Sunday, November 5, 2017

David Crosby: Happiness is a Warm Guitar

David Crosby and friend
image by Anna Webber

Well into his sixth decade as a recording and touring artist, David Crosby shows no signs of flagging; to the contrary, he has never been busier, and as he will tell you, he has never been happier. This August, the legendary singer-songwriter celebrated his 76th birthday. The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (as co-founder of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash) has just released his third solo album in four years, and is touring this fall in support of the new record. Fans and critics alike are marveling at the septuagenarian’s creative rebirth.

Sky Trails, released on September 29th, was produced by Crosby’s son, James Raymond, a fiercely talented songwriter and musician in his own right. The album is a jazz-inspired masterpiece, a stylistic departure from the shimmering, acoustic-based Lighthouse album of 2016, or its predecessor, the more electrified Croz from 2014. Musical guests adorn the album, from Michael McDonald and Jacob Collier to Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. Early reviews have been laudatory, and the tour is off to a triumphant start, with both band and audience expressing unabashed glee resulting from an evening of shared sonic delight.

For those not deeply familiar with the wonderfully individualistic streak embedded in Crosby’s extraordinary body of work, consider these words from the Croz himself, spoken back in 1991 before unveiling a brand-new song to a live audience. “It’s another one of those ‘Crosby, what the hell is going on in my mind?!?’ songs.” As the audience breaks into laughter, he adds: “You gotta understand; if you have lived my life, you would have a lot of these songs!”

If you had lived my life,” indeed! From a logical standpoint, David Crosby should have departed for the spiritual realm a long, long time ago … but miracles can and do happen. Through a journey that spanned the soaring heights of groundbreaking musical innovation in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the blackest depths of addiction and despair in the ‘80s, from the long convalescence following a 1995 liver transplant to a warm, loving family life, Crosby has emerged fully intact, fully present; fully aware of and in charge of his creative faculties to an extent perhaps previously imagined, but never before achieved until the past few years. While he credits his many newfound collaborators with raising the bar and inspiring him to reach higher, at the end of the day it is Crosby, the golden-voiced balladeer, the patriotic town crier, the ever-questing mind and soul of the man himself responsible for a late-stage creative renaissance unparalleled in recent times.

image by Anna Webber

Having maintained a professional dialogue for more than 25 years, the chance to spend some time with a lifelong musical inspiration is always a special event. In late September, I had the opportunity to once again speak with David. Once again, there was so much to discuss: a brand-new album and pending tour, new musical collaborators, an ongoing track record of discovering and promoting new musical talent, the state of the music business and the extent to which the streaming services have impacted the lives of artists, the state of our country, the future of our world, and yes … CSNY.

As always, I am deeply indebted to David Crosby for his time spent speaking with me, and for a lifetime of musical and philosophical inspiration.

Roy & Yvonne Abrams with David Crosby
May 18, 2017, The Space at Westbury
image courtesy of Roy Abrams

Roy Abrams: So, here we are, speaking for the third time in less than a year! This is amazing, sir!

David Crosby: [Laughs] I thought I recognized the name!

RA: I read on Facebook that Becca (Stevens) was coming over today to write?

DC: Yeah! She’s here right now.

RA: You have described the past few years as like jumping off a cliff, then growing wings while you were halfway down. On the basis of what’s been created in that time, I daresay you’re flying higher than ever before, musically speaking. How’s the view from that altitude?

DC: You know, I feel wonderful. I think I’m doing the right thing, and I’m having a blast doing it.

RA: It sounds it! Sky Trails, to me, exudes vitality, innovation, intelligence, the degree of loving care with which the album was recorded and executed, and most importantly, the insane amount of fun that was had by you and everybody else (on the record).

DC: You could tell, huh? [Chuckles]

RA: Can we talk about the time frame of the writing and recording sessions of the new album, relative to Lighthouse?

DC: As we finished the Lighthouse record, I just stayed in the studio and started the Sky Trails record. I had the songs, we were already writing the songs; we already had songs to cut; we just started right and in started working. I’m just lucky. I feel really lucky.

