In the video for Lael Neale’s recent single, In Verona, she takes us on a woozy walk through the streets of Hollywood. Alongside grainy footage of the Walk of Fame, we find her drifting through the mausoleums of Hollywood Forever, a celebrity cemetery on the same block as Paramount studios, as she hypnotically chants about “perfect death”, prayer and purity. As ritzy as any red carpet premiere, Hollywood Forever is where stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney share a final resting place with the author Eve Babitz, director Cecil B DeMille and rock stars Chris Cornell and Mark Lanegan. Neale likes to pop in every now and then. “I love going to the graveyard – I feel like that’s the Harold and Maude in me,” she says, referencing her favourite movie, Hal Ashby’s cult 1971 film about a death-obsessed teenager.
Neale also enjoys a stroll around the sprawling Forest Lawn memorial park. “It’s the Disneyland of cemeteries,” she explains. As well as housing the crypt of Elizabeth Taylor, it has a Scottish-themed wedding chapel and a five-metre-tall replica of Michelangelo’s David. “It’s made to be a place where you go and have this experience, which is so Hollywood.”
Neale’s upbringing could not have been further from this kind of brazen bluster and the ostentatiousness so endemic to her adopted home of LA. The singer-songwriter and occasional watercolourist grew up on a farm in deepest rural Virginia, where her Grateful Dead-loving dad raised grass-fed beef cattle and her mother introduced her to the music of the Cure and Beastie Boys. Although no one in Neale’s family performed professionally, there was – and still is – a barn on the farm that moonlighted as a music room.
“It’s where dad would get stoned with his friends and play,” says Neale. “But it’s pretty grimy. It’s also where he works on his tractors and there’s a lot of tools around, so it has this greasy tractor smell … ”
Moving back to Virginia during the pandemic, Neale helped out with the chickens and recorded her third album, Star Eaters Delight. It’s a unique, boldly weird proposition, and one that proudly carries the faint hint of tractor grease. Half of it comes on like cult 70s folk artist Karen Dalton hanging out with the Velvet Underground and Suicide, while the rest offers somewhat more modern balladry, placing her more in the world of Angel Olsen and Cat Power.
Although its lyrics circle round death, holy water, purity and prayer, the fuzzy, hypnotic, eight-minute In Verona was written after Neale saw the critically unacclaimed 2010 film Letters to Juliet, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired romcom starring Amanda Seyfried. Shakespeare it was not. “I watched about 15 minutes of it and I could feel my brain atrophy – it was so terrible,” remembers Neale of seeing it with her mother during lockdown. Despite its relentless banality, it somehow still sparked Neale’s creativity. “So I left, but then I felt bad because we were gonna do this nice mother-daughter thing, and I was like: ‘I’m out of here!’ Then I started writing the song.”
In Verona’s self-directed video was in part inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s take on the story, 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, a pivotal part of Neale’s sonic and visual education. “I saw it when I was in my early teens, and I was just listening to things like the Beatles at that time. That introduced me to Radiohead,” she remembers. “There’s this amazing alchemy that happens when music goes perfectly with film – it’s the same with Harold and Maude and that Cat Stevens soundtrack.”
Some of the footage came from when Neale and her boyfriend were living in a past-its-prime 1920s hotel turned apartment building. “It was a really unique place, just a couple of blocks away from the Walk of Fame, and it was incredibly cheap; full of musicians and artists and strange older people who’d been there for ever,” says Neale. “It was actually the hotel that the Black Dahlia lived in.” Would we be right to suggest that such a historical Hollywood landmark was possibly haunted? “Definitely,” confirms Neale. “We Palo Santo-ed the room [by burning the plant] to clear the energy – not to be too Californian – and then a couple of weeks into our stay there we found out that the last guy there nodded out in the window and fell and died.”
Neale, who moved back to Los Angeles this January, has long been attracted to the stranger side of the city, embedding its eerie edges and her more magical experiences into her unearthly sound. After the release of her first, more conventional folk music album, 2015’s I’ll Be Your Man, she discovered the Philosophical Research Society, and started putting on gigs at its tucked-away complex in the Los Feliz neighbourhood.
Founded in the 1934 by a Canadian mystic called Manly P Hall, it boasts one of the world’s biggest collections of esoteric literature. “To just stumble into a library that’s packed with every single book you could possibly dream of – and there are some locked away that are from the 1600s – is really incredible. It felt like a hidden secret that not many people knew about.”
As well as pursuing her more otherworldly interests, Neale spent the next few years nannying, working in coffee shops and, pointedly, not releasing music. In fact it wasn’t until 2021 that Neale released her second album, after signing with the famed indie label Sub Pop. The experimental and stripped-back Acquainted With Night was written largely on an omnichord, the retro 80s electronic instrument, in preference to the acoustic guitar on which she wrote her 2015 debut. “I was really trying to find the right sound between 2015 and the album that came out in 2021. It was like a pilgrimage for the perfect person to work with and the perfect way to make it,” she says. “In about 2017, 2018, I made a whole album on my iPod Touch, which was just a voice memo, basically, and that was the first step to realising that I needed to have a more rudimentary approach.”
That album was never released, but it set in stone Neale’s idiosyncratic approach (“Not a big studio, not this fancy producer, not a bunch of drums and bass”). It’s a vision that’s even more realised on Star Eaters Delight, where swirling soundscapes and her unnerving falsetto make for something truly mesmerising – not to mention decidedly spooky.
Star Eaters Delight is out on 21 April.