Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Road Goes Ever On: Graham Nash in Conversation

Graham Nash
image by Amy Grantham

With a career as illustrious and a song catalog as voluminous as that of Graham Nash, putting a concert set list together is no easy task. What is a comfortable ratio of “expected” songs to the deeper cuts that will thrill the true aficionado? Should songs written by former partners be included at the expense of self-penned compositions? If so, which ones, and why? What about other cover songs? The list of questions goes on, but in one particular instance, those questions are rendered irrelevant. On September 27th, Nash comes to New York City’s Town Hall to perform his celebrated first two solo albums in their entirety, accompanied by a full band and background vocalists. Sandwiched in between dates on his current U.S. tour, the concert marks the very first time that Nash has done something of this nature. To be sure, his fans are over-the-top excited about this event, and the artist himself is gearing up for it with great anticipation.

At 77, Graham Nash is brimming with energy and enthusiasm for life. Recently remarried to artist/writer Amy Grantham, he is frequently on the road, joined by guitarist/vocalist Shane Fontayne and organist/vocalist Todd Caldwell.  Delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, he includes songs from his days with The Hollies, as well as from his tenure with two of the best-loved groups this country has ever produced: Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nash also features songs written by Stills and Young in his regular live set, and has newly added a song he co-wrote with Crosby, his former best friend of 45 years with whom he no longer speaks.  Neither of them has spoken publicly about the root cause of the rift. With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock come and gone, the music of CSN and of CSNY will live on in recorded form only; Nash is adamant that those three (or four) individuals will never play another note together again. Nevertheless, he is content; a happy man indeed. To those who know him, he is a true Renaissance man who is on a constant quest to seek out new knowledge and new experiences. Graham Nash is intent on filling every day with pleasure and purpose.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Graham about the upcoming Town Hall concert, the albums around which the concert is based, his former partners, the current U.S. tour, and the future. Read on and enjoy!

Roy Abrams: Looking forward to the September 27th show at The Town Hall in New York City, which is a complete performance of your first two solo albums, Songs for Beginners and Wild Tales. What prompted you to do this special event?
Graham Nash: It’s been an idea that’s been floating around for a long time, but recently my wife, Amy Grantham, who loves both those albums, has been putting pressure on me to do this. So, I’m doing it, and I’m really looking forward to it! I’ve never done it before. I’ll come out with a full band and play Songs for Beginners from start to finish, then take a break and do Wild Tales.

RA: First of all, congratulations on your marriage; that’s great news. Please tell Amy I said thank you for her encouragement with this wonderful idea! In addition to Shane and Todd, who else will be joining you onstage for that particular show?
GN: This has been a way of actually letting go, because I’m going to be playing with several people that I’ve never even met, which is really interesting! [Laughs] Here are the people who are going to be playing with me: Todd Caldwell’s brother Toby is a great drummer. I’ve met Toby before but I’ve never played with him. Andy Hess will be on bass, Thad DeBrock is going to be playing pedal steel, and I have two lady singers with me; Celisse Henderson and Grace Stumberg.

RA: Who lined up those musicians?
GN: Basically, Shane and Todd.

RA: Each of those albums possesses its own aura. As their creator, can you define what makes those records so distinct from each other?
GN: That’s a good question. For many years, I’ve tried to figure out why the popularity of something like Songs for Beginners was, and I think it basically boils down to the simplicity (of the songs) and the immediacy of touching your heart. You know, the sound of those albums was exactly what I wanted for those particular songs. Wild Tales was a little different; it was two or three years later, and I built a studio in my house in San Francisco, in the Haight, and recorded Wild Tales there in my basement.

RA: Focusing on the pedal steel contributions on both those albums, you had Ben Keith on Wild Tales and Jerry Garcia on Songs for Beginners. What was your relationship like with Jerry, who played on “I Used to Be a King,” “Man in the Mirror,” and of course, “Teach Your Children” on CSNY’s Déjà Vu?
GN: Jerry was basically Crosby’s friend, because they both lived in the Bay area, which I did after 1969 after I broke up with Joni. Jerry was a wonderful man; he was very calm, and he was very Zen, for want of a better word. We had recorded the track to “Teach Your Children” at Wally Heider’s in San Francisco. When we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do for a solo, Stephen was trying to figure out what to do, and Crosby said, “Hey, I hear Jerry’s been playing pedal steel!” I said, “Oh, really? Why don’t we play him the track and see if he likes the song enough to want to play on it?” We played Jerry the track and he loved it. He brought his pedal steel in and he played the first take, and I thanked him profusely. He said, “You know, I kind of screwed up in the chorus; can I do it again?” I said, “Absolutely, you can do it again, but I’m never gonna use it!” He said, “Why?” I said, “What you consider to be mistakes, I thought they were brilliant; small, real touches, and I’m going to leave it exactly as it is, if it’s okay with you.”

