A hairpin turn along the roller coaster of life made one North Texas musician realize that grief ain't all that bad. Matthew McNeal bares his soul while sharing that sentiment in his newest album, Good Grief, which is scheduled for release April 3.
The heartfelt album follows McNeal’s sophomore release, Good Luck, which was issued in 2018 shortly after his father’s death. The 27-year-old recalls being stalked by a string of unfortunate events.
“It went from, like, everything was cool to he was gone,” says McNeal of his father’s unexpected death. ”He ended up passing the morning of my [25th] birthday. It was really tough to have a relationship that was, like, coming together to be pulled away so abruptly.”
Good Grief became a coping mechanism for McNeal.
“We could cancel everything and I could just, like, mope about this, or we could carry on,” he says. “So we released [Good Luck] the next month, and I was kind of like coping and everything while I was on the road.”
Then McNeal faced more woe when his house caught fire soon after. "An electric stove malfunctioned and ignited while he was away, causing the total loss of most of his possessions and forcing the writing and recording sessions to be temporarily put on hold,” reads a press release. ”Thirteen days later, a car crossed three lanes of traffic before smashing into his car on the highway, traveling 65 miles an hour.”
McNeal's life seemed to be ruled not by Murphy's law, but by the deathly rules in Final Destination. Luck may have reared its head, though, when a semi-truck driver blocked traffic on the busy highway, perhaps saving McNeal’s life. At any rate, McNeal says he knew he had to harness a new perspective and chalk it all up as a defining experience.
“It showed me it’s not just about doing your thing when it’s easy or when life is all good,” he says. “Quitting isn’t an option to any degree. I’m not the type of person to just throw in the towel because things are tough. Things are always tough.”
McNeal didn’t come from a musical family but was drawn to music in childhood. He was raised by a single mother who liked soul music and listened to artists such as Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. McNeal says his father, Michael, whom he didn’t see too often, was a cowboy with an ear for country and rock 'n' roll.
The Fort Worth artist recalls how, at age 12, he played drums and learned guitar so he and his friends could make music together. A few years later, one of those friends, Andre Black, would become his business partner. The two launched a small, DIY space in Terrell, where they grew up, and have been creating music ever since.
“I remember being like 15 or 16 years old and thinking I don’t know what it’s going to take to do music, but this is what I’m going to do,” he continues. “Not to be famous, but to connect with people and help people to feel not so alone.”
McNeal says he dabbles "in everything" but typically sings and plays guitar. Black rules the drums, and they both write lyrics.
“We’re both, like, lifers,” McNeal says of Black. “We’ve been in this thing from the very beginning. We kind of ping-pong it back and forth to make sure it is what it needs to be. I trust Andre more than I trust anybody, damn near, on the earth.”
While some peg their music as indie rock, others see it as alternative rock or even country. McNeal says they like being open to interpretation and prefer making their own luck.
“We chose one of the most difficult life paths, at least at the startup of it … there’s no clear, like, one direction or path,” he says. Since they first started playing together, they’ve toured coast to coast and become friends with Ted Young, who McNeal says elevates their sound. There’s also guitarist Joey McClellan and his brother, Aaron McClellan, who plays bass, as well as Eric Swanson on pedal steel. While they don’t play every show, McNeal claims them all as family, along with Emily, whom he married in November.
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The singer says that “Fearlessly,” one of the songs on his new album, relates to a conversation he had with his father before he “passed over to the other side.”
”I just couldn’t help myself because that’s what changed me and inspired me,” McNeal says of the lyrics. “Yes, there’s life lost. But there’s a change in perspective and a gain of something else in lieu of that person going away. I wanted to be able to show that even though it’s tough, it’s OK.”
McNeal says he also wanted Good Grief to convey multiple emotions.
“Kind of like Charlie Brown [saying] ‘Oh, good grief,'" he says. “Actually, it is good grief. There’s goodness about it.”