Winnipeg maintains its claim on songwriting icon Neil Young, who turns 75 Thursday

Iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young turned 75 Thursday, and although he was born in Toronto, Winnipeg has long claimed him as a native son.

Young, who moved to Winnipeg in 1960, only spent a handful of years living in the city, but they were formative years, giving him his first experiences writing songs and performing on stage — kick-starting a storied, six-decade career.

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Neil Young, left, with his 1960s Winnipeg band, the Squires.
Neil Young, left, with his 1960s Winnipeg band, the Squires. Manitoba Music Museum

Winnipeg music historian John Einarson, author of a 1993 biography of Young’s early years in Canada, told 680 CJOB that the musician has always had a soft spot for the Manitoba capital, despite having lived in California for the majority of his career.

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“The first few times I talked to him years ago, I said, ‘what does Winnipeg mean to you?’ And he said, ‘this is where it all started for me.’

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“When he moved here in August of 1960, he’d been playing the ukulele and his dad had bought him an acoustic guitar, but within a month of arriving in Winnipeg, his mom bought him his first electric guitar and he formed his first band,” Einarson said.

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Today, Young is renowned for his skill as a songwriter, with an instantly-recognizable guitar sound, and one of the most unique singing voices in music history, something Einarson said he started developing while living in Winnipeg.

“He said to me, ‘everybody told me I couldn’t sing, but I just kept at it’,” said Einarson — an attitude that culminated in a 1964 recording session, where the studio engineer famously told Young, ‘you’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer.’

He just stuck to it… and that kind of is the description of Neil’s career — sticking to it, and against a lot of odds, to succeed,” said Einarson.

“You get what you get, and he’s not interested in polished sounds. He’s real, and this is what you get — the real Neil Young.”

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That raw, genuine sound still resonates with Winnipeg musicians today, who say Young’s influence on the music scene is multi-faceted — in particular his ever-shifting genre experiments.

Although he’s best-known, commercially, for folk and country records like 1972’s Harvest — the best-selling album in the United States that year — Young has dabbled in everything from soul to synth-pop to punk throughout his career.

“Neil has always marched to his own beat, and to me, that’s what punk rock is all about — playing against expectations,” said Matt Thompson of present-day Winnipeg punks Mouth Feel.

“Add in the unique voice, and the lo-fi, shambolic off-the-floor recordings. His intensity and passion for getting an authentic feel to his music have been a huge influence.”

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CJ Loane, frontman of Selkirk rockers The Bloodshots, said Young exemplifies an artist who succeeded by pushing boundaries.

“I think his legacy is important here in Winnipeg. A lot of successful musicians have had to leave Winnipeg over the years to make a sustainable ‘full go of it’ as a musician,” Loane said.

“You definitely have to leave your comfort zone to make it in the music industry.

“I know (The Bloodshots) have a little Uncle Neil flowing through us at times during the writing process. His music definitely flows through the veins of Peg City.”

According to Einarson, Young’s adventurous path started from a young age. While he was playing cover tunes at teen dances with his band, the Squires, Young would also be playing original folk compositions at the 4th Dimension, a coffee house on Pembina Highway.

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“He recognized early on that the key to success was writing your own material,” Einarson said.

“He was ahead of the curve from everybody else in doing that, because he’s always done his own songs.

“In many ways, he torpedoed the commercial aspect of his career to follow his own muse and to follow what he wanted to do.”

Read more: Neil Young granted U.S. citizenship 54 years after moving there

That ‘authentically Neil’ sound continues to inspire local artists today.

“He writes songs so unapologetically and always has. For someone with so much success and nothing to prove, his writing still comes off as humble and authentic,” said singer-songwriter Jacob Brodovsky.

“As someone with little success and everything to prove, I still try to emulate that — to come at songwriting from a place of humility like Neil.”

Manitoba performer Mister K — previously known as roots/folk/country artist Kevin Roy — said he’s been listening to Young’s music since discovering the Decade compilation at age 12, and found the vulnerability in the songs appealing.

“I’ve always been drawn to Neil’s ability to stay true to himself. I think, as humans, we recognize and appreciate artistic authenticity,” he said.

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“I am extremely grateful for his catalogue and the lessons I learned to help me find my inner voice.”

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