On The Record: Nils Lofgren
The Busy Hall of Famer is Back on the Road with a Great New Album

By Lee Valentine Smith

There's a reason why legendary rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have Nils Lofgren in their bands. He's an incredible musician and a talented songwriter. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has just released his first studio album in eight years, Blue With Lou and he'll be on the road to support it this month.

After a 50-year career, including 35 as a member of Springsteen's E-Street Band and his current reunion with Young's Crazy Horse, the busy musician is in the middle of one his most productive periods.

The morning after returning from a weeklong recording session with Young, Lofgren spoke with INsite by phone from his home in Arizona.

I hear you're just back from working on the new Crazy Horse project.

Yeah, last year it was good to get back out with the guys and then just as I was getting my show together for this tour, Neil called. He said he had some songs and wanted to record and see what comes of it. We had no specific layout but we started tracking and recording together. My wife Amy drove me ten hours up there and then came back home to look after our dogs. Then she came back up a few days ago and drove me back. She's really been logging the miles!

How'd it go?

It was a beautiful experience. I'm sure it'll be a work in progress throughout the year but it was a great start. It was just good to get back together with Neil and Ralph [Molina] and Billy [Talbot]. Two weeks from now will mark 50 years since I walked in on Crazy Horse playing at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC. To get to play with dear old friends so many years later, after so many chapters of our lives, it just felt great.

Neil really took you under his wing shortly after you guys met.

Yeah, he knew my band was headed to L.A. and said, 'Look me up when you get there.' True to his word, he immediately turned us on to David Briggs and we jammed at the Corral. David took on the day-to-day work as our producer and they were both just a godsend for a band struggling on their way to a record deal and learning about a business we knew nothing about.

It wasn't long before he asked you to be on After The Goldrush was it?

Let's see, I was 17 when I went on the road with my band Grin and about a year later we're out in Topanga Canyon with David and Neil. So I guess I was around 18 when they asked me to be on those sessions.

Since you just recorded with him again, how does 2019 Neil Young compare to 1970 Neil?

Well he's the same guy to me, only better. He's very immediate, in-the-moment, very passionate. Then Tonight's The Night [recorded in 1973] was a special record, too, because we made it all live in the studio. No overdubs, no extra harmonies. It became kind of our "wake" album because it seemed like all our friends were dying, especially [Columbus, Georgia-born] Danny Whitten. Neil's the same brilliant writer and soulful singer. He keeps you on your toes at all times with his earthy immediacy. Especially in the studio.

And on stage, too. He said last year he didn't even want to use a setlist for some of those Crazy Horse shows.

Yeah in Winnipeg he said he didn't even want to bother. 'Let's just go out and wing it.' Not everybody's got the moxie - or the songs - to pull that off.

Your catalog is starting to rival Neil's at this point. You have a lot of material floating around.

Yeah, last year it's been 50 years on the road and that's not a small number. It's a bit startling. I'm excited to finally be touring with my own band, it's been 15 years. And I don't even know when the last time I toured with the same band I've made a record with, so I'm extra excited to get back out with the same people on Blue With Lou. We've got Andy Newmark on drums who just got here last night and Kevin McCormick on bass and my brother Tommy is coming in. We haven't worked together in years. And Cindy Mizelle, who sang so beautifully on the record, will be with us. We've got about nine days to throw a show together and then we'll get on the bus, hit the road and drive around the country and sing for people.

Blue With Lou is a strong album to support.

Thanks! I feel great about it. We recorded most of it live in the studio, the way I enjoy.

Great backstory on it as well.

Yeah it was a wonderful accident. In 1979, [producer] Bob Ezrin hooked me up with Lou Reed to write. The short story is we wrote thirteen songs together. Lou wanted to do three right away and so did I. But some got left behind. I always thought Lou would call and say, 'Let's take a look at those.' But tragically we lost Lou. It was a huge loss and I realized that I couldn't just let those songs sit in the basement. And I wanted to do my own version of "City Lights," [originally on Reed's '79 album "The Bells"]. So it's six co-writes with Lou and six of my own. We had about twenty songs that we learned when we were tracking, but these are the cream-of-the-crop that I thought would make the best album. We've got some jams on there, just because I can. My wife Amy and I have the label [Cattle Track Road Records] that put it out, so we don't have some A&R guy going, 'You can't have a six-minute song.' We got some grooves going. Some of them ran a long time and I thought, 'Well that's what this is all about,' so it's fine. We banned all click-tracks from the studio, we just let Andy drive us. It was very old school. We were all in the room. I wasn't looking through the window of an iso booth, we just let all the instruments bleed into each other. We played live, looking at each other here in my garage studio. It was kind of a home invasion of musicians and crew. Our latest home invasion started last night as we get ready for this tour. But Amy's all for it; she produced the record with me. She's designing all the t-shirts and posters and oversees the artwork. We're a good team. I couldn't do it without her.

After being on some of the biggest labels in the world, now you have the luxury of being a completely independent artist.

Yeah I finally parted ways with the labels in the early '90s. I was butting heads with the company and I finally just drove to their headquarters, walked in unannounced and begged to be fired. 'You've got to fire me, I can't live like this.' They eventually did, but it took a year and a half of hell. I was done. And after that, thanks to technology, I set up a website and the label and now we have a real grassroots operation without the bureaucracy of the music business. I've never had any real hit records and there's not a good deal out there for me anyway. I just need to do what feels right without having to convince somebody else about it. Convincing myself is hard enough.

When it comes down to it, the live show is what it's all about.

You can't beat walking into a tiny place and someone's singin' their heart out. It touches you. You hear about all these new inventions and holograms and this and that. There's a lot of cool stuff, but at the end of the day, when you're in a room and someone's reaching out through their music, it's just a beautiful thing that I don't think will ever go away. We still go out whenever we can to see live music. We go see all the greats. We went to Red Rocks to see Tom Petty, not realizing at all that would be the last time we'd see him. They didn't have a show in Phoenix, so we treated ourselves to go up to Denver and I'm so grateful we did. Then we were waking up every day angry and sad. We talked about how mad we were that Tom was gone. Then I started writing and ["Dear Heartbreaker"] came from it. It's kind of a pep-talk to myself to keep listening to music and enjoying it.

Nils Lofgren plays Sunday, May 26 and Monday, May 27 at City Winery. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.



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