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Neil Young Has a Lot More To Give

Singer-songwriter discusses ‘Barn,’ his new album with Crazy Horse; 50th anniversary plans for ‘Harvest’; upcoming ‘Archives 3’; and more


In September of 1971, Neil Young took Graham Nash out on his lake in a rowboat and blasted his new album, Harvest. He’d wired his Northern California ranch house as the left speaker and a barn as the right speaker; as the record played, his producer, Elliot Mazer, ran down to the shore to ask how it sounded. “More barn!” Young famously yelled.

More than 50 years later, Young is still on his quest to find more barn. In fact, Barn is the title of his new album with Crazy Horse, out this Friday, named after a different old barn that they spent nine months restoring in the Rockies. A documentary of the same name, directed by Young’s wife, actress Daryl Hannah, chronicles the making of the album. It features Young, guitarist Nils Lofgren, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina tearing through the 10 tracks, accompanied by Young’s dogs Moon and Mo, some cold beer, and a full moon overhead.

Young hopped on a Zoom call from his mountain home to talk about the new album and reveal details about his upcoming releases — from the third installment of his archives (covering the years 1976-1987) to 50th anniversary plans for Harvest.

You recorded Colorado, the last album you made with Crazy Horse, in a proper studio. Why did you decide to go back to a barn this time around?
Well, the barn is something we love. It’s a great old barn, and it was recently restored. It was built in 1850, around then. It was the barn where the stagecoaches used to stop and they’d service the horses there and clean up the wheels. Then there were a couple of funky buildings around where people used to sleep, and then they’d get back in the stagecoach and keep on going. So that’s what it was built for in the 1850s.

We restored it using all the original stuff. We had some sketches and a photograph. It was starting to sink into the ground and the back was broken and it was just funky. But we got these great ponderosa pines — beautiful building, with all these round surfaces. The thing is, logs on top of each other create a ripple of roundness. There’s no squares. Squares are the enemy of sound. They create a standing wave, which makes some frequencies jump way out and other ones disappear. So you have to compensate for all that when you’re recording. We hardly had to do any of that. Everything sounded really good, right in the building.

You’ve been playing in barns since Harvest. What’s your connection to them?
When I did Harvest, I wanted to play somewhere. They had a barn and it looked good and I thought it might be cool. We had a pretty cool-looking stage and everything was really good. 50 years later, we try it again. What the heck!

You cut the album in June, under a Strawberry Moon. Why is recording under a full moon so important to you?
I like to do it because it works for me. I don’t know if it works for everybody, but it works for me because you can feel the energy when the moon cycles change. That’s something that people have been aware of for years and years — some cultures more aware. Just as the new moon comes, you feel different that day, like when you turn the page. You just feel an energy. And then maybe a week later, you really start to feel something, and it’s usually really positive and creative, real good. So that’s why we choose the moon as the main date for ending the sessions.

Daryl puts a lot of humor into the Barn documentary, from capturing the band singing about cold beer to a scene where you take a leak. What makes her great as a filmmaker?
She’s just a natural. She’s wanted to do films since she was old enough to wear sneakers. I mean, she just loves it. She’s incredibly talented and connected. She gets moved by the music and gets really involved. So we built this barn and it was all just happening at once — music, filming, everything. The ideas came really fast.

Let’s get into the band. What do you see as the biggest differences in the sound between the Poncho [Sampedro] Crazy Horse and the Nils [Lofgren] Crazy Horse?
Poncho is huge. Poncho is a strong player, and he’s a great player. He’s heavy, his chords. He and I play the same thing sometimes, so it sounds like this guitar from somewhere else, because we play the same notes at the same time. It’s very simple, but it’s huge. What Nils has is a lot of finesse. He really listens, and he’s incredibly adept at moving around on his instruments, no matter what they are. But he’s a great musician, world class. On this record, you get to hear Nils Lofgren. You get to hear all the detail. It’s not that much else going on. It’s Crazy Horse, pretty simple. So you get to appreciate him for who he is [and] what he brings.

When you look back over the last 50 years of the Horse, do you have a favorite period of the band?
Well, I like this one. This is good. I like what’s going on now. I don’t have a memory of the Horse that’s any better than any other time. Although, we did uncover a concert. It’s highlights of a 1976 tour with Crazy Horse that starts Volume III of the Archives, first track, first disc. It’s an unbelievable live record, probably the best recording of Crazy Horse I’ve ever heard. Really good sound and crazy playing, obviously not a care in the world about anything. So it’s perfect for the Horse. I’m very excited about that.

“Canerican” is about your pride in being a United States citizen, which you became last year. What did it mean to you to be able to vote in the last presidential election?
It was great to vote for Joe Biden, because he’s somebody you can respect as a human being [who’s] good for the country. A good example for the kids, of how to act and how to be polite, how to be firm and how to be on the job. So I enjoyed being able to vote for him. And after the previous round, it was essential. I thought my vote might make a difference. So I wanted to get in and do everything I could to do that.

