Pegi Young is watching the sun finally break through the clouds over the Broken Arrow Ranch in northern California, her home for the past four decades. It’s been a long day of phone interviews to promote the release of her new album Raw, her most personal, honest, and heartbreakingly authentic work to date, and she’s looking forward to the weekend. But first, a few minutes to commiserate about current events, the course of our country, and the saving grace of Saturday Night Live.
“Melissa McCarthy should win an Oscar for that performance,” Young says, referring, of course, to McCarthy’s spot-on Sean Spicer imitation. “And Alec Baldwin is the best Donald Trump ever.” She laughs her distinctive raspy laugh, sounding exasperated, but also clearly reveling in the memory. She sounds light and energetic, barely a trace of the sorrow and pain that radiates from every song on Raw, available since February 17.
Young started writing this album shortly after separating from her husband, legendary rocker Neil Young, two years ago. “I was unable to play” piano or guitar, she remembers of the immediate post-breakup period, “but I could write, so I was just writing, writing, writing.” Initially she wrote the words just to help her cope with the divorce. But a year later, after performing at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California, she holed up with bandmates and close friends Spooner Oldham and Kelvyn Holly to create melodies and piece her intimate thoughts and emotions into something she could share. “At that point, I wanted to put them in song form and start recording,” she says. “And, you know, I’d gotten out of bed and joined the human race. That’s how it started.”
She ended up with seven original songs, complemented by five covers chosen for the way they helped tell her story. From the weary anger of “Why” to the defiant “You Won’t Take My Laugh Away From Me,” there’s no fooling with metaphors or symbolism. It’s brutally honest and soulful, and you experience every ounce of emotion right along with her. Elsewhere, she offers a graceful rendition of Ray Charles’ “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” and a brazen tribute to wronged lovers on Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.”
“It’s kind of for me the soundtrack to the stages of grief,” she explains. “There’s anger, there’s hurt, there’s denial. It’s not a linear process. And clearly there’s also depression. But you can also hear the progression, working toward that final stage, which is acceptance.”
Although the songs are deeply personal and often quite literal, she believes they contain enough universal truth to appeal to anyone. “Unfortunately, heartbreak and sorrow, divorce and death, these are all things that are a part of life.”
And with acceptance comes a desire to move forward. Young has already started sketching out some songs for her next album. “The tenor of this next record will certainly be very different from Raw because I’m no longer in that headspace,” she says. “I say, one of these days I’m going to write a happy song. By golly, it’s gonna happen,” she laughs, then pauses. “I never listen to happy songs. I’m just sort of drawn toward the melancholy.”
Young and her band, aptly named the Survivors, are slated to play SXSW in March, followed by a West Coast tour, and recently played a showcase in LA. “We only did 5 songs but we were ready to play all night!”
“I am a survivor,” she says. “I’ve gone through stuff, a lot of great stuff and some not so great stuff. I just gotta pick myself up and get back in the game.”
— Stephanie Wargin