David Crosby remains inspired. And as ever, it’s always about the songs. After helping codify ’60s rock with the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), Crosby kicked off the ’70s with the release of his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, which, along with Skip Spence’s Oar, (1969) remains one of the most spellbinding, and at times almost-uncomfortably intense, listenings of that era. Written as a kind of wake for the death of then-girlfriend Christine Hinton, If I Could Only Remember My Name perfectly balanced shadow and light, despair and hope, in a way that surely helped forge a template Crosby would use, and modify, throughout his career. For the remainder of that decade, Crosby enjoyed the life of a de facto rock star demigod. Crosby’s proudly libidinous life (his song “Triad” was surely the first rock song to celebrate a three-way) nearly leveled him when he stepped into the wolf trap of heroin and cocaine addictions. As the ’80s rolled around, a heavily strung-out Crosby ultimately got clean (he acknowledges that kicking cold turkey while behind bars and doing nine months in a Texas state prison helped facilitate that metamorphosis).
In the decades since, the now-75-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee has wasted little time, releasing a half-dozen solo albums, performing with CPR (along with his son James Raymond), as well as guesting with artists, including Phil Collins, Lucinda Williams and David Gilmour.
Crosby’s latest, Lighthouse, offers an atmospheric, openness fueled in no small part by his surrounding himself with a group of notable, contemporary jazz players. The backing band includes Michael League (vocals, bass, acoustic guitar), Bill Laurence (piano) and Cory Henry (organ), all from neo-fusion heads Snarky Puppy; acclaimed vocalists Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis complete the group. Like much of Crosby’s body of work, the nine songs on Lighthouse run the gamut from the pensive (“Paint You a Picture”) to the hopeful (“By the Light of the Common Day”).
Crosby returns to Ponte Vedra Concert Hall with his new band on Nov. 21, to play his new tunes as well as enduring faves.
Crosby phoned Folio Weekly from his California home; we riffed on his current creative flow, how happiness makes the best art, and Bach and Miles.
Folio Weekly: David, how are you doing today?
David Crosby: I’m a very happy guy today, I gotta tell you. I wrote another song. Every time one comes, it’s like having a baby without having to carry the cannonball around for nine months. “Boom,” there comes another one.
Listening to Lighthouse, I’m really impressed at how well your singing voice and range have really held up well over the years. And all of your contemporaries surely can’t say that. When you’re off the road, are you the kind of musician who always has a guitar in hand?
Yeah, a lot. I do it every day, trying to keep my chops up. I also try to make sure that when the muse is in the neighborhood, the doors and windows are open. And what brain cells I have left are herded into the same room. [Laughs.] And welcome her in. So that’s been working. I’ve been writing a ton.
Lighthouse came out just a little over two years afterCroz, so I guess the muse has been hanging around. Does she just show up or do you know how to text her so she’ll visit?
I wish. No, it’s more than you know. I have another, new record already on my computer. And this is all because I’m happy. I don’t think that’s the only explanation, because I’m older than dirt and this doesn’t make any sense at all. [Laughs.] But there it is. I’m going to welcome it because it’s what I do. It’s what they put me here to do.
The whole collection is strong with some candid lyrics. In particular, in the song you mentioned, “By the Light of the Common Day,” you sing: “As if being happy isn’t quite enough/somehow I needed to make it rough/rough it up to break it.” I don’t know if that lyric is memoir or fiction, but do you feel like you sometimes create chaos in your own serenity?
No! God, no! [Laughs.] Artists have always come with this story of [in a woeful voice], “Oh, my life is just terrible. It’s where I get my art.” And … it’s a load of crap. It’s an excuse to have your life in disarray and an excuse to explain why you get loaded every night. At least it is for me. My best work comes from me being happy. What I was talking about in that song is that it is how I used to do it and is still how people do it a lot. And I don’t think it’s real. At least for me — I don’t know about anybody else. But I think when you have your course set and you know what’s important to you, and you’re on track and happy with your family, and happy with your lot in life and music, that’s when it clicks. That’s when I get this flow of songs.
I always thought that your chord choices leaned toward “wider” jazz chords; Bill Evans’ chords. Do you consciously try to use something like a minor ninth or 11th chord?
Absolutely. You see, I was raised mostly on jazz music and was never a pop music guy until the Everly Brothers caught me with the harmonies. I didn’t even like Elvis. I started out listening to Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, that ’50s era. And all roads into jazz lead to [John] Coltrane and Miles [Davis]. Along the way, I acquired a great love for these complex chords. I couldn’t play ’em in regular tuning; that’s why I started reaching into the guitar with these strange tunings. And then I met Joni Mitchell and that just slugged me in the heart and she’s brilliant at it. And then I met Michael Hedges and holy fucking shit! He ripped my head off.
This could be just my perception, but the chord progression on the verse of the new song, “The Us Below,” almost has the same madrigal-style color of “Guinnevere,” “Mind Gardens” and “Orleans,” which dates from the 15th century. You mentioned jazz, but do you feel as if you were influenced by more esoteric song forms early on — like madrigals or styles others rarely use now in songwriting?
I heard a lot of classical music when I was growing up. My parents used to play, like, the Brandenburg Concertos and that affects you very strongly because it’s rich. So I grew up with a big harmonic reservoir there. I know it’s put me out on the edge. I’m certainly not a “pop guy.” I’ve never had a hit in my life. But I do like where the music goes for me, so I unabashedly go in that direction. And I think it’s worked.
Speaking of “Guinnevere,” when Miles covered that song, he reduced it to a dirge-like, four-note motif. And you didn’t really dig it and told him so. What did you not like about it?
Well, when Miles first told me that he cut it, I was ecstatically thrilled because he’s a hero of mine. But what he did was take it and run it to the horizon, so when I heard it, I was, like, “Where’s the ‘Guinnevere’ part? I don’t get it.” There’s no recognizable part of my song that I heard on the first listening. Of course, later on, I realized what an honor it was that he did that.
Are there any other artists’ covers of your songs you do like?
Well, my stuff was a little complex and kind of out on the edge, so not very many people have ever covered it.
There’s a great band called Sebadoh and they did a remarkable version of “Everybody’s Been Burned.” It’s both reverent and radical.
I’ve never heard that. Will you send me a link?
OK, I will. [A&E Editor’s note: After the interview, we immediately sent Sebadoh’s version to Crosby’s personal email]
If I Could Only Remember My Name is a record that’s continually embraced by successive generations. Many of my generation took that record to heart and now millennials praise it. And rightfully so. Why do you think it keeps finding newly devoted audiences?
I don’t know, except that it’s a very heartfelt record. I was in the studio, I was in a very emotional state, I had songs, Jerry Garcia and I were good friends, and he showed up almost every night. Pretty hard not to make great music if you’re with that guy. All of my friends showed up: Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Phil Lesh, the guys from Santana … really wonderful people. They were all my friends. Kantner and David Freiberg and I used to live together before we were in bands. I went on to help start the Byrds and they went on to help start Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And they all came. It was so un-Hollywood and completely genuine. I would serve the song until the lyric came and then we’d make the record. Serve the song.