Pegi Young is no stranger to media attention and being in the public eye. Married to Neil Young for over 36 years, she raised two children with him, sang background vocals in his band, and was an integral part of his projects, both inside and outside of the music industry. In 2014, the couple were back in the spotlight, this time because of their divorce, with details of their personal lives splashed across tabloids and websites.
A longtime singer/songwriter with four previous solo records to her credit, Pegi Young turned to music for solace and catharsis following the end of her marriage. The result is her aptly titled new album, Raw, a 12-track open wound encompassing her range of emotions, from rage to healing process.
When she’s not making music, Young donates her time and efforts to a number of organizations. She serves on the boards of Pono, the high-resolution digital media player and music download service founded by her ex-husband, and the Rainforest Connection, an organization employing upcycled mobile technology to monitor and protect rainforests.
First and foremost, however, is the Bridge School. As the parent of a son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy, Young is a longtime advocate for special-needs students who face severe speech and physical impairments. In 1986, she and Neil Young launched a benefit concert to bring the idea of the Bridge School to fruition. Over time, it has grown from serving local students to achieving international outreach, educational services, and recognition.
Pegi Young spoke to Guitar Girl about the process of writing and recording Raw, and of course her tireless work and passion for the Bridge School.
“I was terribly shy and I still am,
but when I get onstage I let my other side come out.”
Ten years of solo recordings – how have you progressed as a singer, songwriter, musician, recording artist, and performer?
I was surprised to reflect on that myself. I came into the game late in life, according to some rulebook. I’ve been able to continue recording, and I’m quite pleased that I’ve been able to carve out this time in my life to do this. When I went into the studio to make my first solo record [Pegi Young, 2007], I’d been doing backgrounds and some professional stuff with Neil. But I was very shy and not at all self-confident about my ability to carve out a career for myself. Even in the later years, when people asked why I didn’t do this earlier, I didn’t know how, first of all, but I did not have the confidence. I was terribly shy and I still am, but when I get onstage I let my other side come out.
I see all those things you mentioned as the sum total of the whole. When I listen back to my initial recordings, I hear a timid and shy singer/songwriter. I was breaking out stuff that I had written when I was 20 years old. I had been writing my whole life, and my songs reflect life experiences, so my progression in that realm is noticeable in my recordings and my live performances. You do it and do it and you get more confidence.
You recorded the album in your home studio [Redwood Digital]. Is it easier or more challenging to work from home?
I think it’s both, because for sure being this close to home is comforting. Especially as a single mom, being close to my son and making sure everything is cool with him is a comfort. At the same time, I can get pulled into other things that are distracting from the music. When I go away, it’s probably a little bit more free in my mind, and yet I think we did well here in the studio. My son’s health is good, things were going very well, so I didn’t have that distraction. It’s been over a year since we started making this record. So all in all, recording here at home has more plusses than minuses, but there are plusses to being away and being singularly focused on what you’re doing in terms of musicality.
We started here, went to Nashville for some overdubs, came here, went to L.A., and came back here, putting on different parts. The horns and background singers were done in L.A. I brought the band back in because I had written some more songs. There’s a lot of music we recorded that didn’t end up on this record, but it’s mixed, it’s mastered, and when the time is right, if ever, it will come out.
“I’m very much into the old-fashioned school of thematic relevance,
so I try to create a story that is told on a record.”
Do you always write with a theme in mind, or do you write and then create the chapters of the story from there?
In the case of this album, and I think probably my previous effort [Lonely in a Crowded Room, 2014], I write and write and try to narrow down the field. I’m very much into the old-fashioned school of thematic relevance, so I try to create a story that is told on a record. It’s a little bit like hearing an audio book. In this case, obviously, so much of this stuff came out of the past two and a half years of my life, what I’d gone through, and dramatic changes in it. A lot of it goes back to telling that story in my own way. When I think about how long it took to record this album, and the many times we went into the studio, I think you can see a progression in my emotional journey. Even though I look at this as clearly one of the most autobiographical records I’ve ever written in my modest catalog, I think there’s universality to it. I’m not the only person to go through a late in life divorce. I’m not the only person to have gone through heartbreak and grief. So I hope that others can hear this record and apply it to their own lives.
Do the songs sometimes change as they are being written?
That has happened so many times over the years. I think it happened to some extent on this record as well. The process for this record was, I brought in a stack of words, lyrics, and thoughts that I had written. After my band played the Stagecoach Festival, Spooner [Oldham – keyboardist] and I culled the herd. It was a collaborative process and it was super-cool. I had never done that before. I usually come in with at least a skeleton of a melody. I had nothing this time. I had nothing but words.
You have compared the album to the stages of grief, beginning with immediate loss and ending with closure. How did that influence how you sequenced the songs?
It was very interesting. The sequence you hear on the record is the very first sequence I came up with, just looking at all the songs we had. Usually you take a stab at it, you move a song, this and that. But it was perfect. It told the story, shows the progression of my emotional state of mind, and that’s what music’s all about. It’s about expressing your emotions and feelings about what’s going on in your life. Chad Hailey, my engineer, listened to the first sequence and said, “That’s it. You hit it.” I looked at the songs we left off, I couldn’t see anywhere that they would fit, so we went with my first sequence.