RA: I remember a couple of years ago when you and Shane performed that song, and he played a solo after which you spent a few extra measures before launching into the last verse, you were so blown away by how he played.
GN: It was astonishing to me that Shane Fontayne could play Jerry’s solo that was played on a pedal steel on a normal electric guitar. Shane’s the kind of player that wants the song to live, not necessarily his solo. He saw The Hollies when he was 12 years old! [Laughs]

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
image by Amy Grantham

RA:  Moving to a different type of relationship, you’ve had an interesting one with Long Island that extends back 50 years. Your current tour will make two stops on the Island: Friday: October 11 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and Saturday, October 12, at the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington. What are some standout memories of your time on Long Island?
GN: John Sebastian, our dear friend, was actually partly responsible for me getting in that band. David and Stephen, at some point, asked John who they could get for a third harmony. He said that there were only two choices: they had to get Phil Everly or Graham Nash. And I thought that was an incredible compliment, so that was a great memory. Sebastian actually rented us the house in Sag Harbor; he found a beautiful little old wooden house on the lake. It was winter, December of ’68, so it was pretty chilly and pretty snowy and icy; a lovely time. That’s when I discovered that CSN wasn’t gonna make an acoustic album, which we all thought, but an electric album because in Sag Harbor, Harvey Brooks played bass, and all of a sudden it started to become a gentle rock and roll album.

RA: Your current touring set list has expanded to include songs from all three of your former CSNY partners; Neil’s “Ohio” is in there, as are a few Stills songs. The recent addition of “Taken At All,” a Crosby/Nash collaboration, is a welcomed surprise. Have you seen David’s documentary? (David Crosby: Remember My Name)
GN: I have.

RA: What was your take on it?
GN: [Long pause] I didn’t feel that it showed enough of the joy in the music that we had created. There was a lot in it about David’s five stents in his heart, and Jan crying about him not coming home maybe. You know, if I had to sum it up, I would call it a video obituary.

RA: Wow. At the end, he spoke about his wish to be able to say one last goodbye to his friends, to let the people he loves know how much they meant to him.
GN: A little late. A little late.

RA: When you were speaking with Paul Shaffer last year about this, you said, “I don’t quite know how to undo it.”
GN: What happens is this, Roy. I liken it to a metaphorical kind of sentence that when you break that silver thread that holds you to your friends and your loved ones, when that silver thread breaks, it’s very, very difficult to get those two ends to come back together and join. Quite frankly, we need to like each other and love each other before we can find music. We did it for 50 years and now it’s over, and so we get on with the rest of our lives.

image by Amy Grantham

RA: Have you heard any of David’s recent albums? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
GN: David’s doing remarkably well. He’s made four or five albums in the last two or three years and God bless him. I just don’t want to make music with him anymore. It’s that simple.

RA: Let’s move over to the unfortunate state of the country. Do you have a favorite Democratic presidential candidate?
GN: In thinking about this very carefully, I realize that America needs a leader that can calm everything down. That thought process leads to (Joe) Biden; of course, the critics of Biden have very good points. He will be almost 80 years old in the middle of his first term, if he got elected. This country is a very different country from when Woodstock went down. It’s an incredibly different country that I came to know and love and be a part of. I’ve been an American citizen now for over 40 years. I wanted to be a part of the community; I wanted to vote; I wanted to raise my voice … and I did. The Trump administration has taken America on a certain path, and I truly believe that that path is going backward, and they are undoing a tremendous amount of great work that was done, particularly in the realm of the environment.

RA: The video you released for “Teach Your Children” is a starkly compelling, viscerally moving testament to the struggles that this country still faces, with particular emphasis on the challenges faced by our young people. Can you describe the process of putting that video together?
GN: After the Parkland shooting in Florida wbere 17 students got murdered by one of their fellow students, the surviving students, and their efforts to go around America and get people to vote, getting people to not support politicians who take money from the gun lobby or the NRA; that energy should be applauded and should be helped as much as possible. When I realized what passion that had, and what power they had—because there are our children telling us what they need from the world—I talked to my manager, Mark Spector, who also manages Joan Baez, and he had a friend, Jeff Scheer, who had done some work for Joan Baez ten years ago, and I saw some of his work and let him run with it. Jeff Scheer made, I think, 2,200 drawings and provided the animated video for “Teach Your Children” which is on YouTube right now.

RA: Once and always, Graham, thank you for your time, and thank you for your music. I’m looking forward with incredible anticipation to the September 27th show, and twice on Long Island … that’s a first for you!
GN: [Laughs] Yeah! Me too, kid. Thank you, Roy.

Note: Island Zone Update features other interviews with Graham Nash, as well as with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and many other artists.

