For his new album with Crazy Horse, Americana, Neil Young asked artist Shepard Fairey to create paintings to represent each of the record’s 11 songs. The series of works premiered in L.A. last night at the Perry Rubenstein Gallery and will be on display there from June 28th through July 14th.
“We discovered a lot of depth in these songs and the visuals of these are just amazing,” Young told Rolling Stone. “‘Clementine’ is so deep with its original verses and this art, you really get a feeling for the tenseness and desperation of the situation, the unresolved death and longing.”
Fairey’s work brought out a lot in the songs that Young believes he might not have seen otherwise. “Almost every one of them had a view that was unique to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it.”
Young and Fairey have worked together before, when Fairey included Young in his May Day project, a series of portraits of some of his heroes from different walks of life, in 2010. As a result of that painting Fairey did of Young, the rocker asked Fairey to design the packaging for the 25th anniversary of the Bridge School, Young’s annual Bay Area benefit.
Given their past history, this project was very much a collaboration between the two. “We talked about them. If he didn’t have an idea or he was wondering, we talked and between the two of us we came up with concepts for them,” Young said. “Some of them he knew exactly what he wanted to do and they were great and I just kept saying yes.”
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For Fairey, the project was a labor of love. “I’m just really excited I got to do this because I love Neil’s music and I love the way that music affects people viscerally and inspires them to look deeper into the meaning of the songs,” Fairey said.
Both of them are hoping to get people to reexamine songs they think they know. Americana is made up of 11 standards, from “Oh Susanna” and “Clementine” to “This Land Is Your Land” and “Wayfarin’ Stranger.” But Young says these aren’t the songs people think they are.
“We had to bring back the original words. Everybody’s forgotten what the songs are about in the first place in their kind of rabid celebration of the beauty of the songs and the lightness of some of the verses,” Young said. “They took away the counterpoints the songs were a house for, and so the songs weren’t as strong. And now with the original verses back in and the art that reflects the tension of the original message, we’ve worked on it and made a different thing out of it.”
Those words were music to Fairey’s ears. “I’m so glad to hear that from Neil. We discussed some of that, but I almost didn’t want to press on all my political views just in case we disagreed,” Fairey said, eliciting strong laughter from both himself and Young at that last part. “But my reading into a lot of the songs was it was very relevant to the struggle reflected in [John] Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, which people are saying this recession is the most serious thing since the Great Depression and a lot of the same dynamics are at play, so I felt like it was very relevant.”
The works will live outside of the gallery. In addition to being the centerpiece for the recent 40-minute short film Young did to promote Americana, which finds the rocker visiting a gallery in search of images to accompany his book America, the paintings will also join Young and Crazy Horse on the road. “The art will be the backdrop for this short tour that we’re doing,” Young said of the upcoming Americana dates, which he described as “really a very short tour.”
And beyond the next tour, he sees this partnership continuing in some way. “We’re both moving pretty quickly in our lives right now, but we’ve had a good time collaborating on this and I’m sure there are gonna be more opportunities for this.”