Welcome to Songwriting School, where we talk to local songwriters about how they wrote one specific song.
As frontman of Jacksonville based indie-rock band Teal Peel, songwriter Taylor Neal is the first to admit to his own perfectionism. He held onto some of the band’s songs for several years prior to releasing them. But when you hear the recordings, his hard work in the studio really shows, especially on one surfy, sunny track called “Sandy.”
The following interview has been condensed and edited from the original recording.
Tell me a little bit about how the song was born and how it fits into the rest of your new EP.
“Sandy” was an earlier Teal Peel song, I think. It was definitely one that, as I started playing around with this idea, I brought it to the band and they brought it to life. That’s kind of how most of our writing goes: I come to them with an idea and they really bring it all together.
The EP consists of songs that I’ve released as singles beforehand, and we wanted those singles to come across as sort of a glimpse of the record. Some of the songs are more dynamic, quieter, then there are some of the drivier or more energetic ones like “Smello Coffee,” and I feel like “Sandy” is a little bit of an in-between. It’s also the twangiest song on the album. We figured summertime was a really good time to put this one out.
What instrument did you write “Sandy” on? Was it on guitar?
Yeah, mainly on guitar.
Do you write most of your songs on guitar?
Yes. Typically I start on an acoustic guitar, and then as I bring it to the band and I start playing electric with it. Things change between that, you know, I might play it a little bit differently on electric as I do acoustic, but I think with “Sandy,” specifically, I think I played this one on electric first, and that’s kind of how the tone of all the twanginess and country-inspired stuff slipped in even from the beginning of the song.
What kind of guitar did you write it on?
I think this one was a Fender Strat, the white Strat that I play now.
You have a production background. I don’t think a lot of people writing songs are also music producers themselves, so I’m curious if that made you hear other instruments more than maybe someone who just plays guitar might.
Maybe. I was very excited to dive into this one. Once we started tracking it, the way we approached the recording process for this song, along with all the songs on this album, is we did a couple of days at a Friends of Friends studio with Brok Mende and just tried to track the fundamental foundation of this record. Just a live take of the bass, drums, guitars. And I sang a scratch track just to kind of keep us in time. But none of that was tracked to a click or anything. We wanted it to feel very live and in-the-moment. We did this wonderful two- or three-day session with Brok, and then we left there with just the real bare bones of the record.
And from there, I had the beauty of sitting on it for as long as I wanted because I was mixing and producing it. That ended up being longer than I kind of wanted to, I guess, because I kept on changing things and adding more and more layers and then taking things away. But I think I’ve always heard the sounds of horns and saxophone and stuff in the background of this song specifically. Landon Gay played pedal steel on this track, too.
Something I often forget to include when I’m writing music are lines like “ba da ba dum dum.” Those little Roy Orbison kinds of sounds. How do you even remember, “Oh, this is language I have access to that really only exists in music?”
I always write songs with the music first. I’ll start with the chords and kind of figure that out. And the lyrics are always like a secondary thing for me because I’m not very good at it, in my opinion. I always struggle with it, but as I’m starting to piece together songs, sometimes I’m singing gibberish just to get a melody in mind. And this was one of those instances where the gibberish kind of stayed on the track. And it’s just fun for this song specifically, too. I feel like it’s part of the song. It wasn’t a very conscious thing, you know. I just felt like I had to sing something that led into the next phrase but didn’t really have words for it.
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As for lyrics, in the chorus, you describe someone who’s scared of getting sandy, who hates the feeling of sand between their toes. Who did you have in mind when you were writing these lyrics, and are they representative of something larger?
This song was kind of written about, or at least inspired by, the idea of my grandpa. We call him Pops, and he is just one of the funniest people I know, and he hates the beach. He does not like getting sandy and he hates birds. He gets so annoyed by them. And I just think that’s the funniest thing in the world, especially since all of us in the band love going to the beach. I grew up surfing and stuff, so the best day of my life was going to the beach with my family when I was a kid. It was just so funny to me that my grandpa really didn’t like it.
There’s a turning point at the end of the song where I’m talking about not minding seeing the birdies. It’s kind of like coming to terms with the things around you. And, you know, even if you’re going to get a little messy and dirty or sandy from it, just settling into it, being a bit more comfortable with where you’re at in life—that’s kind of the bigger picture of this song.
Has your grandfather heard the song yet?
He has. And I didn’t really tell him whenever I wrote it or even released it. I didn’t say, “This song is about you.” But he did come to a show that I played recently, and I mentioned from the stage before the song that the song was about him. And of course he got all emotional and loved every second of it. There are little elements of that song as well as other songs on the album that have to do with family. And yeah, this was a special one for me.
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You mentioned earlier that you were working on the mixes for a while. I think you even said years. How do you combat perfectionism while you’re writing songs?
Man, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out. I mean, at a certain point, we were playing more shows, and I was like, “Man, it’s really time to wrap this thing up.”
It was a really cool process because we started the demos, did them myself at home, and then once we felt like we were ready to take them into the studio, we did a few days with Brok at Friends of Friends and after that, I had all this time on my hands to do it. But once I did feel like I was coming to a stopping point with the whole record as a whole concept, we actually took it back to Brok for mastering. So it was kind of this full-circle evolution.
Teal Peel is releasing their first full length record this year. In the meantime, stream “Sandy.”