Niel Brooks has been making music in the Upstate for a couple of decades now. Most recently, you might have seen Brooks as part of the acoustic folk duo Mourning Dove, adding lead guitar and creative arrangements to singer/songwriter/guitarist Lisa Stubbs’ haunting, ethereal songs. But Brooks has his own solo career outside of Mourning Dove, and the music he’s made in the last six months or so has been some of the most adventurous and unexpected of his career.
Brooks put out a solo album called “Northern Lights” in 2016, and it was a lovely collection of intimate singer/songwriter-style material that wouldn’t have seemed out of place if it had come in the 1970s alongside releases by Jackson Browne or James Taylor. His follow-up, “Sewn Into the Sky,” released last April, is where Brooks began to experiment a bit, largely jettisoning vocals in favor of multilayered instrumentals awash in all manner of guitars. But the songs were still mostly familiar-feeling folk music, the kind you might find on a Leo Kottke or John Hartford album.
But in the last year, Brooks has released three wildly different singles, all of which take his music in unexpected directions. The songs, “Stonemoses,” “She Carried Fire on an Ox’s Horn,” and the just-released “Return of the Hexenringe,” are all instrumentals. They sound like they were done by different musicians, but every instrument on all three is by Brooks.
I’ve broken down the three new songs below, with Brooks’ comments on each of them; I think most music fans, local or not, could find something to like in one of these three disparate tracks.
“Stonemoses” starts out with a slippery beat and a greasy slide-guitar riff, sounding for all the world like a mid-1970s Little Feat tune. But as the song unfolds over nearly six minutes, it becomes progressively spacier, heading off into the stratosphere with a lengthy, Pink Floyd-style jam at the end. It’s easily the most straight-ahead “rock” song of the three. “The melody has been in my head for years, and I finally decided to record it,” Brooks says.
The heavy-rock sound comes from the guitar and amp Brooks used on the track.
“I’d borrowed some equipment from a friend of mine, and it was all vintage rock ‘n’ roll equipment,” he says. “It was an old Les Paul electric guitar and a super-old amp.”
The sound was so evocative of another era that Brooks reached back into his own history for the song’s name. “The name came from a band my dad was in in the 1970s,” he says with a laugh, “because it felt like a ‘70s rocker.”
“She Carried Fire in an Ox’s Horn”
This track isn’t a song as much as it is a massive soundscape. Brooks’ otherworldly electric guitar shimmers in a sky-sized pool of echo. There’s an undulating wave of ambient sound behind his playing that’s hard to identify, and Brooks explains that, while looking for a certain production sound for Mourning Dove, he experimented with hitting the strings inside a Rhodes piano with a timpani mallet.
“I was trying to find this ambient sound I was going to use on a Mourning Dove recording,” he says. “What I was trying to do was create an instrument sound like the background of ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc, where they recorded every member of the band singing each note of the scale, and then they’d move the voices up and down as the chords changed. I was trying to do that with a Rhodes piano. And it didn’t come out like I thought it would, so I basically just played a bunch of chords and then created a melody over it.”
“Return of the Hexenringe”
With its laid-back, bouncing rhythm, intricate acoustic fingerpicking, and warm, muted pedal-steel in the background, “Return of the Hexenringe” sounds the most like what Brooks was doing before, but the origins of the song are a little more complex. The song’s groove came from the Grateful Dead, not Leo Kottke, and the instrumental composition was actually inspired by a Sylvia Plath poem called “Mushrooms,” which is included with the song on Brooks’ Bandcamp page.
“I’d been listening to a lot of early Grateful Dead,” he says, “and the music has this sort of laid-back gallop to it. At the same time, I’d written that poem out, and when I was recording the song, I had it on a music stand in front of me. I was thinking about the words while I was writing it. There’s a sort of tie-in to the song because a ‘hexenringe’ is the name of those circles of mushrooms that pop up this time of year. Some people call them ‘fairy rings,’ and they are pretty fascinating. And not to be too cerebral about the song, but I think of the melody as a circle or ring that tends to get stronger as it goes along.”
Brooks says he wouldn’t have been able to create any of these songs if he hadn’t been working in his own home recording studio.
“My house is basically a studio with a couch and a bed,” he says with a laugh. “I get stressed out in a traditional studio because you’re on the clock. On my own I can mess around and find new sounds. It’s total freedom.”