Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Lifetime High: David Crosby in Conversation

David Crosby
Image by Anna Webber

David Crosby is back with another masterpiece. Well into his eighth decade, hot on the heels of his fourth album in as many years, the Byrds and CSN(Y) co-founder is flying high, soaring to new creative heights with Here If You Listen, a collaborative effort with Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League. The quartet originally convened for the Lighthouse album, released in 2016, and followed with a critically-acclaimed series of tours. Where Lighthouse and Here If You Listen diverge is that the former was approached and billed as a Crosby solo album, while the new release is a true group effort: All four artists contribute their unique sensibilities to both lyrics and music, and the result in nothing short of brilliance. Consider Crosby’s compatriots: Michael League, mastermind of Snarky Puppy and a myriad of other musical projects; Becca Stevens, a singer-songwriter who represents what a Crosby/Joni Mitchell “soul child” may well have sounded like; and Michelle Willis, a Toronto-born singer-songwriter once described by Crosby as sounding “like God on a good day.”   

Harmony fans will bathe in waves of complex vocal stacks that will break over you, lift you up, and gently set you down on the shore of your imagination where Crosby and friends are waiting to take you away. As a self-diagnosed chronic harmony fan, the arrival of the new album was an event, and at the first available opportunity where peace, quiet, and a good set of headphones co-existed, I let the songs break over me, lift me up, and carry me away. Still deep in the absorption stage, I prepared for the impending phone call from an artist for whom I have been increasingly finding myself at a loss for words to describe just how astounding the past four years have been.

No one is more astounded—or grateful—than the artist himself. His youthful voice is filled with the fearless liberation of one whose understanding of the value of time, of the joy and power of music, is at a lifetime high. At 77, David Crosby continues to speak up and sing out.

The current tour winds up on December 8th at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. Our conversation took place on October 9th, just prior to tour rehearsals. 

David Crosby: [sounding for all the world like a 20-year-old] Hi there!
Roy Abrams: David! How are you?

DC: I’m good, man!
RA: Thank you for the call! So … the album is making my brains liquid—
DC: [extended laughter]

RA: I’m kind of running out of superlatives here! I wanted to start off by talking about the harmonies.  I’ve watched some interview snippets with you online regarding what’s taking place here with Here If You Listen. I remember back in the day with CSN when the three of you would hit a (vocal) chord and fall together, laughing. That happens to me, too. However, something else has also happened here with this album. The chemistry developed between the four of you during the recording of Lighthouse has evolved to a degree that ended up with this particular listener being moved to tears.
DC. Man!

RA:Yeah, I had some serious eye leakage listening to this album. If Lighthouse was an alternate universe, then this (new album) is another dimension entirely.
DC: Oh, man. I’m so happy that you like it. It’s an amazing chemistry.

RA: Yeah … I’ve never heard any other project that you’ve been involved with that has produced results to this degree. I don’t have any basis for comparison. I saw the interview when you were talking about “Glory” and the fact that it was a veritable 4-way street … to have that happen, and according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, you were telling them, “You guys are thinking about things too much. Just shut up and go with the thing that feels good!”

DC: [chuckles]

RA: Did they take your advice?
DC: I’m so happy that you love it, man. It’s a magical chemistry. What happened, man, when we did that first Lighthouse record, I was just completely knocked out with working with Michael as the producer and writing with Michael, and then singing with Becca and Michelle. I went to them this time and said, “Listen, I want to do a record, but I don’t want to do another solo record with Michael producing and you guys helping me. I want to do a four-of-us record, where the four of us write and the four of us sing as a group. And they said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yes, I’m absolutely sure. There’s a chemistry here that’s a thing I want to follow.” And they said, “Oh, boy! Whoopee!” and they jumped in with both feet. They are fiercely talented people.

David and Becca
Image courtesy of David Crosby

RA: Absolutely. Once again, thank you so much for making that introduction to me. Becca and Michelle … I just don’t even know what to say. When their voices blend? That’s just another thing altogether, for which I still can’t find the words, and I’m supposed to be a word guy. Can we go through the album tracks to get a sense of who contributed what?
DC: Sure.

