Growing up in and around Detroit and learning a love of music from a young age, Eliza seemingly knew she was destined for the stage, But once she enrolled in a music school at Detroit’s Wayne State University, she discovered that life’s journey can take you down some unintended roads.
Neals — who lives in Jersey City and released her second album, Badder to the Bone, April 23 on the E-H Records label — says she studied with songwriter Barrett Strong (“Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “I Wish It Would Rain”), “learning the Motown and soul thing and R&B. But I really grew up with my family and sisters doing the blues, Southern rock, classic rock. And then I studied opera, too, if you can believe it. I went to music school and studied opera and piano and I’d been singing in all of the clubs in Detroit five nights a week while I was going to music school.
“I was sitting in at Bert’s … have you ever heard of Bert’s? It’s like the longest running jazz club in Detroit, where you go there and you sit in, and if they like you they let you stay, and if not, they boo you off of the stage. Kind of like The Apollo. I’d go there and sit in at places like that and people would tell me, ‘Wow, you have a voice for the blues.’ … No matter where I’d sing, I’d hear, ‘You should sing some Etta James, you should sing some Bessie Smith (and) Koko Taylor.’ They thought my voice went with that. So I started doing a lot of the ballads, Etta James’ ‘At Last’ and stuff like that. Then I started writing more songs in that vein, but they always had a blues-rock tinge to them. It has been a long road doing it. I sang in cigar clubs and I don’t even know how I did it: five sets from 7 o’clock until 2 o’clock in the morning in these huge, smoke-filled rooms. I would be dead now if I had to do that (laughs).”
She moved to Jersey City about 12 years ago but “I go back and forth (to Detroit) a lot, because my family is there and everything I did, do and learned was from there. Like I said, I went to music school because my dad said, ‘You have to get a degree if you live here,’ so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get a music degree, that should be easy.’ But, oh boy, I had to pick either jazz or opera and I picked opera because I thought it would help me with my training to save my voice if I ever had to sing a lot, and it did. It really did help.”
She brought in some well-known guests for her second album, Badder to the Bone, including guitarist Lance Lopez and Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Peter Keys.
“We went to Florida and I sat there with my keyboard, just staring out the window at some palm trees,” she said. “And I started writing these songs on the piano and coming up with the arrangements, starting over again and making sure they were right. I guess it has taken me about two years for this album to write and hash out correctly. I’d sit there and just kept coming up with more and more lyrics that didn’t necessarily go with the music but I came up with enough stuff where I thought, ‘That could be an album,’ you know?
“I have this book I carry around and I just write lyrics in it all day, whenever something hits me, and then I also write songs with my friend from Detroit. His name is Mike Puwal and he’s in Nashville. I go there and he helps me produce it and he’s an engineer and we’ve been working together since 1997. He used to run Barrett’s studio in Detroit and Barrett was my mentor and pretty much one of my best friends. He ran Barrett’s studio we started working together in 1997, so this has been blues-rock in the making (laughs). People will say, ‘Oh, I just heard of you recently,’ but I’ve been around singing a lot, especially in Detroit and all over the world, now, since 2015.”
Sharing stages with blues and rock luminaries has become second nature to Neals. Joe Louis Walker, Walter Trout, Tommy Castro and others have benefitted from her presence and, in many cases, she has benefitted from theirs. But she said her greatest joy comes from her audiences and the things they are capable of giving her in return.
“I love connecting with people,” she said. “When I look out at the audience and I see the people and I know they just want to have fun and let loose and forget about all of the crap that they are going through … my whole thing is, if they’re not having fun, then I’m not having fun. So it’s about making the audience have a blast. And if they’re having a blast, then I am. I’m almost directing as I go. I never play a song, really, the same twice, and if you ask my band, they’re like, ‘It’s fun!’ I mean, it’s kind of like a work in progress.
“They know the song, I get up there and we’re dangerous. We may have a B3 solo for four minutes; it’s action-packed. It’s a blast and just so much fun. I guess it’s what I’m meant to do; just play music and hopefully everybody is having a blast with us and it makes me feel happy that they are smiling and dancing. They’ll come up to me after and say, ‘You know what? I had the best time, you made me forget about my divorce or about this or that’ or ‘I got out of my wheelchair and actually danced for the first time in five years.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That actually happened to me once, and it’s just magic when that happens. And it’s actually cathartic for me because I feel so much better because they feel better, and it’s like a healing session.”
Neals performs at Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne, Pa., April 30 at 8 p.m.; visit jameyshouseofmusic.com. For more about her, visit elizaneals.com.
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