Heath McNease Interview

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In 2010, Heath McNeasereleased two of our favorite albums of the year. This is especially awesome considering of the the albums (The Gun Show) is straight underground hip-hop, and the other (Shine On) is sunshine folk. We have been listening to the two albums for awhile now (regular rotation for the trip to Cornerstone), so I was happily surprised when I received an email from Heath about two weeks ago. We talked about a few things, and the end result is the interview below. Its a long one, but it is an awesome look into the wacky mind of one our favorite artists in the game.

ONE21 Music:Talk about the story of Heath McNease
Heath McNease:Honestly I started playing music really late in the game. I’m still amazed every day that this is my job, because of how long it took me to come to the realization that this was my calling. My mom was a choir director, so me and my brothers were always forced to sing in the choir…but it was a small country church. You only needed a voice and a pulse to be involved. haha. However, I was always in love with music. one of my older cousins lived with my family from the time I was 4 until i was 7, and he was obsessed with music. He chose me and my older brothers to be his little pet projects, so we all just soaked it up. The Beatles, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Hall and Oates, Naked Eyes, Duran Duran, Divo…the spectrum was so vast for a 6 year old, but i loved it because that’s what my older brothers and cousin were into. But I didn’t truly decide i wanted to be involved with music until i heard Beck and Ill Harmonics. they were white guys who didn’t need to qualify themselves as such or run away from that fact. They were just incredibly fresh and soulful naturally. That really resonated with me as a high schooler. by the time i had graduated high school…I felt God was calling me to start making music. I had never picked up a guitar or written a single lyric. It was daunting and NOBODY I grew up with understood what i was doing, because in Colquitt, GA…you don’t do stuff like that. It is a small, close knit, conservative town that I love dearly. but there aren’t a lot of hip hop artists coming out of that area. haha. so i enrolled in the Theatre program at Valdosta State University and spent several years focusing on my craft as an actor, vocalist, and improv artist while simultaneously obsessing over writing songs. so that’s how it started.

ONE21:You released two albums this year, The Gun Show and Shine On. While Gun Show was more focused on hip-hop, Shine On was more of a singer-songwriter album. What was the motivation behind release duel albums in one year?
Heath: The motivation was based partially out of my desire to do something different and partially out of necessity. Over the past 3 and a half years that I’ve been doing music full time I have played so many different venues stylistically. I lead worship at churches, do rap shows at clubs, colleges, coffee shops, spoken word nights, festivals, etc. So my artistry was growing out of the need to bring balanced and nuanced performances to the different shows. I couldn’t just rap all night at a coffee shop. I’m not gonna lead worship at a bar. so i had to cater my sets to the audience I had that night. I wanted that challenge. I wanted to be able to take as many listeners from as many divergent paths as possible and bring us all together for an hour and say…we are NOT that different. I just wanted to create an open atmosphere where I could share as much as possible.

ONE21: Are there any other genres that you think you will tap into for your next album?
Heath:Well…I already throw the kitchen sink at everything that I do. hahaha. I can’t even count how many different genres were crossed, borrowed, reconstructed, and deconstructed on The Gun Show. And I didn’t do it out of a need to show how many styles I’d like to pull off. It just goes back to being brought up on so many different genres of music. It’s just coarsing through me at all times. So I have no idea what the overall sound will be just yet. I know there will be some surprises for sure.
ONE21: You talk in alot of your songs about being strapped for cash. Alot of underground hip-hop artists today are making songs about this very subject. Is this the new reality for underground emcees? Do you think that artists are becoming more open about this a response to the overly material based world of mainstream rap?
Heath:I think it depends on the context of the song. If it’s a funnier more self effacing jam…the being poor thing is usually based more out of sarcasm than reality. The truth is I do quite well for myself…but that’s only because this is my life 300 days a year. I’ve made the choice to abandon a lot of common comforts to do this, so I don’t spend my money on a lot of the things that normal people do. I’m also notoriously frugal…haha. I think the thing that is true in both the serious and the fun songs…if it comes up…is the ridiculous nature of the road. It is just a labyrinth truck stops, service stations, hotels, host homes, flat tires, airports, sleeping in your car, etc. because you live your life in this state of flux…it just plays with your mind. I’m far less stable mentally now than I was 5 years ago, because I don’t have the comfort of proximity. I often think about how in the world Paul was able to do what he did as a missionary, (and I’m in no way comparing what I do in any way to his life and struggle) because this nomadic life is hard enough when you’re given some of the creature comforts of home. But he had none of that. I do think that a lot of artists play the poor card as a direct response to wanting to be different than the mainstream “wealth” angle. But…that’s equally a crutch if it’s not authentic. You gotta write what you know.

