Musician Jessi McNeal was raised in rural Washington where her upbringing shaped her craft in songwriting and performing. She began by singing hymns and old country tunes she grew up listening to in her family. Because of this, Americana, bluegrass, and folk music make their way into her songs. McNeal recently released her album The Driveway, on August 16, which was produced by Ryan McAllister at Five Acres Studio in British Columbia, Canada.
In a press release, McNeal shares that her new album is about the middle ground and that “I sometimes hear people refer to it as the ‘messy middle,’” she says. “But lately, I’ve been thinking of it as the ‘sacred middle.’” We had the pleasure of catching up with Jessi to hear all her thoughts about her new album, her childhood memories with music, playing and performing on guitar, her own guitar gear, and fun music favorites.
What is your familial history with music, particularly the genre you write and perform in?
I was raised in a very musical family – my dad played in a country band when I was growing up, and my mom played piano in church. My dad actually let me sing in the band a few times as a little girl! I was not a fan of my parents’ music as a teen, but I’m grateful that I eventually came full circle and landed back in the genre that I was raised on. It’s been especially fun because my dad, Warren Lubben, plays lead guitar and pedal steel in my band, and he played some lead on the album as well. He has a dreamy vintage 1970s Telecaster Deluxe that he’s been playing since I was a kid, and I absolutely love that we get to do this together!
You blend a variety of Americana, bluegrass, and folk into your music and lyrics, telling stories of hope and struggles. How have life’s ups and downs shaped you into the storyteller and musician you are today?
I definitely process life with a guitar in hand, and songwriting always feels like the best way to work through whatever is happening in my life. I’m always looking for meaning and purpose when I experience hard times, not necessarily when I’m in the thick of it, but when I’m starting to make way through. To me, there’s just something so healing about creating a bit of beauty from a difficult experience. I write some of my more personal songs as a sort of therapy, so it’s especially meaningful when I hear how a vulnerable song helps someone else feel less alone in their own similar experiences. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of being a songwriter.
You mostly crafted your latest album, The Driveway, on guitar. What was your first introduction to the guitar, and what made you fall in love with playing it?
My dad always had a guitar in his hands when I was growing up. I wish I had picked it up when I was younger, but I didn’t start to learn until I was in college, and even then, I wasn’t serious about it. I’ve loved writing melodies and lyrics since my early twenties, but I didn’t really start progressing as a player until about seven or eight years ago. And there was never even a consideration to choose another instrument. I’m not highly trained, but I love that I’ve been able to easily experiment with chord shapes and progressions even without knowing exactly what I’m doing. And honestly, I think the fact that I don’t have a lot of music theory knowledge has allowed me to be a little more free with progressions and time signatures – I’m not at all hung up on whether or not something is “right.”
I love the meaning to you behind “The Driveway,” in which you share that the album’s title track is your take on the prodigal son. Can you elaborate on that for us?
Absolutely. I wrote that song when I was facing some challenges in a relationship. There was a sea of emotions, but ultimately, I longed for healing and reconciliation, and I wanted the posture of my heart to lean toward that kind of hope. I was at an event and heard author Annie Downs talk about how her grandmother used to come out to meet her on the driveway whenever she would arrive. I went home and started the song the next day. It portrayed exactly what I was feeling, and it was so simple. When I hear your car pull in, you better believe I’m going to drop what I’m doing and come running out to meet you on the driveway. Who doesn’t long for that kind of reception? Just like the father in the Prodigal son story comes running to meet his son, I want to come running to meet those I love even when there’s been hardship in the relationship. As I’ve sat with the song, I’ve also seen myself as the one who needs to fall into the arms of forgiveness. Relationships can be so hard, and I really hope that listeners will connect with the song, whether they are in a season where they are the father or the son in this story.
What kind of guitars do you play, and which one is your most favorite to play and perform on?
I almost exclusively play a Breedlove concert body. They are an Oregon-based company, as an artist from the Pacific Northwest I love that I’m playing an instrument from my little corner of the world. I would be hard-pressed to switch! I did play a Taylor T5z for a few months when I had a neck and shoulder injury – the slimmer profile created less physical strain. But now that I’m fully healed, I rarely play it. I just really prefer a true acoustic!
Is there a guitar you prefer to play live and one you like to record with in the studio?
I played my Breedlove on the album and play it live as well. I’m kind of a one-guitar-girl. (smiles)
What pedals, mics, amps, and picks do you use?
I use .53 Snarling Dog Brain Picks – the green ones! I don’t like a pick that’s too thick, and I love the grip on those. I haven’t ventured into the world of pedals and always play direct, but I’m hoping to expand my horizons in the coming year as I play this album live!
Which female guitarist would you love to collaborate/perform with?
Great question! Shawn Colvin was my earliest and biggest inspiration as far as female players go, so I’d have to pick her. Second choice goes to Aoife O’Donovan – I absolutely love her style!
Who was your first concert, and which one has been your favorite so far?
My first concert was Ricky Skaggs! I think I was only about 10 and I’m so glad my parents had the wisdom to take me along! Still love him to this day. But my hands-down favorite concert was Prince – I was lucky enough to see him in concert three times, and his shows were just in another stratosphere. I know that’s probably a little strange coming from a folk-Americana artist, but I became a huge fan as a kid in the ’80s and never looked back. He’s had a huge influence on me – still can’t believe he’s gone. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.
What was your first album on cassette, CD and/or vinyl?
Well, I’m dating myself a bit, but my first album was on vinyl and was Michael Jackson’s Thriller!
Which five albums and/or artists would you not want to live without?
Prince – all of his albums, but Sign O’ The Times in particular
Aoife O’Donovan – In the Magic Hour
Jeffrey Foucault – ANY of his albums! He’s my hands down favorite male singer-songwriter
Emmylou Harris – one of my favorites is her project with Mark Knopfler All the Road Running
Do you have a guilty music and/or entertainment pleasure?
Does it get any guiltier than Prince?! (smiles)