For the past half century, singer-songwriter Neil Young has kept meticulous records of his entire body of work—everything from his iconic albums to obscure bootlegs to session info and press clippings.
And you can feast upon it all in Neil Young Archives, a state-of-the-art app version of his massive online catalog. It’s designed with a charmingly old-school feel: To get the goods, you riffle through filing cabinets, open clunky drawers, and peruse a curated newspaper. “It’s a time machine,” says Young with a sly smile. “We're not trying to be the most modern.”
We’re in an L.A. video-editing studio, where Young is clad all in black, down to his hat, a “Canada” pin affixed to its crown. He’s here working on a documentary that chronicles his plan to convert a 1959 Lincoln Continental into an electric car. But that’s just one of the 72-year-old’s myriad projects. He just finished coauthoring a book, To Feel the Music, about his ongoing crusade for high-resolution audio; he recently recorded a new Crazy Horse album; and his album Tuscaloosa, an archival concert from 1973, was released in June. Oh, and then there’s the constant work he does on the Archives app, a one-stop destination for all things Neil. News and music drop here first, and Young says the app offers a chance for listeners to hear his work in superlative sound quality.
"The whole business has changed so much—why not change it some more?"
“I just feel like the people deserve it,” Young says. “People who want this have probably followed my music for a long time. It doesn’t cost any more than buying an album. And there’s...who knows how many albums?” He laughs. “I don’t even know how many albums are in there.”
We sat down with Young for a wide-ranging conversation about Archives, his new music, and a possible Christmas present to fans.
With so much to pick from, is there any rhyme or reason to what you decide to release to Archives? Is there a big spreadsheet?
There didn’t used to be! [Laughs.] The thing about the archives is it’s the story of how it was all made. Everything is there—not just the record but the art around it, the press that came out. You’ve got all the information, organized like a funky filing cabinet.
It’s interesting that the interface is this throwback.
We do make people go through a few clunky things. [Laughs.]
With the wealth of material in there, how do you come across something like the new Tuscaloosa concert album?
That was done between Harvest and Tonight’s the Night. So there’s the vibe of Tonight’s the Night, with the songs of Harvest. It's a little strange, but I was really happy with it. I called Joel Bernstein, the photographer who traveled with us, and said, “What have you got from Tuscaloosa that I haven't seen?”
Have you ever been totally surprised by something you’ve discovered?
I have a pretty good memory for my music, but I’ve found things that I wasn’t sure I had. And every once in a while there’s an ancillary discovery. We found video of Crazy Horse playing at the Catalyst in 1983 or something, and it’s Super 8 footage synced to the audio. It’s maybe not suitable to be a product, but it’s great background to the whole story. Things like that we’re always discovering. We filmed everything, and lots of things haven’t even been reviewed yet.
When you’re paging back through these recordings, do you ever think, “Maybe I should have done the guitar this way”?
That’s history. If I’m creating something today, I’ll do that. But if I've already signed off on it, I’m not going to touch it. It’s done.
Are there other artists you wish would do this? Whose archives would you subscribe to?
I was at Universal earlier talking to the chairman and CEO there about the Motown archives. The idea of making a place where you could have the Universal Music archives: Motown, Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, everything in high-resolution? Isn't that what music deserves?
How will the archives expand going forward?
There are things we can give to subscribers, maybe not big productions but something from me to them. We’re going to do a Christmas thing. A song, or maybe an album, who knows? But it’ll be a personal thing from me to them.
This whole idea feels like a gift to fans, or at least a distinct form of appreciation.
This is my chance to give back to people who love my music. They’ve earned it, and I want them to have it. The whole business has changed so much—why not change it some more? Put it all out there. But also try to make everything better.