Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (full name Andrew Neil Maternick) is one of the more unique artists I’ve had the pleasure of featuring on this blog. I first wrote about him in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak (which you can read here). Andrew is considered an “outsider” music artist similar to the late Daniel Johnston, and in fact, ranks as the #1 Best Outsider Artist on Ranker, just above Johnston (click this link to see the full list). The now 33-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.
I wrote extensively about his experiences in my previous review, but will summarize here to provide a bit of context. After growing up as a fairly typical kid and high school athlete, Andrew suffered a life-altering event in Spring 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 Andrew 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 top of the 250+ songs he’d written since his 2009 accident. Andrew writes his honest, deeply personal songs entirely by ear, first creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar, then recorded songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would later upload 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. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them.
In 2018, Andrew recorded his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. He entered the studio again in 2019 to record what would become his third album Freak, and as he was wrapping up the recording 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 now 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, which is being released digitally on June 15th via Tree Heart Records. The album will become available on CD on June 30th, along with a limited press vinyl version scheduled for release in October. The songs have a mellower and more lo-fi folk sound than the ones on Freak. About Sunny Side, Andrew states “I believe the album will appeal to people who really dig the lo-fi, outsider vibe. I hope my music will be recognized as something genuine; something that people can relate to and let them know they are not alone in this jello world.” The imaginative artwork for the album cover was created by Boston artist Daniel Benayun.
The album kicks off with “Gamblin’ Man“, a pleasing folk tune with an allegorical story about a reckless soul who always lives life on the edge. Andrew’s knack for writing seemingly simple yet profound lyrics with a powerful message is exemplified in these verses: “Out in the desert sun I made friends with a scorpion. We talked about how we feel, then I said shuffle up and deal. We played till the sun went down, full moon was wearin’ a crown. I cheated, gave myself some kings. Then I felt how a scorpion stings.”
On the optimistic title track “Sunny Side“, he advises us to not wallow in our problems, but instead try and find something good in every situation: “I buy flowers. She asked what for. Just in case the undertaker comes knockin’ on my door, cause tomorrow’s no guarantee. Let’s take our sorrow, and drown it in the sea. So keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life./ This life is a gift. It makes me high, high, high like a cliff.” He continues along a similar vein with the grunge-tinged “Lemonade“, urging us to make lemonade out of those lemons life sometimes throws our way: “Make lemonade. Realize that we got it made. Make lemonade. Don’t be afraid. Even in hell, be thankful for shade./ Live with love, the world is ours.”
Andrew’s strong sense of spirituality, love and faith in humanity is expressed on several tracks. On “One Big Family“, he sings of how, despite our differences, we’re all human beings deserving of love and respect: “We are one big family. And you have a brother, a brother in me. Tough times do not last. Tough people do. And I feel so much tougher when I’m loved by you. And no one’s perfect yet; we all have flaws. But we still deserve gifts from Santa Claus.” He uses “Heaven” as a metaphor for love and empathy, rather than a biblical place: “Heaven, where hate is not allowed. Heaven, another word for love. Heaven, it’s not below, it’s not above, it’s in your heart.”
On the lovely, nearly six-minute long ballad “Awoke“, he sings of overcoming his past mistakes and feelings of hopelessness by accepting God’s love: “So many nights I wanted to cry. Wanted to fly away. This dream trope has come to an end. Stars explode, but you’re still my friend. And I’m still your friend. Cause I awoke to God’s mercy. We’re all thirsty for love.” And on the folksy final track “Thank The Lord“, he gives thanks for all the things that are important to him, and the positive role music plays in his emotional well-being: “Thank the lord for my friends. Thank the lord for family. Thank the lord for the music that lives inside, inside of me.”
Conversely, perhaps the most poignant track on the album is “Anymore“, where Andrew questions his faith, self-worth and direction in life: “You can lie, and say it’s all part of God’s plan. Cause I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to grow old. I don’t want to shut up, I don’t want to be told what to do, anymore. I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to go on. Just so tired of being so strong. Don’t know what to do anymore./ You can blame, you can blame me for not being a good man.” Musically, his strummed acoustic guitar is accompanied by some somber but lovely keyboards that create a haunting soundscape for his introspective and melancholy vocals.
“Dog Without A Bone” is about having pretty much everything one could want in life, with the exception of a romantic partner to spend time with. Andrew uses clever and pretty direct metaphors to describe the feeling that something crucial to his well-being is missing: “Got a million reasons to live. I’m giving everything I have to give. Yet I’m so tired of being alone. Just a dog with no bone. A drunk without a drink. A cloud without a sky./ I have a lot, but I want more. Is there someone out there that could make me sore.” And once you’re in a relationship, conflicts and disagreements will undoubtedly arise, which he cheekily addresses on the charming “Kinda Turns Me On“: “When you get so mad, it kinda turns me on. Tell me what I did wrong. Cause baby it turns me on. Honestly, I want to grow old with you. Live the American dream, red, white and blue. Have a bunch of kids, and grandchildren too.”
Sunny Side is a wonderful album, filled with honest, heartfelt songs about faith, love and hope, and I’m confident all of us can relate to at least some of them. Andrew Neil is a thoughtful songwriter with a special gift for getting right to the heart of things in a way that few other artists can – or are even able – to do. I’ve grown quite fond of him, and hope he’ll continue writing interesting and compelling songs for us to enjoy.