We spoke with Pegi Young about making music from a catatonic state, the wildlife on Broken Arrow Ranch, shaking in her boots from stage fright and how the public understanding of physical disability needs a reboot.
I loved music as a kid, I still love music. I loved to dance as a kid, I still love to dance. I started taking photographs when I was a young girl, I still love to take photographs.
Your latest album Raw deals with separation and loss with a lot of heart. There’s not a lot of metaphor or “poetry” about it, but it seems to capture that catatonic, world-ending moment where you know your life has changed. In tough times, how has music been a salve for you or a route through trauma?
Well, where we were rocking from was a traumatic place and a big change in my life. So I was able to write even though I was semi-catatonic. I couldn’t play an instrument. I was kind of frozen for quite a while there. But I could write, and so I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And I got together with my band – they were playing a show out at the Stagecoach Festival in early 2015, which is just about a year after I, well, you know… became aware that things were going to change.
Then, Kalvin Holly and Spooner Oldham and I went back to L.A. and holed up in a hotel room for a few days. We holed up in Kalvin’s room and I brought my stack of words and lyrics and the three of us set about turning them into songs. It was really fun and collaborative. Working alongside Spooner Oldham, of course – he’s written countless great songs. And Kalvin Holly, who’s a mean guitar player, just awesome. The three of us had a great time working together.
What you hear on Raw is maybe 60% of what we put together in song format. We recorded more that did not make it onto this record, because it actually took pretty close to a year to completion and my mental, emotional and physical state had changed in that course of time. There were actually some covers that we did that came along late in the process, including “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” that beautiful Ray Charles tune – I saw a duet of him and Bonnie Raitt doing it and I was gobsmacked by how awesome it was. I’d been contemplating covering Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter” for my previous record Lonely in a Crowded Room. He’s written a lot of really great songs but that one has always resonated with me.
Also, my drummer Phil Jones gets full credit for insisting upon our cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots.” I had no idea it would turn out as it did! And his idea was “You’ve got to do more songs about empowerment. Let’s get you back singing some songs that are more representative of your spirit.” So, we took an interesting twist on that one.
I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know that both Spooner and Shonna Tucker are part of your backing band, the Survivors. To me, both are among the best players anywhere. Do they play a role in egging you on and adding their own influences to your songs?
Spooner’s been with me since the very beginning. I’ve known him for many years because of his work with Neil. We’d played together in different bands of Neil’s creation. We are old friends who go back to the mid-‘80s or something like that. He’s an original Survivor and he’s always been very encouraging. I’ve covered a couple of his songs, actually, “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet” and “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers.” Our original bass player, Rick Rosas, “Rick the Bass Player,” was also an original Survivor. I met him many years back in the ‘80s through his work with Neil, as well. And then, well, he… up and died on us. What a shock.
We had fill-ins from there, but Shonna was a recommendation from Spooner and Kalvin Holly. I did not know her before, but she’s been a great add to the band. She’s one mean bass player. Rick would be smiling down from the heavens!
I’d like to rewind to your childhood. What was your demeanor like at a very young age? What were your personality quirks or hang-ups? Do you still find them in yourself as an adult?
Oh, my! Well, I was born a white girl in San Mateo, California! I’m the middle child of one of six kids, so I guess I got the classic “middle child”, “good girl” thing for a while. But in a big family like that, the “good girl” doesn’t get all the attention they need, so they start being the bad girl, and at least it was some attention! My mother had her hands full with six of us.
But I was always a shy girl. It’s one of those weird things where it never quite felt like I fit in, sort of on the fringes of this crowd or that crowd. I’m friendly and easy-going for the most part, but I always felt a little insecurity – more than a little insecurity. Lacking in self-confidence. I think those things have followed me into adulthood. I had terrible, terrible, terrible stage fright. Even just coming out to do this run, I have the same jitters, but once you get playing, it’s great.
I started really touring professionally in 2000, though I’ve been playing for many, many years prior to that. I had my women’s singing group, et cetera. My first public appearance was at the Academy Awards, singing background on a tune Neil had written for the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia (1993), the end-roll song. It was an absolutely stunningly perfect end to a stunningly perfect movie. That was my first foray into performing publicly.
