Spotlight: Pegi Young

Larson Sutton on May 8, 2017

Pegi Young is smiling and laughing. Given the crucible of the past few years, she appears happy to be happy again.

In the fall of 2014, her 36- year marriage to rock legend Neil Young—not to mention her role as a harmony singer in his band—came to a surprising end. The divorce, which was finalized amid very public rumors of Neil’s relationship with actress Daryl Hannah, left Pegi, in her words, “frozen.” In the aftermath, she found solace only in a familiar routine.

“I was writing, writing and writing,” she says. “That’s something I have done since I was a little girl.”

Some pages were simply thoughts that she needed to let out—others, possible lyrics— but they all fit into a prevailing theme of loss.

She shared her stack with Spooner Oldham, who is a longtime friend and bandmate. The veteran Muscle Shoals keyboardist gave it to her straight. “I said, ‘These sound like ‘poor, poor, pitiful me’ songs,’” Oldham recalls in his Alabama drawl. “She laughed.”

“God bless Spooner,” Pegi says. “He was so right.”

Following a spring 2015 appearance at the Stagecoach Festival in Southern California, Pegi, Oldham and their Survivors guitarist Kelvin Holly sequestered themselves in an LA hotel room to work on the new material.

“I didn’t have a single melody. Nothing,” Pegi admits. “Over the course of those couple of days, I think we came up with the first 10 songs. I had never worked that way, but it was very productive.”

Over the next 18 months, the trio honed two-dozen songs down to the 12 cuts that comprise her latest album, Raw. Tunes like “Why,” “A Thousand Tears” and “Lonely” offer clear enough clues to the depths of Pegi’s heartache. Each number, she says, was chosen for how much it helped her “get into a better headspace.”

“It wasn’t intentional, but when I looked at the finished product, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s like the soundtrack to the seven stages of grief,’” she says.

Raw is Pegi’s fifth solo effort—a surprise to those who know her primarily as a backing singer and muse who recorded and toured regularly with Neil. It wasn’t until 2007 that she stepped out on her own with her eponymous debut. It’s been three years since her last release, the presciently named Lonely in a Crowded Room.

“In my modest catalog, so far, I do believe in the old concept of thematic relevance,” Pegi explains. “It’s satisfying to me, for my creation.”

Pegi considers herself fortunate, at least in one respect. “I am so grateful that I have the ability to express myself creatively,” she says. “It was extremely cathartic for me.”

Oldham describes the sessions as anything but limited by the deeply personal subject matter. “It wasn’t forced at all,” he says. “It was just inspiration in the moment.”

Pegi also recognizes that this record is a chance to empathize with others whose relationships have met similar fates. “Even though this is probably the most autobiographical record I’ve ever done, I hope there is a universal quality to it as well,” she says. “It’s not just my story.”

On a rainy, cold January night, Pegi Young & The Survivors load into a rehearsal room at Hollywood’s SIR studios to deliver a fiery, defiant private performance for a select few, showcasing new cuts from Raw. Pegi commands the stage, feeding of the rock-and-roll drive of her backing quartet. The setting is also strangely ironic. It was down the hall, four decades earlier, that Neil recorded perhaps his own most cathartic album, Tonight’s the Night—part cautionary tale, part homage to bandmate Danny Whitten and his roadie, Bruce Berry, who’d both died of drug overdoses.

After the set, Pegi takes of her black leather jacket and reclines on a couch, curling her legs up under her. To be around the love and support of her band through this period, she says, has been invaluable. She’s effusive in praising their talents, and is particularly excited by the addition of former Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker to the all-star group.

And, of course, her face lights up when she speaks of her family. Pegi continues to support the Bridge School, the Northern California learning center she founded in 1986 to assist the couple’s son, Ben, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy, as well as other children with severe disabilities.

“Making this record was very therapeutic in some ways,” she says. “I just feel better in general.”

Like her band’s moniker, and as evidenced by the Raw cut “You Won’t Take My Laugh Away from Me,” Pegi has emerged an optimistic survivor. Pushing aside strands of her long, blonde hair, she proudly declares that she is still a card-carrying hippie, moving on to the next chapter of her life.

“I’ve never been one to write a happy song,” Pegi says with that distinct chuckle. “But I certainly hope my next batch is more lighthearted.”