Did you play guitar on the album?
I do not play a single instrument on this record. I stopped playing for about two and a half years. I only started playing again recently. I was frozen for a while and couldn’t play guitar or piano, but I could write. What I discovered in the process is that it’s freeing to just sing. But there are songs where we need an acoustic guitar, so now that I’m much further along in the process, I’m practicing every day, and playing piano every day, and making sure I get my chops back up.
You have personnel changes in your band, as well as longtime working relationships. Tell us about this group of musicians.
I’ve got a stellar band. Spooner [Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Neil Young] is a founding member of The Survivors. After Ben [Keith – pedal steel] died, and Anthony Crawford, my lead guitar player, left the band, we brought in Kelvin Holly [guitarist; Little Richard]. Phil Jones [drums; Tom Petty, Joe Walsh] came in pretty early on. Then we lost Rick [Rosas – bass], who had recommended him. Spooner and Kelvin recommended Shonna Tucker [Drive-By Truckers] and she kicks ass. She’s great.
The constitution of my band changed after we lost Ben. Our first couple of records had gone into the country or Americana categories, and it has shifted from being less in the realm of country and more into R&B, which is also a place where I’m comfortable.
What do you look for in your musicians?
Collaboration. The notion that we’re all in this together. Support. That they’re going to have my back. That we all get along. I travel with my band on one bus, with my crew. You’ve got to get along. Obviously musicianship, that’s the starting point. But you can have a person with all the chops in the world, and they’re not someone you want to spend a lot of time with. In our close quarters we all get along well.
What makes you a good bandleader?
I think I have a clear direction of what I hear in my head, and I try to convey that to my band members, particularly to Kelvin because he translates it, he can write charts. I think just getting out there, being the front person, and doing a good job reinforces for them that they’re there to support me, and that’s mutually reinforcing. And I hope I bring good songs to the table.
The Bridge School is entering its thirtieth year. How has it grown in terms of operations and outreach? In addition to the annual concert, as a nonprofit you rely heavily on donations.
Yes, but not solely on donations. We do have some kids that are district-placed, so their tuition money follows them. That money covers about half of what it costs us to provide all the education services we provide. Obviously the concert has always helped. We couldn’t run the program without it.
We have so many other programs that are part of the school. We have the transition program, outreach programs, the teacher-in-residence program, which happens every other year. That’s an international program. We bring in a professional from a developing country that in one capacity or another is serving students with the same kind of profiles as the kids we serve at the Bridge School. We’ve got our camp, our website, our international conference that we do every second year, and on the off years we have the teacher-in-residence. We’ve got a research element to our program, so we have not only our anecdotal stories but also an actual database. The peers in the community, the professionals in the field, can look at what we’re doing and hopefully apply it. In many cases we have seen it applied in their school districts.
Some of our kids have transitioned to other states, where it’s not so easy for our transition staff to make site visits, so we work with a team and we have contact through all the wonderful tools we have these days. Technology enables us to work with people not only here in the country, but internationally. Our team goes to the teacher-in-residence’s country to help with workshops and troubleshooting and ways they can apply what they learned at the Bridge School.
Now, our big focus is on raising the endowment in order to sustain the school. The Bridge School should continue no matter what happens to me, to Neil, to others. It should transcend all that. It should be well beyond what we, the founding members of this grassroots organization, were able to do. So a big focus for us is on our endowments.
Could you have ever imagined what it has become?
Well, you know, I dream big! From the get-go I knew that only a small number of students who would benefit from what we had to offer would be able to make it to Hillsborough [California]. We’re limited, in size and by licensing, in the number of students we can serve, so outreach and dissemination have always been core to our fundamental mission. We’ve done it in a variety of ways. I’m exceedingly pleased to see that our current executive director, Dr. Vicki Casella, who has been with us for now 10 years or more, has taken everything that we’ve been doing to a whole new level. She’s terrific.
I’m still president of the board. Nobody has ousted me yet! I had the vision, but I also knew what I didn’t know. I’m a professional parent, so I knew that I needed to bring in people in the field who knew what to do with these kids. When I look back at the mid-’80s, when we started this, until now, there’s a lot more people that are familiar with augmentative communication and how to enable students with severe physical and speech impairments to participate in their education. From the time we started this program until now, it’s been night and day. Has it been the light years we would like it to be? Not necessarily. But it still has been markedly different. When we had the first concert and we were debuting this notion of augmented communication, we were using the Apple IIGS — that’s where we were in those days. The number of students who have come through is hard to quantify because we only serve 14 students at a time, but I know the impact that we’ve had, not only through our core educational program, but also our transition program, our camp, our international teacher-in-residence, and our conference, so it’s getting to be a pretty significant number. We are having a global impact. This has been my life’s work, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
For more information about the Bridge School, visit www.bridgeschool.org.