RA: “Vagrants of Venice” … I know those are your lyrics, right?
DC: Yeah, those are my lyrics and Becca wrote the music. All four of us contributed to it a little bit, but basically it’s me and Becca.

RA: “1974” … that’s your music?
DC: Yeah, my music, and we wrote new words to it.

RA: “Your Own Ride”—which, by the way, has killer lyrics—
DC: I wrote those (lyrics) to my son Django about ten years ago, and I gave them to Bill Laurance from Snarky Puppy and he wrote the music.

RA: “Buddha on a Hill” …
DC:  “Buddha on a Hill” we all wrote. It’s basically a love song to my wife.

RA: ”I Am No Artist” …
DC:  A set of words that Becca found and brought, and she wrote the music, and the words are just so strange and wonderful. I think that’s some of the best harmony singing we did.

RA: “1967” …
DC: I think that’s the one where you actually hear me writing the song. You hear me finding the melody in the beginning there. It’s the only time I know of where I actually got the inception, the actual birth of the song, on tape.

RA: Wow. “Balanced on a Pin” …
DC: “Balanced on a Pin” is just a recent song that I wrote … I don’t know if I should tell you this, but it’s very simple; it’s how I feel.

RA: “Other Half Rule” …
DC: That’s us singing to the women of the United States of America: Would you please get more involved and start running things, because we think that you could do a really good job.

RA: I know that “Janet” is essentially Michelle … that was performed last summer on the Sky Trails tour.

DC: That’s Michelle’s song. Boy, what a woman! [laughs]

RA: Congratulations on your recently-concluded European tour! I know that was a long time in the works.

DC: Yeah, it was really good. We tore it up, man. The gig in London was just killer. You should read the Times review!

RA: I did!
DC: The gig in Milan might have been even crazier than the one in London but they were both stunners.

RA: What’s the vibe over there? How do they feel about what’s happening on this side of the pond?
DC: Every conversation, every interview starts with “What the fuck?!?

RA: I can definitely get behind that!
DC: They are baffled; they are worried as well they might be.

RA: I want to circle back to the advice you gave to the other three, about thinking too much. What did Michael, Becca, and Michelle specifically bring to your table? What did you get from each of them?

DC: Each of them is a completely individual writer, not like anybody else I’ve ever heard. So, what I get from them is creative juice. They are incredible artists, all three of them. Michael can play anything well, and he’s such a wonderful composer of music and such a good writer of words. Becca and Michelle are completely different from each other and two of the best singer-songwriters I’ve encountered. I found Joni Mitchell; I do know what I’m doing. 

RA: Yes, you do.
DC: [laughs]

RA: Something that everybody who’s ever worked with you says is that you bring a childlike enthusiasm. Do you recognize this in yourself?
DC: Probably not the same way everybody else does. Yeah, I am enthusiastic. I love this, man, I love singing! I love music! I’m not doing it to get famous or rich, (or to) get laid or anything; I’m doing it because I absolutely adore doing it.

Image courtesy of David Crosby

RA: You and Paul McCartney are the same age and are probably the two busiest men in this business.
DC: Well, we both feel the same thing, which is: We have a certain amount of time left; how do we want to spend it? That’s pretty clear, huh?

RA: Absolutely. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that there was a Cameron Crowe documentary in the works. What’s the status?

DC: It’s done! Ah ha! Whoo! [laughs] We’re gonna sell it at that big movie festival up in Utah. I think it’s an amazing piece of work. It’s probably the most honest documentary I’ve ever seen. We’ll see if people like it or not. I hope they do, because boy, I didn’t pull any punches.

RA: Speaking of punches, you just provided me with a very weird segue … from the same Rolling Stone article, your wife Jan was quoted as saying, “David functions best while simultaneously praised and abused.” Care to comment on that?
DC: [laughs] Yeah, sure! If you have an ego as big as mine, the only healthy thing you can do with it is make fun of it! [cracks up laughing] As often as possible! My family and my close friends all abuse me with great regularity and hilarity. There’s a lot of sense of humor there!

Michael League, Becca Stevens, 
Michelle Willis, David Crosby
Image courtesy of David Crosby

RA: A quick diversion into a question for guitarists: We all know and love the EBDGAD tuning. Is there another alternative tuning you can share with me for the guitarist to experiment with?
DC: Oh, Jeez, let’s see … try DADDGC!

