we are the fortunate people / apple of Jehovah’s eye” [hums the melody]. You get pieces of the puzzle and then you fill in the rest later.
Bryan: So it just kinda comes song by song in that regard then?
Neal: Yeah. And then you come to the end of it and think “where should we go here? What should happen?” When you’re really working on it, when you really get down to it and you start working on the transitions and what not, you know again you’re just throwing things out and sometimes you’ll come back the next day and go “ehh no that’s too busy.” One thing I tried to have on that album was space. I listen to some of my albums later and go “it needs more space.” Like more time when not so much is going on. More time when there’s less instruments playing. A lot of my favorite records I’ll visit and go “there’s only four instruments playing right here or only three.” I tend to put in a lot of stuff, so it’s something I’m trying to correct. Like for example at the end of “Ballyhoo” – that’s why it breaks down to just drums and bass for a little while. It’s kind of like let’s let people absorb what they’ve heard before we go into some other things that they have to think about. [Laughs]
Bryan: That’s actually a cool thing about this album. There’s long instrumental passages as all your albums have, but it’s not like it’s overpowering in its instrumentality in the way that some other albums in progressive rock can be. It’s almost a little simpler, but it’s still incredibly complex and there’s a lot of symphonic overtones that you hear. And then you have the choral passages and everything, which is cool. The people that play on your album – when do you bring them into the mix when you’re in the process?
Neal: It depends on the team. Flying Colors, for example, I won’t write anything in entirety at all because it tends to hinder its possibilities. It’s better with that team to come in with very little and explore the stuff together. Transatlantic is sort of in between. I’ll flesh out some stuff quite a bit and present it, but you’ve always gotta be subject to a lot of change when you’re working in teams like that. What was different about Sola Gratia was that I wrote the whole thing – this is the first album since Testimony that has been recorded exactly as I originally wrote it. Everything else has been reshaped or re-imagined or cut and pasted in some way.
Bryan: Tell me a little bit about who all you worked with on the album. I know obviously Mike Portnoy because he’s on just about everything, but who else all worked on it and how was it – I imagine it was a bit different because of the virus and everything that’s going on in the world – that way that you recorded it I imagine was different.
Neal: Oh yeah totally. I’ve never done an album like this. Ever. I mean even with “Testimony” Mike came here. Mike and I have never done an album remotely. It’s the first one. Randy [George] either I don’t think. So yeah that was totally different. Oh and you asked me when do I give them the album – well I gave them the album after I thought I got it pretty much arranged and done, so I sent it to Mike first in April and then, when he was done with the drums, I sent it to Randy. Then I sent it to Rich [Mouser], and in the interim I was sending bits to Eric [Gillette] and Bill [Hubauer]. The string players actually came here. They were local. We did actually record them here. And the background singers came here also. But it was kind of in that order.
Bryan: That’s cool that you used actual string players. I wasn’t quite sure if it was synths or if it was real players, so that’s pretty cool.
Neal: Oh yeah gotta have real strings.
Bryan: That probably adds a big complexity to things too and arranging all that, and writing that. Do you work with anyone to write specifically for string players, or do you do that all yourself?
Neal: I used to do it all myself. Now I job that out. What I did on this album was I pretty much just had them play what I had played on the synth strings. I sent the files and the midi files to Gideon Klein who then put – I think it was just him and his girlfriend Josey – and they came and did it all. His brother Gabe engineered those sessions. It was really nice because I just got to sit back and listen to them kill it. [Laughs] They were great. Another guy that I love to use is Chris Carmichael who I’ve used for a lot of years. He’s particularly amazing if you wanted to send him a song and say “hey do an arrangement.” He did some arrangements on the “Life and Times” album, like on the song “Joanna” and “Good Love is On the Way.” They were just great. Chris Carmichael is awesome too.
Bryan: When did the connections with Sola Scriptura emerge in the writing process? Was it pretty early on that you had the idea to weave those lyrical and musical themes in a little bit?
Neal: I did. I did write from the beginning because it was another Sola, right.
Neal: Right from the beginning, in fact the original overture had the Sola Scriptura themes in the overture, but I wound up feeling like it was too long. One of the things is I had the drum solo section from “Sola” in the overture, and then also when there was bound to be the drum solo in “Seemingly Sincere” I thought that was overkill. It’s quite rare to have one drum solo in an album let alone two. Yeah I had those ideas right from the beginning, and I put them in wherever I could – wherever I thought was good.
