Singin’ the Detroit blues

Eliza Neals and the Narcotics play Taffy’s

By Josher Lumpkin

Eliza Neals is no stranger to music and performing. Song filled her home as she was growing up in a suburb of Detroit. Her father would play guitar, her older sister would play piano and Eliza and her two sisters would sing together to pass the time. Soon, she was writing her own songs, performing them in talent shows. It only made sense that she would go to college for music.

“I went to Wayne State University, and I was deciding which way to go and went in with opera,” Neals says. “Because on the entrance test that you take, I actually passed the test for opera.”

Anyone who’s listened to Neal’s work would be surprised to find that her education is founded in a style of music so formal. Known for her abrasive style of blues-rock, Neals has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge.

“They said I had a God-given voice, and I could go to Vienna and study and do all this,” Neals says. “So, I got my degree in opera, and also piano. I also studied jazz there. I had my own rock band. I was playing five nights a week. So, let’s just say, it was a whole music study.”

Unlikely as it may be, studying opera technique had useful implications for the aspiring rocker.

“It gave me a lot of tips for sustaining my breathing and vocal ability while I’m singing. So it was kinda like I learned what I had to do, but then after you learn the technique, you have to kind of forget some of it as well to do what I do on stage, which is singing gritty blues rock,” Neals says.

Linda Ronstadt, B.B. King and Etta James were staples in the Neals’ home while Eliza was growing up, so it was only a matter of time before she would focus her career on the bluesier end of the music spectrum.

“Every time I would sing a blues standard or something like that, people would always say, ‘Man, you should really go into the blues.’ So it just kept leading me more and more into it,” Neals says. “Every time I’d sing something bluesy, it was always like I’d write a song that was like a blues ballad or something like that. It just kept going into that direction, and so I think that’s just where I went. And even my vocal coaches in school would say, ‘You really have a cool sound for blues to your voice.’ Because I was a mezzo-soprano, which is like a deeper color, not super high. … I kept going in that direction and it got grittier and grittier.”

The prolific Neals has released six albums since her 2003 debut. Her most recent effort has been praised by critics all over.

“I started off writing a lot of it in my loft,” Neals explains. “These are ideas I’d come up with and I’d sing into my iPhone, so then I remember the idea. I’d have 20 or 30 different ideas going on at once, or I’d write lyrics down. But mostly it’s started on my piano in my loft. I was writing melodies and different grooves … And then from there, I started to go to a studio right near me in New Jersey. I run back and forth from Detroit to Jersey all the time.”

Neals got a lot of help from friends and colleagues to make Breaking and Entering the best album she could.

“The very first song that I cut was ‘Sugar Daddy,’” she continues. “And that was written by Barrett Strong, who is my mentor from Detroit. He wrote that when he was 16, and I just switched to a woman’s point of view [laughs]. I went in there and basically hired some musicians that I know in New York. We did that song, and it came out really cool.”

Before long, Neals had a whole slew of tracks.

“So I took a lot of the tunes I wrote to Nashville, to my friend there, Mike Puwal, and he did a lot of the music with me there in his studio,” Neals says. “He co-produced a lot of it with me. We got Kenny Olson, who started off with Kid Rock, and wrote a lot of those hits with him … but he played some of the stuff with different musicians in Nashville. And then I came back to Detroit and finished up a lot of the tunes with my band that I use there. Howard Glazer, world-renowned guitar player, came up with some of the grooves. I would say, ‘Come on! Give me your grittiest guitar riffs.’ And then he sent me some good guitar tracks, and I put some of the words that I had written, some of the melodies to some of those grooves.”

So what can her audience expect at the Eliza Neals and the Narcotics show at Taffy’s Friday night?

“We’re gonna bring in the Detroit blues rock that they haven’t heard lately,” Neals says. “And we’re gonna take them back right to ’67, which is what we sound like and look like. And they’re gonna be on a major, energetic, wild, psychedelic rock blues trip.”

Eliza Neals and the Narcotics will perform Friday, Jan. 29 at Taffy’s, 123 E. Main St. in Eaton. There is no cover, and all ages are welcome. Doors open at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit

Josher Lumpkin is a nursing student and aspiring historian who enjoys writing about music and geekdom of all kinds. He is especially fond of punk rock, tabletop gaming, sci-fi/fantasy and camping with his wife, Jenner, and their dogs, Katie and Sophie. Reach him at

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Josher Lumpkin is a nursing student and aspiring historian who enjoys writing about music and geekdom of all kinds. He is especially fond of punk rock, tabletop gaming, sci-fi/fantasy and camping with his wife, Jenner, and their dogs, Katie and Sophie. Reach him at

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