Though many singer-songwriters tend to draw inspiration from their own life experiences, few I’ve come across are quite as thoughtful, candid and personal as Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (born Andrew Neil Maternick). Considered an outsider music artist in a similar vein to the late Daniel Johnston, Andrew writes from his heart and soul. The 34-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his faith, strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled him to flourish as an artist.
I’ve featured Andrew twice on this blog, first in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak, then again in June 2021 when I reviewed his fourth album Sunny Side (you can read those reviews by clicking on the Related links at the end of this post). I wrote extensively about his life experiences in those reviews, but will touch on a few significant points to provide a bit of context.
After growing up as a fairly typical kid and high school athlete, he suffered a life-altering event in 2009 when he sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. The injury resulted in two significant changes for Andrew: 1) he began having a series of psychotic episodes, and 2) he started writing songs, despite the fact he’d never had any prior music training of any kind. During a psychotic episode in 2013, he stabbed his younger brother in the arm, which landed him in jail for seven months until his family and attorney convinced the prosecutor that he needed help, rather than being incarcerated.
He was subsequently released and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray later uploaded to a computer. Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville. (He now lives independently.)
Upon his release, he produced his first album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 melancholy yet optimistic songs he hoped might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. He followed up a year later with his second album Merry Go Round, then quickly went back to work in early 2019 to record his third album Freak. Sadly, as he was wrapping up the recording he was hit with yet another health crises when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected. The album, an ambitious work featuring 14 tracks addressing topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity, was released that October to widespread acclaim.
His cancer thankfully in remission, Andrew began recording songs during the Covid lockdown, this time with only his own quirky, endearing vocals and vintage nylon string Ovation acoustic guitar, accompanied on some tracks by subtle keyboard overdubs. The songs came together as his fourth album Sunny Side, featuring 10 optimistic tracks with a mellower, more lo-fi folk sound. Ever the creative, hard-working artist, Andrew’s now returns with his fifth album Alien, which dropped September 15th. Similar to Sunny Side, the songs on Alien were performed with just Andrew’s vocals and acoustic guitar, giving them a lo-fi folk sensibility. But the subject matter is a bit darker, touching on such issues as mental health, loneliness, suicide, alcoholism and relationships.
In order to get a bit more insight into his inspiration for writing Alien, I asked Andrew a few questions, to which he graciously responded.
EML: Thank you, Andrew, for agreeing to speak with me about your latest album Alien. You’ve experienced more than your fair share of trauma and difficult challenges in your life, and also suffer from depression, which you’ve spoken about pretty openly on social media. Like many songwriters, you draw from your own experiences when writing your lyrics, and as was the case with your previous albums, the songs on Alien address such topics as mental health and emotional well-being, addiction, suicide, loneliness and faith. Does writing and recording songs help bring you a little peace of mind?
Andrew: Yes, writing songs does bring me a little peace of mind. Some songs help me process my grief and sorrow. When I write it is like the hand of my heart reaching out to the world for help, love and understanding; almost always the world reaches back and that feels good. I also hope that my music will help others to deal with their own issues, depression, loneliness. If you think about it, it’s almost like a continuous circle of emotions. You write to help yourself, which directly or indirectly helps others and they in turn help you back with positive feedback. They view my song within their own life experiences and relate in their own way. We all learn from this exchange of melody and lyrics and emotions. Knowing this gives me peace of mind.
EML: The title track “Alien” reminds me a bit of “Freak” in that it seems to speak to embracing one’s identity, warts and all, rather than being ashamed of it. Is that the point you’re trying to make on this song?
Andrew: The point of “Alien” is the truth behind my belief in a universal family. We may come from other places, have different religions, have different governments, eat different food, but at the end of the day I firmly believe we all have hearts with similar desires. These hearts feel and desire love and it’s this desire that illustrates we truly are a family. So, when we see someone different, someone who fits the mold of an alien we should reach out to them with love and understanding.
EML: Two songs in particular, “I Need a Reason” and “Don’t Tell the Doctor”, are pretty heavy and dark, dealing with thoughts of suicide. Your dad told me that “Don’t Tell the Doctor” was inspired by a comment a woman whispered to you during a group therapy session – “Don’t tell the Doctor, but I’m in love with suicide”. What prompted you to write about that experience?
