Saturday, November 26, 2016

David Crosby: Younger Than Yesterday

It seems like eons ago when the prevailing philosophy among rock ’n’ rollers echoed The Who’s “My Generation”: Hope I die before I get old. For musical artists coming of age in the ‘60s, the majority viewed their career as a young person’s vocation; an arena where those over 30 had no destination other than the proverbial Old Folks’ Home. These young Turks—the ones who survived—grew to realize something that jazz musicians have long since known: music is a life blood that provides perpetual youth to those who embrace it.  At 75, David Crosby is the living embodiment of this truth. The co-founder of seminal ‘60s group, The Byrds, and the “C” in Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young) is in the midst of a late-career blossoming, writing prolifically on his own and with others, singing the songs in a voice that defies time. His newly-released album, Lighthouse, distills a powerful blend of soul medicine that is instantly captivating, utterly entrancing, inviting the listener on a journey through the mind, heart, and soul of a man who is, ironically on so many levels, younger than yesterday.

David Crosby
Image by Henry Diltz

Lighthouse is being hailed by fans and critics alike as Crosby’s best work since 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name. Currently on the road to support its release, Crosby is traveling with collaborators Michael League of Snarky Puppy fame, singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, and singer-songwriter Michelle Willis. The tour concludes on December 15th at The Town Hall in New York City. Calling me from his tour bus on the afternoon following opening night, David exuded warmth, friendliness, and youthful excitement.


Roy Abrams: How was opening night?

David Crosby: It was fantastic! It was so exciting you couldn’t believe it, because I was just nervous as a fucking long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Try this on: The first set that we did had three songs in it that anybody had ever heard before. So, I was scared, I’ll just come right out and say it: I was scared. But what happened is, with these three other people who are all much younger and, if anything, better than I am, they are inspiring, and the music is inspiring, because it’s all stuff we really love. It was one of those sweet Atlanta audience that loves songs, and they encouraged us, and we went for it, and it was—I’m going to be completely immodest here—pretty spectacular. We were giving high fives and whooping and hollering when we came off.

RA: I’m going to be in the audience for the last show of the tour on December 15th in New York.

Image by Django Crosby

DC: Town Hall! That’s going to be big! I won’t be making any mistakes! Oh, boy! [laughs] It should be pretty fantastic. I have a lot of friends who are flying in from all over the world to come to that show.

RA: I wanted to congratulate you on Lighthouse. Since the album has been released, it’s been my constant companion.

DC: Oh, man, thank you!

RA: There’s such a warmth and honesty to this record; the term that I’ve come up with for it is soul medicine.

DC: Soul medicine! Cool.

RA:  I’ve seen some interviews where you described the album as a voyage, which ironically is the title of your boxed set. How did this journey materialize?

DC: This song rush started about three years ago with writing with my son, James Raymond, for that album Croz. Now, normally I write a little bit, then I have a dry spell, then I write a little bit, and have a dry spell. Back in the old days when I was a doper, I would get maybe two or three songs a year. Now, I’ll tell you what happened. I got into a kind of happy place. I’m happy with my family, I’m happy with the work I’m doingI’m happy. What’s happened is, I met Michael League through hearing Snarky Puppy and being completely entranced with their work. I heard a song called “Shofukan” and it just blew my mind out my ear. So I had to get a hold of this band. Finally, we connected up and started talking, and he invited me to come down and be on their Family Dinner record. I went down to New Orleans for a week and fell in love with them because they’re my kind of people: music (is) what they do! [laughs]

RA: The involvement of Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis came through Michael as well?

DC: Yeah. Becca and Michelle were both on that record. The first time I heard them sing, I went, “Oh, God!” [laughs] So, I’d fallen into a vein of the kind of music that I love played by people who really worked … they were there because this is their life … and that’s me, that’s where I live! I was inspired by it. It’s been a continuous run of songs. Michael and I wrote at least half of this record together. Becca and I wrote that last song together, which I absolutely think is some of the best lyrics I ever wrote in my life. After last night, I think we’re probably going to do it again! This works—we’re all extremely happy (with it).

RA: I know the recording process only took 16 days, which to anybody who’s ever been in a studio, that’s a mindblower.

DC: It was a shock to me. I told Michael I needed two months and he laughed at me. He does that a lot. He said, “We can do it in 12 days, trust me.” I said, “No freakin’ way.” So he gave me a month, and we recorded it 12 days. He brought this wonderful engineer, Fabrice Dupont, who got an incredible vocal sound on me and a great sound on the guitars. We went into Fabrice’s mixing room in New York and in four days we had the thing mixed. I never had that experience before.

Image by Henry Diltz
“I run on instinct, Michael runs on brains, and the combination worked out pretty well.”

RA: When it came time to sequence the album, was it at all difficult to put the running order together, or did the songs themselves suggest their placement?

DC: You know, I run on instinct, Michael runs on brains, and the combination worked out pretty well. We just did what felt good. In the old days, we would take nine or ten Popsicle sticks and write the names of the songs on them and then arrange them on a desk until it felt right. This just kind of fell out correctly. I think the brains probably had a lot to do with it.

RA: I know that you’re friendly with Neil deGrasse Tyson. When I heard “The Us Below” I had the image of the two of you sitting around, and this song coming as an inspiration from a particular conversation.

DC: You know what? It should be; you’re right. I am a huge fan of Tyson. He’s the voice of science to people for whom it’s kind of a distant idea. I love him for that … but that (song) came from Michael’s crazed and fertile mind. We go back and forth with who writes music, who writes words. I wrote most of the music on that one and he wrote most of the words. That’s one of the joys of the thing, is that we both write both.

RA: What’s the mindset that you get into when you’re writing music to someone else’s words, such as with Marc Cohn’s “Paint You a Picture”, or the words you wrote to Becca Stevens’ music for “By the Light of Common Day”?

DC: Well … how do I describe it? In Marc’s case, I’ve always been an admirer of his; he’s written some of my favorite songs. He’s my wife’s favorite writer, and she’s a big influence on me. I love his writing. I said, “Marc, do you have a song laying around? I’m making a record.” He said, “I got a set of words,” and said, “Oh, please! Oh, please!” and he sent them, and I wrote that music to them. I called him back up and said, “Hey Marc, I think I’ve got it!” He said, “Oh God, I meant to tell you, I wrote some music to it myself!” I said, “Well, now you have the same set of words with two sets of music. I think that’s cool, if it’s cool with you.” He said, “Of course it’s cool with me! I can’t wait to hear yours!” And I still haven’t heard his (version). He’s a really good lyricist and I haven’t written any “love lost” songs hardly at all because I’ve been with the same lady for 40 years. I haven’t lost her. But Marc’s had some experience in that area. I think they’re beautiful words.

The one with Becca … the last verse of that song is, I think, my favorite words writing that I’ve done in many years. I love the whole song, I love what it says. And Becca, of course, is one of the strangest writers on the planet and so [chuckles] that’s what you get. She and I have written another one since then that’s called “Skytrails” … just really pretty. That’s going to be the title of my next record, which is back with my son (James) producing, and then the one after that, I’m going to come back to Michael again. I’ve got two roads to travel now and I’m going to do both of them.

RA: Moving to the two tracks that deal with more of the social-political commentary: “Look in Their Eyes” and “Somebody Other Than You” … given today’s world, do you see music playing the kind of role for young people as it did back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, in terms of raising social-political awareness, serving as a rallying cry of sorts?

