In 2009, Bob McNeill took an extended trip to southern California, arriving in Santa Barbara in the wake of the Jesusita fire. People were still returning to their homes and starting to rebuild; single-prop 802 dusters dropped retardant on still-smouldering areas in the deep gulches, in daredevil-style missions. Climbing out again, they barely cleared the roofs of houses on the ridgelines. McNeill spent weeks around Santa Barbara and Carpinteria before moving to San Francisco, to the Mission. He wrote fifteen songs while living there, in the back of an old leather-bound journal. In the later part of his trip, he took a break from writing and explored SF.
The journal was not among his things when he arrived back in New Zealand in November 2009. McNeill searched everywhere for it; friends ransacked the San Fransisco apartment where he stayed, but it was not found. Finally giving up, McNeill was able to reconstruct four of the songs, but the rest were lost. After several fruitless attempts to rewrite the material, he and the survivors moved on to other projects, including his 2010 release Me and Mary Ann, produced by the late Rob Winch. During the recording sessions Winch decided none of the new songs fit with the older, NZ-oriented material on the new record (as usual, Winch was right).
In 2016, McNeill began sorting through seldom-touched items in the junk room of his Wellington home while clearing space to renovate. Among the items he had to shift were two weather-beaten suitcases, one of which had not been used since he bought the house in 2011. Because the telescopic handle was stuck open, he opened the case and unzipped the backing; jammed at the bottom was the journal lost in 2009.
The words were there; some of the melodies came back straight away, others were reconstructed, played and fretted over for months in 2016, when McNeill decided to make the record he'd been planning to make in 2009; basing it on the songs he'd written back then, and using scratch recordings made in his Dolores Street apartment in September 2009 as a guide, he called it The California Tapes.