At the beginning of 2020, country singer Tracy McNeil had decided to finally stop dividing her life, giving up her day job as an educator and packing up her belongings to dedicate her life to touring her music. That new chapter began with the February 2020 release of her fifth album You Be The Lightning via celebrated label Cooking Vinyl Australia; it features her Americana-style approach to country, influenced by both her Canadian roots and adopted hometown of Melbourne. While the universe had other plans, necessitating a temporary return to teaching, You Be The Lightning has been critically acclaimed, securing high rotation across mainstream stations ABC Radio & Double J, and community radio airplay across Australia.
Tracy and her five-piece band The GoodLife finished off 2020 by achieving an ARIA Award nomination for Best Blues and Roots Album, an Australian Music Prize nomination, and an award for Best Country Album at the Music Victoria Awards. From April to July this year, McNeil and her band will tour around Australia. It’s not the rollicking, barnstorming tour she may have envisioned when writing You Be The Lightning, but it’s live and loud and that’s redemptive in itself.
“You Be The Lightning is a rejuvenation, a rebirth, sparked by a human place, wanting to feel alive and connected the world,” says McNeil. “It’s about really wanting to feel something. It’s not biographical, but it’s inspired by what I was seeing around me in terms of people sleepwalking through life and not recognising their full potential.”
McNeil studied dance in Canada after finishing high school and began doing open mic nights a few years later. This was the beginning of her solo music career; she assembled a band in 2006 for her first album, Room Where She Lives, and at the same time was offered a position in post-graduate studies in Australia. McNeil opted to research the music scene in Melbourne, which conveniently enabled her to network and befriend local musicians including Jordie Lane, Liz Stringer, Steve Hesketh from The Drones, Melbourne singer-songwriter Suzannah Espie, and The Idle Hoes, some of whom went on to appear on McNeil’s records. McNeil organised a few gigs around town, ultimately juggling both study and full-time employment with her fledgling Melbourne music career.
“I moved here in 2007 to do my teaching post-graduate diploma in education,” recalls McNeil. “I was going to go back to Canada ten months later as a performance and dance teacher. However, I ended up teaching in a high school here. In fact, I’m doing some teaching in Brisbane at the moment. It’s a double-life: music and a solid day job as a teacher! I did quit in 2020, which was because I intended on music being full-time, so I was purely writing music and planning the tour and now I’m doing some short-term teaching work until the tour starts.”
In February last year, just prior to Melbourne’s first lockdown, McNeil lead Dan Parsons (guitar), Bree Hartley (drums), Brendan McMahon (keyboards) and Craig Kelly (bass) into a compelling live set at the Stag and Hunter Hotel in New South Wales’ Newtown. That night, she performed “Drunken Angel,” the track labelmate Lucinda Williams made into a classic on her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. McNeil likes to do justice to each song, much as Williams has done her entire career. There is no strict genre that McNeil feels beholden to, apparent in the variety on You Be The Lightning. “There was a Neil Young Harvest-esque vibe on one track, whereas on another we layered up the drums and tracks in a very pop style,” McNeil says.
Recorded live to tape – a mix of analog and digital – at The Aviary Recording Studios over three weekends, You Be The Lightning took over a year to complete. This was due to McNeil’s teaching obligations, but it was also the meticulous layering of overdubs, vocals, guitar, and final touches co-produced with Parsons at the helm. It’s been a time of endings and awakenings for McNeil, whose marriage to a fellow musician (that she prefers not to discuss) ended during the making of the record but created the space in which Parsons and McNeil could fall in love with each other.
“The whole experience was tumultuous,” she admits. “It was a very personal time for me, the making of that record. I recall the tape machine broke during ‘Stars’ and we had to go back and start again. I’ve never had a more emotional rollercoaster ride making a record. It was a vulnerable record in terms of themes and working with Dan to produce it. The whole process of falling out of love and into love made it a crazy time to make this album.”
The songs are largely fictitious, a change in approach after the rawness of grief and healing captured on 2016 album Thieves, which was emotionally and energetically sculpted by the death of her father, Canadian singer-songwriter Wayne McNeil. You Be The Lightning was less of a catharsis and more of a record of her emotional landscape over the four years it took to write, rehearse and finally record the songs she’d labored over.
Parsons has proven the ideal collaborator and partner in every sense. “Dan and I have similar musical taste and we think very much on the same page when it comes to music,” McNeil explains. “Dan is far better than me on articulating how to execute ideas in a way that we can accomplish it in studio. Dan’s the musical director of the band, I would say. I trust him completely, and he trusts me completely.”
The irony, McNeil explains, is that when two artists pursue their dreams, it can have dire consequences for the relationship in the long run. “Being on the road together is romantic on so many levels, but it’s not my first rodeo with being with another artist… it’s hard,” she says. “You’re both chasing an end goal that, if everything goes to plan, would move you away from each other.”
The couple have been writing together, and often played shows as a duo prior to the pandemic, scouting audiences and venues for GoodLife gigs. The forthcoming Australian shows will be a welcome treat to fans who’ve waited to see You Be The Lightning live – not to mention a relief for McNeil, her partner, and her band. “We’re chasing the same target and our dreams merge,” she says. “We really look forward to focusing our energy in one direction for a little while.”
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