Andrew: I have spent a fair share of time in mental hospitals and have met many interesting characters. During one of my first stays at Virginia Baptist Memorial Hospital I met a young lady named Holly. It is true that we had a group session in which we were supposed to talk about what we love. Her answer was “Suicide”. I, like many in the group, could relate and it’s a moment of genuineness I will never forget. I wonder where Holly is these days, and she will always have a place in my heart.
EML: Not being a songwriter nor musician, I’m always impressed by people who can write compelling lyrics and compose interesting or catchy melodies. Do you generally write your lyrics first, then set them to music, or do you first come up with a melody or guitar riff, then write words to fit?
Andrew: When writing songs, I usually start with strumming some chords on the guitar. Then I hum a tune that fits and then I transform that tune into words. Sometimes I feel as though my fingers are guided on the fretboard. I don’t really know any standard chords or notes or even musical keys, but my fingers seem to find the right sound and melody. I really think melody is important. Melody is something I think is missing from many songs written today. There are lots of “beats” but not really much melody in many contemporary songs.
Once I have a melody, I try to determine what the melody is telling me or saying. The words/lyrics are by far the hardest part of the process. The lyrics are really my notes in a weird way. I write the lyrics so that the melody wraps around them. Sometimes I’ve come up with lyrics when the guitar is not in my hands. I might have a dream or a special feeling and the lyrics just pop into my head. “Mongolia” was a good example of this. In that case the lyrics helped to dictate the melody. I tend to write 2 to 3 songs a month.
EML: From what I can tell, the only sounds we hear on these songs are your voice and acoustic guitar, is that correct?
Andrew: Yes, it was certainly stripped down. Just me and my nylon string ovation guitar. I do not recall any keyboard dubs on the Alien album tracks. We decided to keep it simple and maintain a lo-fi sound. We also wanted to help the subtleties of my guitar playing, which is different than many guitarists, stand out. Over the years, I have come up with my own style of playing and make up my own chord shapes. It’s a very percussive style. My dad says it reminds him of Richie Havens in some ways. I am not really encumbered by the rules, scales, etc. of the instrument. I really think this gives me a certain amount of freedom in writing songs that many songwriters don’t have. They tend to stick to the conformity of the instrument.
EML: Who are some living artists or musicians whose work inspires you, or that you would like to collaborate with if possible?
Andrew: My inspirations are many. The living artists who come to mind are Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Richard Thompson, Sanjay Mishra, and Lady Gaga to name a few. I’ve also been listening a lot to Country artists John Anderson and Raelyn Nelson. It would be cool to collab with them, but I realize that is pie in the sky kind of stuff. More realistically, as far as collaboration, I would love to work with and perhaps co-write songs with some rising artists in different genres. One genre in particular I am developing an interest in is Alt-Country, which is a mix of Country, Garage Rock, Blues and Alternative. One up and coming Alt-country artist I would love to co-write a song with is Raelyn Nelson. As you know I was scheduled to open for her Band on 19 August of this year in Hershey PA, but it was cancelled due to an illness in her band. It will be rescheduled hopefully in November. After her manager notified me that they wanted me to open for them, I started listening to the Raelyn Nelson Band music. That listening experience inspired me to write a few Alt-County songs for the show. I would love to release an alt-country album after Alien. This would definitely be a different direction, but I think it’s also a way to reach more people with my music.
Prior to the inspiration by the Raelyn Nelson Band, I had begun to dabble in writing more country-like songs. For instance, I think the songs “Gambin Man” and “Kinda Turns me On”, on my Sunny Side Album have an alt-country feel to them. I think I am going to travel in that direction for the time being. Also, I am on this list on Ranker (Best Outsider Music Artist list). Many of the artists that are listed have passed on now. I really wish I could have worked with Daniel Johnston. But there are a few younger living artists on the list like John Revitte who is an exceptional lyricist, that I would love to collab with. R. Stevie Moore, and Iggy Pop are also on the list, but are really up there in age and I’m not sure if they are still active in music.
EML: Anything else you’d like to say about Alien or yourself that I’ve neglected to ask?
