Interview: Pamela McNeill brings country rock to the Cities

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Country rocker Pamela McNeill has to be one of the hardest-working women in Twin Cities music—and one of the most ardently admired.

Her albums are 2 Sides To Every Sky, American Breakup, and (on her newly launched label Sweetheart Records) Nightingale. In the past few months alone she’s been all over the map, including packed houses at noted Minneapolis nightspot Bunker’s, sold-out shows at Pioneer Place On Fifth Theater in St. Cloud and, at O’Gara’s in St. Paul, a benefit for flood victims in her native Winona County. On January 17th, McNeill headlines Famous Dave’s at Calhoun Square in uptown Minneapolis, with Alison Scott opening. Count on the place being packed to the rafters, and not only because she will blow the walls off a joint: fans know Pamela McNeill loves them every bit as much as they do her. Warmhearted as the day is long, McNeill gives of herself both onstage and off.

How’d the “Silver Lining” benefit go at O’Gara’s?
It went really well. We had about two hundred people come out on a Sunday afternoon, and they were so pumped up. We raised over four thousand dollars for the flood victims down in the Winona area, so that was great!

Who performed?
The concert opened with the acoustic duo Love Songs For Angry Men, followed by Nathan Anderson, then my band, and then G.B. Leighton and his band closed out the evening.

You play harp, you play keyboards, and you sing. Where and when did you pick up all that?
I swear I was born singing. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I told that to everyone from day one. It was probably singing on a Christmas Eve service, when I was about 4, dressed up as an angel as the congregation looked on that made me want to do this as a profession. I just never questioned it. I started lessons on my grandma’s Hammond organ when I was eight. She had the organ with double keyboards and pedals, too. I switched over to piano a few years later. I also play the trombone, which was assigned to me by the band instructor when I was in fifth grade because I had “big lungs”! I picked up my first harmonica, in C, at the House of Blues in L.A. when my band was on tour around 2003. I wrote one song called “Miss America” around that harmonica…the first song I played with a harp. The only other song I could do was Steve Earle’s “You’re Still Standing There.” So I [had] the band learn that, too. From there, I just got more harps in different keys and started writing songs with the harmonica in mind.

What about the songwriting?
I started when I was fifteen. Ever since I can remember, I [have] had melodies weaving in and out of my head. I was writing short stories from a young age, basically from when I first learned to write. Eventually, that morphed into writing poetry and journaling. It wasn’t until I was about twenty years old and moved to London that I came into my own as a songwriter and artist. Songwriting is probably my deepest passion. No matter what happens, I see myself always writing songs.

What prompted you to start your own label?
Well, you can either sit around and hope for the music business to come knocking at your door, or get up and make it happen. I guess I’m a pretty independent kind of person, anyway. And it’s not easy, but at least I can get my music out there.

Your husband Dugan plays bass in the band and is behind the boards when you record. What about the business end of things?
We’re a team. I do most of the booking and he takes care of the books. Basically, whoever is around to handle whatever needs to get handled, handles it.

Works for me. He’s your producer in the studio. Husband or no, you wouldn’t have him there if he didn’t know what he’s doing. So, why him to produce Pamela McNeill?
I trust him implicitly. We both have areas of the production that we favor. We have a system down and we’re able to honestly tell each other when something’s not working for us. He’s always so careful about honoring whatever my vision might be for each song or album, and I never doubt his ability to make it happen. Plus, he has more integrity than anyone I’ve ever met in my entire life. I greatly admire that.

What’s next?
A few Captain/Cokes and some crab legs. Oh, wait…you mean career-wise? We are finishing up some mixes for a CD of songs, sort of a Nightingale II, that we hope to have out in the new year. And I’m just beginning to record a brand new album. Of course I’m very excited about that.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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