© Roy Abrams 2019

Friday, July 19, 2019

One Man's Sunset is Another Man's Sunrise: The Continuing Adventures of David Crosby

David Crosby
Image by Anna Webber

David Crosby looks fearlessly into the waning light of his life, embracing the time remaining to him with all the energy and enthusiasm of a child waking up to a sunny summertime morning. CSN and CSNY are now things of the past, but all is well in Crosby’s world. The fire still burns, the muse still beckons, and the voice still soars. Moving gracefully into his 79th year, “the Croz” has entered what he stoically knows is the home stretch of his mortal journey, but this outspoken troubadour, the delightfully eccentric wizard responsible for writing some of the best self-proclaimed “weird shit” of this or any other time, continues to exude the energy of eternal youth. It’s in his voice, it’s in his attitude, and it’s fueled by the musical company he keeps these days. 

Since 2014, Crosby has entered a true Golden Age of creativity, recording and releasing four critically and commercially acclaimed albums within a five year span. He has toured America and Europe with two markedly different bands: the Lighthouse Band, an acoustic-based affair consisting of Crosby, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, and singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, and the Sky Trails Band, an electric, jazz-infused rock conglomerate featuring Crosby, his son James Raymond, Jeff Pevar, Steve DiStanislao, Mai Leisz, and Michelle Willis. The shows have left audiences exhilarated and rapturous from the sheer musical magnificence that emanates from the stage, night after night. 

Shortly before the first leg of Crosby’s Spring-Summer tour with his Sky Trails Band gets underway, I am sitting in my home office, waiting for the phone to ring and resume a conversation that began nearly thirty years ago. I watch the clock and glance at my list of questions. A few minutes before the scheduled start time, the call comes through, and we get underway …

Roy Abrams: On July 19th, Sony Pictures will premiere the highly-anticipated documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, with a general release to follow shortly thereafter. The documentary was directed by A. J. Eaton and produced by the veteran music journalist Cameron Crowe. Am I correct in assuming that you met A. J. Eaton through his brother Marcus, with whom you have recorded and toured in the past?
David Crosby: The two brothers have been friends of mine for several years now. They’re really good guys.

RA: I know you have a long standing friendship with Cameron Crowe as well.
DC: Yeah. Cameron and I have been friends ever since he was 17 years old. You ever see Almost Famous?

RA: Yeah.
DC: Well, he was the kid in the film. Led Zeppelin and us (CSNY) were his experiences in coming of age. [Chuckles]

RA: Okay!
DC: Yeah, we introduced him to girls, and his mom definitely wanted to have us all shot.

RA: I was watching the trailer for the documentary where you described A. J. and Cameron, saying, “They’re both friends of mine. They’re both merciless,” in that they gave you no place to hide. You followed that up by saying you were asked the single hardest question that you were ever asked by anyone, anywhere, at any time. I would never presume to ask you for the answer to the question, but is that a question you could share now?
DC: I suppose I could. It’s a painful one. He asked me if I hurt any of the women that I loved and I was with, and I had to say yes. Not physically, but certainly emotionally.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: You said that the experience was paradoxical in the sense that it brought you pain, but that it also brought you much joy, that it was a cathartic experience.
DC: Absolutely! It really depends on how you look at it, man. If you’ve making a documentary, normally, it’s very shallow. They go around and get anybody famous that you’ve ever met; they stick a mic in front of their face, and ask, “Isn’t he great? Isn’t he wonderful?” This one, we wanted to give you an honest picture of a guy, and how he accomplished the good things he did and why he did the stupid things he did, and who he was. You don’t want to just prettify the picture; you want to find out who the person is. That’s how all three of us looked at it. There was a unity of purpose; we definitely felt that we knew what we wanted to do and we did it, and it was very honest.

RA: I know you’re working on another new album with the Sky Trails Band.
DC: The Sky Trails Band came out of CPR (Crosby, Pevar, and Raymond). My son James Raymond is the producer and keyboard player (and) he’s doing half of the writing. It’s probably the most successful writing partnership in my life. Jeff Pevar, our guitar player, is a spectacular guitar player; Stevie DiStanislao, our drummer, has been with me and James right from the beginning. He’s also (David) Gilmour’s drummer, as well as ours. Mai Leisz, our bassist, has her own jazz band in Scandinavia. She’s from Estonia, of all places. And then there’s Michelle Willis, who’s in both of my bands … a glorious fuckin’ keyboard player … just wonderful.

RA: Thanks to you, between Michelle and Becca Stevens (from the Lighthouse Band), I just can’t get enough!
DC: They’re two of the best singer-songwriters I’ve ever found in my life, ever, anywhere.

RA: For the new album, do you have a working title, and is there a tentative release date?
DC: No, we’re just going song by song, going right down in the trenches, taking each song as we get it, and serve that song. Then we’ll figure out that stuff later on, as we go along. I don’t know why I’m making the albums one after the other … well, I do. That’s a lie. I do know why. It doesn’t make sense, because they’re not paying me for them. Streaming just really killed it, man.  Streaming’s the reason I had to sell my boat. It took away half my income, because they just don’t pay us. Streaming is like if you worked for three weeks and they paid you a nickel. It’s not okay. They’re making billions—with a “b”—of dollars, and they’re not paying us, and it’s our music. I’m very resentful about that one. It left me pretty broke. The only way I can make any money at all is by my performances. I’m not in a big band; I’m a leftover from a big band, so it’s been very difficult that way. But I do think I’m making really good music.  This new song I’m doing with James might be better than all the others put together.

