Five Questions With… Neil Little

On the surface, Neil Little is an acoustic singer/songwriter. But that simple description does not come close to capturing the sparse, haunting beauty of his eponymous debut seven-song release, out Sept. 27. A more accurate phrase may be “ambient folk,” or perhaps “Zen Americana,” anything that better illustrates the transcendent qualities of his overall sound.
 
For Little, based in Stratford, Ontario, this first collection marks a turning point in his creative journey. It’s his first completely solo recording after working with his band the Chrome Hearts for several years, a move that has allowed him to venture deeper into his creative process than ever before.
 
For the recording, Little found a kindred spirit in producer Scott Merritt (Fred Eaglesmith, Stephen Fearing, LCON) who has been pushing the boundaries of folk music since the 1980s from his Guelph, Ontario studio The Cottage. With Untended serving almost as a focal point around which the other songs revolve, other highlights include North, a farewell to summer written after the last canoe trip of the season in Algonquin Park, Downstream, a reflection on his great-grandfather Ralph Knights, a painting of whom adorns the record cover, and Million5, inspired by an encounter with a street person outside Toronto’s Massey Hall while attending a 2016 Rheostatics concert.

Neil Little performs solo on Sept. 27 in London, Ontario, at Brown and Dickson Bookstore, and with his band on Oct. 18 in Waterloo, Ontario at 21Fir, as well as on Oct. 19 in Toronto at Relish Bar and Grill. For more info, go to neil-little.com.

 

What was the process like making this record?

It was fairly straightforward. I walked into Scott Merritt’s studio in Guelph, The Cottage, and I sat down with my acoustic guitar in front of two microphones. Scott is great to work with, an amazing musician and engineer. He has this great skill at making you hear things without having to explain them, and you suddenly realize, “Oh yeah, I get it now.” The idea behind the record was to get an up-close and intimate sound. The only overdubs are random guitar bits and some vocal harmony that Scott mixed with some cool delay. Every time I listen to the record, I hear a bit more of the effects he used. Scott also played reed organ on the last tune, which is one of my favourite parts on the album. 

How would you describe your musical evolution?

I started writing songs at a young age, and by early high school I had a set of tunes that reflected a lot of what I was listening to at the time: The Jam, The Police and The Who. I got into alt-country when I was attending Sheridan College when I started blending those two approaches with my first band. These days, I guess my writing is more alt-folk, but still with lots of neat guitar work. When I play with the Chrome Hearts it can get fairly loud and heavy at times, and I like that a lot of the songs can be played either way.

What are your fondest musical memories as you were growing up?

It would be the cassette tapes my parents would play on road trips. Among my faves were Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits, along with John Denver and yes, even Roger Whitaker. Eventually, Doug and the Slugs and a bit of Springsteen were added to the mix. I also remember once renting a Saturday Night Live VHS compilation for the weekend that had The Blues Brothers on it. I must have watched them do Soul Man 20 times before we had to return the tape Monday morning.

What do you recall about the first time you performed in public?

My first gig outside of high school was at a place called Phil’s in Waterloo—which still exists—when my band opened for The Gruesomes in 1989. We were all underage, but after some discussion they decided to let us play. I recall there was a decent crowd there and we had a lot of fun. I was quite nervous, but we played well. My grandmother came to the gig too and sat near the front!

What’s your best touring story?

I haven’t done an actual tour, but there was a music festival in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that we played two years in a row. The second time we had a few other shows booked, including one at a record store called Rock Station. The owner would answer the phone in his best DJ voice—“Rock Station!” That same day we played a gig with a guy named Johnny J Blair who also played with Davy Jones of the Monkees. He was fun to hang out with, and we ended up giving him a ride home from the gig.

Facebook: @ Neillittle1971

Leave a comment