For his 12th Christmas, Neal Casal received his first guitar. Then his brother handed him Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones which he would come to regard as the single greatest rock album ever made. “If I had to choose one album that has to tell the whole story of rock ’n’ roll and everything that informs it, from blues to New Orleans, to the 1950s, to the Caribbean roots and country roots: it is all there in that album,” he says. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2010, the 30th anniversary of Exile’s release was celebrated in grand tradition, and Casal, finishing up the mix on his 10th CD (not counting his contribution to records by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Hazy Malaze and a recent Townes Van Zandt tribute) and consulting on the upcoming film Country Strong, has also been busy falling in love with his new city of residence: Ventura. On his way back to the left coast after a trip to New York City, the buoyant singer-songwriter took time to chat with VCReporter.

VCReporter: Welcome to the neighborhood. How are you finding Ventura, so far?
Neal Casal: So far, so great. I really love it here. I started coming up here a few years ago just to surf. I didn’t know anyone here at all, but I discovered the place, started surfing, and somehow the area really connected with me in a surprisingly huge way, and I slowly concocted this plan to move here, and I did. There’s something about this area, or, as a local I met called it, the Chumash coastline, that really resonates with me in a huge way. I felt like I belonged here and had to be here more than just occasionally. I lived in New York and L.A. for the better part of 20 years and traveled constantly, and I was surprised by my reaction to this place. The plans sort of made themselves, I felt like I wasn’t in complete control of it, it was happening naturally. That’s not normal for me but I followed my instinct and it turned out to be correct.

And you’ve already made friends with the Franklin for Short people. This seems like a natural alliance.
Yeah, I’d known about Franklin for Short before. I was really knocked out by their record, and I’m even more knocked out by their new record, which I think is something of a masterpiece. I met Trevor [Beld-Jimenez] at a festival. It was when I first moved here, I realized he was in Franklin for Short and we instantly hit it off, and he was so positive and welcoming. He started inviting me to play shows and hang out, and I was introduced to the scene in this area by those people, which I find so lucky. Trevor, Seth Pettersen and all of their offshoot bands and friends, and Jeff Grimes — all these really talented, deep cool people — I didn’t know about any of them. I didn’t come here to meet anyone, really.  I came here to get quiet after being on the road for so many years. I had no designs whatsoever. I just came here to follow an instinct, and in a nice natural way, I got to know Franklin and their friends. I’m so encouraged to find these people here.

The singer-songwriter path seems like one of the least viable, in the sense that the market is saturated. How do you go about carving yourself a niche?
First of all, I’ve been at it for a long time. I started out being a songwriter about 20 years ago before the world was saturated with them. I made my first solo record in 1995. It’s not that I’m so well-established, but I got my sea legs with this before it got really insane like it is now. And I got to know a lot of people through making these records. I realized really early on that in order to survive as a musician, I would have to diversify my talent and learn to do other things. One thing I’ve had going for me is that I’m not only a singer-songwriter, I can be a guitar player for other people, I can sing background harmonies for other people. I can play bass, piano and other things and be a musician in a band as well as doing my own work — hence playing with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. I can change roles almost endlessly. I’m not rigid in my thinking about what I have to be doing in music; it just has to meet my standards. Beyond that, I just want to be involved. I’ll play guitar for you, write a song with you, sing harmonies for your song, but I can turn around the next night and do my own show drawing from my own large body of work. And while it’s all happening, I will photograph the entire thing and round out the process that way. Photography is part of my world, too. I have a book of photographs I took of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. That’s another way to survive.

It’s all part of one large interesting artistic life. I see a really broad picture when it comes to being in music and being surrounded by art. It’s not just me being a singer-songwriter.

Ryan Adams regarded you as the backbone of the Cardinals. What was it like working with him?
It was totally inspiring. It was fantastic. I knew him for many years before joining his band. I knew him when he was in Whiskeytown in the mid ’90s. We had played some music together before informally, and he and I always had a certain connection. The way we played guitars together — when it was firing there was nothing like it. We sang great harmonies. He’s a totally amazing artist, amazing songwriter. The guy wrote great songs right in front of me in minutes. I loved it, it was great for me.

You have a role in the upcoming Gwyneth Paltrow film Country Strong.
Half of my involvement in that film is really an example of the diversity we were talking about. A producer I know asked me last year if I could instruct an actor on the film. I am no guitar teacher, I don’t read music or anything, but I helped this actor Garret Hedlund learn to play guitar in a practical way so it would look correct on camera. The music supervisor  ended up liking me and asked me to go to Nashville while they were filming the movie to kind of help with continuity, so I ended up going down there for two months. So I was kind of just making sure the music stuff was right. There’s a lot of music in the movie. Through that, they said, “Hey we need band members, would you be one?”

So it made sense for me to stand there with a guitar, but it’s certainly not a role.

How does filmmaking compare to recording?
There are zero similarities. Zero. I don’t know, probably not zero (laughs), but seeing a big-budget movie being made really blew my mind. It makes record making seem so simple in comparison. The size of the crew, the size of the operation — to try to bring a concept to life with that many people, in these locations, and just the technical aspects are totally staggering, and then it’s down to just trying to get the right movement of an eyelash. The way someone turns their head changes the entire dynamic, it can turn a movie in a new direction. People tend to say, “Oh, these actors and filmmakers have it so good and so easy,” but they work very hard, very long hours and it’s really difficult.

It’s a lot of pressure. I came away with respect for people in that business.

And making a record, not so much?
No, not nearly as much. You’ve got, like, five people in a band bitching that they can’t make it by one in the afternoon and, “Oh, the sound in my headphones isn’t right. I can’t play today.” It’s like a joke in comparison (laughs). My level of complaining in record making really decreased by a lot after being on that movie set for two months in the freezing cold at 6 a.m. somewhere in a field in Tennessee. I think a lot differently about being tucked away in a cozy recording studio complaining that the Thai food didn’t taste right.

What’s up next?  
I’m finishing a new solo record right now. I’ve been working for the better part of the year on a new set of solo tunes with a producer named Thom Monahan, a really great producer who does Vetiver and Devendra Banhart. I’m lucky to work with him. It will be released in April. I’ll do some touring and everything I can next year [to promote it].

Look for a CD release show by Neal Casal next spring in Ventura. In the meantime, learn more about Neal Casal’s music and photography by visiting www.nealcasal.com.

michel@vcreporter.com