I think Neal Morse is one of the most exciting and important artists working in music today. Since his embrace of Christianity almost twenty years ago, he has stayed true to his faith while writing and performing some of the most thoughtful and original music in all of rock. However, his upcoming release, with long-time collaborators Randy George (bass) and Mike Portnoy (drums), is a collection of covers. It is the third album in their wonderfully fun Cover to Cover series, and Inside Out music is rereleasing the first two volumes with it in remastered form.
The new volume, Cov3r to Cov3r, features songs originally performed by Yes, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Gerry Rafferty, Badfinger, King Crimson, Squeeze, Tom Petty, and Lenny Kravitz. While some are obvious hits (their version of Rafferty’s Baker Street is killer) others are deeper cuts, like Crimson’s One More Red Nightmare.
I had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone while he was out walking with his daughter, enjoying a beautiful summer day in Tennessee.
Thanks for sharing a little of your time with me to discuss yours, Mike’s, and Randy’s new covers album! I think we’re pretty close to the same age, and if I made a massive mixtape of my favorite songs from high school and college, it would include every song on all three volumes of Cover to Cover. How do you all decide which songs to record?
Thanks! Mike loves to do covers, and he is the driving force behind most of these songs. The first two volumes are mostly bonus tracks from earlier albums. We’d finish an album, and the record company would ask us to do some songs for bonus tracks. We all love covers, because they are a wonderful way to blow off some steam after playing long and complicated prog tunes. If we’re on the road, and I’m doing a soundcheck, I can start playing some Zeppelin, and Mike will come running out of the dressing room to join in!
My favorite moment on the new album is pairing up Squeeze’s Black Coffee in Bed with Tempted. Whose idea was that?
That was mine – I used to play Black Coffee in Bed back in the ‘80s, along with Petty’s Running Down a Dream.
When I first heard the opening track, Yes’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Required”, I was wondering, “Who the heck is that singing?” Then I saw in the promo notes that it’s Jon Davison!
Yeah, we got together with him through playing Cruise to the Edge. When we looked at recording that song, I asked myself, “Can I sing this?”, and I realized there’s no way! So we were really glad Jon agreed to sing it.
I think I actually like your version of Baker Street better than the original. I’ve watched the video for it several times and I get chills when you play your guitar solo. Who is the mystery sax player?
Thanks, man! That’s Jim Hoke, a local Nashville musician. He also does a great job on One More Red Nightmare, which is one of my favorite King Crimson songs.
Listening to all three volumes, it sounds like the three of you just had a blast recording these songs. What was it like recording during a pandemic?
We actually finished our recording before the pandemic hit. Mike recorded the drums in November, I did my stuff in December, and we mixed it in December and January. My “pandemic album” is my upcoming album, Solo Gratia, which I’m really excited about.
Are there any plans for you, Mike, and Randy to do some shows in support of Cover to Cover?
Well, we are going to play a bunch of covers the first night at Morsefest this September. Because of the virus, we have to limit the number of people who can be there in person, but we are also streaming it live, and we have some cool online VIP events planned, like charades and other interactive games.
I have the original versions of the first 2 Cover to Covers, and I notice you’ve changed the track order on the reissues. Why?
They are? I didn’t know that. Ha ha! Mike must have done that. He is the man for figuring out what the best order of tracks should be for albums. It’s his gift, you know, and we figure, let him use it!
I think Randy George is an unsung hero of the bass. I’ve always wondered, how did you two first connect?
Oh, that’s an interesting story. He actually called me up – we had a mutual friend, and he asked me if I was interested in playing on a solo album of his. I think I was too busy at the time, and I put it off. Then I had just left Spock’s Beard, I think it was around 2002, and he said he was willing to work with me if I had any projects. He drove all the way from Seattle to Tennessee to audition for my Testimony album, and we’ve been together ever since.
After Cover to Cover Vol 1 -3 is released in July, what other projects are you getting ready to unleash on the world?
Well, MorseFest is coming up in September, there’s a new Transatlantic album coming out next year, and I’m working on the mixes for my Solo Gratia album.
What are you listening to these days?
Ah, let’s see… mostly the Solo Gratia mixes. I am also listening to the audiobook of Andy Stanley’s Irresistible. As far as music goes, I was listening to Pandora’s Neal Morse station, and a really cool Frost* song came up. I’m a big fan of them.
One last question – what role should Christian artists play in today’s culture?
Well, I think we should be pointing people toward the Lord. I want people to experience God through my music; I’m trying to express the glory of God’s heart.
Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t get stuck in the CCM ghetto; you’re taking your music to whomever will listen to it.
You know, the old saying is true – God will provide. He has given me some incredible music for Solo Gratia. I’m the performer, but God is the director. I’m like a piece of glass reflecting his love and glory.
Can I make a request for Volume 4 of Cover to Cover? Something by Jellyfish, and something from Joe Walsh!
Ha Ha! Yeah, I know there are a lot of people who are fans of them, so that might happen one day.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Neal.
Sure! Take care!
Cover to Cover Volumes 1 – 3 will be released July 24, 2020 on Inside Out Music, on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.
You can order tickets to Morsefest 2020 at nealmorse.com.