DC: I see that happening again. When you have egregious wrongness, when you have really bad times, that’s when you get the really good songs about it. Neil (Young) wrote “Ohio” because America started killing its own children. It doesn’t get worse than that … unless you drop a nuke on your own town, or on any town. Killing your own kids … that’s horrifying, that’s enough to generate a great song. “Look in Their Eyes” came from a friend of ours, Marsha Wiliams, who goes on her own time to Greece, and goes to the beach where the boats land, pulls people out of the water, wraps a blanket around them, gives them some water, some coffee, tries to get them some food, some medical attention, find a place for them to lay down, take them to a shelter … that inspired me. She didn’t need to do that, she just feels compassion for them, so she just goes there and she does it. I love that. Normally, our job is to make you boogie, or take you on emotional voyages. Every once in a while, we should pull out the town crier card, which is our troubadour history, and say, “Hey it’s 11:30 and you just elected somebody pretty weird.” We aren’t supposed to give you a steady diet of that. We’re supposed to only do that when we see something that really calls for it. When you see a dead child washed up on that beach, it’s pretty hard not to answer that call. They are humans and they deserve compassion.

“When you have egregious wrongness, when you have really bad times, that’s when you get the really good songs about it. Neil wrote “Ohio” because America started killing its own children. It doesn’t get worse than that.”

The other one, “Somebody Other Than You”; that’s simple. I don’t like politicians who send our kids off to wars. They do it because the corporations and companies call them up and tell them to do it. And they owe the corporations and companies all the money that they got elected with. So, that’s who’s running the country, and I don’t like it. To them, if you lose your son, that’s just the cost of doing business. To me, you lost your son.

RA: Moving back to the music, in the past, you and I have discussed various guitar tunings and how central that all is for you.

DC: [Laughs] It is, man!

RA: Are there any new tunings that you found during the making of this record?

DC: Just before making this record, I found a new one; that’s the one the first two songs are in. “Things We Do For Love” and “The Us Below” are both in the newest of tunings that I use. I love it because I’m not that great a guitar player, and to be able to get the kind of inversions that the jazz guys can get because they’re more skilled, I think that’s really a wonderful thing.

Image by Henry Diltz

“This is probably the best period I’ve ever had. It’s probably the densest, longest, richest songwriting period of my life.”

RA: Focusing on this period of musical vitality, how does this feel for you compared with when you were 25?

DC: When I was 25 or 45?

RA: 25 …

DC: (At) 25, it feels kind of like that. At 45, nooooo …. I was a little distracted [chuckles]. It feels pretty exciting, but I’ll tell you the truth, and it doesn’t make any sense in terms of what we know about aging: This is probably the best period I’ve ever had. It’s probably the densest, longest, richest songwriting period of my life.

RA: So, I guess the phrase “younger than yesterday” might come into play here …

DC: [Laughs] Younger than yesterday … yes! Thank you, Bob (Dylan)!

RA: Regarding your follow-up album with James, do you have any kind of timeline with that?

DC: Next spring. It’s probably 85-90% done.

RA: I know that you worked with Michael McDonald on one track.

DC: Yeah, Michael and I wrote a song together. He and Stevie Wonder are my two favorite male singers. I don’t think anybody can touch them. Writing with him was a joy, absolutely a joy.

RA: You also worked with Jacob Collier, right?

DC: Jacob and I haven’t written together yet, but boy, we’re gonna! He hops around like a flea on a griddle, so it’s hard to connect. He sang on one of our songs, a song that James wrote called “She’s Got to Be Somewhere” … he just killed it.

RA: I saw him at Joe’s Pub in New York City back at the end of September and was completely blown away.

DC: Be prepared, because he’s not at all finished. He’s just getting started. I think Jacob Collier could well be the next big thing. He’s got it. He’s an immensely talented human being.

RA: When you looked out at the audience last night, did you see a lot of members of the younger generation there?

Image by Django Crosby
DC: Some. We pull everything from 16 to 65, and I’m happy with that. I would love it if there were more, and I think there will be more, as they become aware of it. They tend to listen to pop stuff that’s more like “just add water and stir” …. but that’s a joke that’s funny once. You start out with simple pop … and your tastes evolve and you wind up with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and hopefully, me!

© Roy Abrams 2016

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