Neil Young Embraces Imperfection

In the documentary about the making of “Barn,” your previous record, I spotted a light-up sign in the barn where you recorded that simply reads “LOVE.” To what extent is love—romantic love, familial love, love of the planet—a guiding force in your work?

Well, it’s a very positive feeling. Sometimes it results in anger and other bad feelings because it’s mismanaged—that’s life. But everything that I try to do is based on positive feelings. There must be a way to effect change. There has to be a way to help. I don’t think it’s gonna be by yelling at people or calling people names. It doesn’t mean your politics have to be the same as somebody else’s. It’s just everybody getting together to do this. That’s why a lot of these songs talk to people as though they’re a group.

The idea of “we,” of the collective, is a powerful presence on the new record. Western culture, with its enduring emphasis on the individual, has led us to believe that grief and love are personal feelings. Yet something about your lyrics points to a different mode of understanding—that love and grief are universal, shared. I love the chorus of “This Old Planet,” which contains a very simple but very profound assurance: “You’re not alone, on this old planet.”

Thank you. Well, I feel it, too. We need to come together. That’s all I know. When the virus hit, everybody was terrified. They didn’t know what to do. How could it shut everything down? And then the next thing that happened is “Wow, have you seen how many birds there are?” In cities, people were seeing things that they never saw before. The planet was talking to us. We didn’t even know it was happening; we were so focussed on the virus. But remember how people would talk about the birds in their neighborhood, how they never knew there were so many birds, and now they’re all singing? And the sky is pretty?

This is your second new album in less than a year. To what extent do you think your new music is in conversation with your old music, or that your current self is in conversation with your past self?

Well, in this case, very little. Because the songs came from not thinking. They came from another place. I just picked them up walking in different parts of the forest. It’s a whole bunch of people singing about what seems to be a common situation. I can’t disassociate myself from that experience and say that I wrote this or I wrote that. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s pretty different from what I did in the past. For me, it was more like a gift—I had to work on ’em, but they just came to me from all kinds of places. I don’t know what that means, but I hope it happens again. I like it.

The album art features a beautiful photograph of your father. Where and when was that picture taken?

I think that was taken in the fifties, probably Toronto. My dad was working for the Toronto Globe and Mail at the time. He’s just walking down the street. It’s a great picture of him. There’s somebody who knows where they’re going!

Your father was a sportswriter, and also wrote novels. Did you learn about storytelling from him?

He called me Windy—that was what my name was, as far as he was concerned. He had a routine. In the afternoon, I would go up into the attic of our old wooden house, up all the steps, to get to the fourth floor. It had a couple of windows that looked out onto the roof. He’d be up there at his desk, papers everywhere, bangin’ it out on this Underwood typewriter. I walk in and he’d say, “Hey, Windy, what’s goin’ on?” “Oh, nothing, Daddy, just want to say hi.” And I’d hang out there for a while, and he’d just go back to writing. He’d say, “If I come in here and I don’t have anything to write, as soon as I sit down, I know what it is.” He imparted that on me.

Why did he call you Windy?

I don’t know. [Laughs.] He called me Windy. Wind blowing through my head, I think that’s kind of the message.

In the liner notes, you included the birth date of everyone involved in the making of “World Record.” What inspired that?

It’s a record of things that happened, and this is information about the participants. I stepped back and looked at it that way, and I just stayed with it. You see a picture of my mom and me looking at each other, my sister and my brother, all of ’em are in there, and they’re all an important part of my life. These are the thoughts of these people I was channelling; this is where all this came from.

So much of what we’ve been talking about feels tied, to me, to the idea that it’s incredibly easy to lose touch with one’s humanity while participating in the modern world. But there’s something about looking at someone’s birth date and remembering that we all arrived here in the same way. We weren’t; then we were.

We’ve got a number.

You maintain an incredible archive of your work online. A couple of years ago, you encouraged Joni Mitchell to do the same. How long have you been friends?

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