RA: Will any of the new material be premiered on the upcoming tour?
DC: I guarantee it. We’ve put two of them in the set already.

RA: I have so many more questions, but you just said something that I need to go back to. You just described yourself as a “leftover” and I have to respectfully disagree. You and I have been speaking to each other for 27 years. I’m 58; I’ve been listening to you since I’m 15. This might be an almost heretical thing for me to say, as a lifelong CSN and CSNY fan and all the permutations thereof, but it seems that all that was laying the groundwork for what you’ve done for the past five years. I don’t look at you as a leftover at all! I look at you as someone who’s this musical/historical figure, but you’ve given me the joy of discovering you as a new artist, and I’ve been listening to you all my life.
DC: Well, I love you for saying that. That’s how I feel too, man. The truth is that I can’t explain this resurgence but it’s there. I can’t explain how I can sing like this, man. I’m singing better than I ever have in my whole fuckin’ life, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. What can I do? All I can do is be grateful. I can’t take credit for it, because I have no fuckin’ idea how I do it. It’s not like I thought it up and was doing something clever; it just happened. The only smart thing I’m doing is recognizing it and working as hard as I can. If I’m going to be allowed to be a good writer at this stage of my life, and given a voice to sing really well, I am going to write and sing constantly. And, praise the Lord, in between! [Laughs]. It’s fantastic for me, man! I don’t want to slag my previous partners, man. I like ‘em all, they’re all good guys, and they’ve all done really good work. But I don’t want to go back there. I think it would be a step backwards.

RA: I agree with you in boldfaced italics.
DC: I really love what I’m doing. I love both of these bands. Both of the producers are extremely good. You know, I don’t know how much longer I’ve got. I don’t know if I’ve got two weeks or ten years. But here’s the thing. The question is now how long you have, it’s what do you do with the time? And I’m making the best music I can come up with, as fast as I can, because that’s what I think I ought to do.

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Let’s talk about the songwriting partnerships. You’ve been working closely with James for about 20 years now; in recent years, Michael (League), Becca, and Michelle; with Michael McDonald for the song “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” … and, of course, your former partners. Can you put your finger on a common thread between all of those very, very different people and you as a collaborator?
DC: They all love songs, man. They all don’t want to do it half-assed. Every single person I’m working with treasures really good songs, and every single person I’m working and writing with loves the process and feels that it’s a place where they can do something to contribute. If you look at the world right now, the world’s pretty shitty … really shitty. Our government’s tremendously shitty, the situation is really not good right now, and we need a lift. Now, music is a lifting force. It makes things better. Just the same way that a war is a drag-down force and brings out the very worst in human beings, just the same way, music lifts people, makes their lives better, opens up their heads; it’s a positive force, right? And it’s the only thing I can do to contribute! It’s the only place I can lift. It’s the only place I can make anything better. It’s the only place I can help anybody. So, I think (that) we—the people who are doing it, and doing it really well, crafting really good songs—are a lifting force. It’s like we’re doing a mitzvah to the whole world. We’re doing a good deed. I believe in that really strongly.  So, behind everything that I’m doing, and everything that I celebrate other people doing, there is that ethic.

RA: Let’s talk about harmonies. From the days of The Byrds, I associate you with a pattern of instantly identifiable sounds … CSNY, certainly CPR, and now the Lighthouse and Sky Trails Bands. Just the other night, I watched CPR’s 1999 performance of “Homeward Through the Haze” at the Montreux Jazz Festival and lost it. Of all the harmony singers you’ve worked with over the years—and there have been so many—is it even possible to rank or classify those people?
DC: I don’t see how you would, man. The ones that I would talk about are all brilliant at it. You have to look at (Graham) Nash; he’s very, very good. Gilmour is a terrific harmony singer. Nobody knows that because they’ve never heard him do it, but he’s excellent at it. Who else is really good? I think (Paul) McCartney is fantastic at it. My favorite place, for me, is with Becca, Michelle, and Michael. We sing real four-part, with four notes, that I think is probably some of the best work I’ve ever done in my life, better than CSN or CSNY, for sure. CSN and CSNY sounded really good, and we had a really good vocal sound, but I think I’ve done more exploratory and more significant stuff with Becca and Michelle.

RA: I have to agree. I’m thinking of “Vagrants of Venice,” the co-write between you and Becca.
DC: Isn’t that good? It’s a crazy song! [Chuckles]

RA: When I saw the four of you perform that song at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY last December, it was one of those moments. I mean, I’m a grown man, but music can make you cry when it hits you on that certain “joy” level. You know what I’m talking about, right?
DC: Absolutely! It can, and it does all the time with us.