RA: Audiences first got to hear some of these new tracks performed live earlier this year. Were the same personnel on the spring/summer tour also featured on the album? (The touring band—then and now—is comprised of James Raymond, keyboards/vocals; Michelle Willis, keyboards/vocals; Mai Agan, bass; Jeff Pevar, guitar/vocals; and Steve DiStanislao, drums/vocals.)

DC: Yeah. There are other people on the record that are not in the touring band. Greg Leisz played steel (guitar) all over the record; he’s a wonderful player. Steve Tavaglione played horn all over the record; he’s not on the road with us. Everybody else is pretty much there.

RA: I know that Michael McDonald co-wrote “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love”, you co-wrote the title track with Becca Stevens, and reading the liner notes from the 2017 Tour Limited Edition CD I purchased at the gig back in May, I see that Mai Agan also wrote with you. What did she contribute?

DC: That song, “Here It’s Almost Sunset” … I had that set of words and she said, “Oh, please, I really like that set of words. Let me take a shot at it.” And she wrote the music. That’s our first song together. I guarantee we’re going to write some more!

RA: What you’re doing with Becca is also off the charts—between “By the Light of Common Day” from Lighthouse and “Sky Trails,”—evidences an umbilical collaborative relationship. Are you planning on doing an entire record with her at some point?

DC: I’m going to do another record with that band, the Lighthouse Band, with Becca, Michelle (Willis), myself, and Michael League. We’re going to do another record with the four of us. What I did was … I was so thrilled with that record that I asked them to do another record with me, and this time (to) not have it be a David Crosby record with them on it but a “four of us” record with all four of us writing and singing.

RA: I hear our mutual friend Jacob Collier singing on the opening track, “She’s Got to Be Somewhere.” How did you meet Jacob?

DC: (Through) Snarky Puppy, the same way that I met Becca and Michelle.

RA: I’ve seen him five times within the past twelve months and spoke with him back in January.

DC: Isn’t he just beyond-belief good?

RA: He’s an enormous fan of yours.

DC: So much talent. He’s probably the most talented kid I’ve run into. He’s just unbelievably good.

David in the studio with Jacob Collier

RA: I’m thinking about his harmonic sensibilities, yours, and then James (Raymond)’s …. If you were to assign those harmonic sensibilities a weight, with that opening song, you could probably tip the earth a bit on its axis.

DC: [Hearty laugh] Ah, thank you, man. I loved it! I want very badly to write with Jacob. We’ve been trying to get together in the same place at the same time. We think that we could write together as well.

RA: Manna from heaven … which is, actually, how your longtime fans are viewing what’s happened with your creative output during the past few years. By your own admission, in decades past, you had said that you only wrote three or four songs a year, and there was a time when the muse wasn’t visiting … but now, apparently, it’s with you all the time.

DC:  Yeah! I’ll tell you what happened, man. I kind of had a head of steam built up from being in Crosby, Stills, and Nash and it being not good. It certainly wasn’t a place I could bring a song to and hope to get it on a record. We just didn’t like each other and we were sort of down to, you know, “turn-on-the-smoke-machine-and-play-your-hits” kind of level. So I think this burst of stuff was just wanting to happen. I think a big part of it is these people that I’m writing with; I think I’ve been very, very lucky with that.

RA: About the physical recording of Sky Trails, I know that James was involved with that; was that done using analog, digital or hybrid technology?

DC: Hybrid. We were using digital—I forget if we were using Logic or ProTools—but there are stages where we do some trick stuff with tape as well.

RA: Your love of jazz is more in full flower on the new record than probably at any point in the past, although you’ve always spoken about it, specifically regarding the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. You’ve also noted the influence of McCoy Tyner on your chording and voicing sensibilities on the guitar. What is more personally alluring to you, jazz’s improvisational nature or its complexity?

