Behind the Artist: An Interview with Chantmagick

Chantmagick, aka Marilyn McNeal, is an independent creative who combines her love of music, film, nature, dance, and Earth into a unique presentation of art for her followers. It’s hard to pinpoint only one aspect of her music as the result of her success as it is all intertwined to represent the power of Chantmagick in a soft, subtle way. Read below to dive deeper into this lo-fi indie-folk artist and you’ll see what we mean.

What inspired the name Chantmagick? What does it mean?

When I think of chanting, the first thing that comes to mind is a group of monks cloaked and singing in a circle in some dark abbey during the Middle Ages. Somehow this imagery appeals to me, actually. I’m drawn to the sense of collective physical and spiritual pursuit of something higher than this image calls to mind.

The other side of it is that I like the sense that chanting is a simple, very physical intuitive and direct activity. Chanting means allowing your feelings and personal energy to pump through your body and out into the world in the form of energetic, fluid lines of melody. 

As for the word “magick,” I added the “k” to evoke a Middle Earth fantasy era of witches, warlocks, dragons, hobbits, etc. I remember growing up with Dune, The Hobbit, Star Wars, and being enthralled with the fantasy world these movies provided. Moving beyond our ho-hum day-to-day practical world and into a magical space where we can be our best selves is something I wanted to evoke in the project name.

Your platform seems to be more than just about making music…. describe to us in your own words what your art/music stands for.

I’m really interested in exploring universal questions around “who are we” as a species. What is our potential? How do we access our potential and how can we cultivate it for personal, community, and planetary good. Music, movement, and video are the means of expression I have at hand to ask these questions.

How does your music help people?

Reading the comments on my YouTube channel when I post a video has really been heartening and instructive. I’ll let my fans speak for themselves:

You sound like the earth. mysterious, vast, magical and wild. thanks for the music.”

You are the breath of fresh air and positivity we all need

Your music is very unique and gives me always a positive feeling

Your contribution is tremendous, hopeful, serene and leads us to a centered state of joy

This is therapy for the inner being.”

Thank you for sharing your songs, Your music is so peaceful and uplifting it truly is a Spirit thing.”

I feel lighter within seconds. Thank you for what you do by being genuinely you.”

What ideas are implemented throughout your work?

Through dance and music, I show myself in a state of becoming a more connected and sensitive human being. Through my song and dance, I want to elevate the present moment as an authentic source of information. I sing about and show intuitive, non-intellectual movement in nature, the fluidity of time and space, rejection of fear as a source of information, embracing growth, simplicity, and kindness.

What ideas do you hope to inspire in others?

I think the main idea behind showing myself in the midst of my growth process is to encourage others to identify, explore, and embrace their own growth process. What is getting in the way of them fulfilling their potential? What would unfettered growth look and feel like? What would one be moving towards? I am hard-wired to see the glass half full and not half empty. I want everyone who experiences my work to come away with an optimistic perspective.

Tell us more about the connection between Earth and nature into your creations. How is that translated through music and film?

I began creating work from within the Chantmagick project in March 2017. Initially, I used high-quality photos and video clips from Pixabay and paired this with my own music. The music at that time was layers of vocal chanting (meaning no lyrics just melodic vocalization) over mellow, hypnotic an electronic keyboards.  After 60 videos using Pixabay’s visual material, I realized that I literally had to put more skin in the game, meaning that I had to move in front of the camera. It was scary, but I felt that by showing myself dancing in the woods of Northern California, I would give additional context to the work allowing me to move the connection to nature piece closer to the center of what I was making.

Like everyone else, I’m working on being the best person I can be. Keeping ego in check, being aware and attuned to people around me, showing up for my family, showing up for my students, showing up in my relationship, just showing up in general. It’s not easy. 

I’ve lived in my head for decades and I finally emerged about 5 years ago! I really want to be here, in this moment. When I am present, or as I move closer and closer to being present most of the time, I find myself stretching, dancing around and singing ditties, melodies, silly songs. Maybe, it’s just nervous energy because being present is so unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I don’t know.  But, I figured out that taking my jitterbugging self out of the house and into nature was a good idea! Pulling up into the parking lot of a local park, filling water bottles, moving down the path smelling trees . . . all of it just calms me down and makes that coming to the center, being quiet and being present possible.

So it all just worked out. I decided to just let loose outside and have my partner video me losing my mind out of doors. It never occurred to me to lip-sync to my own songs in shopping malls and in cars or in bars. The visual component is a continuation of the music and the music is a continuation of the visual side.

Take us through your songwriting process…When writing a song, what typically inspires your lyrics and melodies?

Oh, thank you! This is such a good question. 
Initially, I began by creating an atmospheric layer of sound in Ableton Live, my recording software and then chanting over this layer multiple times in order to create lush vocal harmony. I’ve been learning how to record in Ableton Live over the past 10 years, diving into tutorials on the Sampler, Simpler, and Operator as the means to design sounds for music. Typically, I’ll get into it for a month or two and then burn out and focus on messing around with what I’ve picked up.

