TRACY McNeil got luckier than most musicians in 2020 in that she actually got to launch her album You Be The Lightning.
The Canadian-bred Australian-based singer-songwriter's fifth album was released on February 14, 2020, and she and her band The GoodLife - Dan Parsons (lead guitar), Brendan McMahon (keyboards), Bree Hartley (drums) and Trent McKenzie (bass) - managed their NSW run of dates before the pandemic crushed their touring plans.
It was a cruel blow for McNeil. Before the album's release she'd tossed in a "really secure ongoing teaching job" to focus full-time on music. Extensive touring of Australia and a planned four-month trip to her North American homeland with Parsons was made impossible.
Yet despite the limited promotional opportunities, You Be The Lightning gathered momentum on its own.
By the end of 2020 You Be The Lightning was Double J's 17th best album of the year, it earned McNeil her first ARIA nomination for best blues and roots release and won best country album at the Music Victoria Awards.
Finally more than a year after the album's release, McNeil & The GoodLife kick-started their album tour last month in Adelaide - but only just.
Last year McNeil and Parsons moved from Melbourne to Brisbane, so they were caught up in the Queensland capital's snap lockdown. In order to be allowed to perform in Adelaide the pair underwent a COVID test and the negative results were only received hours before showtime, limiting their chances to rehearse with their Melbourne-based bandmates.
"I couldn't believe it [the comeback show] could be cancelled, so that fire in me said, 'f--k that, we're not cancelling this leg again'," McNeil says. "So I just had to take that risk.
"It was crazy. We got the results back at 1pm and soundcheck was at 5pm. We were in Adelaide and still mightn't have been able to play the show and might have had to cancel and play the next day. It was that close cut."
Despite a year-long wait for many fans to hear songs like Not Like A Brother, Catch You and Match To The Rock live, McNeil can see the benefits.
"I think it's kind of cool because anyone who released a record their audience has had a year to get to know that record, rather than they hear a couple of singles and they go to the launch and don't know the rest of the material," she says.
"It's been really nice the first shows we've done where people come up and say, 'man this record got me through lockdown'. People have had a whole year to listen to the record, so they know the songs and are really involved in it."
You Be The Lightning is arguably McNeil's most personal statement. It explores her painful marriage breakdown with former bandmate and Raised By Eagles frontman, Luke Sinclair, and her subsequent discovery of new love with Parsons.
A lot of us want to dig deep and really find what will make us happy and that might mean making changes in your life.Tracy McNeil
McNeil is adamant she's grown through the songs, which were written three to four years ago.
"I'm way beyond that now," she says. "Two years later I'm in a very different place.
"I think getting out and playing these songs live in front of an audience, you have to go there in your mind. You have to go back into the song to deliver it with any kind of power. Certainly I'm in a different place emotionally now."
Besides the album's obviously brighter production and '70s Californian pop-rock sound - compared to McNeil's similarly acclaimed 2016 record Thieves, which was rooted in alt-country - the lyrical themes have resonated.
"It's about rebirth, and shifting and change in your life and trying to find meaning in what you're doing and being alive and awake and not sleepwalking through life," McNeil says.
"A lot of people come up and tell me that really resonates with them. Especially the track Not Like A Brother.
"People say, 'it sounds like it's speaking to me'. A lot of us want to dig deep and really find what will make us happy and that might mean making changes in your life."
There's no immediate plans for another GoodLife record, but McNeil and Parsons have been working on a collaborative project that will likely come to fruition in the near future.
"It's different when you collaborate with anyone," she says. "There's traces you can hear, signature things that would be true of a Dan Parsons record and I'm sure the same will be true for me.
"But it's something outside of what we do individually, which makes it exciting for us because it has bit of a different sound."
McNeil moved to Melbourne from Canada in 2007 to undertake a post-graduate diploma in education, with the intention of returning after a year. However, she found a high school teaching job and entrenched herself in Melbourne's alt-country scene.
Before COVID she visited Canada frequently to see her Toronto-based brother and her mother in Port Colborne near the US border. She's watched from afar as Canadians have endured 1.26 million cases of COVID-19 and 24,000 deaths.
The province of Ontario (480,000 cases, 8000 deaths), where her family lives, has been the hardest hit. McNeil's 82-year-old aunt also caught COVID, but recovered.
"We're in such a bubble over here," she says. "Mum's really happy I'm here and we're safe and not going through anything like they're going through. It does suck for me knowing I can't just hop on a plane and go over there.
"It's tough over there, they're going through a whole different thing. All my friends over there and musicians I know are all locked down."
Tracy McNeil & The GoodLife play the Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine (May 8); Stag & Hunter Hotel, Newcastle (June 4) and support James Reyne at Toronto Hotel on June 5.