Neil Halstead Oh! Mighty Engine

Neil Halstead Oh! Mighty Engine
Though he’s not often recognised for it, Neil Halstead is one of the most reliable songwriters of the last 20 years. Be it with shoegazing legends Slowdive, alt-country pop refiners Mojave 3 or his modest solo work, he’s never hit a bum note. Having recorded for illustrious indie labels like Creation and 4AD, Halstead made a rather unexpected move for his second album, jumping across the pond to sign with surfing bud Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label. Surprised? It’s easy to be, but Halstead’s unperturbed manner has always left him open to such collaboration — plus, he’s a devout surfer too. Following up his 2001 solo debut, Sleeping On Roads, Halstead appears more relaxed than ever before, still holding on to that wistful element in his voice. However, there’s undeniable contentment ringing from his meek arrangements. The erratic rhythm on the affable "Paint A Face” shows his ambition to enhance his simple sound, while the more traditional "A Gentle Heart,” nods to obvious influence Neil Young and his guitar stroke. But what’s best about Oh! Mighty Engine is Halstead’s reluctance to be anything more than just a great songwriter, magnified best in the adorably titled "Baby, I Grew You A Beard,” which uses a delicate touch on the piano and guitar to close out his thoughts. His streak is still very much alive.

Should we be surprised by you signing to Jack Johnson’s label?
No, I don’t think so. To me, Brushfire seemed like the right label for me to do a record for. Basically the deal with 4AD came to an end last year and I had known the guys at Brushfire for a little while, and they offered me some time in the studio and I just went out to California and did some recording and got the record together. But I kind of like the fact that they have a good handle on putting out good music, and I like the lifestyle thing; it’s all pretty low-key. And the fact that they’re all surfers is a bonus for me, I suppose. It just seemed like the right thing for me really: a bunch of friends that offered to put out the record for me.

Does this label switch affect Mojave 3 at all?
No, not at all. Mojave will put records out with whomever we want to put records out with. This is purely just a solo record for me.

Would you say being on Brushfire and touring with Jack Johnson is an opportunity for you to reach a larger audience?
Yeah, I think one of things about the label is that they have the potential for a huge audience out there. For me, as much as I love 4AD, they’re a great label, one of the things about them that was disappointing was that we felt the same people bought the records all the time… which is nice, since we had this core audience, but it felt like we’d never get beyond that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not something I’m that concerned about. But this is definitely an opportunity where if I go and play with Jack Johnson, there are going to be a shitload of people who will have never heard of me. There’s also a part of me that’s dreading it because they may not like what I do. And I think those shows could be quite hard, but it will be an experience — some of it will be enjoyable and some of it won’t be. Ideally though, there will be people outside the sphere of 4AD that will get to hear the record, which is a good thing.

How does writing songs for a solo album differ from writing songs for a Mojave 3 album?
Everyone always asks me that question and for me, songs are songs. I don’t write them for anyone in particular, I just write songs. If Mojave 3 are working on a record they’ll just go into that song pot for a Mojave 3 record. As of the present, there isn’t a Mojave 3 record, so they either won’t come out or they’ll end up on a solo record.

What is it about working on your own as opposed to working with a band?
I enjoy working with Mojave 3 but sometimes it’s just nice to work on your own, or with other people, which is kind of how I see doing any record. A solo album still has you working with an engineer and different musicians… I dunno, I don’t really break it down. This isn’t a Mojave 3 record, it’s fairly stripped down, there’s not much on it. Most of it is just a guitar or two and a bit of percussion.

So what would you say are the biggest differences between Sleeping On Roads and Oh! Mighty Engine?
I’d say the new one’s a lot more stripped down. For me a record is always a document; it captures a certain time in a certain place. I think if I listen to Sleeping On Roads now, I think, "Oh, I don’t like that, I don’t like this.” But I’ve done a lot of records I suppose, and the key thing is to keep moving in some ways, y’know? I think this is a different record. The subject matter of the songs is different, it’s got a different feel to it.

What told you it was time to make another solo album after six-and-a-half years?
I dunno, this was really the first opportunity, the first time I had some songs, and the first time there wasn’t a Mojave record. I didn’t even realize it’s been six-and-a-half years. That’s pretty mad! (Brushfire/Universal)