Perhaps it's in the genes. Casey Neill has a Scotch-Irish heritage, and a gift for storytelling to go with it. But it wasn't until hearing Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" at the impressionable age of 10 that Neill was drawn to a Celtic-folk sound that has continued to inform his music.
That influence has served as the foundation for a variety of stylistic approaches, ranging from meditative balladry to brash rock with punk undertones. Neill has continued those explorations across eight albums dating to his mid-1990s career beginnings. What remains consistent is his love for a good story and a fascinating character.
"While I'm prone to writing the occasional love song, I'm generally looking for narrative-driven songs," says Neill, relaxing in his Portland, Ore., home before his new tour commences.
Neill's music has only gotten better with time. His raspy baritone imbues his narratives with a passion and pathos that suggest another early inspiration, Bruce Springsteen. Neill and his band, the Norway Rats, evoke the Jersey icon's blue-collar romanticism on 2010's Goodbye to the Rank and File, even though Neill's characters tend to be long-suffering musicians rather than working-class heroes.
"Doing music into your 30s as a living, you become more of a journeyman about it, and develop the skills as well as the attitude to do it, to steel yourself against the music business in all of its vagaries," says Neill. "The album is really all about honoring the people that are still doing it. That's at the center of it."
Unlike 2007's Brooklyn Bridge, which flits from Irish lilt to country twang to folky punk, Rank and File is a more focused endeavor that manages to clear a path among the three. Neill credits longtime collaborator/drummer Ezra Holbrook, who produced the album, with finding a sonic clarity to match its thematic unity.
Prior to that, Neill had recorded as a solo artist for the folk-minded Appleseed Records. The idea of working in a band setting came from longtime friend and producer John Cunningham, back when the songs for Brooklyn Bridge were still in their infancy.
"He basically said, 'Look, these are rock songs, and we need to set them that way,'" Neill recalls. So the artist relocated to New York City, where Cunningham was living at the time, and the two of them put together a band. And then everything changed: Cunningham died suddenly, and Neill's father, who'd also been living in New York City, moved away.
"That was immensely difficult," says Neill, "so I came back to Portland and put together a band with kind of the blueprint that John had set forth in New York."
Neill says much of the next album is already written, with several songs finding their way into the current set list. And, in keeping with the lingering Irish spirit, Neill and his mates also play in a Pogues tribute band ("We have a drunken throwdown a couple times a year") that also includes members of the Decemberists, Eels and Young Fresh Fellows.
For Neill, all this group activity is still a new experience.
"Rank and File is in some ways a very contemplative album; it has its rockers, but I kind of want something a little more in-your-face," he says of the next Norway Rats album. "I'm excited to see how we can take it further."