I still have those same questions a lot of artists ask themselves. “Is this song any good?” or “Am I any good?” I was so lucky to be initially working the top-of-the-top people. Shoot, my first band I did backgrounds with had Jimmy Keltner on drums and “Duck” Dunn on bass, and Ben Keith who was a dear, dear friend. Spooner, too. And my sister-in-law Astrid Young and I singing together. I got to work with some amazing people. Getting encouraged from them helped me shore up my confidence. And every person in my band is very affirming to the others.
I loved music as a kid, I still love music. I loved to dance as a kid, I still love to dance. I started taking photographs when I was a young girl, I still love to take photographs. I’ve been picking that up lately. It’s a lot of fun to go back into something that I did so much of, for so long.
And I love to travel! I’m really lucky because I was a traveling person before I got married. I’ve got wanderlust. I love to go explore places I’ve never been. I love to learn about where I am. We’re going to some out-of-the-way places on these tours we’re doing. I just love it!
And has your stage fright improved at all?
Yeah, I’ve got to say it has. When we were opening for Neil with my band, minus Phil Jones on drums? Oh man, I’d just be standing on the side of the stage shaking in my boots. I’ve been around long enough to see many people who are more known or established than I am go out there and struggle, because it’s a tough act opening for Neil! But everyone’s been gracious and supportive, as they always were. I did over one hundred shows opening for him, and that really helped even though I was jittery every night before I went on.
We’ve been lucky to open for Willie Nelson, for Stephen Stills. I’ve been really enjoying this late-in-life resurrection of my music career. Shoot, I wish Rick and Ben were still around. What can I say? And Duck. We lost a lot of good ones.
I understand that your home on Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California has been a crucial piece of your personal and artistic puzzle. Can you describe the wildlife and the overall scene there? Has the property changed at all over the decades you’ve been there?
Yeah, Broken Arrow! Our family home. It’s a beautiful place, man. I live with my son and it’s awesome. There’s a lot more deer and mountain lions! The mountain lion presence has increased greatly over the last few years. We’ve got neighbors, sort of – I live in a very rural area. My son’s got an organic egg business, so he’s got his girls over there and they’re free-ranging away, and we’ve got ducks, geese and cattle.
But mostly, the increase has been in the mountain lion activity. They’ve been pretty bold. Sometimes, they’re a little close for comfort. I mean, shoot, I’ve got a carpenter who’s been working on my house on a couple projects and he and his wife woke up to hear a ruckus on their front porch. Their dog always slept by the front door and a mountain lion was attacking it at about three o’clock in the morning.
I’ve lived out in that area for over forty years, but I used to cut high school and go out roaming around in the woods. I just love it out there.
I remember growing up in my rural area and watching the deer behavior shift year by year. They would get bolder and bolder, too. They got so close to you that they became like pets.
I would reverse the letters “s” and “t.” I used to think of them as “Oh, they’re so great! I love deer and I’m glad they’re here!” But they’re eating the flowers on my front porch! I’m like, “You guys are pests! Don’t eat my roses! I love my roses!”
My son really gave me a purpose, and he’s opened up the world of disability to me in a way that I would never have otherwise known.
Do you remember the very first song you ever penned? Do you still perform it at all? Please tell me all about it, and what inspired it.
On my first record, there were some songs I had dug out of my little brown suitcase that I’ve carried around forever. It stayed with me with all the moving around I did as a young girl. “White Line in the Sun” from my first record, was written during this hitchhiking trip across Canada when I was twenty. Another, called “Key to Love” was written when I got back from that trip and ended up moving into a teepee.
And I lived to see and hear Ben Keith – the Ben Keith! – playing pedal steel on “Key to Love!” Oh, man. That was like a dream came true that I had never even had. A surprise dream come true. It never even crossed my mind.
Those would be the earliest ones I’ve recorded. I have other songs that are poems, you know? Some of them are poems, some are songs, some were poems to start with that turned into songs. Poetry and writing has been a big part of my life since I was in middle school. But even some of what I’ve recorded has been teenage angst, even as a woman in my fifties at the time!
When it came time to enroll Ben Young in school, I went looking for something that would take his abilities and disabilities into account and I couldn’t really find anything. He was in the special education environment for a few years and it just wasn’t cutting it. I met with a guy named Jim Forderer when both of our kids were having surgery, and we started brainstorming about the solution. He sadly passed away last year, but he left a great legacy.
Then, I met with a third partner who was the professional part of the triad, Dr. Marilyn Buzolich. We came up with this idea and helped put on a benefit concert on October 13, 1986 to raise some funds to get the school going, and we took ’87 off to get the school going, and we had a concert ever since then for thirty years.
We’re taking this year off, but we’ll be regrouping and figuring out how we’re going to continue fundraising for Bridge School when we’re not there. We need to leave Bridge School in really solid financial stead so we can continue on after us founders and original board members, that the work can continue. We’re running a global impact now, and it’s phenomenal. It’s really changing lives, and it’s such an honor to be part of something that is really changing lives and making a difference.
Ben really gave me a purpose, and he’s opened up the world of disability to me in a way that I would never have otherwise known. One of the greatest joys to me in holding the Bridge concerts over the years was the opportunity to help people with disabilities to maximize their abilities. I hope that people who encounter those with certain conditions on the street or elsewhere can see them in a different light.
I’ve had an interesting life before and after I was married to a very interesting man where there was never a dull moment, and now I’m creating my life as a single woman in my sixties.
Do you feel that there’s a lot of misunderstanding of cerebral palsy and what it entails? It’s like, just because someone is nonverbal doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant in their own way.
Just because they don’t talk doesn’t mean they don’t think, that they have something to say! Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term. It depends on the individual. It can range from very, very mild to severe. My son Ben is hemiplegic, which means it only affects one side. But he walks, he talks, he drives a car. My stepson Zeke, on the other hand, is totally dependent. He’s in a wheelchair and needs help with all his daily living. It affects different people cognitively.
I think that being in such close proximity to our kids opens up the mind to the concept that there is more going on than you might see on the surface. Unfortunately, even in educational settings, there’s some psychological testing that’s being done that equates mental ability with motor ability. If we were to use that scale for Ben, he’d never get past the mental age of eighteen months because he’s never going to stack three blocks or scribble spontaneously! Some of the testing needs a little tweaking to really demonstrate kids’ abilities and not their disabilities. But nobody goes into the field of special education because they’re not interested in helping children with disabilities.
We’ve been running an international conference in the Bay Area where we bring in people from around the world, and through the generosity of Cisco we’ve been able to link in eight different countries. We’re just spreading the information, the core mission. We know that we can only reach so many students in our small school in Hillsboro, California, but there are countless children and individuals around the country and world who would benefit from what we’re doing there.
Finally, in what emotional paths do you see your music going in the future? Coming from such an unflinching statement in Raw, what would you like to go on to say by way of music?
Well, there are songs on Raw that I can’t even do anymore because I don’t feel the same way. I’m not in that state of depression and all that other stuff. I’m writing a book right now – I’ve been asked in interviews, “When are you going to write your story?” I’ve had an interesting life before and after I was married to a very interesting man where there was never a dull moment, and now I’m creating my life as a single woman in my sixties.
I’m focusing on my book right now, but a little bit of a tune will come in now and then. I’m an observer. I see and hear what’s going on, and I like to fine-tune my focus on it. So, I think the next record won’t be another Raw. I’m in a much better, more positive place. Things are significantly better than they were a few years ago and even a year ago. It’s just the passage of time. Time is a healer.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: September 20, 2017
Total questions: 10
Word count: 2784
Reading time: Ten minutes
Six kids: Middle child
Loss: An open door
Raw: You bet
Academy Awards, Artistic Realization Technologies, Astrid Young, Bay Area, Ben Keith, Ben Young, Bridge School Benefit, Broken Arrow Ranch, cattle, cerebral palsy, Cisco, dance, deer, Don Henley, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Dr. Marilyn Buzolich, duck, end-roll, geese, good girl, grief, Hillsboro, hitchhiking, insecurity, Jim Keltner, Jonathan Demme, Kalvin Holly, loss, middle child, mountain lion, Nancy Sinatra, Neil Young, Oscars, Pegi Young, Phil Jones, Philadelphia, photography, poetry, positive, Ray Charles, Rick Rosas, roses, Shonna Tucker, son, Spooner Oldham, Stagecoach Festival, student, time, travel, wanderlust, writing, Zeke Young
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan is also a prolific songwriter and recording artist, often releasing power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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