Building electric cars and making music with animals: how Neil Young stays true to his last name
The 70-year-old rock icon has just released a new album and will play on a killer bill with Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones later this year
When Neil Young turned his 1959 Lincoln Continental into an electric car, developed a high-tech digital music system and mixed animal sounds into his latest album, he didn’t think it was revolutionary. They were just cool ideas he wanted to try.
“I just consider myself as a person who wants to do things, you know,” Young says.
As when he wrote the protest song Ohio days after the 1970 shooting at Kent State, Young lets inspiration guide him. He trusts the moment so much that he says he never makes a set list before live shows and embarked on his latest album without knowing what it would be.
Earth, which is to be released on June 24, is a collection of 13 live songs interspersed with the sounds of crickets, frogs, crows, bees and other animals Young recorded in his backyard.
The 70-year-old singer-songwriter says he didn’t set out to make an album about the planet. The theme just emerged as he chose the best performances from his past year on tour. “Those songs rose to the top,” he says. “They said who they were and we made the record.”
He added the animals’ voices as an experiment. “The animals give off a great vibe. They’re not lying to you and they’re not selling you something,” he says.
Young has been on the road with Promise of the Real, a band that features Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah, on vocals and guitar. Playing with them has energised his performances, Young says, which gave life to the album. “[They] know over 100 of my songs,” he says. “So I can choose all these songs anywhere at any time. That’s very freeing.”
It also eliminates the need for set lists. They go with the flow. “Everything’s in real time. The people are there. We’re there … It’ll be all of us together creating the moment,” he says.
He’ll take the same approach at California’s Desert Trip concert festival this autumn, where Young shares the bill with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and The Who.
“The audience is going to be really stoked,” Young says. “They’re going to feel real special about being able to see all this at once. It’s a celebration of music and history.”
Still, he says, “I’m going to play whatever I feel like playing that day.”
He tries to stay open to the whims of creative energy and “not be unavailable because I’ve made my mind up. A made-up mind is like a jail,” he says. “You can’t get out of it.”
So when he got the notion to turn his beloved classic Lincoln into an electric vehicle, he just went for it instead of considering it unnecessary or impossible. “I don’t think it’s revolutionary to want to build an electric car when there’s so much pollution on the planet.”
When reminded that most people don’t actually go through with such ideas, he says not everyone has the wherewithal. “I’m not trying to make it so that I can sell it to anybody. I just want to say, ‘Here it is. Look, this thing exists,”’ Young says. “I just crossed 55,000 miles in it.”
The same passion inspired Young to develop Pono, a high-resolution digital music system that began with a Kickstarter page. Young wanted today’s listeners, many of whom are accustomed to the compressed sounds of MP3s, to experience the full breadth of sound that vinyl records bring. So he took his music off iTunes and streaming sites and created a playback system that delivers all the aural intricacies lost in compression.
Even Young’s long-time manager, Elliot Roberts, is still regularly surprised by his client’s endless stream of “against-the-grain” ideas.
“There’s never a day that there’s not something new, whether it’s on Pono, or on his music or playing live and what we should do, or on LincVolt, his electric car which he is just editing a film about, or the book he’s writing,” Roberts says. “He’s just a creative animal. He just can’t control himself. He just keeps getting ideas.”
“It’s just the way it is,” Young says. I like to do things where I see a hole and I want to say something.”