Matthew caught up with Neil in Canterbury, the day after the London concert, the final gig of the UK leg of his 2016 European tour, just before Neil and the crew left for the continent. Recorded on one of the tour buses, Matthew speaks with Neil about his stance on music, authenticity, innovation, democracy and the environment and how they braid together in his work over the decades.
Neil Young’s fifty-five year career has seen him become, and maintain a position as a globally significant singer songwriter across many genres. Whilst being known for his gentle folk ballads that can have romance or a political sting in the lyrics, he is also recognised as the Grandfather of Grunge. Any concert takes the audience on a journey between those very different bookends with some hard rock along the way. He appeals equally to his die-hard fans of many decades and younger generations as they discover his work and message. He still draws capacity crowds in big arenas.
But Neil is more than that. His followers like what he stands for and the way that he stands for it.
As an environmental activist he has been fearlessly speaking truth to power through his performance and direct action for decades. His recent album The Monsanto Years speaks plainly about his concern for our food chain, the environment and the threat that GMOs pose to us all. He stands alongside and for oppressed indigenous peoples, notably the first nations of his native Canada, he always has a totem pole on stage to remind him – and his audience – of ancestry, kinship and history.
Neil is an innovator with initiatives like the iconic LincVolt - his own 1959 Lincoln Continental, converted to run on electric power. Most recently he founded and leads Pono, a Kickstarter funded adventure to bring music in its highest quality to everyone. The PonoPlayer provides a very high quality listening experience and the organisation makes high-resolution music available. Pono is an Hawaiian word that has many translations into English, centred around pureness, righteousness, responsibility and reciprocity (in which giving takes precedence over taking). Pono is also about working together and has a vibrant on line community built around Neil’s ethos.
Neil is a writer, his autobiographical Waging Heavy Peace and Special Deluxe chart his journey and lay out his ideas about music, what it means to be real in what he does, innovation and, amongst other things, his passion for model railways and old cars.
Neil’s band, The Promise Of The Real (the name is from a line in one of Neil’s songs) includes two of Willie Nelson’s sons and with Neil has a repertoire of over 100 songs. Neil is known as a live artist as much as a studio musician. He has always focused on the sound of his concerts as well as the musicianship, demanding the highest standards of both. Many agree that the concerts on the 2016 tour are amongst the best, or simply the best, they have ever heard, and at three hours for each gig they are a testament to Neil’s continuing energy, drive and commitment. His new album, Earth, is a collection of live recordings of songs from that fifty-five year career, with sounds of nature overdubbed to show the connection between us and our planet. The current tour showcases some of the songs from Earth.
Perhaps Neil’s overall position is summed up by a line from his song Mother Earth (Natural Anthem), sung in concert on the current tour to his own accompaniment of harmonica and a vintage reed organ dating from the 19th century: “Protect Mother Earth and her healing ways, don’t trade away our children’s days”. Written for his 1990 album Ragged Glory it is as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so. Rather like the man himself.