David Crosby Talks About His New Album, Songwriting and More: Exclusive Interview
David Crosby released his fifth solo album, Lighthouse, a mostly acoustic, nine-song collection that blends his signature voice with intricate guitar work and lyrics, in October 2016. A founding member of the Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crosby partners with producer and songwriter Michael League, whose band Snarky Puppy mix jazz, pop and R&B.
At 75, Crosby shows little sign of slowing down or dwelling on his past, though he hasn't abandoned the political statements of past work like the post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships." Lighthouse features "Look in Their Eyes," a song about Syrian refugees coming ashore in Greece, and "Somebody Other Than You," an indictment of war-mad politicians unwilling to risk their own children's lives.
Crosby talks with Ultimate Classic Rock about working with League and collaborators like Crosby's son, James Raymond. He also reveals some surprises to expect on the upcoming Lighthouse tour and reflects on the brilliance of songwriters Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Harmony has always been the foundation of your music. Whose voice have you found best complements yours?
The most recent is the three people that I'm bringing now. Mike League, it turns out, can sing, although he never told anybody he could. Becca Stevens has a voice, an incomparable, stunning voice. Michelle Willis has an incredible voice. They are two of the best singer-songwriters I have encountered in 20 years. And the four of us make a really nice sound. And I could not be more excited. I haven't worked with female voices before. And to have two stunners like that, believe me, Michael and I are having to paddle fast just to keep up.
How did you come to work with Michael League?
I heard the Puppy's music on YouTube, that record they made, We Like It Here. I heard a song called "Shofukan." And it stunned me. It was such an excellent composition. And I just kept listening to it over and over and over again. And then I listened to another one, called "Lingus." These songs were stunners. So I wound up listening to everything that they had up on YouTube. And they have an obviously completely different approach than anybody else did. If you look at these tunes, you'll see. And their joy of playing is so readily evident, so completely happy and unforced and beautiful, that it communicates. You know, jazz can be very intellectual and very internal and very – this is visceral s---, man, it kicks you in the gut. You can't hold still to their music. And that really spoke to me. So my reaction was quite natural.
What do you look for in a collaborator?
I look for talent. I look for wordsmithing because, of course, words are critical to me. I look for people who treasure songs the way I treasure a song. You know, a song has to be able to make you feel something. If it doesn't, it's not a song. It's just "ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby." I look for the ability to communicate. Now, Michael came to my house to write, and in three successive days we wrote "Things We Do for Love," "The Us Below" and "The City." One, two, three, bang, like that, in three days.
You've said "The City" was inspired by New York. How so?
Yeah, it's New York seen as a woman. [Laughs]
Political songs have always been a staple of yours. Tell me about the inspiration for "Somebody Other Than You."
There are these politicians in Washington who are run by the corporations, 'cause corporations gave them the money to get elected, and they send our kids off to war. Now they and the corporation that owns them couldn't give a s--- less about the death, about the guy who got his shoulder blown off. To them, that's just the cost of doing business. That's just keepin' the quarterly report good. They don't care. I do. I'm deeply offended by the fact that these politicians send your kids and not theirs. I think that that's pretty evident in the song. You know, you can't do a steady diet of this stuff. Somebody used to tell Neil [Young] that but you have to – look, our main job is to make you boogie [Laughs]. Our main job is to take you on a little emotional voyage, give you windows into stuff. Occasionally our job is to go back to our troubadour times and be the town crier and say, "Hey, it's 11:30 and this isn't okay. You've just selected somebody that's gonna nearly destroy the country. Aren't you watching?" That's part of our job. It's only a small part. A steady diet of that means you've got no people listening. It is part of our job, though. So all of those things are stuff that we're trying to do but the basic thing is that the songs have to be great. I only have a certain amount of time here, man, and these songs are gonna last way longer than I am. So I craft them to be the absolute best that I can get 'em. You know, everybody's got their own way of looking at their life and their work. That's the way I look at mine.
"Look in Their Eyes" is another.
I have a friend, Marsha Williams, who went repeatedly on her own dime to Greece and went to the beach where the boats come. And pulled people out of the water. And she told me about a day when she pulled hundreds and hundreds of people out of the water. Which is, wrap a blanket around them, give them some water, give them some hot coffee, give them some food, try to find them a place to sleep, see if they need medicine. She tries to help them. Now she does that and these people she doesn't know. They're a different color, different religion, different country, different everything, but she knows they're human beings. I know they're human beings, you know they're human beings. And the people who deny that, what I'm tellin' them is, if you look into their eyes, you will see another human being – in anguish, in desperate anguish, who has walked hundreds of miles, been raped, stabbed, shot, beaten, stolen from and then when they get to some place safer and used as a political tool – they're just human to me, they're just trying to get their children to stay alive. And I needed to say that.
Songs with a message seem to be a lost art.
