With her second solo album, Foul Deeds, singer-songwriter Pegi Young may be about to break away from the long shadow cast by her more famous husband, rock legend Neil Young. Not literally of course. Despite the many songs expressing themes of heartbreak and loss heard on Foul Deeds, Pegi has assured us that she and Neil are doing just fine, thank you very much.
However, Foul Deeds does represent a bold enough progression from her self-titled 2007 solo debut, that Pegi Young seems to be poised for an artistic breakthrough of her own.
With a mix of strong originals like “Traveling” (which is heard in two versions on the album) and the title track, as well as well-chosen covers like Will Jennings’ “Pleasing To Me” (that nicely compliment the overall storytelling arc of Foul Deeds), any bets against it would at the very least be unwise.
The album, released this past June by Vapor Records (the indie imprint started up by her husband and Elliot Roberts — who also manages both acts), has been getting some very positive reviews. A series of small venue concerts by Pegi and her band that took place on the West Coast this past June, were likewise well received by audiences and critics alike.
In October, Pegi Young will once again take the Foul Deeds show out on the road, this time hitting small venues mostly on the East Coast. As was the case with the shows in June, Pegi and her all-star band (which includes such veterans of her husband’s recordings as keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist Rick Rosas) will be sharing the bill with Scottish folk singer/songwriter/guitarist Bert Jansch. They will however, be minus one key member, the great multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith, who sadly passed away in July at the age of 73.
Earlier this week, Pegi Young phoned Blogcritics music editor Glen Boyd from the Young family’s Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California. She talked about Ben Keith’s untimely passing, her new album, being a late bloomer as an artist and a number of other subjects in the rare interview which follows:
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. So, are you back on the road now?
No, I’m here at our place in California. We are scheduled to go back on the road in early October.
I was fortunate to enough to see you here in Seattle back in June at the Triple Door.
Yeah…I read your review, and I read your subsequent album review. I definitely appreciated your show review and the mention of Spooner and Ben, because I thought “okay, this guy really gets it.”
Well, thank you for that (laughs). Those were of course the last shows Ben Keith did before his untimely passing. Can you talk about that for a minute?
Well, of course we didn’t know at the time that they were his last shows. So you know, everything was just normal. We just pulled into town like we always do, you know and it was like “that was fun” and everybody was just looking forward to the next show. He really is just a brilliant player, and he plays so many instruments. We always worked really closely on the production and he’s just really always been my “go-to” guy. It’s just really, really (long pause)…sad, that he’s gone.
It seemed like it was pretty sudden.
It was very sudden.
So, what’s it like playing the smaller places as a headliner or sharing the bill with someone like Bert Jansch, as opposed to playing the bigger arenas with your husband?
Well, the Triple Door is cool…we really like the Triple Door. I remember walking into the WAMU Center (Seattle’s WAMU Theater) when we played there with Neil, and thinking “oh, God…do I have to?” I mean it scared me…it was so big compared to some of the theaters we just played. It was pretty daunting. I mean I get stage fright anyway (laughs). But I like the small places myself. I mean, you know you can really feel it, and for me the music just goes really well in the smaller places. Some of the theaters were really great, you know, really intimate and warm.
I don’t know if you were aware, but the WAMU Theater is also used for things like home shows. It’s like a converted exhibition hall…
No, I had no idea…I just looked at it and went, “oh, boy…” (sighs and laughs). But you know, all in all the people seemed to be really enjoying themselves, even if some of them were just coming in for the opening act. The crowds were pretty cool. But The Triple Door…that’s a great club. I like the history of that club too, it’s like an old vaudevillian place. So yeah, that was a lot of fun.
So how did you come about to start making your own records, you know, later in life?
Well, it was kind of a process from when I was much younger, just playing small time gigs — fairgrounds and things. And then I had done some tours with Neil, and at one point Elliot Roberts just said “when are you going to think about doing your record?” And I just said, “well, I have been thinking about that” (laughs). Anyway, I knew who I wanted in the band, because they were all my friends, right? (laughs).