Bryan: Is it difficult to – I mean that was what? 2007? That’s a fairly long time ago. Was it difficult to reach back that far to work stuff into this?
Neal: Thank God for Waterfall. [Laughs] My music streaming app has everything on it, so if I want – “how does that theme in Sola go” – I just go into Waterfall and everything’s right there on my phone.
Bryan: Yeah. So is it kind of just doing it by ear type of thing for the music?
Neal: Yeah but sometimes I had to refresh my memory because I hadn’t listened to Sola Scriptura in a while. Yeah it was fun though. I knew I didn’t want to do it too much. Just what we call a sprinkling.
Bryan: It works well. It’s not overpowering at all, but it’s just like “wait I’ve heard this before.” [Laughs]
Neal: I really enjoyed – I don’t know if people will catch it. I suppose they will. I really enjoyed putting some of the “Sola” songs in that kind of round that happens in the “Now I can see” section. You know how the [sings] “Now I can see” is going on and then I have the chorus vocal and then I add “Heaven in my heart.” Then I was like, oh yeah, and then at the end [sings] “she’s clothed with the sun.” Yeah. I thought that was neat to bring it all together like that.
Bryan: That is cool. Well and then to bring – the themes are similar because – it’s interesting – they’re almost opposites because Martin Luther is on the receiving end of that kind of persecution, and here Paul is on the other side of that. As Paul is the aggressor, I guess Saul is the aggressor here.
Neal: But then what happens now, what’s gonna happen next, is that Paul becomes the outcast and the one that’s oppressed.
Neal: He becomes the subject of persecution. He gets flogged and thrown out and jailed. He’s about to experience some of this persecution that he’s been dishing out. That’s going to be interesting. That’s gotta be the next part. Part 2.
Bryan: Oh yeah definitely. It has to lend itself to a part 2.
Neal: Yeah. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is the spirit is the same. The spirit of one who basically gives all to God and for God and then lives from that place is the same no matter what the circumstance is.
Bryan: Even before his conversion Paul was convinced that that’s what he was doing. It takes the light – it takes Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus to say “hey why are you persecuting me?”
Neal: Yeah. Thank God that he listened and he did it or where would the rest of us be?
Bryan: Exactly. He goes off and founds all these churches throughout the Mediterranean.
Neal: Yeah when the others wouldn’t go! Jesus says go to the ends of the earth, and they can’t tear themselves away from Jerusalem. So God needs somebody else to do it.
Bryan: It’s interesting because He needed a Paul because Paul was a very fierce person, and you see that in his epistles. A lot of these churches would have these problems, and he would go to them and be like “hey you need to get your act together,” and you needed that really strong personality that you didn’t see as much with the disciples.
Neal: Yeah, and there he is caught between two sides. He’s got the Judaizers to deal with and he’s got the crazy Gentiles to deal with. Trying to bring them all together as one. What a challenge.
Bryan: So you’ve got Morsefest coming up. There’s a live Flying Colors album coming out – when is that coming out?
Neal: I don’t have the release date at the tip of my fingers. It might be the first day of Morsefest – It might be September 18.
Bryan: Oh so that’s coming up pretty soon too.
Neal: Oh yeah they’re both in September, I know that – “Sola Gratia” and Flying Colors live.
Bryan: And then you guys recorded – or started recording for a Transatlantic album this year right?
Neal: We actually started recording it last year.
Bryan: Oh it was last year? Everything’s running together for me.
Neal: Yeah, I don’t blame you. It can for me too. Yeah that’s really coming to a head now. We’re honing in on like the closing things. I haven’t heard any mixes yet, but I think I will very soon. Then the artwork and all that stuff, so we’re getting closer to the finish line on that thing. You’ll have that to look forward to.
Bryan: Is that probably going to be next year sometime?
Neal: I think so. Should be – hopefully in the early part of next year.
Bryan: Do those albums usually take a little longer to put together? Like this one [Sola Gratia] seems like it came together pretty quickly, but part of that is if it’s just you leading the charge on it as opposed to literally people all over the world.
