Brother Neil represents the singer/songwriter side of Neil Parent's fascinating musical split personality. This multi-faceted creative talent has shone as a big band jazz crooner and member of an acapella vocal group, but of late he has been focused upon writing and singing his own original material. The first fruits of those labours have just emerged on his debut solo album, Bonfire Confessions. This lovely record introduces Brother Neil as a triple threat. He's a fluent fingerstyle acoustic guitarist, and this provides the ideal sonic accompaniment for emotionally eloquent folk-rooted songs that are delivered via a warm and welcoming vocal style. "Bonfire Confessions is the first time I've gone public performing my own compositions," Brother Neil explains. "The words and music are all deeply inspired by the life I live and the people and many musical influences I've encountered on my journey." His choice of album title is a fitting one. Sitting in front of a fire often induces the type of soul-searching and philosophical meditation that makes good raw material for a song, and Neil finds this setting helps him free the muse. "I'm always drawn to the fire and my guitar," he says. "Every single song I've really honed, I did in front of a fire."
Parent's passion for songwriting began after a fortuitous encounter in 2012 with Nashville-based singer/songwriter Cody Wilder (his hits include truckers anthem "Super Driver"). "I started writing songs for him, digging through some old lyrics and trying to match them to his sound," Neil recalls. "Both Cody and some other close friends whose opinions I trust said 'these are great songs. You should be doing them.' That really boosted my confidence, and here we are!" Once he'd compiled enough material for a full-length record, Brother Neil connected with London-based producer Ryan Tuer, and began the recording sessions in Tuer's studio. Skilled local players Junior Riggan (bass), Stephen Sczesniak (drums), and Christopher Stahlke (violin) add empathetic accompaniment on some tunes, while Parent's longtime friend and musical collaborator Mike Whaling shines on guitar and occasional harmony vocals on four songs (he also co-wrote "Grown In The Shadows" with Brother Neil). Mike plays in the group Pigeon Jones alongside Junior and Stephen, and he was responsible for introducing them to Neil. The sound of Bonfire Confessions was deliberately kept sparse and acoustic-based. Neil explains that "I've done things for other people in the past that have had electronic instrumentation, but to me that can take away from the soul of the song." The album is primarily rooted in folk, the genre most suited to Brother Neil's songwriting.
Bonfire Confessions does have enough stylistic variation to keep things interesting. There's a relaxed and jazzy vibe to "A Reason Why," a song reflecting Neil's jazz crooner side, "Saugeen River Moan" has a bluesy feel, and "Inside" is a lovely instrumental featuring both Brother Neil and Mike Whaling on guitar. Lyrically, Brother Neil draws from his own experiences and emotions in these songs. He actually wrote the lyrics to "Where Do I Go (From Here)" for his wife, before they'd even dated, and she's also the subject of the tender violin-accented ballad "Met Her In The West" ("it's the rarest thing in the world to find this combination of beauty and kindness"). As a songwriter, Neil has drawn inspiration from artists ranging from Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot and Simon and Garfunkel through to the more contemporary likes of Amos Lee and City and Colour. He is self-taught as a guitarist, and songwriting is boosting his instrumental prowess. "Through the process of writing these tunes I've discovered a lot about myself as a player as well," Neil notes.
Parent's love affair with music is a long one, and it has taken on many different shapes. He was born into a musical family, with his mother having been a young accordion prodigy in Timmins, while her father was the drummer in a big band there. In Grade 3, Neil was enrolled in the famed St. Michael's Choir School, and his years of study there would pay later dividends. After leaving the SMC School in Grade 8, he became, in his own words, "a bit of a juvenile delinquent for a few years, but I started to turn things around again when music came back into my life. I had a great drama instructor who talked me into taking a role in The Sound of Music. Somewhat to his surprise, Neil loved the experience and the feeling of being onstage. That same teacher helped fuel his jazz via a Harry Connick Jr cassette. "I'd been into Sinatra, Bobby Darin and the crooners, and here was a young guy doing it," Neil reminisces. "I did 'Mack the Knife' for a cabaret, and Mike Whaling and I went to see Forever Plaid in Toronto in 1994. All those four-part vocal harmonies really inspired us." Encounters with a couple of Toronto jazz veterans then played a key role in Parent's musical development. "When our family lived in Newmarket, our next door neighbour was [legendary drummer] Archie Alleyne. I remember going into his office and being very impressed with his drum set and all the pictures on the wall. Archie is the guy who first got me up on stage, at The Rex when I was just 19." Noted jazz pianist/bandleader Norman Amadio entered the picture when he was asked to play at Neil's sister's wedding. "My mother told me that her dad had played with Norman in Timmins back in the day," Parent reminisces. "I sang with him at the wedding, and then at some shows with him later. We did a couple of recordings together and we'd hang out all the time. It was a huge boost of confidence that he'd do all these projects with me. That showed me I could do this and have people dig it." Now hooked on performing, Neil then teamed up with the ten-piece Uptown Swing Band, singing Songbook standards at various festivals, functions and clubs.
A year of studying jazz at Humber College imparted valuable musical knowledge, after which Parent took up a position at Air Canada. Career and family (four daughters, ranging age from 4 to 12) then took priority, but Neil remained musically active. Known in jazz circles as Neil Kristian, he has continued to perform in that genre, both with the Uptown Swing Band and in smaller combos he has led. In 1997, he and some friends from Humber College and former SMC School classmates formed the a ccapella quintet FATE. "We would perform doo-wop tunes, Boyz 11 Men covers, and even Gregorian chants. We played shows in Los Angeles, Korea, Paris, and Lisbon, and once appeared on CITY-TV's Breakfast Show," says Neil. As a trio, the group also later did some recording with a then comparatively unknown young producer Adam Messinger, who in recent years has found platinum-plated fame (and a Grammy award) working with such artists as Shakira, Magic!, Justin Bieber, and Chris Brown. Parent has kept in touch with Messinger, who has given Bonfire Confessions his thumbs-up! This experience in working in the group vocal format paid dividends recently when Parent was hired to arranged and perform group backup vocals for three songs on an album by Sony Music Canada recording artist Emilio Fina. One key event in Brother Neil's music career came in 2010. He and some vocally talented co-workers at Air Canada formed a group, Airborne 11, to enter the popular Global TV competition Canada Sings. Led by team captain Parent, they won, earning $10,000 for their chosen charity, Ronald Macdonald House. "That was a huge learning experience," says Neil. "It taught me to always say yes when someone asks you to get onstage. You're going to love it!" Word of the group's triumph reached the headquarters of their union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "They put out an invite to people involved in music to come down and rearrange and update some of the old labour music, as well as compose some new material. Three of us went down to Maryland, hanging out with 25 other musicians for 10 days."
Some of the songs Neil wrote were featured on a double CD compilation put out by the union. One of these is "Reap What You Sow," reprised as the powerful closing song on Bonfire Confessions. Another great result from the Maryland experience was meeting Cody Wilder, an artist whose encouragement has helped lead Parent into his new incarnation as Brother Neil, singer/songwriter. He is now fully committed to this new musical role, writing prolifically and already contemplating his next album. "I've just finished my seventh song for the second record," Neil says. "Melodies pop into my head as I'm about to go to sleep. I'll jump up and scribble them down or go to the piano. It drives my wife nuts! We await the second Brother Neil record with eager anticipation, but for now there is the rich and rewarding experience of immersion in Bonfire Confessions. Gather round!
-Written by Kerry Doole