ONE21: What is your writing process?
Heath:When I first started writing music at 18…my process was entirely different. I would sit in front of a computer screen for 6-8 hours a day (whenever I wasn’t in class…I was writing) and I would just write. Headphones on…trying to be funny…trying to be thought provoking. But I was doing it with no real background to draw from. I wasn’t digging into the things that really made me who I am…and I don’t think I had experienced enough to really know who I was anyway. Now things are far easier/painful. haha. The benefit that came from writing so much when I was younger is that I had the template in place. I KNEW how to edit and streamline my words and thoughts into the best possible structure. I just didn’t have the right words and thoughts at the time. Now I don’t have to sit for 6-8 hours, because life is continually happening around me. It is perpetually kicking me in the teeth, stabbing me in the back, raising me up, showing me God’s grace, and then putting me back on the floor again. So as I’ve had the benefit of experiencing more joy and sorrow both personally and as a member of humanity…the abundance of the heart speaks. So now…I let the songs come much easier. There is NO substitute for being in the studio and vibing out to an idea that you hear in the moment. I’d say 6 of the songs from The Gun Show I wrote the same day we made the track. Because I was so ready to communicate something…and the Lord allowed the creativity to pour out in the moment. So I’m really working now on balancing the songs that I really have to live with and work on for days with the songs that I write in 2 hours. Creativity is such a crazy and elusive thing.

ONE21: What do you prefer, the writing/recording process or playing live?
Heath: I love them both so much. I don’t think i could choose.
ONE21: Why?
Heath: Well…writing is where it starts. and that’s time with me and God. He just hangs out with me and I write and hope to make him happy while I do it. In a room, in my car, a stairway at a venue, a hotel room, etc. those times of writing are so solitary and I love that. Now the recording process is the biggest undertaking, but it’s so satisfying to be in the studio with guys that I love and trust, (Playdough, Red Umbrella, Don Chaffer, Incorporated Elements) because they want me to succeed just as much as I want to. They are patient, generous, hard working, and bring so much creativity to the table that it makes recording feel like a game. We just throw instruments in, take some away…chant and shout in the backgrounds…and we try to freaking catch lightning in a bottle. That is a huge challenge. To say…”ok. let’s take the naive thoughts on this paper and turn them into 4 minutes of music that we hope people are going to live to.” That’s daunting. So it’s great to have guys that you trust working with you. Playing live is so satisfying because you get the immediate reaction of the people that you do all of this hard work for. Without the audience…these ideas would just be self congratulatory…and they would have no home. Being able to share my heart with people on the stage is my greatest and most profound joy and honor. I love it so much, because I love people so much. I want to see them changed…even though I will be onto the next town and may never see that change take place. But the process of playing live can’t happen if you don’t go through the dog work of writing and recording.

ONE21: What is the Whose Rhyme Is it Anyway?
Heath: Whose Rhyme is it Anyway is such a blast. It is an idea that was shaped and reshaped between Playdough, Red Cloud, Manchild, and myself. Essentially me, Playdough, and Manchild (of the Mars Ill/ Deepspace5fame) are doing 60 minute freestyle shows that are based on the short form improv game “Whose Line is it Anyway.” Playdough is a 5 or 6 time Dallas Freestyle Champ…Manchildis the Atlanta Redbull Freestyle Champ…and Red Cloudis the best freestyler I’ve ever known…so those dudes are champs at what they do. I have an extensive background in improv…both short and long form and was actually considering moving to Chicago to train and hopefully become a part of Second City until the record label came knocking. So my background is more focused on the truth of improv, but I’ve been freestyling for ten years…so I’m no slouch. haha. I just never did much battling. So we play games and do mini concerts in between some of the games. We use the format of several Whose Line games and we’ve made up a lot of our own. It is an insane amount of fun.
ONE21: How did the idea for the show come about?
Heath: You know…the beauty of the concept is that it’s so free. for whatever reason people are just so enamored with the art of freestyle. It’s something that a lot of people don’t understand yet still try to do for fun…so it brings a level of both understanding and mystery to the show. I think the first performance we did…we were like…”wow. we really are up on the tight rope with no sign of a net underneath us. if this bombs…there is NO way to recover, because this is all happening in the moment.” But that actually just brings a certain level of freedom and “devil may care” to the process. Its inception was a combination of things. Playdough and Red Cloud were the guys that first hashed out the idea…although when I was in college…I did a lot of games that were similar to the concept because I had the ability to freestyle so we utilized it in some of the short form structures. Playdough and I were on the road and we were talking about really making it happen so we reached out to Manchild and he was 100% down to do it. So it’s the three of us and we are going to be using Red Cloud when the timing works out for west coast college/bar shows, because he isn’t really doing a lot of churches right now.
ONE21: Is Red Cloud still involved in the show?
Heath: He hasn’t done any shows with us yet, because we haven’t been out west as a crew yet. But when we do colleges and clubs out west…he will definitely be a part of it. Ideally…as we get Whose Rhyme on it’s feet…we want to have the 4 of us and a DJ. We love Red Cloud and support him as he’s figuring out a lot of stuff in his life. We just will only be working in the context of more general market venues with him, because that’s what he’s most comfortable doing now.

