We spoke with David Crosby about his first memory of his father, the awe-inspiring power of the ocean, how his brother taught him to love obscure guitar tunings and why Western democracy has never been in graver danger.
The ocean is a terrific thing, in the sense that it’s utterly, completely real. It’s not out to get you, but it will eat your lunch if you don’t treat it respectfully.
I’d like to start all the way at the beginning, during your early childhood. Can you describe your very, very first memory? Where were you and what was happening?
I started sailing little sailboats around the harbor when I was 11. Then, when I was tossed out of the Byrds, I went to Florida, borrowed some money from Peter Tork and bought a schooner. I’d always wanted to have one and I found was that was old and beat-up. I bought it, started living on it, fixing it up and making it sail. It became one of the best things in my life. The ocean is a terrific thing, in the sense that it’s utterly, completely real. It’s not out to get you! But it will eat your lunch if you don’t treat it respectfully. So you have to have your shit together, which is a great thing.
It was a tremendous influence in my life. At times when my life was going completely off the rails, the ocean and the sailboat would pull me back and put me in touch with the real world again.
From the point in time of you being “tossed out” of the Byrds. please tell me about your experience of joining the band. It’s easy to forget how young everyone was – you were about 22 years old at the time, right?
I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I did. I wish we could do it again. I would love it if Roger would do the Byrds with me and Chris.
Let’s go all the way to the present now, to your new record Sky Trails. Some people have commented that this album turns up the jazz influence quite a bit, but that’s clearly been there since the beginning. Even in the Byrds, you’ve got these incredibly unconventional, suspended chord voicings. What first moved you to play the guitar in a more abstracted way than a lot of other “folkies” might have?
My brother turned me on to ‘50s jazz when I was a kid, like Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, that era. It just stuck with me, man. I always liked complex chords and intricate melodies. It works for me, that stuff. It is my natural way of doing it. Then I ran into Joni. I was already playing in alternate tunings when I got to Joni. But Joni pushed me way further into tunings because she was way further along with it than I was. And then I ran into Michael Hedges, who’s the best acoustic guitar player of the last 100 years. There’s nobody even close. He was all tunings, all the time. He didn’t even have a guitar in regular tuning. The two of them gave me the way to satisfy my urge for complex chords and different inversions of those chords.
Absolutely. I’ve been totally amazed by how beautiful the title track is, a co-write between yourself and Becca Stevens. The timbre of your two voices couldn’t fit better, I think. How did it come about between you and Becca to make music together, and do you naturally feel more comfortable singing in tandem than alone?
I like singing alone. I like singing with others. I like singing in octaves. I like singing harmonies. I like singing, in all its different ways. What happened with Becca is this: I became aware of and fell in love with a big funky jazz band called Snarky Puppy. The guy who’s the composer and bandleader of that band is a guy named Michael League. He’s an absolutely brilliant musician and a wonderful cat. He asked me to do a benefit record that they do every couple of years called Family Dinner.
When I got there, there was this girl, Becca, who was singing. She had these spectacular songs. I’m a sucker for good singer-songwriters, man. I found Joni Mitchell. I found Jackson Browne. And this girl just blew my mind right out my ear. She has an entirely new and in-her-own-way of approaching singer-songwriter music. I loved her and I listened to her record a thousand times. When we started doing the Lighthouse record, I asked Michael to produce it and he did. Becca and I wrote a song for that called “By the Light of Common Day.” Really good song, and then I asked her to come to my house and write with me, and we wrote the title track to Sky Trails.
You know, I’m just tremendously fortunate, man. I’ve got probably my best writing partner in my son, James, who I wrote at least half of the stuff on Sky Trails with. But Becca is just a joy to write with. She just wrote another one that you haven’t heard yet!
Crosby, Stills and Nash was a lot of fun when we started, but after 40 years it devolved to the point of “Turn on the smoke machine and play your hits.” That’s the point where you need to get out.