RA: That’s what this music is doing to me.
DC: Thank you, man!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: Thank you! So, you’re scheduled to play Woodstock’s 50th anniversary event?
DC: Yeah! We’re gonna go try to kick everybody’s ass. We want to be just as competitive as possible. We’re going to kick ass.  We’re going to play every hit we’ve ever had.

RA: Did the organizers hit you with a “Won’t you please come to Chicago, just to sing?” kind of pitch?
DC: No, they offered us a bunch of money, and we’re so broke, we’d go anywhere for a bunch of money.
[Note: as of July 19th, the Woodstock 50th festival is in a state of limbo.]

RA: Time for a couple of non-music related questions! The Mighty Croz is a new strain of marijuana that will soon be available for purchase. What’s the back story?
DC: Well, okay, that goes back to the streaming thing. They cut my income in half, so I’ve already had to make a bunch of sacrifices, like selling my boat which I’ve had for 50 years and loved more than anything else in my life. What it is is that I need money; I’m trying to hold on to my house. I’m trying not to lose my home. I am trying to rent or lease my name and face to one of the emerging national pot companies. There are a thousand of them out there, thinking they’re going to be General Motors next week, but it’s totally crazy, and now the big guys, in the last three weeks, Marlboro, Anheuser-Busch, and Molson went into the pot business. Molson is going to make a pot-infused beer.

RA: Well, now!
DC: [Laughs] It’s a crazy thing. The same process that happened to the car companies—there used to be 40 of them, now there’s four—that same process is going to happen to these companies. They’re going to eat each other and fuck each other and fight each other, and we’re going to wind up with a few national pot companies, or international pot companies. And I try and get my face and name to be on the cover of one of those to keep (earning) money, which I need. I admit that I have a personal axe to grind in that I don’t like seeing people go to jail for pot, which they absolutely should not. It’s like beer and wine, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. I did join NORML and I do have an ethical stance about it, but it’s mostly because I need to supplement my income, and that was the best way I could think of.

RA: Another non-music question concerns your “Ask Croz” column in Rolling Stone, which I love the whole concept of!
DC: Did it make you laugh when you saw it?

RA: Absolutely! How’d that happen?
DC: [Laughs] They called me up and said they wanted to do it. It was their idea.

RA: I’m guessing that your Twitter presence might have been the catalyst.
DC: Oh, I’m sure that’s what it was.  They were looking at the Twitter thing and (my following) of 130,000 people and stuff … they liked the attitude of it. They said, we’ll send you a bunch of questions, pick the ones you think you can be funniest about or that you can deal with best … it’s a great thing, because the questions (are) like them teeing the ball up for you and handing you the bat. You can take a swing at the thing and put it where you want, pretty much. So, it’s fun … it’s certainly an opportunity to get in trouble! I’m going to try not to use it to slag any of the old targets that I used to do. I used to spend a lot of time saying why I thought The Doors weren’t any good. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m probably not going bother to waste my time pointing out what an idiot Kanye (West) is. I think I’m going to try to be funny. If I get the right questions, I think it’s going to be funny and very good.

RA: What are some of the odder Twitter questions that have been lobbed at you thus far?
DC: Oh, I can’t remember them all, man. (I’ve gotten) everything from “I think you’re my Dad” … that’s happened a number of times, because they all know about James … every possible type of question that can be asked …. I don’t have one that I can pass along to you for a good story. Watch the column and you’ll see!

Image by Anna Webber

RA: One final question, referring to a topic you brought up earlier: the current state of the Union. Are there any of the current assemblage of Democratic candidates that you favor?
DC: Yeah. I like about five of them, at least, maybe six. My favorite candidate right now is (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez, but she’s not running. Of the ones that are running, I like Elizabeth Warren, I like Kamala Harris, I like Beto O’Rourke, (but) I like Mayor Pete (Buttgieg) best of all. He is the most intelligent (candidate) that’s running for office, and I think he would do a wonderful job. He’s got balls the size of oranges, for going into the armed services as a gay guy, and he’s got intelligence right off the charts. I think he’s terrific (but) I don’t think the United States is grown up enough to realize that he would be the best one. I don’t think they’d let him do it because he’s gay, but I think he’s fucking wonderful. I like all of those people; I’d pick any of them. They’re all of good character, and they’re all trying really hard to do it. I’m not really happy about (Kirsten) Gillibrand. I didn’t like the way she piled onto Al Franken. I never liked Al Franken personally. He always used to try to get me to come to campaign for him, and I don’t like him as a guy; he’s just not my kind of guy. But I think he was piled on. He didn’t really do anything bad. The minute he was in the crosshairs, she piled on, and I didn’t like that. I thought it wasn’t right. But all of the other people I mentioned, I’d vote for any of them. I think they’re all really good people, really good character, really intelligent, really politically savvy. I think the two older guys, both of them I like a lot. Bernie’s fine with me. President Bernie, I’m there. I’m totally fine, I love him. I would prefer somebody younger. I‘d be happy with Vice President Biden; he’s a great guy. That’s like what, seven different people. I’d be happy with any of them. Whichever one of them becomes the candidate, I will work for, because I don’t want this son of a bitch ruining my country anymore!