I thought it would be interesting to contrast sounds that I’d made in Ableton that were obviously synthetic with earthy, raw primitive chanting. Chanting also appealed to me because it feels so primal. You can’t really rehearse chanting. You feel it and you do it.

I worked in one or two continuous flows. I would dig around, throw together sounds and then stop the second I found something that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! Same with chanting. I rooted around in my spirit, guts, psyche, and body and made a vocal sound that felt like it belonged with the electronic keyboard layer. Once I recorded this, I harmonized to the vocal layer. Sometimes I would create several layers of harmony. I recorded 60 chants like this from March 2017 – September 2017, so for about 6 months. One of my favorites from this time is “A Chant for Whales” (See below).

Then, I just moved on. I started singing with lyrics and recording songs with the acoustic guitar. I felt like I was done with the ambient chants and wanted to move on to something that had been brewing in me for a long time . . . bringing together indie-folk influences like Yo La Tengo and Modest Mouse with the raw unvarnished power of American roots singers like The Carter Family and many of the performers on Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey series. I tune the guitar to whatever sounds good to me and then play brief repetitive phrases that I sing over. I’ve tried traditional Western songwriting and find that it doesn’t cover the in-between tones, feelings, and thoughts I want to express! I don’t have any solid guitar technique so I rely on custom string tunings and very primitive clusters of sound to express song ideas. I often play my own instruments that I make out of cardboard boxes, wire, sticks, and tin cans.

All this time, I’d been using my neighbor’s Rode NT-1A for my guitar and vocals and used a Presonus AudioBox interface I bought in 2005. Good gear is nice but my whole approach to music is making use of what you have. This goes for time, space, gear, and inspiration. My main thing is to keep my mind clear of distraction and anxiety so that when I have an idea, I can get to my setup and lay something down immediately. I try to nail everything in one or two takes. I’m going for authentic versus pro sounding. My feeling is that it’s more important to get and stay in the groove of expressing myself authentically than laboring for hours over the perfect reverb for a kick drum.  My wager is that over time, I will slowly improve. This has been true so far. My editing has improved over time but still has a long way to go!

I upgraded to an Audient ID14 interface and an AKG C214 at the beginning of last year. I also have a monthly subscription to Slate Digital’s mixing and mastering tools. It’s been nice to hear the difference.

Your YouTube platform is a huge focus of your art. How do you manage to be both the filmmaker and musician?

Curiosity. And the fierce desire to put my work in front of more and more people. From 2010 to 2016, I uploaded all of my songs to SoundCloud. I stopped uploading there because there was no community vibe. When I created my Chantmagick YouTube channel in 2017, I knew I would have to create videos for the songs I posted. This was and is exciting. Being consumed with the desire to make and share work has really propelled me to be open to learning new things. I got a smartphone, learned how to shoot cinematic videos, learned video editing to music, and haven’t looked back. Now I teach others how to do the same through a class I teach at UC Berkeley. 

The other thing is that tools and platforms for distribution keep changing, growing, morphing into the next thing. I look at everything and ask myself “Will this serve my mission of making great work and sharing it as widely as I can?” If the answer is yes, I learn it. If the answer is no, I keep moving.
I just started re-editing my work into 15 – 20 second nuggets for TikTok. I am so excited to have a new platform to work with. I am working on an article for Medium as we speak about my experiences with TikTok so far and why I think it’s a godsend for ambitious creatives. [Follow me here -TikTok,]

Which do you feel expresses your work better – film or music? Why?

Oooh. That’s a good one. Video and music have really fused into one entity now so it’s hard to separate them. When I think about it, I share my YouTube link more than my Spotify link. A – because I think building a community on YouTube is much more doable, fun, and rewarding than dealing with Spotify and B – because I feel like Spotify doesn’t respect musicians. That being said, I am finding myself putting my time into video platforms over just audio platforms because pairing my music with moving images is perfect. I’m so into it, I don’t know how much the songs stand up without videos. So videos with music vs just videos and just music.

Do you have a favorite song? Which one? Why?

“Find Someone You Love” is from Fall 2018. I entered a magical zone and wrote and recorded seven songs in the space of a month. I had my friend Rupert Clerveaux mix and master them and put them up on Spotify and Bandcamp. Somehow I channel the perfect creamy dark acoustic guitar sound that I’d been dreaming of for ages.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind with your work?

I want to show people that they can express themselves honestly using whatever tools they have at hand. Then they can share their work as an offering to people everywhere who might benefit from it. I’m pretty bored by identity politics, but I have to say that I delight in sharing sounds and moving images of myself as a black woman dancing and connecting to nature to the folk soundtracks I create. It’s so much fun and everyone always is blissed out when they see the work. It feels good.