A versatile rocker who has influenced the sounds of popular music in genres as diverse as folk-rock and grunge, Neil Young is a songwriter who both reflects and influences the society around him.
Born in Toronto in 1945, Neil Young was raised in Ontario and Winnipeg; his main musical influences being Elvis Presley, rhythm and blues, country music, and Bob Dylan.
At 15 Young began playing guitar in bands such as The Squires and The Mynah Birds; he played in Winnipeg and Toronto folk clubs, famously driving a hearse to gigs. In 1966, he moved to California and co-founded Buffalo Springfield ‒ credited with inventing folk-rock music ‒ for whom he wrote such songs as Broken Arrow.
By 1968, Young joined Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), with whom he appeared at the seminal Woodstock festival and recorded the hit album “Déjà Vu.” He then recorded one of the earliest solo albums by a rock musician, 1969’s “Neil Young.”
In the early 1970s Young cemented his songwriting credentials with commercial successes such as Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Cinnamon Girl, and Old Man. In 1972, Heart of Gold, the No. 1 hit from the No. 1 album “Harvest,” secured his reputation as a songwriter to be reckoned with.
About his writing method, Young explained, “I don’t think about it much…what happens with the lyrics is because they happen, not because you thought of them…. The last damn thing you want to do is think of something.”
Other successful albums of the early 1970s were “After the Gold Rush,” and “Live at Massey Hall,” which went No. 1 in Canada and was Billboard’s No. 2 Top Rock Album. Young also became noted for politically aware protest songs beginning with Ohio, his response to the 1970 killing of unarmed protesters at Kent State University.
Just as Young earlier developed the folk-rock genre, his innovative 1979 album “Rust Never Sleeps” earned him the nickname “Godfather of Grunge.” His love for exploring disparate genres and switching effortlessly between electric and acoustic guitar sounds continued in the 1980s as he moved through techno music, country and R&B. By 1989 he returned to rock with the No. 2 Rock Album “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Young received his first Juno nomination in 1975, and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982, but he waited until 1994 for his first Juno award, for “Harvest Moon.” Other Junos followed in 1995 (Best Male Vocalist), 2001 (Best Male Artist), and 2006 (Alternative Album of the Year). 2011 was a red-letter year, with Young winning the Best Rock Song Grammy for Angry World, as well as Juno’s Artist of the Year and a second Alternative Album Juno.
As of 2016, Young has released over three dozen studio albums, of which “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest” were honoured by the Grammy Hall of Fame. Such noteworthy artists as Tori Amos, Jimmy Buffett, The Byrds, Johnny Cash, Natalie Cole, Pearl Jam, The Wailin’ Jennys, Norah Jones, Nicolette Larson, Nils Lofgren, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, and Stephen Stills have recorded Young’s songs.
Young emphasizes spontaneity in the creative process: “I’m proudest of my work when it comes really fast [and] I don’t edit it. It’s the purest form of creativity.”
Young’s honours include the Order of Canada, a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, induction into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and various humanitarian awards.
Neil Young’s songs, ranging from driving alternative rock to haunting acoustic ballads, continue to be relevant 50 years after he appeared on the music scene.