The founding member of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash reveals all about his new album and group
When you’ve spent a large part of your life making music with bands as game-changing as The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, you’d be more than entitled to spend the rest of your days dining out on former glories, watching the reunion-tour cheques roll in. But that’s not the path David Crosby has taken. Instead, he has continued his adventures in harmony and songwriting, first with the band CPR and now with Michael League of Snarky Puppy, Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens (loosely called The Lighthouse Band, having first worked together on Crosby’s 2016 album Lighthouse).
The quartet recently returned with a new album, Here If You Listen; a genuine group effort with writing and lead vocal duties shared between the four members. As well as wholly new material, the record also contains a pair of songs that were crafted from recently unearthed demos, dating back decades, and gave Crosby the chance to collaborate with his younger self.
These subjects and more came up during our recent conversation with the Californian legend…
Do you think that songwriting chemistry something that can be created or does it have to be natural?
“I think it has to be natural and immediate. I wish you could orchestrate it, ‘Take this piece and attach it to that piece,’ but it doesn’t work. It’s a very delicate chemistry, songwriting, and it only works if you like the other person, pretty much, and also if they’re really good.
“But it does work like a charm when you have that chemistry because the other person always thinks of something that you didn’t and that always expands the colours that you’ve got to work with. It’s a great idea but it’s not easy to do.”
Perhaps that why some people don’t do it more, because it’s hard to succeed at?
“Partly that and partly because people are greedy and they want all the publishing and credit and they want to seem like they don’t need anyone else’s help. The bottom line to me is, how good is the song? “When I write with Becca Stevens or Michael League or my son, James Raymond, or Michael
McDonald, it ups the ante and we wind up making a better song and that’s my whole aim in this deal, to make the best possible song.”
Does that process always tend to start in the same way?
“They take shape in every possible way, there is no formula to it at all – it can happen any kind of way, and it usually does. Very often with me, I’ll show a piece of lyrics to somebody and say, ‘What does this make you feel like?’ or somebody will do the same to me, or I will play a set of changes to somebody and they’ll then come up with an idea. It can happen any kind of way.”
Why were you so keen to work with The Lighthouse Band again and what are their specific strengths?
“Well, they’re brilliant writers, all three of them. They write extremely well on their own, they write beautiful songs. What pulled me to Michael [League] in the first place was the quality of the music that he was composing for Snarky Puppy, it was just excellent, and then I found out that he could write words too.
“I’m drawn to people that are good, I would write with James Taylor if I could, I have written with Joni Mitchell and I would love to write with Bob Dylan. I like writing with the best people that I can find because they then make me better and they expand my world.”
Do you find that some people are intimidated by your reputation and success?
“The people I work with aren’t intimidated at all. They know I have 50 years of songwriting behind me and they don’t care. They’re impressed when I come up with good words and are impressed when I come with good music, that’s it, period!
“They don’t care about anything else, it’s strictly a reality deal. These are much younger people than I am, they’re not actually kids but I look at them as kids, but they’re not impressed with me very much at all. If I show them something really good they’ll say, ‘That’s really good,’ but that’s it.
“Pretty much all the praise I get is what I can earn right there in the moment. And that’s really good for me, I’m very comfortable with that.”
When you’re writing lyrics together do you have to be on the same page in terms of your beliefs and views?
“You have to be very open-minded because other people have different ways of going about it than you do. We haven’t had any problems, we write very freely with each other and it works.”
Is that because you all have similar opinions on life?
“Not really, we’re separate human beings. We have roughly equivalent humanist views, none of us are very religious and we’re all pretty science-based, but we’re not the same at all. We’re not unified and the differences we have, we celebrate, because they widen the field and make us better.”
There’s quite a breadth of topic on this new record, the rang of songs goes from the very personal to those addressing North Korea and Donald Trump…
“We write all over the map and that’s a good thing. There’s a song on the record called Other Half Rule that asks the women of the United States of America to please take over and do a better job than the guys have done.
“We wrote this album together. What happened was that I was so impressed with them when we did Lighthouse that I asked them to make a group record. Lighthouse was a ‘me’ record with them on it. When we walked in the door to make this record we had only two songs and we wrote the entire rest of it together and sang it as a group. It’s a group effort, it is not a solo effort at all.
“We use my name because that might help it to sell, but it’s very much a group record. There is a group chemistry with group vocals, they sing lead as much as I do and wrote it as much as I did. That’s made it explosive because they’re such fantastic artists. If you invite them in the door then they really come in the door.”
What would you say is the main attribute that you bring to the table?
“I don’t know if I can tell you exactly what it is that I bring. I’m a middling/fair lyricist and a pretty good music writer. I certainly am eclectic and wander all over the map. Sometimes I can be very fierce in my writing, other times I can be pretty tender. I don’t know. I have a pretty wide scope, I don’t know how to describe myself well. It’s probably best if somebody else does that.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell