Wellington loves an up-and-comer. Fortunately, Neil MacLeod is ready to take the stage
The native Cantabrian settled in Wellington four years ago but at first glance you’d think he’d been here all his life. Round rimmed glasses, black jeans, black boots and a grey pullover; its the essential Wellington uniform. We meet at Leeds Street Bakery for a coffee to talk about his upcoming tour.
An old soul, with a clear voice, Neil gives away his love of life with enthusiastic bursts of thoughtful description, puncturing his cool exterior. In 2019, he’s touring New Zealand off the back of Neil’s latest EP To Unfold. He’ll be back in his hometown, Christchurch, later this month and then onto Wellington in late June and Auckland in July. His three shows at BATS theatre on 27th, 28th and 29th June are at the heart of his tour. His sound blends acoustic and electronic elements, resulting in a collection of soulful, introspective tracks that were produced by Devin Abrams (Drax Project, Pacific Heights, Shapeshifter). During our chat, we cover self-discovery as a musician and what it means to be a Wellingtonian, as well as why he dropped out of University.
Neil was born in Cambridge, England. When he was born, his mother had just finished her training to become a doctor and his father worked as an auditor. Neil can’t remember England as a child, but does remember his upbringing in Christchurch vividly. “We grew up close to Hagley Park and the nature reserve close by. The schools are all very close to this area. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time hanging around in Lyttelton too because that’s where all the artists were working” Neil explains.
As a teen, Neil wasn’t quite bar-gig-age yet so rather than miss out he went to open all-ages venues where artist would play. “I’m so glad they did that” he says. “These artists showed me what my path could look like.” Musician Marlon Williams was an early inspiration for Neil. “He put on a show once at a church nearby where I lived when I was 14” Neil explains. “I’d recently decided to do music and it was incredible to see a person captivate a whole room with just a guitar and his voice. Marlon Williams has the power to get everyone focused and emotionally engaged in what he’s doing”
Like many children, Neil started with piano lessons but he soon got bored of scales. “Guitar was the first musical instrument I really cared about” he says. “I learnt from a guy called Phil who taught me so much. Later on, my love of guitar helped me to get back into piano because I wanted to learn rather than my parents saying I should do it.” His first song was a typical teenage brooding fare “I don’t actually remember it particularly” he laughs. “The first song I wrote which was any good is actually called Foolish and it’s still online somewhere I believe.”
Neil isn’t too hard on his family: “I was very lucky that my parents encouraged me to do music as a career and I had great guitar teachers. Some of my friends had parents who didn’t feel the same way” he explains. His family support is a major reason he has decided to go down the path he has, Neil says. He couldn’t do it without his mum and dad.
After abandoning an idea to move to the United Kingdom for university to study art, Neil decided relocate Wellington to do music at Massey University instead in 2015. After a year, he felt that he’d advance faster if he left to focus on his own work. “I was handing in essays and papers, but I just wanted to focus on my own thing” he explains. “That was the reason I dropped out - to follow music. There’s something to be said for utilising youthful energy and I found that if I was busy at uni, my own work would slip, and if I focused on my own work my grades would slip.”
Today, Neil lives his life in Newtown, working on his music somewhere between part-and-full time. “My music has been inspired by what I’ve lived through life, and my own journey” Neil says. “But the city of Wellington has inspired my productivity. People have insightful answers if you just ask them questions. It has allowed me to get stuck into making music. The people in the city value musicians. That’s so encouraging.”
A favourite gig of Neil’s was playing at local watering hole, Library Bar. Here, Neil became more comfortable with playing in front of an audience. “I was worried about whether people would enjoy listening to my music in such a confined space, but I left that Library gig full of confidence” he says. “I found it pretty daunting making the decision to play in front of people originally. I like making music but sitting on stage with everyone looking at you is intimidating. Wellington is the place I found that confidence. Yes, I could live my life playing music in my room and not put myself on the line. But I’ve found that in this city it’s worth the risk. Wellington is a positive place to be a performer. People want to see live music.”
Neil and his team start his tour in Christchurch on 22 June 2019 at the Lyttleton Arts Factory. “It’s a theatre space, but we looked at it and thought it would work for a gig because it’s unexpected. Next we play Wellington at BATS Theatre, which again we’re making come alive for a unique musical experience from 27-29 June. Then finally it’s Lot 23 in Auckland on 6 July 2019.” All venues allow him to put on a show where people can fully connect to the music. “There’s also a visual component which will be projected in the space” he says.
So what, in Neil’s opinion, makes a Wellingtonian? Openness is a common personality trait from Neil says. “I know people who were born here and bred here. They’re open-minded people, and excited by it” Neil says. “It feels a good mixture of safe and inspiring to live here. It’s small, but artists here push you, and challenge you. This balance is what makes it perfect. I think Wellington is a great place for anyone who wants to further themselves as an artist, but also wants to feel at home.”