RA: Returning to the feedback you were getting while in Europe, and what’s swirling around now with the November midterms, and where the country may be headed …
DC: Every conversation started off with them being completely aghast and worried as hell because, obviously, Western Europe is very, very strongly linked to the United States, and they used to be able to count on us to be their buddy. Now, we’ve got an idiot running our country and he’s doing great harm to that relationship. So, every conversation I had over there started with “What the hell is going on, and how did you let it get there?” And it’s embarrassing, and it’s tough. I made jokes about it, I tell people we’re all gonna wear a Canadian maple leaf on our shoulders and (say) we’re Canadians, because everybody likes Canadians! But it’s very tough in Europe right now to be an American; it’s embarrassing.

RA: Do you have a sense of where the midterms are going?
DC: [sighs] I know where I want them to go, man, but what you’ve got to remember is there’s people like the Koch brothers who committed $80,000,000 in swiping that election publicly.

RA: As important as the issue behind the No Nukes movement was (and is), the U.N. report on climate change that just came out yesterday is an issue that seems to be a rallying point for humanity. My question to you is: could, should musical artists help to lead the way in terms of awareness—
DC: We’re human beings and we live here; we have a responsibility to our families, to our children, to our children’s children. The worst part in what this current administration is doing isn’t the damage to our democracy, which is awful, and it isn’t the damage to the belief in our democracy, which is even worse; it’s the fact that by not doing anything about global warming, by denying any report that gets in the way of profits, we are doing a disservice to the entire human raceevery single human being on the planet when we’re supposed to be a developed nation with the intelligence and the technology to lead the way to fixing it, we’re doing this awful, backsliding, stupid, ignorant move, and we’re doing harm to the entire planet and everybody on it. Not a good thing.

RA: I agree. The last time we spoke was in May, just before you toured the U.S. with the Sky Trails band, we were speaking about the activism of musical artists, you brought up the CSNY mothership, so to speak, and you said that you felt that they should be out there adding their collective voice to the mix. Have your thoughts changed at all regarding that?
DC: I wish we were! You gotta remember, the last time we got together was to sing Neil’s “Let’s Impeach the President for Lying” which is a perfect song to be singing right now!          We were just singing it a little too early; we didn’t realize we were gonna have a liar of this proportion to work with. I wish we would; I don’t think it’s gonna happen, but I get messages every day on Twitter and Facebook saying, “Will you pleeeease stop bickering with each other and do your job? Be our voice; we need it now." And I agree, and I would like to. But it’s up to Neil, it’s always been up to Neil, and it’s up to Neil now.

RA: It was interesting this summer to see how the others’ songs were popping up on everybody’s set lists …
DC: I don’t know about that; I’ve been doing “Ohio” but that’s normal. I don’t think any of them ever do my songs.

RA: Graham performed “Orleans” which was on your If I Could Only Remember My Name.

DC: That’s a French children’s song, it’s not my song.

RA: At one point, did you add Graham's “Marguerita” to one of the European shows? I had seen a reference to that from a fan on Facebook.
DC: No, they made a mistake.

RA: I understand that you’ve already started writing for the next Sky Trails band album.
DC: Yeah, we already are.

RA: Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, how do you find the time?
DC: You know, it’s what I said before, man. You look at your life, you know that you have a certain amount of time; anybody my age knows that they’ve got a certain amount of time. And you think to yourself, okay, how do I spend this time? Do I sit around, retire, and stare at the walls? What do I do? To me, there’s only one contribution I can make. There’s only one place I can do anything personally; me, to make anything better. And that’s to be doing my job, to be making the music, the best music I can make, as fast as I can do it.

Image courtesy of David Crosby

RA: The upcoming tour starts on November 2nd in Seattle and winds up in Port Chester, NY on December 8th. Have rehearsals started yet?
DC: Just about to.

RA: It’s been decades, and I always want to just express my thanks.
DC: Well, thank you, man, and thank you for the help!

(Island Zone Update features additional interviews with David Crosby from 2014 to 2018.)

© Roy Abrams 2018

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