Rust never sleeps, and Neil Young doesn’t rest.
Counting Friday’s release of the soundtrack to his new Netflix film Paradox, the iconic Canadian singer-songwriter has released 10 albums of new material in the past 10 years. In April comes a blast from the past, the archival live album Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live, recorded in 1973. At 72, he’s currently writing his first work of fiction, a sci-fi novel called Canary.
Given his industriousness, it was with some hesitation that I told Young in a phone interview this week that I had written his obituary in advance. It’s standard newspaper practice; I thought he should know. “Oh, really,” he said, when told. “Well, you can’t be too prepared. The latest news, before it happens, ready to go.”
Spoken like a man with journalism in his blood – which he has, as the son of Scott Young, the late author and Globe and Mail journalist. The news at hand is Paradox, an impressionistic western and oddball fable directed and written by Young’s partner, the actress Daryl Hannah. Young, who plays the “Man in The Black Hat”, spoke to The Globe about the movie, the power of music, the evils of streaming and going out on limbs.
Daryl Hannah directed you in this film you made together, but you have a reputation as a hard-headed guy. How well do you take direction?
I’m really good at it. I really take direction well [laughs]. I’ve become excellent at it.
In the film, there’s a clip of you at the Desert Trip festival in 2016. What was it like sharing a weekend with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters and the Who?
It’s just another hash house on the road to success, Brad.
It was billed as a once in a lifetime experience. Will it happen again?
I don’t think so.
One of the themes of Paradox deals with mining treasures from the past. You’re doing the same thing, with your archival series of albums. Are you enjoying the process of releasing the recordings?
It’s all very organized, and it’s something we like to do. We’re really committed, unlike all the other music on the planet, to preserving the music in its original, or closest to it, sound quality. It’s a big thing to me that people get to listen to the way it is, and not the way it would be on Spotify or Apple Music.
You’re talking about Xstream Music and the high-quality audio of the archived music on your website, as opposed to the low-resolution offered by other services.
It’s a crime. It’s an insult to the art of recorded sound. And that’s largely the fault of the high-tech giants and the record companies. Working together, they’ve degraded the sound of music to 5 per cent of what it was before. There’s no depth. There’s nothing there. This is not a political thing. It’s a soul thing. And they’re taking the soul out of music with bad digital technology.
The film touches on the idea of the power of music to lift people’s spirits. And you’re upset that the power is being messed with. Is that fair to say?
That’s right. That’s what the story is. The music is like the seeds. Don’t make GMO [genetically modified organism] music. Make real music. And don’t eat food from GMO seeds.
Feed the good wolf, right?
Yes. Life will be a lot better. People will be much happier. You walk into a building and you might actually hear music that sounded good.
There’s a song on your recent album The Visitor where you seem to be questioning your place as songwriter, this far down the line. There’s a line about a crazy little bird calling out its song, standing out on a limb almost too long. Are you feeling secure these days, as an artist?
You’d have to ask the limb. I’m out there. How strong’s the limb? I don’t know. Anything could happen. But I feel good.
In your acceptance speech at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame gala last year, you said the songs don’t stop. Can you imagine yourself no longer writing music?
I can’t. Not really. It’s a gift. You get a gift, you better pay attention to it. I feel privileged to be able to have lived my dream, to make music. The gift has to be honoured. I’ve done the best that I could with it. And I continue to.
What’s the last song you wrote?
I’ve written three new songs. Unfortunately all the words are profane. I’m thinking of making an album called ‘Profane.’ All of my lyrics are all just swearing now.
Is it frustration? Anger?
I really don’t know what it means. The melodies are beautiful, but the words are all just profane. I understand that there’s something there. I just don’t know quite what I have on my hands. So, I don’t know if it will ever get finished. But I’m available, if it wants to.