Pegi Young – Discovering electricity
Lately, Pegi Young has been experiencing a number of firsts, not the least of which is releasing her self-titled debut album. But perhaps the most surprising is this: “I picked up the electric guitar for the first time the other day and I had never played one in my life. It was so much fun,” she gushes. “It was liberating! It was fantastic.”
It might not seem like such a big deal for a fiftysomething mother of two from northern California to take so long to experience the visceral thrill of strumming an electric axe. But consider that her ranch includes a professional recording studio, and that her husband, Neil, probably had a few guitars and amps kicking around, it’s a bit of a wonder it has taken her this long to plug in.
But then, her album (released June 12 on Warner Bros.) has been gestating for the better part of three decades. Many of the songs were written when Young was in her twenties, but the notion of making a record sat dormant as she devoted herself to her family, to supporting her husband’s career both onstage and off, and to establishing the unique Bridge School for children with severe speech and physical impairments.
“It is very interesting coming into this as a new singer-songwriter at my age. I am not a young person and I am not an old person,” she observes. “I am in my early fifties, old enough to have a 28-year-old kid [Ben] and a 23-year-old kid [Amber]. I am not a child. I have the benefit of having the team that has supported Neil all these years supporting me, which is tremendous.”
The first step dates back to 1994, when her husband, at the time Oscar-nominated for his contribution to the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia, convinced her to perform the song with him onstage at the Academy Awards show. She had studied piano as a child, and during a peripatetic early life, she learned guitar and hung out on the fringes of the San Francisco music scene — none of which prepared her for her debut. “I just said: ‘I will think about performing for these people at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but otherwise do not go there,'” she laughs at the memory. “He had asked me to sing with him a couple of times. One was Live Aid . Amber was so small, I just couldn’t figure out how to do those things, so I didn’t do it.”
Depending on Neil’s band configuration of the day, Pegi graduated to a semi-regular backup singer. Lest anyone think she was the beneficiary of excessive nepotism, Pegi points to Neil’s penchant for playing musical chairs with musicians. “Knowing Neil as you do, once you are in one band does not necessarily mean you are in the next one. I never took anything like that for granted.”
After the 2004 star-studded Bridge School benefit concert, Neil’s manager, Elliott Roberts, floated the idea of Pegi making a record. Pegi called producer Elliott Mazer (who had helmed Young’s epochal Harvest album, among others), assembled members of Young’s musical coterie, and cut four sessions over a fifteen-month span.
Originally, it was to be a collection of covers. “I was too lacking in confidence to bring out my own songs,” she says. “About three days in, the guitarist Anthony [Crawford] said: ‘When are we going to do your songs, Pegi?'”
She tentatively reached back into her songbook for titles such as “Key To Love” and “White Line In The Sun”, tunes she had composed more than 30 years ago and had never performed for anyone. “I had never heard my songs any other way than in my own head,” she says. “Never heard them with that magnificent pedal steel [Ben Keith] or Spooner [Oldham] on piano or organ. The fullness of sound was staggering to me.”
The spirit of the sessions is embodied in the untitled hidden track at the end of the record. “It is kind of a crazy song, a stream of consciousness,” she says of the cut, which is one of several tunes to feature Neil sitting in with the band. “In the instrumental, you can hear Neil say, ‘Take it, Pegeroo!’ That was kind of the flavor of this whole thing. That song is very symbolic of the feeling, of the fun we had making this record.”
There’s enough songs in the can to stock a follow-up album, and Young says she is prepping to undertake some limited touring, now that her kids have had a chance to hear the record and give it their approval.
“Ben was so responsive; he was around a lot while we were making it,” she says. “My daughter was off at college. So I played it for her over a couple of iterations. She really likes it a lot and she is really supportive. It is great, I didn’t want anything on there that would make her go, ‘Moooooom!'”