I said, “Well, I really like Rick Rosas’ bass playing, and Karl’s drums (Himmel), and of course Ben and Spooner.” And of course, we had all just worked with Anthony on the Prairie Wind tour (with Neil Young), and I hadn’t seen Anthony in about twenty years…
He’s a great guitar player…
Right, and he’s a great all-around musician and songwriter.
Well, they say you have your entire life to make your first record, and then you have to make your second one. So what was the difference between making that first album and this new one?
Well…I mean, probably the terror factor (laughs). Starting at the very beginning with the first time, I was initially thinking this probably isn’t a very good idea.
I mean it’s personal, you know? These are personal songs. So once I got over the terror, and when we went into the studio, I played maybe six or seven demos. I mean we had years, so for somebody to just sit there with me and listen to mixes…we could just sit there together in the studio and… listen, to everything, you know? Every single note. But this time, we were touring…
So this time around, part of the record was actually made while you were on the road?
It very much was. The whole mixing process was. We recorded, and (Editor’s note: This part of the tape was unintelligible, but presumably Pegi is referring to Ben Keith) said look if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna’ go back and start mixing. So he was sending me files, and we were listening, and as it turned out, it still took several months.
I’ve heard you mention that your songs don’t necessarily have to come from a personal, autobiographical place. So based on the songs on this new album, I hope we can assume you and Neil are still doing well? (laughs) But the lyrical content of the first few songs especially, seems to tell a story about the breakup of a relationship…
Yeah…I read how you wrote that (laughs), and I loved how you took the album that way. And that is my intention…it’s just not autobiographical, you know? It’s really not (laughs).
You know, when you break it down, “Broken Vows” is, if anything, more about my parents divorce. And “Starting Over” was written after I went to a funeral. A guy we knew had been married to his wife, for like fifty years, and she died.
But yeah, I really liked that. I mean that’s what you want as a songwriter, that people can take it into their lives. But that song just came out of a gospel thing, or something in my head. But you know, I really like to present the songs on an album as a story, as something thematic, rather than something you’d put on a random shuffle.
And I really think that’s what the best songwriters do. Dylan, Springsteen…certainly Neil does. So what’s your favorite song on the record?
Well, let’s see, how does the album end? I think it ends on a high note, doesn’t it? (laughs)
I think it ends with the second version of “Traveling.” So is that song your favorite?
Well, “Traveling,” yeah I love “Traveling” (laughs). I really love the spare version of it, but I think the band did a really great version of it too, with Phil (Jones) and Anthony (Crawford). They did a really great job on that.
I like your version of the Devendra Banhart song “Body Breaks” a lot too. It has a very torchy sort of feel to it, like Norah Jones or Sade…
Devendra Banhart played the Bridge School show one year. I love the song, and I like the way we did it. It has a very different tempo. I mean, I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I love the arrangement. Did we do that in Seattle? I think we did…
You know to be honest, I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t that familiar with the album yet. Was it even out back then?
No problem. But I think we did do it. I think the album was out, but we might have been still trying to get copies up to Seattle to sell.
So you mentioned that Devendra played the Bridge School benefit one year. How’s that going? I hear you have Pearl Jam lined up this year.
It’s going great. Yes, we do. We have Pearl Jam, they announced it on their website. So, yes they are playing.
How hands-on is your involvement in the Bridge School at this point?
It’s pretty hands-on (laughs). I mean, look, by way of floating ideas and such, Elliot and I talk often about who might be able to play.
Does your involvement at this point extend to anything in the administrative area?
We now have a wonderful executive director who is starting her seventh year. I was the executive director for the first six or seven years, and you know, I have my heart into it as a parent. I sit on the board still.
You guys are definitely doing some great work. Well, once again, thanks for taking the time to talk today Pegi.
I’m happy to talk to you, and I really appreciate your appreciation of my work, and I really do feel your review was one of those ones I read where, this guy really gets it. I feel good about that. So, thank you.