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Walking ‘This Path Tonight’: A Chat with Graham Nash
It takes a special artist to merit induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and an even more extraordinary one to be inducted twice into that hallowed institution. Graham Nash is one of those extraordinary artists who has found his way into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as both a member of ’60s British sensations The Hollies and with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
And while he’s celebrated as a consummate master of exquisite harmonies amply displayed in both of those legendary outfits, he’s managed to carefully and diplomatically circumnavigate disharmony in the ranks of those groups with class and grace.
With This Path Tonight, Nash’s first solo album in 14 years, the 74-year-old musician has delivered a record that resonates with the intimacy and candor of an artist still engaged with his craft and with his eyes permanently cast to the future.
You’ve been selflessly working on CSN/CSNY archive releases for quite a few years. When did you finally say, “Now is the time to focus on me?”
Graham Nash: It was a very personal decision. I’d been married to the same person for the past 38 years and we decided after 38 years we were gonna get divorced as that process has been going on for a couple of years . Divorce is never easy and I hope you don’t have to go through it.
Then in the meantime I fell in love with this beautiful lady, an artist from New York who actually shot all the pictures for the new album. I had been writing songs in the 14 years since my last solo album. I produced about 16 CDs, CSNY-related in those 14 years.
I went through these incredible emotional changes in my personal life and started pouring my heart out into my notebook and my computer and my laptop and stuff and then Shayne Fontayne, who was the second guitar player in the Crosby, Still & Nash band, shared a bus with me as we traveled around the world.
We wrote 20 songs in a month and we recorded those 20 songs in just over a week.
What’s striking about the new CD is all you need is an acoustic guitar to deliver the essence of the songs.
Graham Nash: Perfect, that’s exactly what I wanted. It was my intention at the beginning to make sure this record is as real and intimate as possible.
How did your split with your wife Susan impact and your new relationship with girlfriend Amy Grantham figure into the tone and themes to the writing on This Path Tonight?
Graham Nash: A lot. Time passing. Me facing my own mortality. Me facing a decision I’ve made in my life which is a really profound and deep experience. But once again having the ability to let it go. “Here it is, I’m gonna go with it. I’m not gonna fight my future. I’m gonna walk right into it with both feet planted firmly on the ground.”
It seems the songs are coming from a much more internal than external place.
Graham Nash: I think the art of a good songwriter is taking things that happen to me and turning them into something where you can say as listener, “Oh, I get it” or “Oh, I’m going through the same thing” or “Oh, that’s how he dealt with it”. I’m going through my changes and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there going through the exact same changes as I am.
But I happen to be going through them at age 74.
You’ve expressed that you wanted the new album to be intimate. With all that you’ve gone through, was it daunting to open yourself up like that or was it freeing?
Graham Nash: It’s freeing for me. I get to use the world as my psychiatrist. It saves me a lot of money. (laughs)
It’s cheap. (laughs) It certainly is.
Are you finding songs take on new meaning or surprising you with their lyrical themes week, months, years after the fact?
Graham Nash: That’s right, that’s what happens. It’s your ability to let go. The music is pushing me in a certain direction and I have to go and follow it and then you end up with a song. Two songs on the new record came in that manner.
The second song on the record is called Myself At Last. That was the very first take of the very first song we ever tracked; I knew from that moment that this was gonna be a great recording experience. On that song and something like Target was also amazing.
Also, the song Back Home too. Shayne and I wrote that for Levon Helm. CSN had been doing that song but it had a slightly reggae feel and of course it was the full band but when we were making the record Shayne came up to me and said, “Do you remember our demo from the bus of Back Home?” And I said, “Actually, no. Play it for me.”
And when he played it for me I said, “Holy shit! All we need to do is overdub the drums and bass and my lead vocal and that’s it.” So those two songs are really indicative of how much I enjoyed this recording experience.
Encore is a poignant way to close out the album, which carries a strong message.
Graham Nash: Encore was written by Shayne and I and it’s all about, “Who are you when the last song is over? Who are you when the last show is done? Did you want to add to the universe or did you want to take away? Who are you when it’s all over? Are you a good person?”
That’s what I’m asking and I’m asking myself.
And what’s your answer?
Graham Nash: The answer goes all the way right back to the beginning of the album where I started with (sings) “Where are we going?”… I wanted this album to be a journey.
After Brian Wilson heard Revolver and did Pet Sounds and then The Beatles heard Pet Sounds and they wanted to do Sgt. Pepper it became obvious that a normal album used to be a lot of A- sides and B-sides stuck together just to make money for the record company and the band.
But it was John (Lennon) and Brian Wilson who said, “No, no, no, we can paint a huge picture with this music if we make a journey with an album” and that’s what Shayne and I did with This Path Tonight.
When do you feel you took the jump as a writer from imitation to finding your own personal voice?