ONE21: Back to music, do you think that you will be sitting on Gun Show and Shine On for a while or are you already working on new material?
Heath: I’m never resting. I’m going to be working The Gun Show really hard for the next 6 months, but I’ve already written about 15 songs. 10 acoustic ones and 5 rap ones. So I’m just gathering thoughts and material right now. I will start hitting the studio hard next year.

For the next part of the interview, I asked Heathsome more genreal “survey” questions on a few topics that are near and dear to our heart

ONE21: Why hip-hop/ folk?
Heath: My oldest bro got me into Bone Thugs N Harmony when I was 13. That got me into the craziest and most enjoyably outlandish aspects of rap at an early age. My mom raised me on The Carpenters and Simon and Garfunkel. I grew up in a tiny baptist church. so the roots of folk/country/gospel were in me from the time I was born. It is a style of storytelling that I will just never get tired of. It is woven in the fabric of the south…and of my heart. Rap became the way I expressed my heart as i got older. The ability to be entirely who you are…both good and bad appealed to me so much. I don’t want to say the pairing is a natural one for a random listener. But it was a cause and effect that made perfect sense to me.

ONE21: Whats good in music right now?
Heath: I love listening to music just as much as performing, so I have a lot of stuff I’m into. I’m really into The Avett Brothers…and have been for years. I’m waiting for their next full length to come out. This year I got into Lawrence Arabia, Diamond District, loved the new Wu Massacre album, and Sufjan Steven‘s EP was stellar. Black Rebel Motrocycle Club, Playdough‘s Writer Dye album, Pigeon John‘s Dragon Slayer album. Just heard a great new band called J Roddy Walston and The Business. Paper Route was great. Reflection Eternal was dope. I’d have to say my favorite of the year was Nas and Damian Marley‘s Distant Relativesalbum. always stumbling onto so much great music. And most of it isn’t hip hop. haha. But that’s the stuff from this year that I’ve really enjoyed and connected with.

ONE21: Is the digital age of music one that helps or hinders the artist?
Heath:I would probably be the last person you would want to ask about that. haha. I genuinely don’t know. I think there are benefits and setbacks…but that’s all based more on point of view than it is in absolute truth. Digital music makes it easier for people to hear, share, and find new music. Plain and simple. It means its easier for people to get it without ever compensating the artist (which I actually don’t care about, but most do). It also means that music is devalued through the creative process. The “album experience” is dying. A fully realized, well structured, and carefully presented album is becoming more of a “boutique” idea and it’s being replaced by singles and EP’s. “let’s write the song…get it out to people…get the money…and do it again.” There is no right or wrong answer. I prefer listening to great albums as opposed to great singles. But that’s just my opinion. I think the world is making it’s voice heard loud and clear. They like the direction it’s going in. As a musician and performer…my job is to reach as many people as I can with the best music I can make. I don’t care how I do that. Through a label, independently, selling cassette tapes out of my trunk. It doesn’t matter, because I have no dog in that fight. I think people who either really miss how much money physical sales generated…or people who feel there is only one way to make music are the ones who really care about that stuff.

ONE21: Who is Jesus to you?
Heath: Dude…this is such a hard question to answer. Harder than almost any question. How can I explain adequately who He is to me and what he’s done for me? The best friend I will ever have. I don’t mean it in the cliche’ sense that people say it in. I mean he has seen me at my absolute worst. My most depraved. My most selfish. He knows the jealous, greedy, twisted, and hurtful thoughts I harbor both in my mind and in my heart. He watches me wrestle with trying to be a good man who loves Him with all my heart. He knows the anguish I put myself through because I don’t feel equipped or “qualified” to be a member of His family and speak to both the lost and the found. He knows that it is in my nature to steal from the poor, rob the blind, lie to your face, kill for my gain, and walk away without a trace of remorse. And despite all of that…He tells me that I’m His most dearly loved and cherished creation. He forgives me freely. He loves me in a way that I can’t even fully understand. He tells me every day that “where sin did abound…grace did much more abound.” Protector, Father, friend, shelter, best friend, shepard….He is everything. Even when I treat Him like He’s an after thought. He rides shotgun with me when I would jump out of my own freaking skin just to get away from the mess that I’ve made of myself. This isn’t false modesty. This isn’t “oh I’m just a sinner saved by grace” talk. These are the reasons I will NEVER judge another person. I will never judge them because of their deeds, thoughts, actions, or beliefs….because most of them could never come close to being the kind of selfish opportunist that I am at times. He called me to love. He replaced everything that I’ve mentioned with nothing but love. That’s who He is to me. Just love.