Strangely enough, I was driving down the road the other day in my bus, some town. And we pulled over and a little black car came out in front of us. And it had “Fuck Biden and fuck all you people who voted for him!” written on it on the back window. Such a terrible vibe. I was looking at the car going, “Well, I hope it doesn’t hit anything. This car is destined for something.” What is that about? Why be so upset? Why be so immature, so childish about your preference for one person or another? The idea is to try to respect other people’s opinions, I think. And even if you don’t agree with them, they’re Americans. They have an opinion. They live here, too. They’re just like you and me in many ways. It’s been like that for forever, for the United States. I just don’t understand why we have to be so angry about it now. I get triggered by it every once in a while. I have to go to the locker room for a while and cool out. But I just wish people would respect each other and have respect other people’s opinions. You don’t have to want to kill them because you don’t agree with them. That’s not positive. Nothing good could come out of that.

“They Might Be Lost” is my favorite Barn track. Am I wrong to hear sadness in it?
There’s some of that. I don’t know what that is. It’s not sad. It’s like a documentary of something that’s happening that you think you know what’s happening, but you’re not sure. That’s an interesting one. The way that happened was, that’s take one. I had a little chord pattern going, I believe [it] repeats itself through the whole song.

But anyway, I just wrote the lyrics. I don’t sit and play the guitar and sing the song. I might sing one verse, or think it while I’m playing, maybe humming or something. Then I write all the words out and I try to never do it again until it’s being recorded with the band. Right before we do it, I’ll show the band the changes and I’ll let them play for a few minutes. Then I just start. Since it’s the first time I’ve ever done it, it’s cool, because you’re discovering everything — whether it works, whether it doesn’t work. You can improvise your way along because you’ve got no track to follow. There’s no rule, there’s nothing. “Well, I did it great the last time like this, so I’m going to do it like that again.” That’s that doesn’t happen in this method. So that song is a good example of an immediate take, and lyrics that I wrote on a bunch of little sticky papers and put them all together, and then I had to put them back in order to figure it out. Eventually put numbers on a piece of paper. I write so fast sometimes that it can’t tell what’s going on. [Laughs.]

Tell me about your time in lockdown. Between working on archival releases and new music, did you ever have any downtime?
Just a little bit of downtime with Daryl. We could put aside time for each other and do things together, but she’s very creative and she has a lot to do, too. So we just do these things, and the Archives is gigantic. Volume III is the biggest volume of all three that I’ve made so far, almost twice as big as the other ones. It covers a longer period of time. I think it has 13 albums in it. I make new albums now. The other Archives, I used to do this album or that album. And there’s highlights from albums, but I go by the period and create a new album around the making of the album that came out.

Like, OK, Comes a Time [is] a reference album. So around that album was an album I did right before it that was all the same songs. They were all the originals, but it didn’t get released, so I just held on to it. Now I can put that out and people can hear all the originals of most of the Comes a Time stuff. I did a lot of recording during that period that was never listened to. Some really cool things. We did a rehearsal for a show with Nicolette Larson and the Give to the Wind orchestra. We did a show down in Miami and we were getting ready to do Comes a Time, and then we went to the Union Hall in Nashville and recorded the rehearsal on a little two-track. Nicolette and I singing live and the whole band there, strings and all the arrangements and everything. Man, it’s so cool. So there’s a lot of stuff like that. Documentary kind of recording, where you hear people talking in between a little bit over the beginning and end. You can tell there’s people there and music is really happening.

It’ll be amazing to hear the Nicolette rehearsal.
Oh, it’s beautiful. She sings so great. It may be the highlight of everything I’ve done with Nicolette. I wish it had come out a long time ago, but I didn’t even listen to it until about three months ago.

What other highlights can you share?
There’s some really beautiful things. The 13th disc is an album called Summer Songs that I put together on tape and then put it on the shelf, because I was doing these new songs I’d just written. I was going really fast at the time and writing a lot of songs. So I just put the song down and then I’d do it again and sing the harmony part, sitting in the same place without moving, after I did the first one, so it almost sounds like the two were right on top of each other, and it has a very interesting sound to it.

I located this group of songs through some questions asked by people who would write me letters at the Archives, and they are very helpful. These are the soul of the Archives community — these people who write letters and talk about things that they remember, because I can go into the Archives and find things and make them come to life, these memories that people bring out. So I found Summer Songs, there’s four albums that it’s from. These songs are real early, and they weren’t heard again for years. That’s how that ends, and there’s 11 albums in between it. It’s crazy.

What can fans expect for the 50th anniversary of Harvest in February?
We have a two-hour film and a record. It’s all of the making of Harvest. We had all that, but we didn’t show it to anybody — all the barn footage and live stuff with the London Symphony Orchestra. When we were doing that, we did a lot of filming.