DC: Both. Yeah, I wouldn’t try to separate one from the other. The improvisational nature inspires me; I’m not good enough to improvise very much except vocally, a little, but the improvisational and the complexity both appeal to me greatly.

RA: In Dave Zimmer’s book, you described the acquisition of alternate guitar tunings as “like having a rocket ship in my pocket.”

DC: Ah!

RA: Does playing in standard tuning seem mundane or limiting in comparison?

DC: Well, no, because I get weird in standard tuning, too! [Extended laughing]

RA: Point taken!

DC: [Still laughing] I can’t help it!

image by Anna Webber

RA: Moving back to the album, you had released “Capitol” almost as soon as it was finished, months before the record had an actual release date. To my ears, I don’t think a more incisive indictment of our country’s current political dysfunction exists. It’s very much in keeping with your prior acknowledgement of the “town crier” element of the singer-songwriter-troubadour. I was reminded of the 2006 CSNY tour, and how you guys became the collective voice of outrage over the political cesspool of those times. I also know that you recently spoke about the urge to resurrect that four-piece as a voice for today’s protest movement. First, I was blown away by that because of how busy you already are in moving forward with all things new, but also because you’re headlining a show at Carnegie Hall in January, billed as “an evening of protest music, with special guests,” Might this be an opportunity for some kind of event like that to occur?

DC: No. It’ll be good; there’ll be some recognizable music and I think it’s going to be a very fascinating thing. But no, I think that if CSNY gets together, it’ll be because Neil (Young) wants to do it. He’s the deciding factor, always has been. If he decides he wants to do it then God bless him, we will do it!

RA:  Your followers on Twitter know that you are an outspoken, outraged critic of the streaming services, and how the practice has essentially killed record sales for both established artists and those just starting out. On one of those threads, someone suggested adding a virtual Tip Jar to the services so listeners can contribute.

DC: I think that anything that would help us is a great idea, because as it stands now, man, I made these three records out of the grocery money, and the help of a friend. A close friend of mine bought me a month of studio time that I couldn’t afford. Why couldn’t I afford it? Because they’re stealing my music and not paying me for it. That’s how this winds up. Young people just don’t stand a chance. It’s incredibly difficult, because there’s no payoff. They take the music and they sell it, and they make billions of dollars, and they don’t pay us; it’s that simple.

RA: Are there any thoughts circulating in the industry, or among your musician friends, on how artists—or the public—can effect that kind of change to revamp the system?

DC: There’s many people trying to come up with an answer to it, man. Some of them are trying some way to encrypt or watermark a digital file so that it can’t be copied; I think that’s not gonna work, because there’s always some guy in Russia someplace figuring out a way to find their way in. I think—I don’t know—maybe some kind of new technology. Just because I don’t have an answer how to fix it doesn’t mean that it’s okay what they’re doing. What they’re doing is theft.

RA: I could not possibly agree more. What’s the percentage for artists? Point-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero ad infinitum? That’s criminal! The last time we spoke, you talked about how live performances have become a necessary means of survival.

DC: Live performance is the only way we make any money. At all.

RA: I know how much you have always loved performing and connecting with your fans. I’m wondering if your feelings toward the streaming services that make this kind of frequent touring a necessity ever impact how you feel about the touring schedule?

DC: No, the touring schedule is just tough. It’s always been tough. For me, it’s particularly hard, because I’m not a kid any more. I’m an old guy and I don’t have the kind of stamina I used to have. It’s very hard on me. But I love singing, I love singing, I really do. And when I do it, I feel overjoyed. I think it couldn’t be a better thing for me.  The other 21 hours a day are very rough.  We don’t get more than three or four hours of sleep in a row; we never get home cooking, we’re always eating in bad restaurants, bad food … the road beats the crap out of you, man. It’s hard. It’s not an easy thing at all, but it’s the only way I can make a living.

RA: You’ve always been so encouraging toward other musicians. What’s been blowing my mind as of late is your willingness to listen to aspiring artists online and offer them your feedback. I don’t know of any other artist on your level who would do such a thing. What motivates you to be so generous with your time?

