David Crosby: "The Music Plays Me"
At 76, the Outspoken Singer-Songwriter Icon is Producing the best music of his career
"I'm nervous, man," says legendary singer-songwriter David Crosby.
Last November, standing backstage at Atlanta's hallowed Symphony Hall after a final vocal warm-up, Crosby's trademark mane of long grey hair glows like a halo in the harsh fluorescent light. As he greets his visitor, he adjusts the strap of his acoustic guitar, readying to walk on stage for the live debut of songs from his album Lighthouse. "I could go out with CSN and the smoke machine and do the hits, but there's no challenge in that. This makes me a little nervous and I like that. With this band, I'm the old guy, tryin' to keep up," he laughs as he heads to the wings beside the cavernous stage.
Moments later, backed by his able band, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer effortlessly leads the ensemble through an enjoyable, career-spanning evening of music with a few short and often hilarious anecdotes between some of the new songs. Of course, the outspoken performer who played the '60s cultural crossroads of Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont had no reason to be nervous. He co-founded The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young, so a performance at a Symphony Hall is a cakewalk compared to his 76 years of influential accomplishments.
Fast forward to exactly a year later at The Eataly in Boston. After playing the local City Winery the night before, Crosby is relaxed and jovial while holding court at a table with his current bandmates including his son James Raymond. During a freewheeling telephone conversation, Crosby sipped a double expresso as he discussed his latest album Sky Trails and the tour that brings him to Atlanta this month.
How's the tour going so far?
I shouldn't be the one telling you this because it sounds too immodest but it's going unbelievably well. This is just an unbelievable band. It's my son James Raymond, who produced the new record, on keyboards. He's just fantastic. Michelle Willis from the Lighthouse tour last year is in this band too. Jeff Pevar is back with us and he's one of my favorite guitar players on the planet. Stevie DiStanislao has been our drummer all along - whenever we can get him back from David Gilmore. Our bass player Mai Agan is from, of all places, Estonia. She has a jazz band in Scandinavia and she's just a killer player.
Last year you debuted the Lighthouse band at Symphony Hall.
Yeah, the Lighthouse band is the acoustic one and it's a delight. That's Michael League (Snarky Puppy) and Becca Stevens who is one of the best new writers I've met.
Having two new bands in as many years must be a great challenge.
Yeah there's two ways of going about it now and it depends on the producers. For Lighthouse, that was Mike League and he wanted to go more acoustic with more vocal stacks because he loved my first solo record a lot. James is the one who wants to use all the tools. He likes having everything and then putting some more horns on it. He's way into doing full-band arrangements. God knows it's a joy to have both options open for me.
Last year before you toured with Lighthouse, you said Sky Trails was sitting on your computer, waiting for release this year.
Well I write all the time. It's always sort of bubbling away. I'm always trying to write stuff and then send it off to James or Mike or Becca. I just - I don't have a great deal of time left on this planet - so I feel a pressure to use the time well. I don't want to lay around or go on vacation. I want to work.
You're at the point where you could take it easy and release Best Of collections and coast along on your back catalog. It's rare for an artist to be this prolific at your age, with your considerable legacy.
I agree. It's not common but it feels like the most natural thing in the world. But you've got to understand that before I left Crosby, Stills and Nash, I was feeling very stuffed-up. We didn't like each other, we weren't having fun. It was a good paycheck but there wasn't any musical joy. Then all of a sudden, I leave that band - which is probably a disaster financially, but musically it was just exactly the right thing to have done.
Since you mentioned CSN, it's interesting to note that the three of you - and Neil Young as well - have been at the top of your solo games since you stopped performing together a few years ago. Creatively, this could easily be the early '70s in your collective history, judging by the vital quality of the recent works. You in particular are at an incredible¬†peak.
Well, I think so and the proof is in the pudding. For me, in just over three years, it's been three records of some of the best stuff I've ever done. Towards the end of my time in CSN, I was writing a lot, but not for CSN because the chemistry just wasn't there. So it's been that and it's been the people I've been writing with. James is probably at the top of the list of people who I've written the best songs of my life with. I love writing with the people I love. I don't know why other people don't do it more, frankly.
Collaboration is key.
Well it is for me. Other people don't do it because they want all the credit or they don't want to share and just keep all the money but I don't get that. I want the best songs I can¬†get.
People often cite your first solo record [1971's If I Could Only Remember My Name] as being your best. It's undeniably great but that music was born of deep despair. The material of your past three albums come from a time of complete artistic freedom. It's definitely audible in the compositions and your recent live performances.
Yeah, that record kept me alive during a very tough time. But these are just pure joy, man. I hit the road running, I have the best people in the world to write and play with. We're just having a blast doing it.
2014's Croz certainly wasn't the beginning of your work with James; you'd already worked together in CPR on and off for nearly twenty years by that point. By now you must have an incredibly intuitive musical relationship.
Very much so. We do know where the other guy wants to go. We trust each other a great deal and that makes it all happen. He knows what I want musically and I know what he's likely to do and it's just a wonderful chemistry.
Your trust is evident from the very first track, "She's Got To Be Somewhere," kicking off the whole album with a song he wrote on his own and not a collaboration with you. That's a considerable amount of musical faith.
Yeah it is but it's a great tune. I think he's earned that trust. If he was a dork and couldn't write then I wouldn't trust him. But he can write for days. He's as good of a writer as I am.
That's an incredible compliment.
It's the truth, though.
Growing up, I relied on the latest Bob Dylan album to offer comfort in whatever unsettling times we had to endure. Bob's not really offering much insight right now but Lighthouse and now Sky Trails have definitely thrown me a much-needed lifeline.
Oh man, thank you. I'm so happy you feel that way. That makes me feel completely validified. It's tough times for us right now. We've got the worst, lowest-approval-rating Congress we've ever had and a president who is like an 8-year-old boy. A lot of stuff is going the wrong direction. I don't think it's going to stay this way but it is hard times, there isn't any question about it.
You've been a part of some of the most famous "protest" songs of the rock era. Where's new the anthem for today?
I've been trying to write, and I've also been encouraging all my friends, to try and write the "Ohio" for this time. A song that's like that, a fight song for the times that talks about Trump. But we haven't gotten it yet. God knows the material is there, we just haven't figured out the right way to look at it. Yet.
You touch on mortality on the album, saying the music plays you now. During this prolific era, are you feeling a bit reflective as well?
Well I do feel that since I don't have a lot of time left, I don't want to waste it. But I don't feel down about it. I just feel grateful that I've got the opportunity to do this work.
David Crosby will play at the City Winery on December 5 at 8pm. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.