RA: Amen! David, I’m going to end our conversation with another giant thank you. We’ve been speaking since 1991, and first met back in 1984 at Jones Beach. It’s been a while!
DC: Yeah, it has, man. Thank you for the help! I really appreciate it.

© Roy Abrams 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019

Roger Street Friedman: Feeling Like Himself

Roger Street Friedman
image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

Long Islander Roger Street Friedman embodies the immortal Walt Disney phrase, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” The Jericho native spent the majority of his adult life in the retail business world, but his singer-songwriter’s soul yearned to be free of the suited confines of corporate America. After releasing his debut album, The Waiting Sky, in 2014, recorded primarily as a labor of love, Friedman happily realized that others appreciated his work. Garnering a slew of positive press and radio airplay, Friedman began to listen more intently to his inner voice that was telling him to set his sights on a path that would bring true spiritual contentment.

For the next few years, Friedman gradually made the transition from being an executive-level cog in the corporate world to a full-time pursuer of the Muse. The Waiting Sky was followed in 2015 with an EP, Gone, Gone, Gone, and in 2017 by another full-length album, Shoot the Moon. His recently released single “Sun Never Sets” features Friedman accompanied by folk legends Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Joel Rafael, and Peter Yarrow. Described as a protest song in support of “all immigrants past, present, and future,” the track was hailed by Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame), who said, “I could feel the spirit of Pete Seeger as I joined my fellow folksingers on this poignant song. With such songs we re-confirm our commitment to pursuing our collective dreams for a fairer and more just society. Each note sung is yet another act of creating greater hope and peace in the world.”

Friedman brings his musical art and craft to the Huntington Folk Festival on Saturday, July 27th, and the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase on August 2nd. Both are events not to miss, as they represent an opportunity to witness undiluted creative artistry of a kind that seems hard to find these days.

A recent conversation with Friedman explored his long and winding journey toward self-fulfillment …

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

Roy Abrams: Bravo for your work supporting immigrants, with “Sun Never Sets,” given the current situation and the whatever-you-want-to-call-it in the White House.
Roger Street Friedman: Yeah, the Idiot-in-Chief.

RA: I’ll take that. It’s a nicer way of putting it than I would have, but it’ll do. So, how did you hook up with Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Joel Rafael, and Peter Yarrow?
RSF: Jason Samel, he had a show on WCWP called “North Shore Now” and he’s also a music promoter, and he put on this Morgan Park festival a couple of years ago that Dar Williams and Amy Helm headlined. I played it, and he really dug us. He invited me on the show last year sometime, and I had just written this song, and I played it on the air, and didn’t really have any plans to record it, because I’d just released Shoot the Moon in 2017, and didn’t know what I was doing with the next record project.  But (Jason) encouraged me, he said, “It’s a beautiful song and you’ve got to get it out there. It’s so important right now.” So, I have a really nice home studio, and I put it together with some local musicians playing the basic tracks, and me singing the whole thing. And then, when the whole thing was done, I played it for him, and I said,”Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some other voices on here?” He knows Tom through doing some music promotion; he knows all those guys, He said he’ll send it around and see if he could get any takers, and he did. Yeah, I’m really pleased with the way the whole thing evolved, especially with everybody being so busy, and having other commitments; it was really nice of them to make the time to do it.

RA: As a teacher by profession, I want to let you know that the song will surely find its way into my curriculum at some point.
RSF: At Adelphi, the head of the Human Rights program is using it in that curriculum. Jericho High School is trying to implement it as well. I was really gratified by that. I guess you can feel so powerless by what’s going on. You’ve got this party that’s controlling two branches of government, and the executive branch having so much control over the policy, and completely willing to flaunt international law and human rights. I was just so frustrated. The song was co-written with two other guys down in Nashville. We got in a room and started talking about what to write about, and we were talking about Trump and immigration and his policies and everything. I told them my grandfather’s story, and the first verse and the chorus kind of evolved in that session, except for the line “The trials come by fire and they will try your faith.” That’s the one I added to the chorus when I got back. Then I wrote the second verse and the bridge and finished it up back here.  Really, all I have is my music and my ability to share my inner feelings about this with the world in that way, so I might as well try to get it out there in some shape or form. If it moves one person, it’s better than nothing.

RA: David Crosby has always maintained that one of the roles of the singer-songwriter is to act as a troubadour. What is your view of the singer-songwriter’s role in society?
RSF: I’m not that much younger than them … they’re in their sixties, I think, right?