I’ve got to touch on Lighthouse, my personal favorite of all your solo works. The first tune “Things We Do for Love” is very moving to me as a song about longevity and devotion to another person. I’m not sure if that’s the way you would characterize it, but how do you look back at your long marriage and your ups and downs with everyone you’ve made music with over the last five decades?
Well, that’s a great question! I look at my long marriage as a triumph. Being married for 41 years is not easy. You have to really, really, really work at it and you have to be really lucky to fall in love in the first place. How I look at all the rest of it, all my musical marriages, you know, they’ve been tumultuous. They’re pretty much fun when they start. Crosby, Stills and Nash was a lot of fun when we started, but the truth is, after 40 years it devolved to the point where it’s just “Turn on the smoke machine and play your hits.” That’s the point where you need to get out.
Tell me about the approach you’ve got for this tour that’s on its way. After fifty years of doing this, do you still find fresh ways to present these songs?
It’s one of my two bands. There’s the acoustic band – that’s the Lighthouse band with Michael League and Becca Stevens. Then there’s the electric band, which includes James Raymond, my son, and Jeff Pevar – the same guys we started CPR with. Then there’s Michelle Willis, who is in both bands. Steve DiStanislao, too, who is also David Gilmour’s drummer. And a girl from Estonia named Mai Agan, who is our bass player and is killer fuckin’ good! She’s a jazz player who we found, she’s just amazing. It’s a really stunning band.
I’ve personally been so inspired by this late-in-life renaissance you’ve had with music. It really shows a sense of humility and graciousness for having the gift of being able to sing. What do you still feel you have to say through song? What do you want to express next, musically, politically or emotionally?
Well, more of the same! I mean, mostly, I write about love and human beings and how completely strange they are. Wonderful, too. I’m trying to write a song about Donald Trump, but it’s hard to write about something that awful. It turns into a horror show song! I would like to write one, though. I’ve been asking my friends to try and write it, too. Because we need it. We need a fight song! We need a song like “Ohio.” Beyond that, I don’t really try to predict anything else. I just accept the fact that the songs come, and I’m grateful. I mean, really, really grateful. And then I work on serving those songs.
I love democracy. I think it’s the best way for people to live together under the rule of law, but we don’t have it anymore. That’s a big problem.
Do you feel like there’s nobody really stepping up to the plate to write that new “Ohio,” as it were?
Wow, good question. Well put. I think we’re in dire straits. Our democracy is very seriously damaged, and I think Trump is more of a symptom than a cause. The root of our problem is simply that you can buy our government. You can buy our congressmen and senators cheaply and easily. It’s an established process and big corporations do it every day. They own our Congress, which means they get what they want, which means they are in charge of this country. It is not a democracy anymore. It’s a corporatocracy. That’s a basic, major, major fucking problem. It doesn’t work for you and me. We don’t have anybody in Washington, D.C. working for us. They’re working for themselves and to line their pockets.
Then, because the system is completely broken, somebody as completely demented as Donald Trump can get in. He’s a child. He’s like an undisciplined child. He’s never had a job. He’s never had anything! He’s a complete useless piece of shit. That’s how it is. Our country is in serious trouble. I love democracy. I think it’s the best way for people to live together under the rule of law, but we don’t have it anymore. That’s a big problem. I don’t know the solution. We could do it easily by having publically funded elections, then we would have a different caliber of people working in Washington, but you can’t get that through Congress to have it happen.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 6, 2017
Total questions: 10
Word count: 1748
Reading time: Seven minutes
First memory: B-24
acoustic guitar, alternate, B-24, Becca Stevens, Chet Baker, Chris Hillman, Congress, corporatocracy, CPR, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Dave Brubeck, David Crosby, democracy, devotion, Gerry Mulligan, government, guitar, inversions, James Raymond, Jeff Pevar, Joni Mitchell, law, Lighthouse, longevity, lunch, Mai Agan, Michael League, Monkees, nautical, ocean, Ohio, Peter Tork, politics, problem, Roger McGuinn, schooner, sea, Senate, senators, Sky Trails, songs, The Byrds, triumph, tumultuous, tunings, Washington, World War II
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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