In Conversation: David Crosby

In Conversation: David Crosby

An audience with a one-off genius...

David Crosby has always walked his own path.

From his days in folk-rock pioneers The Byrds to his stellar solo adventures, from his on-again and off-again relationships as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, this is a songwriter who has staunchly refused to do the same thing twice.

Recently toasting his 80s birthday, the past decade of David Crosby’s life has been remarkably creative. A run of solo records – largely written alongside his son, James Raymond – has earned widespread acclaim, providing both a work rate and sense of consistency that would stagger much younger musicians.

New album ‘For Free’ is out now, and it’s a typically gorgeous listen, tapping back into the hazy West Coast sounds he helped invent. A bucolic, enriching experience, the release of ‘For Free’ takes place against an inauspicious background – there’s the pandemic, for one, yet Crosby has also been forced to sell the rights to his catalogue.

Clash caught up with this one-off genius for a trans-Atlantic call, one that covered the streaming environment, his continued urge towards expression, and why he might never perform live again.

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Congratulations on the new record – we love it, and it’s part of a remarkable creative run from you.

Well it’s kind of amazing. I think this makes five records in six years, something like that – and I really like the records… I'm making records for two different bands. There’s this band, and then there’s the Lighthouse band - that's a different kind of chemistry; and I'm really happy about both of them. I like the records that we’re making.

Since you came back with the album ‘Croz’ the consistency that you've shown, and the appetite to explore new ideas has been phenomenal. Where do you think that energy has, has come from?

Well, I think a couple of things. I wasn't happy in Crosby, Stills and Nash the last few years, when we were together. So I didn't really want to make a record then. So I had some songs saved up. But I think the best thing was, I've got these really good chemistries going: one with my son, James. He's probably the best writing partner I've ever had.

Now, I love writing with somebody else. Because the other person always thinks of things that you've done, you know, and my son James says it better than anybody I know. He's the best writing partner I've ever had in my life, and he's turned into as good a writer as I am, or better. He wrote the best song on this record: the last one – ‘I Will Stay For Long.’ James wrote that, and it's just beautiful.

I think the other the other writing chemistry with Michael League and Becca (Stevens) and Michelle (Willis)… that's really interesting. When we write together the four of us at the same time, and it works, there’s a really good chemistry there. I really like how the two chemistries work. They're different from each other; the music is different. But I like both kinds of music that I'm making. I'm very happy about it – very grateful.

Jazz has been a running theme in your work since you were a young man, even your material with the Byrds. What is it that keeps you coming back to jazz as an art form?

Well, I like sophisticated chord changes and melodies and harmonies and all kinds of rhythms. I like complicated stuff – and that's jazz. Jazz goes right there. I think I've been influenced very strongly by people like like Trane, and Miles, and bands like Weather Report. I just like sophisticated music, and I can't help it affecting me the way it does.

One of the things I really love about the new album is the way that you can balance, as you say, these sophisticated forms, with a sense of immediacy.

That's certainly what I'm looking for. I love melody, harmony, and complex chord changes. So it's the most natural place for me.

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It seems like this album was a real joy to make, what was it like in the in the studio?

It was difficult because of COVID. We couldn't get together as much as we normally would. I like cutting a track with everyone together, in a room together. But many times in this record, we had to put them together piecemeal, because we simply couldn't get all the people in one place at one time. But I think we transcended that. And I mean, I'm really happy with how it came out.

It's got a very organic feel. It does feel as if the people are there in the room, even though they aren't. How do you achieve that?

It's knowing each other and being good record makers. We're good. We're good at it, man. We're good at building records.

It seems that you're on a real run. And I suppose being unable to tour right now, predominantly. And that frees up a lot of time. Have you been writing more already?

Yes, we are. James and I are already two songs into the next record, and Michael League and I and Becca and Michelle have about 20 things we’re working on right now, for the next record.

You recently sold your catalogue as well – or more precisely the rights – was that purely a financial move?

Yes. We had two ways of making money, right? Records and touring. So along comes streaming, and they don't pay us. They don't pay us. It's like you did your job for a month and they gave you a nickel. It is not okay.

That took away half my income. I wouldn't be mad about it, except that they're making billions from this. They're making money hand over fist, but they're not passing it along to the people who actually make the music. And that's really bad for me. But it's even worse for the young people that are trying to better their talent and trying to earn their way up into making a living and they can't because streaming doesn't pay for the records. But I'm trying to be good about it and think, well, at least I've got live music, to pay to rent and take care of my family – and along comes COVID and I can't play live.

So I lost the two ways that they had of making any money; and I didn't have a choice, I had to sell my publishing.

Was this an emotional experience for you?

Yeah, I didn't want to do it. I didn't have any choice.

Neil Young and Bob Dylan both have archive series – are you tempted to go through the crates once more?

