Duo shows have become an easy and affordable calling card of sorts. They’ve been made all the more possible with the pair having decided to risk it all: they’ve put day jobs on hold and packed up their Melbourne lives to give the album the push it deserves.
It’s a downsizing even Marie Kondo would envy. Apart from two boxes of possessions at a friend’s house, all they own is in their van, which they’ve fitted out with a bed and a fridge.
“This was the year,” says McNeil. “I felt like everything had come to this point.”
The train’s rolling and either you’re on it or not.
Two years ago, McNeil separated from her husband of seven years. Although the marriage breakdown was painful, McNeil saw it as “the first kind of turning of the key that changed my life”.
“I guess I felt like I was braver, maybe, to face other things and to go for what really seemed to matter,” she says. “With the new record coming out, I thought well, I’ve never really, really gone all-in with music. I’ve tried to go all-in while holding down a full-time teaching job, but it’s just candle at both ends. So for this record I thought ‘let’s just give it a go’.”
It was last year, while she and Parsons were doing duo shows in Canada that they made the decision to pack up and do the same in Australia. It was a brave yet terrifying decision – but one that brought near-instant rewards. At a truckstop in the rain in Edmonton, Canada, they took a phone call from Leigh Gruppetta of Cooking Vinyl Australia.
You Be the Lightning is now coming out on the prestigious label that is home to the likes of Lucinda Williams, Billy Bragg and John Prine. McNeil is understandably thrilled.
“Cooking Vinyl have no expectations of me other than being myself and doing what I’m already doing,” she says. “They just want to amplify that.”
You Be the Lightning is perhaps McNeil’s biggest labour of love and comes four years after her previous album, Thieves. Two years in the making, and co-produced with Parsons, it unsurprisingly weaves a path through themes of love, death, rebirth and their intersections. Three singles have already been released from it: Stars, Not Like a Brother and Catch You. Stylistically, it shows a bold evolution from McNeil’s initial strong alt-country leanings with the GoodLife – also featuring drummer Bree Hartley, bassist Craig Kelly and keys player Brendan McMahon – into a lush, accomplished triumph of modern pop meets 70s west coast. Opener Highway Girl is an epic journey in itself, a showcase for McNeil’s soaring, stronger-than-ever vocals.
“I’m always taking the approach that I don’t care about genre, which is why I end up making such diverse records that no one knows where to put them. I just go song by song and what that song really needs, and that’s the approach that Dan had as well,” McNeil says.
While the death of her father four years ago – Canadian musician Wayne McNeil – loomed large on Thieves, he seems to be absent from the songs here. “I don’t think I’m writing about him at all, which means I’m moving forward, which is cool,” McNeil says.
However, the influence of Wayne McNeil’s life and death lives on. “Dan actually covers one of his songs [I’m Not Over You] in his set, and I sing harmonies on that.
“I’ve also definitely been reminded how fickle time is. It doesn’t stop for anyone. And if I don’t do this now, when am I going to do it. The train’s rolling and either you’re on it or not. I think in that sense Dad’s there, because he’s helped me to see that.”
You Be the Lightning is out February 14 through Cooking Vinyl Australia.
Tracy McNeil & the GoodLife open their Australian tour in Sydney on Thursday, February 6, at Marrickville Bowling Club and play the Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood on Friday, April 3, and Caravan Music Club in Bentleigh East on Saturday, April 25. For all tour dates go to tracymcneil.com