DC: Well, they’re at the stage that I remember very, very well … like driving 200 miles to go play to another 35 people, making just enough money to put gas in the rented van and maybe buy one meal. It’s insanely difficult for young people now. So, yeah, I think it’s a righteous thing to try and help them get attention and try to help them get known, if they’re talented enough. I do look for really talented people. I mean, I discovered Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, so I’m not batting too badly.

RA: And it almost feels like you’re reading from my notes! [Laughs] That was my next point. You’ve always shown this sheer joy at making those introductions. As you said, Joni and Jackson, and you continued with Michael Hedges—and I will be eternally grateful to you for that introduction.

DC: A great cat, man. Shit, was he good!

RA: Most recently, it continues with Becca and Michelle. You know, I can’t get over the simpatico between you and Becca especially. In a similar vein in which you, Stephen, and Graham locked voices in the past, you’re locking muses with Becca, and the results are mind-blowing!

DC: We do write well together. She’s here today, and she’s gonna be here for the next couple of days, we’re trying to start on the next song, because we love writing together.

RA: As far as James is concerned, I know that you guys have written together for years. Love the CPR material! What were the co-writes with him on Sky Trails?

DC: James wrote the first song by himself, James and I wrote “Home Free” together. Michael McDonald and I wrote “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” together, James and I wrote “Capitol,” “Sell Me a Diamond” and “Curved Air” together. I wrote “Somebody Home” by myself. And there’s the Joni Mitchell one (“Amelia”).

RA: What made you choose that one of hers in particular?

DC: Man, I’ve always loved that song! It’s a brilliant song. It’s a daunting prospect, trying to sing a song that Joni’s already sung, but I just couldn’t resist it because the song is so good.

RA: Another artist I want to ask you about is Kenny White. He opened for Stephen Stills and Judy Collins back in August—

DC: —Isn’t he good??

RA: Let me tell you—I don’t think anybody else in that room had ever heard of him. The man got a standing ovation at the end of his set. So, after the concert, I did some research at home, and there you are, singing harmony with him on “A Road Less Traveled.” What or who was your introduction to him?

DC: He is very close friends with a neighbor of mine, whom I am very, very tight friends with; his name is Dan Gerber. Dan turned me on him and once I heard him … I love him. He’s a wonderful songwriter, a wonderful musician. He’s a really great cat.

image by Anna Webber

RA: I’m sure everyone and their grandparents have been asking you your thoughts on the current political environment. Where do you see this going? Do you see us collectively waking up?

DC: I don’t know, man. It’s pretty tough—a pretty tough situation that we could wind up with this asshole getting elected in the first place. Isn’t it terrible that we could be so asleep that the Russians could get away with what they got away with? That our system is so broken that our Congress does nothing but fight like babies in a schoolyard? The ways to fix it don’t look even possible. You’d have to publicly finance elections so that the corporations couldn’t buy the elections and thereby own the Congress, which is where the situation is right now. And of course, you’d never get that through Congress!

RA: As a teacher of high school students, I see so many of them taking the time to independently research, and when they’re done researching, they research some more …

DC: They’re grown up being able to. They’ve grown up with Google.

RA: And by doing the research, they’re also able to make very well-educated decisions. That actually gives me a lot of hope for the future—

DC: —If they become active and they vote!

RA: Absolutely!           

DC: A whole lot of people didn’t vote in this last election. If they had, we wouldn’t have this asshole running the country.

RA: So, David Crosby and Friends will be coming to the Concert Hall at the NY Society for Ethical Culture in New York City on November 25th. How extensive is your touring schedule this time around?

DC: About a month and a half, starting right at the end of October.

RA: I still listen to Lighthouse every day, and now Sky Trails joins it in constant replay. I have two wonderful new musicians who you’ve introduced me to, Becca and Michelle. My playlist is full of material that is directly related or attributable to you. Thank you so much.

DC: Thank you, man.

image by Anna Webber

© Roy Abrams 2017

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