Andrew: No storm lasts forever. Life is good and people are beautiful. I appreciate you taking the time to review my music and get my story out there into this world. Music makes a difference in this jello world. Thanks again and peace out.
Now, let’s get to the album, which opens with the title track “Alien“. As Andrew stated, the song speaks of reaching out to people who are different from us with love and understanding, as we’d hope they’d do for us: “Far from ordinary, makes life kind of scary. I’d have it no other way. We come in peace. Don’t shoot please. It’s alright alien.” On the melancholy “I Need a Reason“, he questions the value of his very existence: “Like a bug stuck in a spider’s web, the more I struggle, the more I’m dead. I am blue, and blue I remain. Will I get conquered by my pain? I need a reason baby, a reason to be here. I need a reason baby, to make it through the year. I need a reason baby, before I disappear.“
While “Mongolia” comes across as a pleasing folk tune, its lyrics are packed with meaning and emotional conflict. It starts off with Andrew listing a few of his psychoses: “I know angels on a first-name basis. And I can’t stare at the walls too long, or else I’ll see faces.” He then describes his wanting to escape to an exotic place in hopes of overcoming some of his shortcomings: “I want to go to Mongolia, Perhaps there I’ll get holier. Holier than the Judas that I am. Holier like Mary’s little lamb.” Continuing on, he acknowledges that he’s too old to be treated like a child, yet still needs emotional support and comfort from his mother: “Mommy please don’t spank me. I’m way, way too old. And I need a blankie, cause this world is so cold. So I wanna go to Mongolia.” Here’s a wonderful live performance of Andrew singing the song in 2021.
As described earlier, “Don’t Tell the Doctor” was inspired from an experience Andrew had in one of his group therapy sessions back in 2009, in which the discussion leader asked them to talk about what they loved. A woman in the group leaned over to Andrew and whispered “Don’t tell the doctor, but I’m in love with suicide“. The song has a languid, rather somber melody, with some really fine guitar noodling. Andrew’s melancholy vocals sing of feelings of hopelessness: “Sometimes I feel like there’s only one way out. That’s when you’ll find me hanging from a cloud. And sometimes I feel like there’s nowhere left to run. I keep my promises, I won’t use a gun.” That line, combined with the almost grungy feel of Andrew’s acoustic guitar, makes me think of Nirvana.
“Fingers Crossed” seems to touch on people’s superficiality and phoniness, and making empty promises but not following through: “Ring, ring, ring, I ignore the call. So leave a message and I’ll call you back. Fingers crossed, yeah we all know that.” On “My Best Friend is Not Whiskey“, Andrew speaks to how alcohol does not solve our problems or make us feel better: “Where’s my fairy tale ending? What the fuck happened to me? Every day I keep pretending that I’m not in misery. Every day I keep pretending my best friend is not whiskey. It’s a thirsty world.” And on the allegorical “The Beat Goes On“, he describes a series of dreams in which he meets an Aztec priestess, has Jesus in a high school class, and is a Samurai warrior addicted to death and glory who ultimately commits hara kiri.
“Remember to Forget” is a sweet song about being supportive and loving to a friend in need: “When you’re cold, I’ll be your sweater. When you’re sad, I’ll make you smile. We’re all in this together, mile after mile. When you need a hug, I’ll be your teddy. Yes, I’ll be your happy thought. Remember, remember to forget, the vampire that bit. Remember, remember to forget all of the bullshit.” And of course, it’s always wonderful getting that support in return: “When it rains, you’re my umbrella. When I cry, you dry my tears. We’re all in this together. You put meaning in my years.“
The album closes with the charming “Black Sheep“, which speaks to how just because someone may be quirky and different, they still have qualities worth loving: “One day, we all kick the can. So girl, won’t you hold my hand. I promise that I am no creep. Yeah, I’m just a black sheep.” Andrew’s percussive style of guitar playing is strongly evident in his heavily-strummed acoustic notes. It’s an upbeat ending that keeps the album from being too overwhelmingly bleak. All in all, Alien is a marvelous little album, and Andrew’s stripped-down acoustic treatment really allows his endearing, heartfelt vocals and relatable poetic lyrics to shine.