Beyond The Surface: Neal Morse On Operating In One's True Gift, What He Does To Find Quiet In Today's World, And Life As One Big Mitzvah

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To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

Neal Morse, singer, keyboardist, guitarist and progressive rock composer, created the Neal Morse Band, which includes Mike Portnoy, Randy George, BIll Hubauer and Eric Gillette, and they release the concept album “The Similitude of a Dream” November 11. Their world tour dates start in the states in his current hometown of Nashville in January. The “Similitude of a Dream” is loosely based on the book, “Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan published in 1678 and chronicles the spiritual journey of a man to deliverance. Neal, a devoted Christian, reflects on what he does to find quiet in today’s noisy world, one’s whole life being a mitzvah, what he listens to when he feels down, and how he knew music was his true calling.

How did you know this is your life path, your true calling?

I think I could sense it. You can feel it when it’s right. I’ve heard athletes talk about it, the zone. You can feel when you are operating in your true gift. The hard part comes when you can’t seem to get anyone else to see it! Or hear it, rather. But I knew music was my true calling when I was very young. I was writing progressive rock pieces when I was 12 years old and felt something in it even then.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel it, hone it, and bring it forth?

I was quite driven when I was a teenager. I remember sometimes writing four songs a day. I had a little portable studio, and I would write and record like a fiend. It seemed for many years like it was all for nothing, but in the end it all worked together for my development. Many times God is developing us and we are completely unaware! It’s like the wax on, wax off idea from “The Karate Kid.”

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

Oh man, I’ve had so many. I’m a Christian, and I am praying that God will open doors for me to the path that he has laid out every day. I think this album “The Similitude of a Dream” is quite a divine moment in itself. But, many times it isn’t just one big eureka moment; it is a series of inspirational movements often involving others as well. The moment that I knew that this was a divine appointment to make this record was when we got together to write the album and everything began falling into place in a rather miraculous way. But, before the album was complete, there was a lot of struggle and conflict and resolution that still had to happen in the band, but I think that’s all part of what makes this album so amazing. What I really mean is that sometimes it doesn’t come all at once, or easily, sometimes revelation comes over a period of time.

Speaking of divine moments, original music is often channeled from our Higher Selves. Some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that? Do you feel that those are the inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? How people always say it comes from somewhere else.

Oh yes, I was an atheist when I was younger. It wasn’t till my late 20s that I started to believe in God and one of the main reasons was because of the music that I would hear. It was definitely not always coming from me. There was something else going on. Sometimes it’s like angels are singing melodies in your mind! It’s so wonderful, but it isn’t just limited to music. I’ve heard many people say that, for example, they were working on a math problem and they just dreamed the answer. It’s a similar kind of thing. I mainly believe it’s a gifting from the divine universe, but, of course we have to work on it too.

What song or songs are you most proud of, that came in such an easy way, ethereally, almost?

Wow. A bunch of stuff on the new album is like that. We were struggling with the second disc on a Monday. On Tuesday morning at about 4 a.m. I woke up with some ideas and by noon I had written the framework for three or four songs that completed disc two. Bill Hubauer, our amazing keyboardist, also dreamed a theme into existence. We actually call it “Bill’s dream theme.” Usually on a big epic album like this, you’ll have at least three slow beautiful themes, but this album only had two. Bill came in when we were working on the second CD and said, “Guys, I woke up with this theme playing in my head. I don’t know if we can fit it in but here it is.” We wound up using it in three different places on the album, and it is now the theme that actually opens the album. “Bill’s dream theme.” Amazing.

What was it about the 1678 book by John Bunyan “Pilgrim’s Progress” resonated for you to create this concept album?

Nothing! Actually, at first I didn’t want to do it! Last December, I woke up early in the morning and I felt compelled to go into the studio and write some music. So I sat down at the piano, and I felt like I had some good ideas, but they needed some direction. Then I remembered that someone had emailed me months ago and suggested that I do a concept album on “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I get these kind of emails all the time as I’ve become known as the progressive rock concept album guy. So, being that I’d never read the book and I didn’t own a copy, I did what any modern person would do. I Googled the SparkNotes on my phone. As I looked at the synopsis of the story, I began singing little ideas into my phone. Many of these wound up being developed into the songs that framed the album. So, quite a bit of it was written before I ever read a page of the actual book!

