Neil Young and Jack White teamed up for a bit of show-and-tell on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” demonstrating to the host and viewers the method by which they made Young’s new album, “A Letter Home.”
After a quick chat on the couches — during which Young complimented Fallon’s past impersonations of him (“When I looked at that I wondered, ‘What colorist did I have when I did that?’ ” Young quipped) — Young hit the 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth they had brought up from White’s Third Man Studios in Nashville. With a camera showing close-ups of the cramped space, Young recreated Willie Nelson’s “Crazy;” the show closed with Young, White, Fallon and guest Louis C.K. listening to the playback of the instantly pressed 7-inch vinyl single.
“You only get one shot,” Young told Billboard about the process the day before his “Tonight” appearance. “So when you do it, you’ve got to do it. There’s no fixing it. You really have to be prepared, which is really good for the music instead of going in and patching it together with little pieces of digital gaffer’s tape and stuff. The whole idea of a performance is where you feel a song when you sing it, and you’ve got a great song that somebody wrote, or maybe you wrote it yourself, and it really means something to you and you know it and you sing it and you feel it with all your hearing while you’re singing it. And when you’re done you don’t even have to listen to it, ’cause you know it is what it is. It’s done, and when everybody listens to it, they should feel it, too.”
Young said he was already thinking about doing an album of songs that were part of his “musical roots” when White showed him the Voice-O-Graph machine. “I tried making a record in there, I can’t remember what, and I liked the way it sounded,” Young recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I can make an album in this thing.’ And (White) looked at me, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can make a whole album in this. We’ll figure out a way to do it. Let’s do it together. You can help me and we’ll reproduce it together and we’ll do the whole thing.” Young released the 11-track “A Letter Home” — which includes songs by Nelson, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot and others, along with two aural “letters” to his late mother — on vinyl for Record Store Day; a special box set edition comes out May 27 containing both vinyl and CD copies of the album, seven vinyl singles, a DVD documentary about making the album and more.
“It has a real timeless quality,” Young said. “If you didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t know when it was made. You wouldn’t know if this was an old record of mine or if it was somebody else…which I found to be very fascinating and really refreshing.” What he doesn’t like, however, is people calling it a covers album. “That’s a term I really don’t like, covers,” Young explained. “That misses the point of what the record is. It’s actually more of a piece of performance art. It’s actual songs. It’s actually the performance of a song and the essence of a song. That’s what it’s about.”
Wow. That was fun. Neil Young singing “Crazy” on our show tonight!!! pic.twitter.com/DVR2LyGy2b
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) May 12, 2014
“A Letter Home” is one of many projects Young has on tap at the moment. He’s preparing for the September launch of his Pono high-grade music service and is also readying a second book, “Special Deluxe,” a follow-up to his 2012 memoir “Waging Heavy Peace,” that should be out this fall. Young kicks off a European tour with Crazy Horse on July 7 in Reykjavik, Iceland, and he says his next musical project will likely be a set of original material, which he acknowledged has been influenced by what he recorded for “A Letter Home.”
“Oh, yes, you can’t learn the masters’ songs without having a little of it rub off on you,” he said. “I’m writing right now. I’m writing songs, and I’m going to do justice to these songs one way or another. And life has changed; a lot of the people I used to make records with are not on the planet anymore. And I write these songs and I can hear their parts in my head and I don’t want anybody else to be imitating them. So I have a little quandary there. I’m gonna have to work that out inside my own soul and figure out how to deal with that, but nonetheless I feel very confident I’m gonna be able to communicate those songs and they will live. I’m having a really good time in my life, and that’s all I really need. As long as all those things are lined up, I feel very optimistic about the future. As far as the sales of records go and the commerciality and the success, I have no idea about that. As far as I am, as an artist, going to be feeling good about what I do and feel like I’m really on what I’m doing, I’ve got, like, a 90% chance of that happening.”