You were wise to pull out of Farm Aid back in August, after the Delta variant outbreaks. Has your outlook on performing changed since then, if at all?
All you have to do is look at this, and you realize the media is not helping. They’d like to help, but it really just it seems like there’s a lot of misleading information and we have no leadership that anybody listens to in the world. My idea for this is crazy, because I think Putin and Xi and Biden should do a press conference together about the coronavirus. They should just make a big statement about what people should do, to tell the whole world at one time, the three leaders of the world’s biggest countries and tell them to try to protect each other.

It’s been a rough go for humanity and we’re not getting along and we’re not listening. And there’s so many different concepts of how to deal with the virus. It should be obvious that we don’t know. So going out and playing… I can’t imagine a shot of myself on TV or something grooving away with the band and a big crowd and everything, that’s all wrong. It’s not the right time for it. We don’t know where we are or what we’re doing. A lot of people can go home and get their kids sick. It’s just not right yet.

Why are we in such a big hurry? We don’t have to do that. We should just adapt, try to get going in one direction. I know I’m just raving about this, but the whole idea of respecting each other’s differences, but listening and going, “We have a problem, where a lot of people are dying. Let’s get together.” We had one political character who really put a lot of mud in the thing and made everybody not believe, just made it so that they lost faith in the system and in the institutions. A bit of a sedition move on the part of the former governing forces.

Some musicians are requiring negative Covid tests at shows in addition to proof of vaccination. What would it take for you to feel comfortable touring?
I don’t know. I’m not ready. I haven’t seen anything that makes me feel like going on. If you’ve got people being tested at the door and you have to have vaccination proof to enter the building and new viruses are coming up… What are we talking about? Why don’t we just stop trying to do all this shit and just let it go until we get it straight and get it under control? It’s not under control. We’re so used to getting everything we want when we want it. It’s a service and please industry and a way of life. In my opinion, we have to step back and try to unite and do something together as a race of people. All of us, the human race. We just need to get together.

That’s why I think it would be really cool if the leaders of the biggest countries in the world got on the same stage, or even on a televised thing, and all said the same thing and agreed and told everybody in the world that this is a serious thing and this is what you should do. It’s very simple, and it might have a lot more effect than all of this petty governing — governor of one state against a governor of another state. We need big leaders all agreeing we’re in trouble. We got to do this. Scientists say this is safe. I’m sure that all of the governments of Russia, China, and the United States all agree on what needs to be done. I don’t think there’s any doubt there.

You’re usually spontaneous with these decisions, but do you have an inkling of how you’d want to tour, in a perfect world? Solo acoustic, the Horse, Promise of the Real?
I have no idea, because I can’t feel it. I can’t feel what I would do. I don’t want to put people in danger. I don’t want people to see me out there and think I think everything is OK. I don’t think everything is OK. I would hope that when I do come back and start playing again, knock on wood [loudly knocks on wood] that everything is safe, but things have to be under control and going in one direction for a while before I’m going to go out and play.

First of all, I charge a fortune to play. Whatever it is, even the lowest-priced tickets are ridiculous. So people come to this thing that they really want to see because they paid a lot of money and they’ve been looking forward to it for so long. And then they all go there. What if something goes wrong? I’m not sure enough. I’m not sure that we have this together….We need to sit down and let it settle out for a while, let things calm down and then talk about coming back. It was too soon. I just I told my buddies there, Farm Aid. I said, “I can’t do it, it gives me a sick feeling.” I can’t make that example for people that this is cool.

Did you see that Joni Mitchell was honored at the Kennedy Center this past weekend?  
Yes, I did. I spoke to her the other day. She was getting out of the car, going in the Kennedy Center, and she said, “Oh Neil! I feel just like Cinderella!” She was laughing. It’s so great to hear her so happy. She had a rough time the last couple of years and she’s still right there. She’s Joni through and through. She’s such a sweet girl.

Her Archives series was your idea, right?
Well, I told Elliott [Roberts], when he was with us, “Joni’s got so much stuff. Why not just do something like that?” And I’ve offered my platform to them if they want to use it, because it might be a little daunting doing all that work. So they’re doing it in their own way. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just so long as they get everything.

Many of your peers have stopped making new albums. What drives you to keep creating?
I just love music. If you see the reactions that people are having to like a song “Welcome Back,” that’s why we do this. It gets at people’s souls. “In this world, with everything the way it is, this is real. It’s getting to me. It’s getting into my soul. And I haven’t had anything like that in a while.” It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s me. It could just be that they found the music that they like, and they can find the music they like in any number of people. But, you know, just to read that about these songs that I’ve just done, and hear how happy people are to get them, it’s very gratifying. That makes me want to keep going. I’m already planning another record. I just can’t figure out where to do it. But we’re working on that and we will figure it out. We’ll go back in the studio pretty soon.

From Rolling Stone US