Interview | ‘Detroit Diva’ Eliza Neals
Eliza Neals is currently on an 7 date tour of the UK which takes her to England, Scotland and – Wales – she’s going to be playing 10 Feet Tall in Cardiff tomorrow night (Thursday 12th April)
Her latest album Breaking and Entering (EH Records) won the award for Outstanding Blues Recording at the Detroit Music Awards earlier this month.
She talked to Jeremy on Soul of The Blues
JR: First off, congratulations on the award!
EN: Thank you. That was such an honour, it was the second time I’d won ‘Best Blues Recording’ at the Detroit Music Awards – there was some stiff competition this year so we were thrilled!
JR: The album continues to do really well, and I know you write most of your own material, so lets start with songwriting – your mentor is the Motown legend Barrett Strong…
EN: Yes. Barrett Strong – my gosh. So what happened was, I met Barrett about 12 years ago – I was working in a health food store and he walked in. I was singing in the back of the store and he heard me. He said “Here’s my card – I’m a producer & songwriter – come over and play some tunes for me sometime” ..and I said ‘Oh really who are you?’ and he said Barrett Strong. I wasn’t sure – I said ‘OK who’s the last person you worked with?’ He said, um, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, The Temptations… and I said Really.. Sure.
Anyway, I went home to check and it was true, and I said ‘I can’t believe it’. It was so random.
So I went over with my sister and we played a few songs, and he said yes – we can record these. It was shocking. Then we became friends and now I’ve written at least 60 to 100 songs with Mr. Strong and did his last album with him. He’s been such a big force behind me, just learning the hard-core truths of Soul and Motown and Blues, and all that stuff. Mixing that with what I did on my own and with the Opera training I got from Wayne State (University), and this is what we got. We put it all together and here I am!
JR: Barrett Strong- the first artist to record a hit for Motown – who along with Norman Whitfield wrote or co-wrote some of the biggest hits in soul music history – I Heard It Through The Grapevine, War, Papa Was A Rolling Stone – and there you were working in a health food store and the next thing you know you are in the studio with him. That must have been awesome!
EN: It was unbelievable. I was very nervous I have to tell you. I was going to music school and thinking ‘is this true’? Then I went in to his studio, gold records all over the wall, beautiful grand piano, and I thought ‘Oh My…’ – he said ‘play me some songs’…my hands were shaking. I couldn’t believe it, but he loved the songs and we recorded them. Right there in the suburbs of Detroit. No one could believe it. It was crazy!
JR: You mentioned Opera. You trained as an Opera Singer?
EN: Yes I went to Wayne State University in Detroit. My Dad said ‘you have to get a degree’. I knew how to do music already because I grew up singing with my sisters – we played piano and harmonized together. So I decided to try out for the Music Program at Wayne State and I actually passed. They said I could study Opera because I passed the jury singing an Aria – so I said ‘why not!’ – all music is good to me. I decided to do the program and I was doing really well, but I was singing five nights a week so my voice would get a little raspy from singing Rock n Roll and Blues and my teacher said you have to choose – you can’t sing Opera with a raspy voice. I continued the program and finished it but I decided to go into my own music, but I took the training I learned and applied it to what I do with my music. The techniques help me a lot – like the breathing
JR: I was going to ask you about that – as we hear on the album, ‘raspy’ is an understatement – you’ve got a blistering voice – when you are performing on the road it must put some strain on it, but the Opera training has given you some tips in maintaining your vocal chords?
EN: Yes it very much has. In the morning when I get up I do my little exercises. Any singer should know these things. Of course I work out, but you do have to be mindful because of course I do sing a little rough, and you do have to be careful. When to do it, when not to do it. Like Adele, She had some issues with her voice and so she studied and now she’s doing better.
JR: Now, you’re on tour in the UK. Is it your first time touring over here?
EN: Yes it is, though I was here with my choir when I was in music school. I was in the Elite Choral Union and we toured Europe. It was a choir competition – we went to beautiful Churches and Cathedrals – we actually came in first place. It was a month-long tour when I finished Wayne State University It was really great singing in all those places, we played in Leeds, and Glastonbury. It was great – people were actually wanting to get our autographs. I did solos in the choir – spirituals. That was beautiful. But this is a whole different story playing my own music with my own band.
JR: Tell us about the band – who have you got with you?
EN: I have Howard Glazer -‘blazin’glazin’ – Hall of Fame guitar player, he’s fantastic. I met him last year – I’d never connected with him before in Detriot because he was always working with someone else. I thought maybe he didn’t like me and he thought the same. It was crazy. I’d been trying different guitar players to get the chemistry right, and finally I thought let’s go find Howard Glazer! He was playing in this Blues place called Burt’s Warehouse – it was a hot, hot day, it must have been 105F and I found Howard playing outside. I said ‘Hey Howard, do you want to write some songs with me?” and we just jammed. Ever since that moment we hit it off. We wrote one song that became ‘Detroit Drive’ , and then the next one after that I said “Hey Howard, give me the most grungy track you’ve got” – and that was ‘Breaking and Entering’. I wrote the words and the melody and he gave me that blistering groove. Then I started writing a lot of the other ones – ‘You’ and ‘Pretty Gritty’, ‘Southern Comfort’, ‘Windshield Wipers’ – they all came from the piano. For the ones I did with Howard, basically we’d sit together and he’d come up with the basic groove and I’d start singing the melody. And ever since then we’ve been working together. So he’s kinda like the Head Narcotic.
JR: Just to explain, your band are called The Narcotics
EN: Yes – Eliza Neals and The Narcotics – because we get you high! ..or one not and you’re hooked,
JR: The album Breaking and Entering has had some stunning reviews, and has obviously just won a major award – that came out out what, 15 months ago now – I know you’ve been touring a lot since, is there a new one in the pipeline?
EN: Actually yes. We should have our new summer single ready in July, we’ve been working on it and it’s sounding pretty cool. The new album will be out in 2017 – I don’t want to rush it, I want to make sure it’s right. I’ve been writing a lot on the piano – I have a baby grand – songs have been coming to me, and I have at least 12 songs already done. It’s just a matter of going in and putting them down the way I hear them. Like that song ‘You’ on ‘Breaking and Entering’ that started out on the piano and turned into the real rocker it is. So, the songs come into my head and I go out to find musicians who can play the part I hear. Howard is involved, and we’re going to go down to Nashville and do some stuff with Kenny Olson again – and some other people. I don’t want to give away all the surprises, but your gonna say WOW! I’m going to do a couple of tunes just on the piano too with this one.
JR: Excellent So just to remind people of the Cardiff gig – 12th May at 10 Feet Tall, and good luck with the rest of the tour ….