Throughout his legendary roots-rock career, Neil Young has performed on all sorts of stages. But on Monday night, he didn’t amp up in a big arena, nor did he play in a cozy hole-in-the-wall bar. Instead, Young performed, and recorded, in an old, refurbished vinyl-recording booth, while appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
As the camera revealed close-ups of Young performing, on guitar and vocals, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” in the cramped Voice-O-Graph recording booth, singer-guitarist-producer Jack White pressed the song onto some good ol’ vinyl.
Young and White were on Fallon’s late-night program to promote Young’s new “A Letter Home,” a covers album recently released on White’s label, Third Man Records.
“You only get one shot,” Young told Billboard magazine about the vinyl-recording process a day before he appeared on the show. “So when you do it, you’ve got to do it. There’s no fixing it. You really have to be prepared, which is really good for the music instead of going in and patching it together with little pieces of digital gaffer’s tape and stuff. The whole idea of a performance is where you feel a song when you sing it, and you’ve got a great song that somebody wrote, or maybe you wrote it yourself, and it really means something to you and you know it and you sing it and you feel it with all your hearing while you’re singing it. And when you’re done you don’t even have to listen to it, ’cause you know it is what it is. It’s done, and when everybody listens to it, they should feel it, too.”
Before the curious performance/recording session of “Crazy,” the ballad made popular by Patsy Cline in 1962, White discussed the history of the Voice-O-Graph, the revamped 1947 vinyl-recording booth in which Young recorded his new album. The former White Stripes and Raconteurs frontman searched for the Voice-O-Graph for 10 years, and when he finally found it, he spent another year and a half refurbishing it just right.
On the show, Young also delivered a memorable cover of Ivory Joe hunter’s 1956 tune “Since I Met You Baby” while on piano inside the booth — a segment that wasn’t aired on TV but was posted on “The Tonight Show” website. The program closed with Young, White, Fallon and guest Louis C.K. listening to the playback of the instantly pressed 7-inch vinyl record.
Fallon tweeted news of this intriguing musical teamwork Monday: “Making history tonight,” he wrote. “Neil Young is going to perform and press a vinyl with the help of Jack White live on the show. One take. Fun.”
Known for his pretty-darn accurate musical impersonations, Fallon has often imitated Young. He even crooned a Young-styled version of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song, according to Rolling Stone.
But as for the real Neil Young, he told Billboard that he had already been thinking about creating an album of songs that were part of his “musical roots” when White showed him the Voice-O-Graph machine.
“I tried making a record in there, I can’t remember what, and I liked the way it sounded,” Young said. “I said, ‘Well, I can make an album in this thing.’ And (White) looked at me, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can make a whole album in this. We’ll figure out a way to do it. Let’s do it together. You can help me and we’ll reproduce it together and we’ll do the whole thing.”
Young released the 11-track “A Letter Home” — which includes songs by Nelson, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot and others, along with two aural “letters” to his late mother — on vinyl for Record Store Day. An impressive box-set edition is due out May 27, and it features both vinyl and CD copies of the album, seven vinyl singles, a DVD documentary about making the album and other goodies.
“It has a real timeless quality,” Young said of the album during his interview with Billboard. “If you didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t know when it was made. You wouldn’t know if this was an old record of mine or if it was somebody else … which I found to be very fascinating and really refreshing.” What he doesn’t like, however, is people calling it a covers album. “That’s a term I really don’t like, covers,” Young explained. “That misses the point of what the record is. It’s actually more of a piece of performance art. It’s actual songs. It’s actually the performance of a song and the essence of a song. That’s what it’s about.”
“A Letter Home” is one of several projects Young has been working on recently. He’s also preparing for the September launch of his Pono high-grade music service and is readying his second book, “Special Deluxe,” a follow-up to his 2012 memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace,” that’s expected to arrive in the fall.
Young will embark upon a european tour with backing band Crazy Horse on July 7 in Reykjavik, Iceland. He says his recording project will probably be a set of original material, which he acknowledged has been influenced by the music he recorded for “A Letter Home,” according to Billboard.
“Oh, yes, you can’t learn the masters’ songs without having a little of it rub off on you,” Young told the magazine. “I’m writing right now. I’m writing songs, and I’m going to do justice to these songs one way or another. And life has changed; a lot of the people I used to make records with are not on the planet anymore. And I write these songs and I can hear their parts in my head and I don’t want anybody else to be imitating them. So I have a little quandary there. I’m gonna have to work that out inside my own soul and figure out how to deal with that, but nonetheless I feel very confident I’m gonna be able to communicate those songs and they will live. I’m having a really good time in my life, and that’s all I really need. As long as all those things are lined up, I feel very optimistic about the future. As far as the sales of records go and the commerciality and the success, I have no idea about that. As far as I am, as an artist, going to be feeling good about what I do and feel like I’m really on what I’m doing, I’ve got, like, a 90 percent chance of that happening.”
Watch Neil Young perform and record for vinyl in the Voice-O-Graph here, courtesy of Billboard.