It’s Saturday morning and Stevie Neale sounds remarkably cheerful for someone lying on the floor of her family’s house in Cornwall, England, recovering from a slipped disc. We’re speaking over Skype and, even injured, she’s a forceful presence, urging me, albeit as sweetly as possible, to rethink all my opinions about her music. “A lot of people keep describing me as a garage artist, and I can hear it, I guess,” she says, laughing like it’s an absurd assertion. We’re talking about Neale’s breakout track “Dangerous,” a rich, housey, piano-driven love song with sparkling chord changes and a shuffling rhythm section that has more than a few fans calling her the rebirth of ’90s UK garage. I had been planning to pick her brain extensively about how a young, self-produced musician became so skilled at that signature shuffle and syncopation, but she’s just shot that all to hell. “Really, it’s pop music,” she says. “But it’s R&B as well.”
Neale has the kind of voice that makes rooms go quiet and fills headphones entirely. Strong and spacious, it has just a hint of breathiness, but mostly it’s heady, rich and clean. Her upcoming EP, Obsessed, chronicles Neale’s personal relationships and a tragedy so bizarre it’d be impossible to make up. About a year ago, Neale’s first boyfriend suddenly lost his memory. “He collapsed and got amnesia, and forgot everything,” says Neale. She was thrown, even though the two hadn’t been together for some time. “I was just distraught, but I felt kind of selfish, because how must his family have felt?” The same day, Neale wrote the EP’s closer “Way Down in Your Love,” a piano ballad that she says is her favorite track on the album, channeling her conflicted feelings into a song that expresses the pain and finality of knowing that there was absolutely no future for her and the person with whom she felt “so in love with it was ridiculous.” By translating an incredibly specific event into a universal pop ballad, Neale demonstrates her melodic prowess, striking that razor-thin balance between hook-reliant pop and emotional R&B.
Neale is entirely self-taught, both vocally and on piano. She cut her teeth playing in bars and clubs in Cornwall before setting out to London to try her hand at a bigger career. “Close to You,” another ballad from Obsessed, has a classic ’90s R&B feel, coupled with nuanced piano arrangement, a catchy, arpeggiated melody and, yes, a shuffling garage rhythm. But even with the expert production, it’s Neale’s alto that gets down the deepest. Neale sings longingly, It’s sick to admit/ What I miss the most/ Is the way we fight/ But it felt so right, and you can feel her yearning through your speakers. “I feel constantly heartbroken, all the time,” says Neale, even as her cheery disposition betrays very little. I completely forget that the whole time we’ve been talking, she’s been stuck flat on her back, unable to move. For someone in pain, Neale has an impressive poker face, but that might be the result of a lifetime’s worth of practice. “I guess I’m quite a vulnerable person, and I feel like I’m being taken advantage of a lot. I don’t know if that’s me being paranoid, but it definitely fuels the songs that I write.”