The Driveway, out Friday and premiering exclusively below, is Washington singer-songwriter Jessi McNeal’s third studio album. The project comes after a four-year interim spent dealing with health and family concerns.
During that time, McNeal and her husband ushered the children in their blended family into college and young adulthood, including one marriage, and handled what McNeal refers to as “some health things.” The couple also moved to a new 5-acre spread in Belleville, Wash., where they remodeled some of the standing buildings and established a new plant nursery with help from McNeal’s father-in-law. “It’s been a ride, that’s for sure,” McNeal tells Billboard — but even amidst all the activity she was still writing the songs that would populate The Driveway.
“That’s definitely how I process life: pen and guitar in hand,” McNeal says. “I was letting the songs come. I let the pile emerge and then started looking and going, ‘What’s the overarching theme here?’ and then, ‘Which songs fit with that theme?’ Definitely the overall theme was transition and being in the middle of some really hard stuff, not knowing how or when it’s going to wrap up — and being OK with that waiting. I think you can hear that in a lot of the songs.”
The good news is that McNeal’s move put her closer to producer Ryan McCallister — who also helmed 2015’s Promised Land — and his Five Acres Studio, now about 75 minutes from the Belleville spread across the border in British Columbia. McNeal was able to come and go over a period of months starting last November, and she came in with a determined vision of what she wanted The Driveway to sound like.
“I’m still proud of [Promised Land], but it felt like it was a little more produced, maybe too polished,” McNeal explains. “When I went to him this time I said, ‘I do not want these songs to sound anywhere close to something you can hear on mainstream country radio’ — not that I consider myself to be a country artist, anyway. I wanted a little more space, a little more of a live feeling, something a little moodier and darker.”
For sonic sources and “contemporary inspirations,” McNeal “took a cue” from recent releases by Sarah Jarosz, Joy Williams and Aoife O’Donovan.
“I’m really happy with how it came together,” she says of the 10-track set. “Ryan reads my mind. He has great players he brings in and just sits them down, hits record and lets them have at it. My jaw was on the floor a lot of the time.”
The big surprise for McNeal was the bluegrass-flavored “Out of Reach,” which she says McCallister fought to keep on the album. “I wasn’t sure about it,” McNeal confesses. “I like the story — that one’s sort of about the creative process — but as I played it by myself [with] the guitar I couldn’t visualize how it was going to come together and not feel monotonous. We had so much fun doing it in the studio, and when we finished it I was like, ‘Y’know, he was right’ — episode 522 of ‘Ryan you were right,'” she adds with a laugh. “And now it’s one of my favorites to play live.”
McNeal’s current live plans keep her mostly on the West Coast, a combination of house shows, churches, clubs and theaters in Washington, as well as in California, Oregon and Idaho. She recently left her part-time job doing marketing and social media for a counseling practice, which will also give her more time to focus on her music.
“I’m getting to focus on the creative, and I love it,” McNeal says. “I love where I live; it’s super inspiring and well-suited to be doing what I’m doing. It’s a fun season of life.”