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David Crosby Q&A: On His New Album ‘For Free,’ Spotify (“You’re Thieves”), Life at 80 & More
David Crosby, who turns 80 this month, is making the best music of his life right now.
That’s right, the co-founder of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) — tenures for which he was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — who wrote the Hippie anthem “Almost Cut My Hair” for CSNY’s recently reissued and expanded Deja Vu at the height of the counterculture revolution and who embraced everything that era had to offer, from intense creativity and remarkable collaborations to free love, excessive drug use, and lawlessness in general, enters his ninth decade on this planet alone amongst his peers from the Laurel Canyon era as he. Defying any predictions music critics or fans might have made over the past few decades, Crosby continues to release new and vital music, much of it far better than anything he made in the 1960s and 70s.
For Free, Crosby’s latest release, joins Croz, from 2014, Lighthouse from 2016, and Sky Trails and Here If You Listen, from 2017 and 2018, respectively, for a genre-hopping ride that far exceeds any of the songwriting or singing of Crosby’s erstwhile peers from recent years. Produced by Crosby’s son James Raymond, who was given up for adoption as a child but reunited with his father more recently, For Free finds Croz joyous and wizened, a long way from the man who played second fiddle in some of the biggest groups of the past fifty years.
Rock Cellar caught up with Crosby recently (one of a handful chats with the Croz over the years), and he recalled the making of For Free and spoke frankly about the state of the world, mortality, Joni Mitchell and why the Byrds will never reunite.
Rock Cellar: I want to talk about how your albums over the last couple of years have been artistically ambitious. You could easily do Byrds- or CSN-lite. And your fan base would eat that up. But that’s not what you’re doing. Except for an album 50 years ago, literally, you’ve never really stood on your own two feet very often. So, it has to be exciting to be doing this on your own terms, because you’re about to turn 80, and who would’ve thought David Crosby would make 80?
David Crosby: I didn’t think I’d make it! I can tell you that. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: But there’s very few people, certainly in your class of artists, creating new music that’s as ambitious and successful. Is it a bit like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, because you didn’t have an outlet for all these years?
David Crosby: I don’t know, man. But here’s the thing: I know I’m at the end of my life. I’m 80. So, you wind up looking at it, and you don’t know whether you got two weeks or 10 years. You really don’t. But you do know that what you do with the time is what counts.
That’s where the rubber meets the road. How do you spend that time? You spend it waiting to die? No. You spend it making the most art you possibly can, because that’s your gig and that’s the one contribution you can make to the world. And the world fucking needs it. It’s a grim fucking place.
It needs a lift, and music is a lifting force, man. It makes things better. So whatever time I’ve got, I want to spend it making things better. I want to spend it making good art that will outlast me.
When I started making Croz, and the chemistry between me and my son James was just crazy good, that was a revelation. Then came Lighthouse, with Michael League, and again, there was this wonderful chemistry. So I went back and said, “Hey, I’d like to make another record where we all write it and sing it.” That became Here If You Listen. In the meantime, James and I had made Sky Trails, which was another really good record, and great experience. So, I think part of the thing, man, is that I’m having a resurgence of good energy because I’m working with great people who are really warm and open, and my life is in a good place.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned James and Michael — and referred to Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, who collaborated on Here If You Listen — all the people you surrounded yourself with in the last couple of years, and it sounds like they’re all great collaborators. That doesn’t come along very often. You, better than anyone, know that. [Laughter.]
David Crosby: No, it doesn’t happen very often, and I treasure it when I do find it. Because the ability to work and create with other people is not common.
Rock Cellar: You made music as part of a movement among young people that saw it as a cultural force and a force for good. And yet, it sounds like you have even more to say now. Obviously, the music you made in the 60s and 70s stands for something important, but do you feel the music you’re making now means maybe even more to you, because of the time in your life that you’re saying it, and the times we’re living in?
David Crosby: Yeah, probably. And it’s very important to me because it’s what I’m going to leave behind. They don’t pay us for it anymore, but we didn’t start doing it to be paid in the first place. We did it because we loved it. And that’s why I do it now.
But I don’t think I’m going to get to play live anymore. I think COVID took my last year of being able to do that away from me. But I can still sing, and I think I’ve got maybe two more records in me.
Rock Cellar: We’ve had several conversations about your love for Joni. You cover her song “For Free,” and you put your own spin on it, as you always do. It’s hard to own a song by an artist like that, so why that song?
David Crosby: Here’s what happened: I heard that record that Sarah Jarosz made with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her. And I just fell in love with her, again. I just think she’s a wonderful singer. Treat yourself to her album World on the Ground. It’ll blow your teeny, little minds right out of your ear holes. Anyway, I got a hold of her and I said, “Hey, Sarah, I’d love to sing with you.” And she said, “Boy, I’d love to do that.”
