Neil Young on his songwriting process and guitar sound: “when the song comes to you, you got to stop everything else”

As he prepares to release Barn, his new album with Crazy Horse, Neil Young has been chatting to Apple Music 1’s Zane Lowe about everything from his songwriting process and guitar sound to why he admires US President Joe Biden.

The album is named after the location it was recorded in, a previously dilapidated barn that Young had rebuilt. And, it seems that location is all-important to him when he’s making a record.

“I’ve always been like that,” he tells Lowe. “Geography's important. Not just the room, but where is the room? Where am I? I really care about that. Because every time you move to a new place, everything changes.

“In the music, you feel some places are good for some things. If it's not happening, I just leave because it's nobody's fault, but I don't want to be part of it. There's some places I just don't want to be after a while with regards to music. It just doesn't feel right. And some places that are great.”

Discussing the process of songwriting, Young says that, even after all these years, it remains something of a mystery.

“I don't even know. It just happens,” he explains. “I just never not do it. If it's happening, it's happening. Everything else stops. That's the most important thing. So if you want to do that, if you want to write songs, when the song comes to you, you got to stop everything else. No matter what you're doing, you just leave and you just go somewhere and pick up on what it was you got.”

After discussing his admiration for Joe Biden - “he’s not distracted by all of the petty little things that are happening day to day that people get hung up on” - Young went on to discuss his guitar tone, and how it’s been shaped by his technicians.

“When I play my sound, it's just me with an instrument that was set up by Larry Cragg, who's a genius. Through amplifiers that were set up by Larry Cragg, and Sal Trentino, who is another genius who is not with us anymore, but truly a genius.

“He was a tube guru, and between Larry and Sal, we would get the [Fender Tweed] Deluxe out and we have a pile of tubes that are contenders for the Deluxe. There'd be like 600 tubes. And we just go through them, try a couple of 6L6s, try another couple. OK, these are pretty good… Pretty soon you've got three sets of tubes that sound like God, out of 80 tubes. 

“So Larry and Sal were great at that. And when I did Barn, Larry was back with me. There's so much involved and so many people to make the sound. The sound is really the life of all the music and all the people that I've known.”

Barn is released on 10 December, and you can check out the full interview in the video above and on Apple Music 1.   

Ben Rogerson
Deputy Editor

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.