Stephen Neil: Violinist with a Cause
Dinner with a Twist
Stephen, who divides his time between Wilton Manors and Greenville, South Carolina, was having dinner on November 3rd with his partner, Luke. Through the balcony door that opened onto Wilton Drive, they started hearing car horns honking, followed by people standing on the sidewalk shouting obscenities at diners and passersby.
While Stephen understood why some people voted for Donald Trump in 2016—that they felt we needed change in the country—after four years, he wanted friends who were Trump supporters to grasp what was going on. With that in mind, he went out on the balcony and started filming the incident via Facebook Live. Shortly afterward, he decided that he needed to take further action and proceeded to perform songs with messages of love and acceptance on his electric violin across the street from the protesters.
The set was relatively short, only four songs, and the last one, Abba’s “Dancing Queen” wasn’t even recorded. He opened with “This Is Me”, from The Greatest Showman, followed by Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
Reflecting on what he did that night, Stephen realized that it was his attempt to reach out to the other side in a loving way, to do his part to try to end the bitter divisiveness that has engulfed our country. Eventually, when their hatred wasn’t met with the same from the other side of the street, the honkers and shouters left.
No Stranger to the Streets
That street performance was far from his first. About four years ago, after having worked for several years almost full-time on cruise ships, he and his identical twin brother, Jeff, set themselves up in Greenville, where Stephen had attended Furman University and felt at home. They performed often in the downtown area as the Synergy Twins, with both men on electric violin. Their street playing attracted plenty of notice, and soon they were performing at a variety of venues, including the Today Show.
How did the brothers get started on their uncommon path?
Musical Treasure Trove
One day when they were eight, Stephen and Jeff were bored at their Vienna, Virginia, home and went exploring. They discovered an old violin in a closet that great-grandfather Harry Neil, a blacksmith, had made for their grandfather. Harry found an instruction book and, using his forge, created the tools he needed and then the violin itself. The brothers still have some of the tools and two of the five violins he made, with a third in a museum in Garrett, Pennsylvania.
Stephen pestered his parents for lessons, and the following year, when stringed instrument instruction was offered in school, he began learning the violin. Jeff started viola lessons.
After a year, their teacher said they had an affinity for their instruments and thought they could go far. They began private lessons, which lasted through high school.
Playing Music That Speaks to Him
Stephen’s selections for Election Night hint at his musical tastes. “I play music that speaks to me”, he says. “It goes across all genres. It’s like my personality; I can’t focus on just one thing”.
He plays everything from church hymns to electronic dance music, fiddle music to power ballads from the 1980s. He plays both a traditional (acoustic) violin—mostly in churches—and an electric version. On his first album, “Celtic Spirit”, he mixes the two. The result is an exhilarating range of music from the rousing to the contemplative—all uplifting in their own ways. He expects his second album, “This Is Me”, to be released in mid-December. It will feature songs that all tell stories about his life.
Both albums demonstrate the pluses and minuses of producing oneself rather than leaving production in the hands of a company. Everything—from the title, to the vision for the cover, to selecting the cover artist, to doing the arrangements, to recording in the studio, to marketing—are the many hats Stephen wears, far beyond simply being “good at playing the instrument”.
When in Wilton Manors
When not recording, Stephen works as a full-time musician and entertainer. He does one show a month at the Pub, which gives him time to learn new music. He estimates that from start to finish, 20–40 hours go into learning and memorizing song to the point he feels comfortable playing it onstage. He tries to add three to four songs per month.
He also performs as a guest artist in Dee Dee Van Carter’s variety show at Spencer’s Corner Pub.
Stephen has had to reinvent his business model under COVID, playing only outdoors or in socially distanced event spaces. Recently, he played five days at the Wick Theater in Boca Raton. The lobby was ingeniously set up as a dinner theater or cabaret.
He hopes that eventually he will be able to do a proper release party for his new album. Meanwhile, it’s on to a third album—this one of all original songs. And he and brother Jeff are working on holiday album, which will be out for next year.