As I set foot into The Burren at Davis Square, I realize that this hearty Irish pub atmosphere is exactly what I need to beat the Boston chill. During the day, soft-spoken elderly clients and Irish men and women gather at the bar, which proclaims on its website to possess a “rich old world feel.” Boston singer-songwriter Christian McNeill has chosen to meet me here, and when I mention his name to the bartender, he gives a smile of recognition. It’s clear that McNeill is a local fixture.
When I meet McNeill outside the pub and head with him to Q Division Studios near Davis Square, it is easy to see why. He is charismatic in person and passionate when talking music. “My first memories as a 2-year-old are of singing myself to sleep and just making up tunes in my head,” he says. McNeill grew up in Derry, Ireland and his father was a professional musician, so McNeill was immersed in music all the time. He was greatly influenced by fellow Northern Irish singer Van Morrison, whom he saw in concert as a 10-year-old. “I love older music,” McNeill says. “Nowadays there’s a culture of beards and plaid shirts and little haircuts, and they’re playing nice little songs, but there’s no real passion.”
McNeill’s band, Christian McNeill & Sea Monsters, is trying to combat this trend. The band had an acclaimed three year residency at the Somerville bar Precinct, and won a Boston Music Award in 2010 for “Best Live Ongoing Residency.” “I was sort of sick of myself. I didn’t want it just to be me singing, so I invited these guests; the band started off as a vehicle for me to collaborate with people,” McNeill says. Now, the group is a full outfit of McNeill and large rhythm and horn sections. He enjoys an organic interplay with his band, saying, “they’re amazing musicians. I never tell people what to play, as a rule; you have to trust their talent. I just want to inspire people to get off their asses and do something.”
The band’s new record, “Everything’s Up For Grabs,” is driven by an optimistic, bold sound. “There’s a lot of hope behind this record, so maybe it’s about rebirth,” McNeill says. “Zero”, the first track on the album, features a punchy, energetic peal of trumpets that brings an upbeat turn to the depressing line: “I was a zero / I was falling through the cracks of infinity and the void.” McNeill’s robust voice lends a real rock ’n’ roll strongman quality to the track.
However, McNeill is not one to shy away from the more melancholic side of music. “Southern Cross,” the last track, features ominous keyboard chords, grungy guitar textures and fierce, biting vocals with lyrics such as “It’s death to the singer / Death to the song.” The song was written by McNeill right after the death of one of his heroes, Johnny Cash, and reflects McNeill’s anguish.
The album’s two emotional sides show McNeil’s diverse life experiences. When talking about his Northern Irish upbringing at the time of political turmoil, McNeill becomes more somber. “It was terrible,” he says. “I saw what human beings were capable of doing to one another. I channeled that anger into music.” McNeill also talks about the shortcomings of the music business, citing in particular how websites like Spotify are ruining the lives of indie musicians struggling to eke out an existence. However, McNeill believes he’s now in a more positive place in his life. He seems to live and breathe in his music: “First thing in the morning, when I wake up, that’s when I write songs,” he says with a smile.
The musical textures of McNeill’s band reflects his contradictions and transformations. Bright, brassy sounds are balanced with gritty old school rock; this infectious, gutsy mix mirrors McNeill’s own life experiences. “I didn’t come here to become famous, but to be a better songwriter,” he says. “This is a country of great music with a history of great black music – [I wanted to] to embrace that history of jazz and soul.” This history, as well McNeill’s own, has indeed found its way into the new record and the band’s musical identity. In our conversation, I liken McNeill’s sound to a meaty blend of rock and soul, like an Irish stew that you could enjoy at The Burren. “I think that’s a really good way to describe it,” he says. “I struggled for years to describe my music until this record, but it’s so obviously rock, it’s so obviously soul.”