Neil Young on his 50 year career, making music and his new documentary
Neil Young reunites with his longtime band Crazy Horse on their new album, Colorado
Originally published on October 25, 2019
"I'm expressing myself. I'm saying how I feel. I'm saying what I think and I really don't care about the people listening to it as I do about getting it right," Neil Young said to q's Tom Power when asked about how he uses his music and songwriting to convey a message.
This outspoken nature is at the forefront of his new documentary Mountaintop. The film follows Young and his band Crazy Horse in the making of their new album Colorado. Between solo projects, the music icon always found his way back to the band. This past year, they came together in the studio to work on their latest album.
In the film, you can see how precise, opinionated and defiant Young can be about how music gets made.
In a conversation with Tom Power, Neil Young shares how he feels about recording music, what it means to be an authentic person and this current moment in our country.
Here's part of that conversation.
On why he wanted to document the making of the album Colorado in Mountaintop and why he feels tension is necessary to make great music.
The documentary is about making the music. It's the story of the music. [The tension] is [necessary] for me. Everybody has to know what they're doing in there. They're not doing anything else. If you're playing a song, you should really play the song once and you should be done. If you're running it down for the engineers, get a new engineer. They should already know how to do it. You can't take time. It's not a way of life making a record.
On the importance of the first take and the pursuit of perfection in the recording process.
Usually take one's the best one if you're ready. If you're not ready, then you shouldn't have been there. Everybody should know the song and the changes. They should know the melody. They should know what the song is about before they go in the studio. You should never be running it down or practising it. You should have the roadies play the instruments so that everybody knows it works. Then the musicians go in and play. They play it once and they're done. If they want to play it 100 times to get it perfect, that's fine. That's somebody else's record.
Here's the deal, you get the vibe and you hear the song and you feel the song. You see the pictures in your mind that you thought of when you were writing the song. No amount of fixing is going to change that or no amount of unfixing is going to change that. The thing is, you have to let that be and fix it or not fix it. But if that vibe is there then that's the only thing that matters. You can't get that vibe. You can have a perfect record, but it wouldn't feel like that. So that's the way I do it because that's what I like to do. I'm not saying anybody else should do that.
On the world and the environment in 2019.
There's not much to say about the environment other than we better do something and we better take care of ourselves. But before you can start to see the damage, some people really need to have it come up and hit them in the face.
It's getting to the point where you close your eyes and look forward 15 years, it's a disaster. That's what we're giving our kids. That's what we're giving our grandchildren. People are worried about how the economy is in Alberta. It's just like they got their head stuck in the tar sands. They just can't see what's going on. I'm not saying that they're wrong. I just totally disagree with it. I think that they're narrow-minded. They're only looking at their own benefit. They're not looking ahead for their children or their grandchildren.
On reflecting on 50 years of his career and what he puts into the Neil Young online archives.
I'm looking forward to the next things that I'm going to put in it. We're searching through all kinds of stuff that we have —from unreleased Crazy Horse to unreleased Pearl Jam. It's just an amazing amount of stuff. I was going pretty fast for a while in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I made more records than I could put out and more films than I could put out. I didn't even have a chance to finish some of them. Now that's what I'm doing as I'm going through those projects that were roughed in and deciding while rough is good enough for those, you've got the feeling. Sometimes I have to do some kind of work to technically make them better. There's just so much to do that is in the future, compared to listening to what's there. I'm just creating all of this so that it's a cohesive record of what we all accomplished together.
On playing his old music.
It's not something I focus on. I'm more focused on the last songs that I wrote and the new record that I made or things that I feel like playing just because we were talking about it on the bus. It's a real thing. It's whatever you feel like doing. That's what I like to do. Sometimes people go to my shows and I know that they want me to play Heart of Gold and Old Man. I even had an offer to do a tour of the whole Harvest album. But I can't do that. All those guys are dead. They're gone. I can't do that. All I can do is miss those guys while I'm doing it.
On what his advice would be for a young artist making work right now.
Be true to yourself. Just do what you want to do. The last thing you want to do is please anybody else. Just forget about the pleasing everybody. It's the most useless pastime you could ever have. Doesn't make any difference to anything. It's a waste of time.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Neil Young, click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page.
— Produced by Mitch Pollock