Neal: Yeah, well there’s that. That’s a big factor – when you can just act and you can just go. But Covid was a big factor. Cruise to the Edge was canceled. Other things were canceled. There was a period of time where my wife and I had been exposed, someone around us, I can’t remember who now, but someone around us had tested positive, so we had to quarantine for two weeks. We tested negative, but still, you know. There was nothing to do, so I was just bam bam bam, working ten hours a day or whatever on this record. That way you can really finish things quickly.
Bryan: Was that refreshing in a way? The circumstances were obviously terrible, but was it refreshing to get a chance to focus without as many distractions?
Neal: It was definitely a silver lining thing. It was definitely some lemonade from the lemons. It was nice. It was a double-edged sword to make all the decisions. It was nice to not have to run it by people – there’s a certain amount in every team of disagreement about what to do, where to go. So I didn’t have to deal with any of that. But also I had to deal with kind of relatively unfamiliar territory making all the decisions by myself. I mean totally by myself. No engineer – nothing. I was completely alone. So it was challenging, but I believe that I had someone helping me. [Laughs]
Bryan: Oh definitely.
Neal: That was the great comfort. I kept saying to the Lord, “Lord you’re the producer. What do you want to do?” I felt like He definitely gave me some guidance.
Bryan: It’s funny – I was doing an interview a couple weeks ago, and I was asking him about his writing process, and he’s like “well I don’t know how Neal Morse does it but he seems to be able to write a song a minute.” And I’m thinking to myself “I know how he does it.” [Laughs]
Neal: [Laughs] Right.
Bryan: It’s definitely a gift from God.
Neal: Amen. He’s the giver. Absolutely.
Bryan: I had read in like a press release or something that you had passed this stuff on to Mike and Randy to get their input, and they didn’t want to make any changes. Had you been expecting them to want to change things around a bit, and was that a surprise when they were just like “we’ll do it as is”?
Neal: Made me a little nervous. I thought “are they being lazy or do they really mean it?” [Laughs] A lot of the albums have really benefited from their input, so I thought well hey we’re doing this remotely, but we can still do a Zoom call and kick around ideas if we want to move some things around or cut and paste things or if there’s a section that isn’t sparkling, we can cut it. But yeah, that’s what they said, so that’s what we did.
Bryan: Whatever works, right?
Neal: Yeah absolutely.
Bryan: Well is there anything we haven’t covered about the album? Anything you want people to know?
Neal: There’s a version where I played drums on the album.
Bryan: Oh wow. Is there one of the songs that’s on the final version of the album where you play drums?
Neal: Yeah I kept the drums that I did on “Building a Wall.” Mainly because I liked how – I play very simply, generally, because that’s all I can do. So I like the super simple approach that I was doing. I actually called Mike afterwards and told him I wasn’t really entirely digging that, and I asked him if he wanted to redo it. He said, “nah just use yours.” Which was fine with me. That worked out good, but I wanted to see, to give him an opportunity. But I think he was moved on to other things. Didn’t really want to go back to that. So yeah, I don’t like to program drums anymore, and I have a drum kit that’s all lined up in my studio. It took me like three days because I’m not very good as a drummer. That was interesting, but I found like I was feeling like maybe I was spending too much time. You want to use your time wisely, but anyways so be it. That’s how it was.
What else do I want you to know? There was a whole other – where “Never Change” and “Seemingly Sincere” are – originally there was two different songs in there. I wound up cutting them because I remember feeling like it needed to get moodier. That’s when I went into “Never Change” and “Seemingly Sincere” because sometimes the album, yeah I was looking for space. The beginning of “Never Change” has all that space. It just goes down to the one guitar, so that was part of it. And then I put all that space in before “Seemingly Sincere” too. There was a bunch of space there that winds up having all the noises and the arpeggiated synth sort of fades in. It all sounds very natural now, but at the time that’s what I was looking for. I was looking for mood and space.
Bryan: The result is quite stunning. It’s a great album, and I know once it’s released people are going to love it.
Neal: Well thank you so much man. Well it’s on Waterfall, and it’ll be out September 11 everywhere else, so there you go.
Bryan: Thanks so much for your time. I know you’re busy, so I’ll let you carry on with your day, but I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
Neal: You too man. Thanks for the interview.
Bryan: Have a good one.
Neal: You too. God bless you.
Big thanks to Roie Avin for setting up the interview. Sola Gratia is out now on Morse’s streaming app, Waterfall, and it’s out everywhere else on September 11.
Album link: https://nealmorse.lnk.to/SolaGratiaID