I think you want to hear it, but I think it's very rare that it's done skillfully. Most songwriters don't touch it. 'Cause it's such a minefield, they don't want to do the "cause of the week," you know? "Oh, this pretty little kitty needs a home" – it's not that. This has to be about something that's gut-wrenchingly important to you. And I repeat, it's only a small part of our job. Our job starts with makin' you boogie and takes you on emotional voyages. This is just a part of it.
Was the choice to produce a mostly acoustic album a nod to your Greenwich Village coffeehouse roots?
No, I'll tell you exactly how it happened. I thought I was hiring Mike League to do it sort of in the way you'd hire a master carpenter who had a gigantic toolbox, namely his band. And he said, yeah, we could, but you know what, I loved your first solo record, If I Can Only Remember My Name. He said, I would love to do intricate, beautiful guitar work and big vocal stacks and a certain kind of song. And I said, oh boy, right in my wheelhouse. When do we start? And this is what came out. Now when I work with my son James, who's the other person I can write with who produces great, he produced Croz, he and I write extremely well together. I can't believe that I have two people I can write like this with but I do. And he and I have another record already ready. A whole other record. Called Sky Trails.
Listen to David Crosby's 'By the Light of Common Day'
Tell me about the upcoming tour.
The upcoming tour is me, Michael League, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis. The last song on the record, "By the Light of the Common Day," those two girls and me and Michael.
And what will the set list include?
Most of the record. Maybe all of the record. And obviously I'm gonna do "Guinnevere," "Déjà Vu," that kind of thing. We have a completely new version of "Woodstock," we have a new version of two of the things off of If I Can Only Remember My Name – "Laughing" and "Orleans." We have really spectacular versions of those two. I think it's gonna be fun, I think you're gonna like it.
How is "Woodstock" different?
I thought up a new set of chords for the choruses.
It sounds like you have a great collaboration going, but they're still solo albums. Does working with a set group demand too much compromise?
No. I have two of them, remember. I've got my son and that group of people, and then I've got Michael and this group of people. And I have other people that I like writing with. I wrote that last song with Becca, and I've got another one that she and I wrote that if anything is even better. I wrote a song on the next record with Michael McDonald. That was a total thrill since I wish I could sing as well as he does. I like having multiple avenues of creativity and I think it's important that I do. Having two people in my life like my son James and Michael League, with whom I can write extremely well, is just a blessing, man, I could not be more grateful.
As a young musician, you had great insight into human nature. How did that come about?
First of all, we had the brains to sing Dylan songs, among other things. But our songs grew rapidly. I'd been a reader all my life, so I'm a wordsmith. I love words. I had Dylan as an example ahead of me and then I get out of the Byrds, I go to Florida, I walk into a coffee house and there's Joni Mitchell. Now, I think they're gonna look back in a hundred years and say, well, it's either Joni or Bob and Joni's 10 times the musician Bob is. So there you go. I think she is inarguably the best singer-songwriter of the last 50 years, there's no question. And I think Bob's next after her but he's just nowhere near the musician or the singer that she is. Watch.
As a musician, were drugs helpful or not?
Hindrance. They were a completely destructive force. In no way did they help at all. Ever.
Did you think at the time that they did?
Of course. It's bulls---. It makes you take more drugs.
What are you listening to today and does it include older material?
I listen to, well, the three people I'm workin' with. I listen a lot to Shawn Colvin, I think she's brilliant. I listen a lot to Marc Cohn, I think he's brilliant. I listen to some pretty obscure stuff. I listen to – have you heard these three girls, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, Aoife O'Donovan? They're called I'm With Her. They all have solo careers, but try listening to I'm With Her. If you know of any three better girl singers, please tell me about 'em. I found another three, I think they're in England, called the Staves, who are wonderful R&B singers. I'm on Twitter a lot and they've found out that if they send me their brother's band's new song, I'll at least give it a couple of bars and see if it appeals to me. And then I will tell them what I actually think. That sometimes is a little hard, I don't want to say, look, that's a total piece of junk. So I say, mmm, not my thing. That's my code word for it's a piece of junk. That's where I found the Staves. And you listen to them, you're gonna want 'em.
Were the mid-'60s and early '70s the golden age a lot of us think they were, or just another period of music?
No, I think it was a really good period there. We thought because we were working to stop the Vietnam War, we thought because we were following Dr. King, we thought we could erase racism from this country instead of what [Donald] Trump has done, poured gasoline on the fire as bad as he could. We were very hopeful. And so the music was hopeful. And there was a rush of people who were freshly engaged with it and some of whom were very talented. It was certainly a heady time. It was good. But, frankly, I don't think about the past hardly at all. My focus is on what do I have to do today, what should I be doing tomorrow, what could I do this week, what would I like to do this year. That's where my whole attention is.
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