I'm more fascinated with what's happening right now and in the future. Other people like to pick over old stuff, and pull things out if they want to. They can do that but it's not my thing.

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Being unable to tour must be a big wrench. Is that something that you felt? Do you yearn for that connection?

I really miss playing live; I love playing live. I think when they can get vaccinated audiences confirmed, vaccinated audiences that they'll start to be able to have, you know, live stuff be sensible again, these people are having these huge gigs now with no masks: Lollapalooza, Phish; they're nuts. They're absolutely nuts for doing that.

So … the safety of the audience is paramount for you.

Absolutely.

What songwriters Have you been admiring of late? Do you still hear things and think: oh, I wish I’d thought of that…?

The best songwriter I know of in existence is Joni Mitchell… and Bob Dylan. Bob's as good a poet as Joni but he’s nowhere near the musician that Joni is… she’s a way better singer, way better player. Or was anyway.

Younger people that I really like - I really like Shawn Colvin, I really like Mark Cohen. I really like Steely Dan. They're still my favourite band. I mean, I like the people that I'm working with in Lighthouse. I really like a girl named Sarah Jarosz: she made a record recently called ‘World On The Ground’, that's just one of the best records I've ever heard. It's stunning.

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‘For Free’ - the title track - is a cover of Joni Mitchell song. What is it about that song in particular that really touched you and you felt you had to include it?

I just loved the song; I love what it says. I’ve recorded it three times. This is the third time I've recorded it. You know, Sarah, and I were just fooling around. I said, Sarah, I want to sing with you. I love your record. She said ‘I'd love to do that’. And I said, ‘let's just do something. We don't have to have it be for anything.’ She said ‘yeah, let's just do it for fun’. And so we thought we'd sing ‘For Free’ because we both know the song and we love it. And James put such an evocative, beautiful piano track to it, it made me sing it better than I've ever sung it. I sent it to her and she sent it back with that harmony on it. I was just stunned. So I called her up said, ‘Hey, can I put it on the record?’

It seems like the chemistry on this album particular was great. What is that makes a successful collaboration?

Talent, I guess? I don't know. It's very hard to pin down things, why chemistry is working. Well, I know that I'm good at spotting it when it's there… when there is a chemistry taking place, I know it; and I treasure it, I try really hard to do it as often as I can. Anytime I see a chemistry like that, I try to encourage it, and water it, and get some sunlight on in any way I can.

Joni might actually be releasing an album sometime soon. Is that something you've heard on the grapevine?

If she releases anything, it's old stuff recovered. I don't think she can do any new stuff.

Have you been able to put plans together to get back out on the road? Do you have a rough timescale of when that might be possible?

I don't think I'm going to.

And is that just because of COVID?

That's one – it has to do with a lot of stuff. I can’t really sleep on a bus anymore, and I've got tendinitis in both hands, slowly losing my ability to play. I don't think that I'm gonna do any more gigs. I never say never, maybe somebody will make me an offer that I want to do, but so far no.

That must be a hard decision for you to take.

Yes.

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I suppose that explains a lot of the focus on writing material; does that give you an extra impetus and intensity when you're writing material knowing that this is your only outlet?

I'm only making records for the fun of it, man, because we don't get paid for it, streaming doesn't pay us, the streamers are a bunch of thieves. Spotify is a bunch of thieves. You can quote me on that. It's still fun to record. It's a joy to make the good art. And I love it. So I'm still gonna do it. We just put this record out and we've already got two songs for another record. Michelle and Becca and Michael and I have probably 20 things stacked up for another Lighthouse record. So I think we're probably going to keep doing that.

Is that something that you can ever envisage giving up? Or do you think the art is just always going to be a part of your life?

I think it's always going to be part of my life. You know, as long as I'm breathing, I'm going to love music.

The past 10 years has seen you create some really spectacular stuff. Do you find you’re almost in competition with yourself?

Doesn't take much egging on… I try to write songs and the songs tell us what to do. I gotta say, it is a joy to do.

I'm calling you from London right now. If the offer came up, would you do a one-off show in London?

I don't have any plans, and they'd have to make a really good offer. I don't currently have any plans to try and make it to Europe. I'd love to, as that is where some of my most fun times have happened. But I don't think I want to do it. The flying is really awful, right now in particular.

What impact do you think Britain had on your work?

Well know, I have, I mean, until I discovered Steely Dan, The Beatles were my favourite band… and they changed my life; there’s no question they changed my life. Absolutely wonderful artists. Then you’ve got later people, like David Gilmour - a big influence on me. I think he's a wonderful musician, and a wonderful guy. Knopfler – what a guitar player; what a writer, what a singer. I love a number of British artists, frankly. Still do.

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'For Free' is out now.

Photography: Anna Webber

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