RA: They’re in their seventies.
RSF: I’m in my fifties. I came up at the end of the … my brothers were hippies. I’m the youngest by a lot of years, and so I wasn’t old enough to march on Washington, but my middle brother went, in ’68 or ’69, protesting the Vietnam War. So I kind of came up in that mold, and I love that (Crosby) put it that way. Part of the job description is to tell the truth, like a painter or a photographer. You’ve got to say what you see. I’m always struggling as a songwriter to make sure I’m not being trite, banal, and hackneyed in what I’m writing; that it actually is a meaningful line, that everything I say is verified by feelings. That’s the most material, the stuff that resonates with us, when you say, “Holy shit, that’s so true.” Joni Mitchell saying, “Love is touching souls,” something like that.

RA: Which brings us to “No Safe Place,” another song I really enjoyed that addresses a current and ongoing dilemma in this country. How involved are you with the two groups, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the Refugee Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services?
RSF: The extent of it was offering to them to use the video to help raise money and awareness for themselves. I’m not really on the board or anything, although I am at the point now where I’m wanting to take it a little further and get more involved on a day to day basis, because this issue (sighs) … that, and the environment; there are so many things to focus on, but I think it’s better to pick one and do it well. I think they’re great organizations. They deal in facts. They’re literally out there, on the ground, helping people, and educating the public as well. The whole debate has gotten so … everybody’s just asking the wrong questions. I love their response, “Yeah, but they came here illegally” to somebody turning themselves in the border to seek asylum, which is not illegal. Yes, some people came here illegally; they’ve been doing it for generations, and the government turned its head and put their hand out and said “No, don’t come,” but then winked and waved them in, so they can pick our fruit and our vegetables—

RA: —And work at Mar-a-Lago—
RSF: And work at Mar-a-Lago (chuckles) and now they’ve established families and roots and have contributed … they’re paying takes, 98% of them, whether it’s under their own Social Security number or not. My brother is a rabbi up in Boston. He works with people that are detained by ICE, helping them spiritually and trying to be supportive. He tells stories about guys who’ve been here for two, three decades who are supporting a family, sometimes more than one family, like a kid from another marriage, and they took them and put them in detention, so now they can’t work. These kids, who are American citizens, and the wife, are unable to make a living. It’s just nuts.

RA: I wanted to circle back around to you if we could—
RSF: Oh no, I hate talking about myself! (laughs)

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

RA: One thing in particular that I love about what you’ve done is that you launched your career in mid-life, at a time when few people are ready or willing to take that sort of risk. About 20 years ago, I created and hosted a radio show on Long Island called The Island Zone that featured unsigned musical artists across all genres. One of my frequent on-air guests was a singer-songwriter who went under the alias Sonny Meadows. He took a similar path as you, when at fifty, he said, “I want to do this.” I don’t believe he ever left his day job as you did, but he became an omnipresent figure on the local scene for years. What was your trajectory that landed you in your current position? I understand that you were deeply involved with music as a younger guy, but that you stepped away for a while.
RSF: For a long while, yeah. I went completely into a day job, in the retail industry, basically selling stuff, and I made a good living, and was really good at it, and became an executive at a company, and a couple of life events happened. Let me just back up a minute. I never stopped writing songs or playing my guitar. I had all this recording gear in storage since 1988 and always in the back of my head, I was thinking I was going to get back into this; when I retired, at least I would have a home studio to do something with it. But then, my parents were getting older, and in 2004 my Dad passed away from Parkinson’s. He had a nice, long life. He was a great guy who sort of had this long, slow decline. It’s just a terrible disease. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and it was a real wake up call. I had been living with my girlfriend. I said, “Let’s get married, this is ridiculous, this is not a dress rehearsal, let’s do this thing.” We got married in 2005 and then in 2006 Peggy got pregnant with our daughter, which was another incredible, life-changing experience. And then, in 2006, right before she was born, my Mom passed away, in the best way to go, I think. She was 87 also, and had a heart attack. She was totally healthy—other than that. I started writing again. I wrote a song called “The Miracle is You” which is on my first record, about my daughter and my wife, and I played it for a babysitter we had. We were living in Brooklyn at the time, and she said, “That’s a great song. My husband has a studio in our house. You should go record it there.” So we made that happen, and I was up in this great attic studio, just a little demo place, and I’m strumming and singing into the microphone, and it was like one of those scenes in a movie when the world goes from black and white to color. I had this epiphany. I hadn’t been in a studio since I packed up the whole thing in 1988. I (thought), “I just love this. This is what I’m meant to be doing.” At that point, I just started saying that I’m going to wind my way back to this. So I started playing out live in 2007, 2008, little open mics in Brooklyn, stuff like that. Little by little, I put a band together, and decided I want to make a record, because anybody can make a record these days (laughs) and I found this great producer named Felix McTeigue who dug my stuff. He worked with a lot of little-known people. We made a great record, The Waiting Sky, and released it in 2014. I just thought it was going to be for me and for posterity, but it wound up getting some really good press and getting played on the radio. I was like, “Oh, man, this could be fun!” It was like a slow burn kind of thing, where the more I did it, the more I loved it, and the more I realized I couldn’t stop doing it. I was getting tapped on the shoulder by an inspiration, and I had to follow the thread and finish the song. In my opinion, the songs started to get better. I started to have more of a deliberate command of the craft. With the benefit of age, I kind of know, as well all do, that you get good at what you do, if you do it enough. I knew that I wasn’t going to be great coming out of the box in 2014, but if just kept at it and kept doing it, it would get better and better, and that seems to be what’s happening. The live show has gotten really, really, good, and the feedback is immediate. I’m seeing that the audience is really responding. We’re making friends wherever we play. It’s been a slow and steady evolution and I realize that this is what I love to do, and I’m going to do it as long as I can. That brings us to the present day. I made the second record, which got even better press and was more widely played, and led to some cool opportunities. I’ve got about 45 new songs, and trying to weed them down to 12 for the next record, which Larry Campbell’s going to be producing. I’m pretty excited about that.

