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David Crosby: A Revitalized Creativity

Mike Jacobs BY

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In the same way war drags us down and brings out the very worst in human beings, so music lifts you up and brings out the very best—and if I can bring more music to the scene then that’s what I’m gonna do...
—David Crosby
David Crosby has had—and is still having—quite a long and storied career. While many musicians obviously have had those too, music doesn't always come out on top for many at this late stage of the game. It has though for Mr. Crosby—quite conspicuously.

All About Jazz had a conversation with the seemingly unstoppable music icon about his influences, jazz fandom and new found inspiration at this part of his journey.

All About Jazz: In the past five years, you've released four albums that contain some if the most vibrant and eclectic music of your career. How do you account for such a surge of creativity at this point in your life?

David Crosby: The surge I think comes from two things. For one, towards the end of Crosby, Stills and Nash, we weren't like friends and it wasn't working so I didn't feel like I could take a song there. As a result I had a real build up of songs or song ideas so... I did have some stuff.

Secondly, I think the main reason for the surge is that I've been working with unbelievably talented young people that I've met starting with my son, James Raymond, who produces the electric Sky Trails band's records. We've done two of those now and we're pretty thrilled with the records. They're doing pretty well, people seem to like it. Also within that band I write with our guitarist Jeff Pevar, our bassist Mai Leisz and our keyboard player Michelle Willis—who I also write with in the acoustic [Lighthouse] band.

The acoustic Lighthouse Band is run by Michael League—bassist, composer and bandleader of a jazz band called Snarky Puppy. I'm sure you've heard of him...

AAJ: Yeah, sure. We did an interview with him just a couple of weeks ago as a matter of fact...

DC: Wonderful cat, exemplary musician, really nice human being. So many great cats in that band, they do wonderful music. So he and I hit it off and I asked him to produce a record of music for me [Lighthouse, (GroundUp Music, 2016)]. That went very well—we wrote like three songs in the first three days we spent together. So I asked him if we could do another record but this time it wouldn't be a David Crosby record with him producing and backing me with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis joining in. I wanted to do a group record with everybody writing and everybody singing because Michelle and Becca are incredibly talented -and so is Michael.

So we did this last Lighthouse record with all four of us together and it was a spectacular success for me. It's a really good record. It's called Here If You Listen (BMG, 2018) and I really like it.

So, [in terms of this surge of creativity], I think my willingness to work with these other people has a lot to do with it. Imagine you're a painter with a palette, and you've got seven colors on it and you meet up with another painter and they've got seven different colors. If you paint together, you've got fourteen colors—it's a better painting. What happens with me is that when I work with somebody else they inevitably think of things that I didn't think of, it widens the scope and increases the number of possibilities. To me, that's a positive thing.

AAJ: It seems there are many at similar stages in their careers who might not be very willing to try new collaborations as you have...

DC: There are a lot of people who don't want to do it because they want all of the money and all of the credit. I don't really care about that, I care about really good songs. I think those people are missing out on something. The effect on me has just been terrific. I've been all over the map, writing all kinds of stuff. I've been going places I would never have gone, producing art that I love. And that's really the bottom line, you know.... I don't know why I'm doing it in one sense because they don't pay me for records anymore. The streaming thing has just killed it... But it's still my art form, it's still what I'm going to leave behind. That's important to me. I love doing it so I'm going to keep doing it and we're writing another record, a fifth one, right now. It will be releasing this Summer (2019).

AAJ: Do you have a title yet?

DC: I don't have a title for it yet but it's going to be a SkyTrails record, an electric record with James Raymond producing.

AAJ: Your two previous Raymond-produced albums Croz (Blue Castle, 2014) and Sky Trails (BMG, 2017) explored a bit outside your previous comfort zones, at times exuding a surprising Steely Dan vibe. That's quite a departure for you...

DC: I love Steely Dan though, man, I love 'em! It's hard not to. You're a jazz fan, you like complex music. You like interesting stuff, not just simple three-chord bullshit. I mean, Steely Dan—pretty hard to beat that writing. Those guys wrote some of the best songs I've ever heard in my life.

AAJ: I guess that's not so surprising. Even going back to your early acoustic, singer / songwriter oriented catalog with CSN, there seemed to be signs of a harmonic savvy in your material that suggested that you were into jazz, even if it wasn't an overt influence....

DC: Well, I've always been kind of tilted that way, man. My brother turned me on to jazz clear back when I was a kid -like late 50's jazz, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, that era -and I am completely smitten with it, right? I loved it. Then, all roads lead to 'Trane and Miles so that's what happened to me. I started really liking those guys and it wound up affecting me really strongly. People like Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner for instance, just made me nuts because they could play chords that I could not play. They would do these huge, beautiful, dense tone-cluster chords and I wanted those chords. I wanted to be able to play that stuff and I can't play piano for jack-shit. (laughs) That's what lead me into the [altered guitar] tunings. As soon as somebody showed me a strange tuning, I realized that I could get chords that I couldn't get anywhere else. So then I started getting really lost into the tunings. So then I ran into Joni Mitchell of course—she was my old lady for about a year -and that completely fucked me up (laughs). Then I ran into Michael Hedges who fucked me up even more.