And I said, because it’s kind of a fallback of mine, “Maybe we should try a Joni song.” And then James sat down and thought up one of the most beautiful piano arrangements that I’ve ever heard for that song. It’s just fucking wonderful. I did a good vocal on it, and I sent it to Sarah, and she sent it back with that harmony on it, and it was so good, the two voices were not just together, they were saying the same thing. From the same place. And then we were trying to figure out the title for the record and I said, “Well, why don’t we call it For Free? Because we’re certainly not getting paid for it.”
Rock Cellar: I knew that was coming.
David Crosby: You knew that was coming. It’s partly a dig at the streamers, who are thieves.
You can quote me. Spotify: You’re thieves. You’re a bunch of fucking thieves.
But it’s partly me treasuring Joni again. Because she’s the best of us. She’s the best singer-songwriter there was. And God bless her for it. And I love what the song says. I always have. I love what it says.
Rock Cellar: It’s also one of her simplest songs.
David Crosby: Simplest and most understandable and relatable. Her stuff is so strong, man. Every once in a while I’ll tackle one. I did “Amelia,” and that’s more complex and trickier. But, you know, I haven’t tried “River” or “Blue” or “Case of You.”
Rock Cellar: You’ve got a couple of years left.
David Crosby: Yeah. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: I want to go back to James. This is a long way from the CPR days. He has become a first-rate producer. Forget about as a performer, guitar player, he’s become like Michael was for you, very much a secret weapon, hasn’t he?
David Crosby: Yeah. He’s a very good producer. I’m frankly shocked that there isn’t a line of people out his door trying to get him on to produce them. Because he’s excellent at it and he’s a wonderful co-writer. He’s also getting to be an even better player. “River Rise,” right? That guitar solo? That’s James on the keyboard. He’s also the best bass player I know. On the keyboard. He’s just brilliant. So, if you listen to “I Won’t Stay for Long,” that’s a high concept piece of work, right from the get-go. An unbelievably powerful song. I don’t know anybody who’s listened to it who didn’t cry.
It’s my favorite song on the record. I just love it. It made me cry the first time I heard it. He’s a really incredible writer. So, you can imagine how I feel, man. I’m just stunned that he’s grown into a guy that is, if anything, better than me, man. And that’s one of the main reasons our chemistry works: Because he’s so good and he’s into it.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about that ability to find people to collaborate with, but also to let them do what they do. You have found people, whether it’s by luck or circumstance, throughout your career – not just in the early days, but over these last five records, too – you have found some remarkable people to collaborate with. Do you feel like that’s something you have an innate ability for? Or have you just been lucky? Because it’s kind of remarkable.
David Crosby: It’s something I have an ability for. It’s something I have a spotter for. I can see a chemistry when it’s happening. I know when there’s a chemistry going on. I have an antenna that just receives that, really large. And when I get a shot at doing it with somebody that can do it, I treasure it, work at it, try to make friends with them, and try to be available every way able to help make it happen with them. Because it’s like two painters: If you have seven colors on your palette and then you partner up with somebody who has seven other colors, then you’ve got 14 colors. It’s going to be a better painting. The person will always think of something you didn’t. And therefore, there’s more depth, more spread, more ideas, more construct, more everything.
People who hold onto it generally hold onto it for the wrong reasons. They want all the money, or they want all the credit. I don’t care about either one. I care about the best possible song, and man, I think I’m getting what I want. I’m getting really, really good songs.
Rock Cellar: I saw Roger McGuinn tweeted recently about a Byrds book. You guys are doing a book? Is there a rapprochement here?
— Roger McGuinn (@RogerMcGuinn) June 12, 2021
David Crosby: No. I don’t think a rapprochement is ever going to be there, man. I’ve asked those guys to sing with me repeatedly and they always turn me down. I’ve asked them probably 10 times. And they’ve always said no. And then they went out with Marty what’s his face.
Rock Cellar: Marty Stuart.
David Crosby: Yeah. So, I think that was a pretty definite move. As for the book, I went to BMG, who have been great to me – they’re my record company and my publishing company – and I said, “I want to do a coffee table-level, really polished book of photographs, lyrics, and stories about my songs.” They said, “Yeah, absolutely, we want to do it. But we have another book we want to do, too. We want to do two books. And the other book we want to do is of the Byrds, because we know that you own the name.”
And I thought that was a great idea. So, it was their idea, but because I’m not a shithead, even though I do own the name and I could’ve done it, I included Roger and Chris, because the Byrds is them, too, as far as I’m concerned, especially Roger. He was the biggest guy in that group. He was the main reason it was what it was. So, I couldn’t leave him out. And I did it. I let them both know, “Hey, this is in the cards, let’s do it.” And they, of course, were suitably pleased. Neither one of them has said thank you yet, though. But it’s okay, man.
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