When Pegi Young's marriage broke up at the end of 2014, she had no plans to make a new album. In fact, she'd just finished one, Lonely In A Crowded Room — which interested parties were eager, of course, to parse for clues of discord in her nearly 40-year partnership with Neil Young. In hindsight, perhaps they were there to be mined in the music, she said during a recent phone call. But her husband's departure, in real life, had felt abrupt and unexpected, and it sent her straight back to work.
"I just wrote," she says. "I just wrote and wrote and wrote. That's all I could do. I just wrote lyrics upon lyrics upon lyrics. I couldn't do anything else. I couldn't play. I couldn't play piano. I couldn't play guitar. I couldn't do anything, but I could write."
Young had played music and written poetry all her life, and for many years, she sang backup vocals on the road with Neil. She also had her hands full, though, with family life and with the Bridge School, the educational program for special-needs children that she co-founded in the '80s. A solo career is something she's come to later, but enthusiastically; Raw, the project that emerged from those fervent writing sessions, is the 64-year-old singer-songwriter's fifth album since her 2007 debut.
"Neil asked me at one point, like, 'Why didn't you do this earlier?'" she remembers.
"I don't know. I just didn't know how to go about striking out a career for myself. I was very interested in having a family, and that's what I did for a hundred years. I was really shy and really, really insecure about, 'Oh my gosh, are my songs any good?' I just didn't have confidence in myself to be able to go about creating that particular life." When she goes back and listens to her earlier recordings, she says, "It's like, I was so timid. I was so shy. That has definitely been a progression.'"
Raw, as the title implies, is anything but timid. Written with the Muscle Shoals icon Spooner Oldham, it's a searching, tough and vulnerable memoir that bravely explores all the corners of heartbreak, from blunt-force anger to sorrow to brief winks of humor. "Looking back on the seven stages of grief, or the five stages, whichever one you subscribe to, it's all there," Young says, "but it's not linear. You kind of go bouncing back and forth between shock and disbelief and anger and acceptance and all that."
She fleshed out Raw working more collaboratively than she ever had before, adding musical substance to the wrenching, skeletal compositions that had flowed out of her during the earliest post-breakup days with Oldham — with whom she'd also worked on Lonely In A Crowded Room — and her longtime band, The Survivors, holed up in a hotel after playing the 2015 Stagecoach festival. Out of the dozen tracks on Raw, five are covers, and those were selected and added last in the process, rounding out the emotional spectrum.
"Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" — the version recorded by Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt for the 2004 album Genius Loves Company -- is a standout among those. Young's seasoned, smoky vocals twine with Oldham's tender, swelling keys in a wistful country-soul meditation that seems to come from the other side of love. The question in the lyrics is the sort of existential one that doesn't beg an answer, holding the pain of loss comfortably in the same warm hand as the memory of happiness.
"I've been writing," Young says, "and I keep saying to myself, 'Pegi, you are going to write a happy song one of these days.'"
Raw comes out Feb. 17, 2017 on Baltimore Thrush Records.