AAJ: Interesting, I was going to ask you about Michael Hedges because he was one of those guy's whose sound was very reminiscent of yours in some ways. I know you went on to work with him later in his career. Did he ever cite you as an influence?

DC: I don't know, I mean we worked together. I don't know if I influenced him but he influenced me drastically.

AAJ: Well, your stuff was in the air long before his was so...

DC: Yeah, I don't know but when I got involved with him, he just rearranged my head. He took tunings on the guitar further than Joni Mitchell did, further than anybody did. He was, I would say, THE best acoustic guitarist of our time, pretty definitely. No contest about that. I wish I could hear a jazz group playing Michael Hedges' stuff... There are other people that have those kind of chops on the guitar, but they don't have the conception.

AAJ: Going back to Joni Mitchell a bit, you covered "Amelia" on Sky Trails which really brought to mind not only your personal connection with her but also the gravitational pull that jazz has had on both of your music...

DC: A heavy pull on Joni. She and I both felt a very, very strong pull for sophisticated music and she was such a sophisticated writer that she appealed to the very best guys in jazz. They all wanted to play with her. They all did. I mean, you've seen...

AAJ: Shadows and Light, sure...

DC: ...and Jaco and all that... oh my god...

AAJ: But was that common for your musical peer group coming up back then, to be into jazz, or were you both just two of a kind in that regard?

DC: No, it wasn't common at all. She took it further than anybody, man. She went and made friends with Monk. She was serious. (laughs) She hung out with and played with the best guys in jazz and took it much further than I did. I was just strongly influenced by it and I love it. I mean Weather Report is one of my favorite bands ever but I couldn't take it as far as she could. She was a far superior writer to me and a better musician.

AAJ: I've read that as a songwriter, she was very intimidating to many musicians in your circle in the early days...

DC: She was intimidating to come home to, I'll tell you that. (laughs) We lived together, man and I'd write "Guinevere"—my best song—and I'd sing it to her and she'd say, "Oh, that's nice, David" and then sing me three better ones. (laughs). It was very intimidating... but a great learning experience. I will treasure everything I learned from her, forever.

AAJ: So from Joni and others you discovered altered guitar tunings. Sometimes players who do this find that this may isolate themselves a bit from other players musically -in that, some create a unique guitar bubble for themselves. Do you find altered tunings have affected your interactivity with other musicians at all?

DC: You mean like those that play that picking and slapping kind of thing and they don't play with other people? Well, I'm not doing the same thing those kind of guys are. I'm not playing that sort of playing that Michael Hedges made popular. A lot of people are trying to be Michael Hedges and none of them succeeded. I don't do that. I pick intricate little melodies on the guitar and then sing another little melody against it. That's kind of what I do. (laughs) I don't try to play lead and I don't play anything very complex. It seems all very sophisticated and complex to me, but next to the people that I'm talking about, it's pretty much baby talk.

My greatest achievement in jazz is that Miles cut one of my tunes... (laughs)

AAJ: So how do you identify yourself as a musician these days? Do you primarily see yourself as a vocalist or songwriter? Or even a lightning rod?

DC: A reasonably good singer/songwriter I guess. I'm not the best, but I'm good.

AAJ: Tell a little about the creative process with your two bands. Does it differ greatly?

DC: Well the Lighthouse Band just changed the way we work. It started with me bringing material in or me and Michael League writing the material together. This time around, Michael and I and Becca and Michelle all wrote basically the whole thing together.There is one song that Michelle wrote and one song that I wrote with Bill Laurance of the Puppy, but everything else was written together right there in the room.

We don't do that in the Sky Trails Band. I get together with my son James, who is my primary writing partner in that band. Sometimes we'll work with somebody else. We've worked with Marcus Eaton, I've worked with Michael McDonald, a bunch of different people. Generally though, James and I crank out a lot of it, either by ourselves or together. I think that's how it's going to go for this next album too. I do have one song from Mai Leisz, another I'm working on with Bill Laurance, and I think I'm writing a song with Jason Isbell—keep your fingers crossed. He writes really good songs. There are a number of people I'd like to work with and I'm going to keep reaching out. I'd also like to work with Sarah Jarosz, she's a really talented musician.

AAJ: Well, in checking out your activities on Youtube, you seem to been keeping a lot of enviable company, performing with quite a few a-list musicians recently -such as Wynton Marsalis, Chris Thile among many others. Is that one of the perks of being an elder musical statesman?