RA: The 2015 EP, Gone, Gone, Gone featured acoustic performances of songs from your debut album.
RSF: Yeah, it was released on the advice of somebody who was trying to help me with marketing at the time, who said, “You’ve got to release something regularly.” So, we took those tracks and took out the drums and tried to make more an acoustic thing.

RA: Is your recording studio analog, digital, or hybrid?
RSF: It’s hybrid. I have a ProTools setup but an analog console and a 2-inch, 24-track tape machine.

RA: What kind of console are you using?
RSF: It’s called a Soundtracs. They were an English company that was sold by Sam Ash in the ‘80s and was sort of a prosumer board but it’s been upgraded by a friend of mine who does some tech work and it sounds incredible.

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

RA: At what point did you leave the business world behind?
RSF: It was somewhere between The Waiting Sky and Shoot the Moon. I was kind of slowly trying to disentangle myself from the day job.

RA: Basically, all anyone really has to do if they’re questioning their own path in life, asking themselves “is it worth going for?” is to look at your track record, don’t they?
RSF: Yeah, I think so. The other thing I realize is that when I was a younger guy doing this, I think I was afraid. It’s really hard to put yourself out there. With songwriting and singing and playing and recording, you have to be really vulnerable. You’re exposing your innermost thoughts. Looking back on it, and why I didn’t do it then, I came to the realizing that I was just too scared to put myself out there, maybe too scared of rejection. The truth of the matter is that everybody faces rejection. (laughs) Now with the benefit of more years under my belt, I don’t care as much. It’s still nerve-wracking, but it’s like, fuck it.

RA: What’s nice is that you’re doing it on your own terms.  Many younger artists fall into the trap of thinking they have to go along and play the game by “industry rules” in order to succeed.                        
RSF: I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but there was such a moment in the way music was written and recorded when we were coming up, where talent was being nurtured, and it didn’t matter if they made a record and it didn’t sell immediately; they’d still get to make another couple of records. Look at Tom Petty, right? I just think that I’m kind of fortunate in that I get to do that … I’m not trying to fit into a mold, I’m trying to write great music. I’m able to nurture my own work, because I have the luxury of having my own studio, of having the time to write, and to keep honing my craft. I’m trying to follow that model in my head, where you just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, and trying to make about great songs and then great recordings, and then great live shows. I would say to anybody who is not doing something that they really want to do, when I’m playing or doing any of this, I just feel like myself. I never feel more like me than when I’m doing this.

RA: Yeah. It’s the realizing of “This is my space in the universe.” Moving to another topic, which artists influenced you growing up, and who are you listening to these days?
RSF: I went to the record store with my brother on my 10th birthday because I got some money from my aunt, and I bought four records and a record player. I bought Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. I really loved the singer-songwriters, (including) Randy Newman and Van Morrison. In junior high I went through a real prog-rock period, and Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel when he started his solo stuff. I was joking for a while that I hadn’t bought any new music since 1989. (laughs) I kind of missed the whole grunge thing, for whatever reason. I think I was working … and partying. (laughs) But now, I’m listening a lot to people like Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton.

RA: Have you heard of Becca Stevens or Michelle Willis?
RSF: No, I have not.

RA: If you’re into the singer-songwriter genre, I cannot recommend these two artists enough. They were introduced to me through David Crosby, who has written, recorded, and toured with both of them, so I am honored to pass the introduction along to you!
RSF: Absolutely! I’d love to check them out. I’m pretty much back to vinyl now, so I’m trying to find records. I will stream if I have to. (laughs)

RA: These days, you see people listening to music on their phones. We used to listen to it through speakers.
RSF: It’s so disheartening, I want to scream, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” I love the whole experience of unwrapping the record, opening it up, looking at the lyrics. It hasn’t changed for me. I still feel the same way I did when I was ten, and I got my first albums.

RA: And then you turn 40, pick up a CD, try to read the liner notes, and realize that no matter what you do, you can’t. (laughs)
RSF: Even with glasses. (laughs) 

© Roy Abrams 2019