When he was a teen growing up in Buffalo, Gilbert Neal stayed out of trouble by joining bands and playing music on the weekends, pretending they were the Beatles, Rush, or King Crimson. Neal’s father passed away when he was six-years-old, so it was just he and his mother for much of his youth.
Their means were little, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when his mother answered an ad for him to work as a musician for a downtown dinner theater, expanding his range of musical taste to now include popular works of musical theater.
“I would digest copious amounts, because every season I would have to learn a new show,” Neal said. “So, there were four or five, like “Hello Dolly” and “Oklahoma.” Not things I would choose to listen to, but you couldn’t help but have those things rub off on you if you’re open minded.”
In 1999, Neal would leave the northeast, convincing his wife that Chapel Hill would provide a much better music scene. He immediately formed a band. What he may have lacked in self-assuredness and raw talent, he made up for in ambition. He soon grew frustrated with his bandmates, who saw being in a band as more of a hobby.
He found himself at a sort of crossroads, both asking why he was wasting his time if he was never going to be famous, and wondering what he was going to do with all of the music he had stored inside his mind.
“Why don’t I just take the music I have, do the best I can, and see what happens,” he said. “So, that’s when I recorded my first album.”
That was in 2006. Neal has since released five others. His seventh album, called “I’ll See You When I See You,” was released May 20, and Neal describes as “about Russia and how we often struggle for validation in our homes, so we go to talk to people from far away lands.”
Neal said his musical style is greatly influenced by the structure of musicals — starting big, moderating, then a ballad. His albums tend to inform his upbringing, similar to musicals. They’re not scripted or linear stories, but they follow the form.
Neal’s talent is evident, but his ambition is what comes through most clearly. His songs are polished and expertly produced. There’s no falling back on familiar territory because it’s easy. Each of his songs says to the listener that he or she needs to go ahead and stretch their legs, because this is a new journey.
Many of his songs have videos, also created at a level that would surprise most. The video for “Vapor Girl,” from his new release, Neal sits, staring off in solitude, oblivious to the Russian woman speaking on the TV just inches away from him. The lighting, setting, and movement are spot-on companions for the song.
The attention to every detail of the music and its presentation is a surprising contrast to his struggles with why he makes music at all.
“If I could, if I could snip that thing that makes music in my head, I would do it tomorrow,” Neal said. “Because it’s not a passion. It’s a sickness. It’s an ailment. I’ll never get rid of this. I spend so much of the money that I don’t have on these things. Like a living diary. Maybe the thing that motivates me more than anything else is the fact that I don’t know anything about my father, but my kids are gonna know about me.”
So why release albums? Why not just fill laptop after laptop with home recordings? For all his seemingly pessimistic views about his chances for broad success, Neal genuinely values and finds satisfaction and happiness when his music appeals to someone else. If, by hurling his work to a world of listeners, one of his songs lands with someone, he can swallow that medicine for all that ails him. And that can’t happen if his music ends up only on his laptop.
Gilbert Neal’s music is produced through Wampus Multimedia. To learn more about Neal, go to www.wampus.com/gilbert-neal/. His music can be heard on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon. His videos can be viewed on YouTube.