We were all a little resistant at first to doing a double concept album based on this very old and rather challenging book, but as it unfolded, it became apparent that it was the right thing for us to do. Spiritual journeys are always something we’ve been interested in and have been writing about for some time, so it fits in our bag perfectly.

What is your songwriting process? Do you have a daily routine?

It is pretty random. Thank God for the smart phone. I used to carry around a handheld cassette player everywhere I went, to record ideas I thought of on the spot, but now I can just sing into my smartphone to remember. I never know when I’m going to hear something or have some inspiration. I wrote a song called “Wear the Chains” from my “Songs From November” album almost completely in the car. My best hours are in the morning for sure.

I’ve said in that blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, where one gets to fully channel their Higher Selves, their true selves. Do you resonate to that? You’re fully living your true self. You did not choose the 9 to 5 path. But to embark on this path you chose, living your higher calling, was that difficult? Because you didn’t know you would get here. You didn’t know you would have the longevity you now have.

Oh yes, it’s a huge risk! It’s a crazy, risky life. And it was very difficult. I spent years playing without any success. It wasn’t until after I was 35 that I had any results in the music business at all. So it was incredibly difficult to get through all of that, but the struggle makes the bit of success that I have had, all the more miraculous to me. The deeper the hell you go through, the more you appreciate heaven!

Unlike any time in history, we’re in an overwhelming digital era. There is so much detritus, noise and public schadenfreude. What’s your take on that and how do you find quiet in this noisy time?

There certainly is a lot of noise everywhere. Remember when there weren’t TV’s in restaurants? I’ll be trying to focus on what a young man is telling me about his struggles in life while the “Price Is Right” keeps drawing my eye, like it or not! Anyway, I take long walks alone or with my wife to keep straight.

How do you ground yourself and focus on your own life path and purpose and what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here?

Prayer would be the most important element for me. Ten to 30 minutes a day keeps me on track. I have to make sure I have enough time not just to ask, but listen as well. It really helps me keep focused and on track no matter how crazy life becomes.

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

Indeed! Essentially your whole life becomes a mitzvah. In fact, everything that you do to take care of yourself is so you’ll be well and in the right state of mind to be able to help others. If you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be any good to anybody else. So it’s all part of the whole.

Life does give us catalysts, a release valve in our lowest point of life, that allows us to push up to the next, hopefully better chapter. Was there a point for you that helped you push yourself further and evolve and do better?

Well, I spent many years wishing that I was dead. Not willfully suicidal, but every day privately wishing I didn’t have to wake up. Honestly, the big turning point for me was giving my life to Jesus. I tried a lot of other things. Transcendental meditation. Self-empowerment courses. And I got some relief and power from those things, but it didn’t last. The big change, the ultimate delivery from depression for me, came through the power of God working in my life and changing me from the inside out.

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is most connected to their true self, Higher Self, and able to honor and channel that gift. What are your thoughts on that? And, do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living, say from 20 years ago?

I never would’ve dreamed I’d be living the life I’m living now, it’s crazy! As for your question, I think it all depends on what your true calling is. You can be traveling the world playing music and not be fulfilled if it’s not where you really should be. My prayer is always, “Lord, put me where you want me and give me joy in whatever I am doing.” There are plenty of very depressed, divorced, addicted musicians and artists out there, so, the answer isn’t necessarily in “living the dream” so to speak, but in finding love and joy in your everyday life.

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

Start doing it. The best way to develop and learn is to get on the field and start playing. And listen. Listen to other musicians and the people around you, but also be careful about who you share with. The wrong people can tear you down very easily. So be active, be open, but be a little cautious too. Ask God to give you a little wisdom along the way.

It’s been a tough year for music, losing so many. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year and perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here?

I’m really more of a moment by moment guy, endeavoring to live there as much as possible. As for achievements I try to leave that in God’s hands entirely. He is the great achiever, not me.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course? Is there a song you play that inspires you when you’re needing some inspiration or to pick yourself up?

Oh yeah, one of my favorite songs right now is “No Longer Slaves” by Jonathan David Helser. It says simply, “I am no longer a slave to fear…I am a child of God.” I love its simplicity in reminding us of who we are. And if we realize who we are, then we will be fearless. Simply realizing who we are and that God “has us” can give us great boldness to stand against opposition and live boldly in our calling.

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