Neal awarded a 2010 McKnight Composition Fellowship

May 17, 2010

The McKnight Foundation announced that singer/songwriter Neal Hagberg, of Neal & Leandra, has been awarded the McKnight Composition Fellowship.  Rarely given to a singer/songwriter, Hagberg received the fellowship to continue and expand the creative work he has been doing around his solo CD project, “It’s Not As Simple As It Seems.”  This is Hagberg’s second McKnight Fellowship, the first coming in 2002, a McKnight Performing Artists Fellowship awarded to Neal & Leandra (Leandra Peak).

The American Composers Forum announced the four recipients of this year’s McKnight Composition Fellowships, funded by the McKnight Foundation. These awards, which include $25,000 in unrestricted funds for each recipient, are meant to acknowledge excellence in the field of music composition. The four fellows were chosen from a total pool of 77 applicants.

The 2010 Composer Fellows are:
Neal Hagberg (Minneapolis, MN)
Jocelyn Hagen (Minneapolis, MN)
Ann Millikan (St. Paul, MN)
Peter O’Gorman (White Bear Lake, MN)

Neal Hagberg has been a professional singer/songwriter for more than 20 years. As the principal songwriter and half of the duo Neal & Leandra,  he was signed by Columbia Artists Management and Red House Records. They have released 11 CDs and performed in 45 states and Canada, and together were recipients of the 2002 McKnight Fellowship for Performing Arts.

Neal & Leandra have made frequent appearances on regional and national public radio programs, and have sold out many CD release concerts at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.  They were featured on the main stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and have performed at Carnegie Hall Showcases.  

The career that they built as Neal & Leandra took off with the release of their signature song, “Old Love,” which was emblematic of the themes of love, and the ups and downs of family life that dominated their catalog and built a following of loyal fans across the country.  Hagberg has also received numerous commissions from members of their audience.

Three years ago, Neal Hagberg began a solo project that caused him to wrestle with the moral dilemmas of our age by illuminating them in song. This path was new and transformational.  Troubled by the polarization and lack of civility and understanding around difficult subjects such as abortion, homophobia, immigration and war, he wrote songs addressing those topics. In pursuing this, he wanted to steer controversy away from Neal & Leandra and the reputation that they had built together, while writing and performing songs that made people uncomfortable but weren’t incendiary, and that helped raise awareness of personal prejudices. The resulting CD, “It’s Not As Simple As It Seems,” continues to be a revelatory artistic and personal journey. The 14 featured songs put a human face on the suffering we cause each other. He was uncertain of how the world – and the audience who knew him - would respond.

While he started the project with some fear – braced for negative response and anger - Hagberg was surprised by the depth of conversation, and by the participants’ willingness to examine their own prejudices and build bridges. He asks them to leave their political and religious opinions at the door and approach the subject matter with their own experience. The music is a catalyst to greater understanding. One workshop participant wrote that she “was willing to suspend my need to judge when I listen to a song, because I want to know where it will end up, in a way that I’m not willing to do when someone is just talking. This format works in a way I didn’t expect it to.”

In the past year, he has taken the songs into colleges, seminaries, public libraries and organizations where dialogue can begin. He has led ethics classes and theater groups, worked with gay and lesbian advocacy groups and Women’s Awareness Centers, and even taken the project into biochemistry classes and praise services. He has also incorporated the material into songwriting workshops and speaking engagements.

In each of these venues, the conversations about this music have been more respectful than he could have imagined. As an example, a student at one college was introspective about “Imagine That,” which explores how religious fundamentalism overshadows human kindness and thwarts our capacity to love. The song looks at the life of a loving and deeply religious mother who cares for her children but fails to see beyond her own belief system and how she judges others. The college student, who attended a discussion group after the concert, broke an uncomfortable silence in the room with “That’s me.” He went on to talk about the intolerance in his own life, opening the door for others – Hagberg included - to explore the basis of their own beliefs and prejudices.

Everything about “It’s Not As Simple As It Seems” has been unpredictable; full of artistic and personal challenges. While not commercially viable, the opportunity to effectively change the nature of the dialogue around difficult issues has been reward in itself. It is a path that Hagberg is being given the opportunity to explore further, with the subsequent award and funding by The McKnight Foundation.