Starlight Cleaning Co.’s Rachel Dean honors late friend and contributes beautiful track to expansive tribute album, Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. (Interview and words by Andy Hittle)
In another era when listening to an album also meant poring over extensive liner notes, we’d all know Neal Casal as one of the most remarkable guitar virtuosos and singer-songwriters of the last 30 years. Since 1990 released 12 solo records, logged journeyman stints with the Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, GospelbeacH, and Circles Around the Sun, and lent his gracious harmonies and lyrical guitar work to sessions with Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, James Iha, Amanda Shires, Beachwood Sparks, and Fruit Bats, among many others. Upon his death in August of 2019, his friends and fans rallied to compile a loving celebration of his life and work - the five LP set Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. Featuring many artists with whom Neal collaborated in addition to Hiss Golden Messenger, Steve Earle, J. Mascis, Warren Hayes, and Cass McCombs, Highway Butterfly is a sprawling testament to a life rich with musical achievement and dear friendships. One standout track from the tribute is Rachel Dean’s stunning rendition of Casal’s “So Far Astray.” Now writing and performing with Starlight Cleaning Co., Dean spoke to us about the project, Neal’s expansive legacy, and carrying on after the loss of a true great.
How did you initially connect with Neal?
I had known Neal for years. We originally met back in 2006 when I had reached out to him about a show I was putting together. Shortly after that, he was in LA and we kept bumping into each other. He took a picture of me (photo above) (he was an amazing photographer) at one of Jonathan Wilson's canyon jam parties, and emailed it to me. That was it! We became close friends and stayed close until his passing.
What was your process like for making the Starlight Cleaning Co. album?
We had a collection of songs that Tim and I felt should be on the record. Some of them were older. Songs we had written before even knowing each other. Most were songs from the last couple of years and one, written days before we started recording. We sat down with our friend Bart Davenport, another incredible musician, who was producing, and fine tuned the arrangements. There were certain songs that we all agreed would sound amazing with a Neal Casal guitar solo. So I reached out to Neal. We recorded all the basic tracks in our home over the course of 5 days, and once we had a rough mix, we sent them to Neal. At that time, he was touring with Circles Around The Sun, but he took one of his days off to book a recording studio and lay down some guitar parts. It was really sweet and his parts were beautiful.
How did you choose "So Far Astray" for your contribution to the Highway Butterfly tribute?
“So Far Astray” was one of my favorite Neal songs. With the last couple solo albums he did, he would show me the recordings before they came out. For both albums, we sat in his truck and listened to them in their entirety. That song resonated with me. I also loved the energy of it, especially in the chorus. It would be stuck in my head for days. I ended up singing a tiny bit on that record, Roots and Wings, on a song called “The Cold and The Darkness,” which I also really loved. But “So Far Astray” just felt like the right fit.
Since Neal has such an extensive body of work, what albums and projects would you point new listeners to as an entry point?
Actually the two last records are my favorite. Roots and Wings and Sweeten the Distance. I also love No Wish to Reminisce. So many beautiful songs. He was one of the most talented people I've ever known.
The Starlight Cleaning Co. album has such an assured, fully-formed musical identity. What were some touchstones and references you brought to the project?
Some of the references and influences are things like the places we've lived and traveled to, relationships, love, and personal challenges. Specifically, the song “The Race” is about a major challenge we had just overcome. A few years back, my job at the time had moved us out to New Orleans, and it was a bit of a whirlwind. Tim and I had only been together for 3 months, and it was kind of a big deal to move across the country together. My job was crazy and overwhelming and we didn't know anyone, but, we stuck it out and came through the other side, moving back home to Joshua Tree. The song touches on challenges I was dealing with in work and our relationship and pushing through.
What's next for you and/or Starlight Cleaning Co.?
We are excited to get back to playing live. We should be going on tour soon, once things open up a bit more!
Check out Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal here: