Young made A Letter Home – new acoustic versions of his favorite songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot and Bert Jansch, among others – at Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville, in a 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth. Those machines, in their day, were used more by civilians than pop stars, to record messages to distant family members and friends. Young starts both sides of A Letter Home, released by Third Man, with spoken tidings to his mother Edna, who died in 1990, telling her how he's doing and why he is singing these songs.
I already have a record much like that: made by my wife's late father during World War II as an audio letter home, in an amateur-recording booth and pressed on a cardboard disc, while he was a young Army MP. I found it, tucked away and forgotten, in the back sleeve of a folio of jazz 78s given to me for safekeeping in the Eighties by his brother, my wife's uncle.
"It's got something special – it's coming from the past," Young says, amazed, when I tell him of that discovery. "Because of the technology, it does wake that part of you up. It takes you right back there." The idea for Young's greetings to his mom came, he says, from White. "He said, 'You know, people used to send messages on these things. You might do something.' I was in the booth, and I just went, 'Hell, I'll do it right now.' It was off the top of my head."
During our interview, Young described the birth of A Letter Home and the personal history collected in the songs and performances: his earliest experiences as a listener and adolescent musician as he grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, then tried his luck as a coffeehouse singer in Toronto, on the way to Los Angeles and his first, major band, Buffalo Springfield. There was also plenty of time for updates on the rest of Young's current workload, including the launch of Pono, his digital-music player; the next release in Young's Archives project; and his new career as a painter, creating illustrations for the imminent follow-up to his best-selling memoir, Waging Heavy Peace.
Speaking to his mom on A Letter Home, Young tells her he's too busy to come up and see her right now, that there is "still a lot left to do." When asked about the current state of his health, the singer – who successfully underwent emergency surgery for complications from a brain aneurysm in 2005 – replies right away: "How do I feel? I'm really happy to be alive. I cherish every second. There's just nothing better than life."
When did you make A Letter Home and whose idea was it, yours or Jack's? Actually, I was surprised he hadn't made an album like this already.
The recordings were done in September, just before Farm Aid last year. I was at Third Man on Record Store Day that year [in April]. I tried the booth. Jack and I are both into mechanical things. We're kind of geeky, I guess. I checked it out. And he had people coming in, recording on it all day long. Jack's a real interesting character; he has kind of a Barnum-and-Bailey thing going on.
So we got into talking about this, and I said, "You know, Jack, I'm going to come back and do an album, in this thing." I spent the summer, during whatever else I was doing then, learning these songs, finding the right ones to do, talking to people, researching it. I was looking for songs that affected me – songs that meant something to me in my life, to me in my songwriting craft.
It's less a set of covers than an album of reexamined memories.
It's something like that. The story is all in there. I don't know what it is [laughs]. But I know all these people who wrote these words, who put their feelings into those songs. That all goes together to make up who I am.
What was it like trying to fit into the Voice-O-Graph with a guitar? In the cover photo, it looks like a phone booth – and you're sticking halfway out.
I used the Parlor guitar, which actually belongs to [Young's wife] Pegi, for almost everything. We taped some foam rubber on the end of it, so that if it banged inside the booth, you wouldn't hear it. It softened the blow.
I did use Hank, my Martin that used to belong to Hank Williams, for half a song. We had to do the songs in pieces. You can only record for 140 seconds. If the song is longer than that, it's gonna have cuts in it.
You needed a series of takes to get a complete performance.
That's what I did. There's another version of this coming, a boxed set, and there's a special audiophile LP – it's a direct feed from the booth, without the [crackling] vinyl sound. That went straight to analog tape, before it went to vinyl. It's the sound of just being in that booth. There's only one little mic. Mono is such a beautiful thing. It has a depth that defies description, something stereo will never have.
What were you trying to say about yourself through the songs you chose to record?
These are songs that resonate with my soul. These are songs that I truly believe, that I can live in. They are what make me who I am. They are songs that make me feel. The Dylan song ["Girl From the North Country"] is full of little idiosyncracies, strange mistakes I kept making. They became part of that version.
Was that Dylan song part of your early coffeehouse sets in Toronto? Were you covering these Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot songs as you learned to become a songwriter?
No, I wasn't playing those. I just felt them. I couldn't play them. I couldn't play well enough to do those songs [laughs], especially the early Dylan stuff. I could never have played the Ivory Joe Hunter song ["Since I Met You Baby"]. I didn't know how to play the piano well enough.
I started off playing in a band [the Squires in Winnipeg]. Basically, I couldn't make a living doing that. By the time I got to Toronto, I was trying to make it as a folk singer. I'd been back and forth between the two forms several times. During those transitions is when I would pick up this music.
That's what made me want to learn the way I play now – listening to these people do what they do. There's a great word that I've been using a lot – appreciation. I just appreciated those songs so much. They were right up there, inside my soul, all the way. I really got the feeling.
There is a strong sense of personal communion in the raw intimacy of A Letter Home, especially with those messages to your mom – a throwback to a time way before downloads and CDs. That feeling of direct, emotional attachment, from your childhood: Can that come back again for people? Or has that horse left the stable with iPods and iTunes?
It's always going to be right there. People may have been led away from it, distracted from it. You know, it's hard to judge the answer to your question, because there's never been an alternative. People go where the technology takes them. Technology is here to serve us, to make our life better.
In this instance – music – the convenience of technology was so dazzling that it overcame civilization, creating the largest void, ever, in recorded sound. It's an opportunity for change and rediscovery, to preserve the audio world and the history of recorded sound in a way that does it justice. It's a huge gift to everyone who loves music – to finally hear it again. That's what we're trying to do with Pono – we give them a choice. Hey, it's America! [Laughs] Freedom of choice!
What does A Letter Home sound like on Pono? Do the scratches sound better?
It's so lo-fi it sounds really good no matter what you play it on.
My first mental picture, when I heard the album, was that you were in the booth, calling from 1929, down the hall from Charley Patton's first session.
That's kind of the way I felt. Jack and I went, "Man, this is great. We got it." I played it for my good friend John Hanlon [Young's engineer since 1990's Ragged Glory and a co-producer of 2012's Americana and Psychedelic Pill]. When he heard the harmonica and guitar together, melted together in that microphone with the old sound, he freaked out: "My God, we've been trying to get this sound for years. Where is this from?" I said, "Hey, man, it's just one microphone, and I'm in a box."
How did you and Jack fit into that booth for the duets? Especially the one with the piano [Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again"]?
We put the piano right up against the booth and left the door open. Jack was playing it, singing over the piano, past me. I was standing between the piano and the microphone. In the case of the Everly Brothers song ["I Wonder If I Care as Much"], Jack and I were playing guitars. He was standing in the doorway, singing over my shoulder.
How did you decide what songs to do with him? They're both good choices for this album – about relationships and, in the case of Nelson's song, friends making music together. They just happened. I can't really tell you how. It was the same way the record happened. It was an idea – "Let's do this." Or "I'll talk to my mom, and we're send all these songs back to her."
What is the status of your next memoir?
It's finished. I'm painting art for it now. They're very simple paintings, based on tracings of things that I love. And I water-color them, put my own little thing on them. I've never done that before. I find it relaxing and gratifying.
It's not the same kind of book [as Waging Heavy Peace]. It's about my history with cars. I told the story of what happened in every car that I got, how my life changed as I drove these cars around. I would discover these different things that I saw while I was in them. And each chapter is about the next car I got, the experiences I had until that car was done.
You do have a thing for machines – cars, vintage guitars, that Voice-O-Graph booth. Where does it come from?
I love machines. I truly do. I love what makes them run, what makes them work. And more than anything, I want them to be better than they were before. Because we're just starting with machines. We have a long way to go with fuel, combustion and control. We have all of these simple, basic things we've been doing for a hundred years. We're in the computer age now. And we're still doing these things the way we did them a long time ago. We have these carbon spewers all over the place.
We could be doing this a lot better. How do you move all that metal around without making a big mess? I'm totally engrossed in it. That's what this book about. It starts with cars. Then suddenly the cars start to be a problem. [Pauses] Maybe I shouldn't have these cars. But I do.
What is the state of Archives: Volume II? I've heard that it could be out by the end of this year.
It'll be finished this summer. All of the music will be done. It goes just past [1979's] Rust Never Sleeps. It's full of albums that weren't there before – stuff I did that I never put out. [Already confirmed for the set by Young: material from the unissued LPs Chrome Dreams and Homegrown and an alternate edition of the 1973 live album, Time Fades Away.]
The rest will come out pretty quickly. While we've been working on Volume II, we've been working on the other Volumes. [Young has said that there will be five Volumes, the last covering the 2000s.]
Is it a relief to get finally get the unreleased music out – not just to fans, but to give it a life and history beyond your shelf?
I've gotten to the point where I've made a template for how to release it in the future, if I can't do it myself. I've also done a lot of it myself. The quality is there. It's a model for how to preserve music.
With all of these projects going at once, do you feel like you're racing against time? You've already been to the brink.
I'm only busy because of the things that I'm doing. They demand that I do them. I'm not doing anything I don't want to do. I do one thing at a time, and I do it right. But I do keep them coming. And they all seem to be very important. I follow my heart, doing what I think I should do. And I'm very open.