DC: I guess, yeah. (laughs) I made a bunch of records, some of which were good so I can get to meet somebody like Wynton. Wynton's a great example. I've had great luck with trumpet players. I was friends with Hugh Masekela and like I said, Miles cut one of my tunes. And Wynton... what a joy. A very strong, wonderful guy and a brilliant musician.

AAJ: I have to say, I saw the 2016 Speakeasy interview Wynton conducted with you and in some ways it was as eye-opening about him as it was you—despite you being the interviewee. You were both alluding statements that had got you into trouble in the past—you on Twitter recently and of course Wynton's infamous comments about what is and isn't jazz from his early career. Agree or disagree, it illuminated not only the humanity and context behind statements you've both made but the way the media and the spotlight can easily cause misperceptions of who either one of you are as people.

DC: I think he probably regretted [saying] it, but speaking as someone who has made more verbal gaffes and gotten in more trouble by shooting his mouth off than anyone else in the world, I wouldn't criticize him. I think I've done much worse... (laughs) He's a very decent guy and he's certainly been so to me. I've also had great experiences with his brother. Branford's a wonderful cat and a wonderful player. I don't know the rest of the family but those two I've had great experiences with.

AAJ: You've been on the road a lot this year, touring both of your bands....

DC: Yes I did. I had to. Streaming has just killed it for records. I don't make any money off them anymore.

AAJ: How does the road treat you now?

DC: It's beating the crap out of me to tell you the truth, man. I'm really old and beat up and I have trouble sleeping on the bus. It's not easy. I don't have much choice, I gotta keep paying the rent and keep feeding my family so... that's basically the deal.

AAJ: Well, from what I've seen, you must get some joy out of it obviously...

DC: Oh I get a GREAT deal of joy when I'm singing, it's the travel that's hard. Finish the gig, get on the bus, eat some pizza cause nothing else was open. Then try to sleep. 45 minutes in you wake up, smoke another joint, try to go back to sleep and you can't do it. It's 3:00 am and you're still up. You get to the hotel, get off the bus and you try to go back to sleep again. By the time you wake up, they've stopped serving breakfast... It's a fucked up deal man. Being on the road is hard. It's really hard.

AAJ: And it seems to be the only way left to make money in music...

DC: It is the only way to make money and it's very tough on musicians. But it's even tougher on the young people trying to get started than it is on me. I can sell some tickets. I've been around a while, I've got some people that like my music. These young musicians are at the stage where they have to go 185 miles to get to another FORTY EIGHT people like they sang to last night. Which gives them enough money to buy A meal, and A tankful of gas... and then head for the next city. They're not getting ahead AT ALL. It's really insanely difficult to be a musician now, just starting out.

AAJ: So what advice would you have for the young musician?

DC: (heavy sigh) Don't do it unless you absolutely cannot resist it. If music is in your soul and you just cannot NOT do it, then go ahead and do it. But understand, you're not gonna sell any records and because of that, you're gonna have a very tough time making it.

AAJ: Thankfully there are still a few that slog through. I'm reminded of first seeing your musical partner Michael League and his band at right about that same tough, hungry stage...

DC: Well, Michael is a really good, interesting and amazing guy. I really like him a lot as a human being and as a musician. All the musicians I know that know Michael—and this is going to sound funny but—we believe in him. I want to do anything I can to help him and he's been the same with me. We have so much fun. This last tour that we did, we were so fucking good... it was such a blast...

AAJ: There a bit of irony that you hook up to do a project with Michael cause you're a fan of his brand of funky, populist jazz and you and he take the whole thing acoustic....

DC: Well, Michael likes to stretch himself, same as I do. The idea that we could do a kind of music that he had never done was very appealing to him -and a vocal thing, which he had never done before. And it's a good one at that with Becca and Michelle. He was fascinated and it worked out great for us. It's really good music man and I'm very open to really good music. .

AAJ: Your disdain for the road notwithstanding, you'll be performing that music with the Lighthouse Band at his upcoming 2019 GroundUp Music Festival...

DC: You betchya man, that's one's too good to miss. Michael picks all the people—most you've never heard before. I watch the whole show from the audience too.

AAJ: Beyond the festival and the new record you're working on, what do you see in store for yourself?

DC: I don't know man, I don't have much time, you know? I'm 77 years old so whatever time I've got—if it's two weeks or ten years—I think I'm supposed to be making music as fast and as well as I possibly can because—and this is going to sound a little corny—it's really the only thing I can contribute. It's the only place where I can make anything better. It's the only thing I can do that helps anybody so I feel a need to do it. So I'm going to do whatever time I've got left here, working as hard as I can to make music and make things better. Music is a lifting force. It makes things better. In the same way war drags us down and brings out the very worst in human beings, so music lifts you up and brings out the very best—and if I can bring more music to the scene then that's what I'm gonna do...

Photo credit: Anna Webber

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