Graham Nash: The very first single that me and Allan (Clarke) and Tony (Hicks) wrote for The Hollies was a song called We’re Through. That was the very first time our producer Ron Richards thought our songwriting was of a level that it could be used as an A-side so I think maybe We’re Through was the one to fit that description. That song felt like a big step forward.
Having written songs for over 50 years, is it harder to pull the rabbit out of the hat and come up with something that surprises you?
Graham Nash: I’m recognizing more and more as I go along in my life just how important the muse of music is. No writer knows when’s it’s coming. It can be incredibly simple like somebody saying, “You can’t write a song just before you go” and then you write a song called Just A Song Before I Go or Joni (Mitchell) buying a vase from an antique store that we passed that became Our House. You never know when it’s coming. I’m glad that Joni’s around. It’s almost like I’m wooing the muse of music to come and visit.
Certain songs arrive as a gift and come very quickly while others take much longer and you need to put in the time to nail their essence.
Graham Nash: It took me four years to finish Cathedral.
Four years? Why did it take that long?
Graham Nash: I wrote it in 1971 and didn’t record it until 1977 with David (Crosby) and Stephen (Stills). When you/re talking about someone’s religion and their Gods, knowing the importance of religion in people’s lives, I had to make sure that every single word was correct because now you’re talking about something that touches people in a very deep and profound levels of their life.
It’s okay to write a song called Just A Song Before I Go or Our House about a domestic scene you went through with your girlfriend but it’s different when you’re writing about people’s Gods.
With CSN and CSNY you’ve been the band diplomat. How has that helped you in your career and alternatively, hurt you?
Graham Nash: I’ve been this person all my life and I think a lot of it stems from my country, England, which was almost bombed out of existence twice within 80 years by the same people.
When I was born, World War II still had three years to go. You didn’t know at that point whether your house was gonna be there tomorrow.
You didn’t know whether your friends were gonna be alive tonight and when you make it through that and you come out of that insane insanity…don’t give me fuckin’ problem unless it’s a real problem.
Don’t tell me your fuckin’ coffee’s not warm enough and you’re pissed. It’s not the atom bomb here; it’s not World War II. C’mon, let’s get on with it.
I’m that guy. I want the job done. If we’re gonna make a record let’s have the most fun and be most efficient and have the greatest time we can. That’s who I am and therefore I’ve always kept my eye on the music. It all comes down to the music and that’s’ why that phrase opens my book (Wild Tales) and close my book.
It all comes down to the music.
You’ve been best friends with David Crosby for decades. There’s been a lot said in recent times about the tumult in that relationship. What went wrong?
Graham Nash: I don’t think this one can be fixed. I’m not gonna go into any detail other than I tried my best to be the best friend I could and it wasn’t coming back and I’m done.
It’s very simple. My heart is telling me that we had a good inning, as in England from cricket matches, and made great music for almost 50 years and it’s done.
So no “never say never”?
Graham Nash: I feel it’s really done.
You were his loyal and devoted friend who always stood by him and was there to support him and willing to bend in the relationship.
Graham Nash: Yeah, I always am but this one was very deep.
I recently spoke to a friend about you who is a huge CSN/CSNY fan but while I was raving about your work in The Hollies, he was unfamiliar with the band. If you had to lead him into the Hollies music, what one Hollies studio album would you send him to pick up?
Graham Nash: I would probably choose Butterfly and Evolution. Both those albums had that old Hollies vocal sound on there and that energy that we were so loved for. Both albums show a tendency toward looking to the future in terms of sounds and instruments that we used.
The very first Hollies album was made in an hour and a half. All we had to do was our 45 minutes of dynamite twice and then choose the best from that. The first Hollies album took an hour and a half to record!
I’ve done an album with David and Stephen that took shape through two Super Bowls. We’re lucky to be musicians, man.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve been given as a songwriter that put you a step ahead or made you look at your art a little differently?
Graham Nash: I was in Scarborough on the Eastern coast of England and The Hollies were playing and the opening band was The Rolling Stones.
I remember how interesting the Stones looked to us. They were from scruffy London and we were from scruffy Manchester but the scruffiness was slightly different.
I remember after the Stones became famous and had some hit record, we also did a show where Mick (Jagger) came up to me and said, “Yeah, you’ve gotta to be able to disguise certain things in your songwriting.” Then he told me about a verse in Satisfaction (recites lyrics) “‘cause you see I’m on a losing streak…” I mean, she was on a losing streak. He told me that was about a woman having her period and not about having a run of bad luck. I thought that was an interesting and subtle way of disguising stuff as a songwriter.
When sitting down to pen songs for your new solo album, are you writing purely to express yourself or are you writing with your audience in mind?
Graham Nash: I’m just thinking about whatever I’m feeling. I’m an incredibly selfish musician. I didn’t write for The Hollies, I never wrote for CSN and never wrote for CSNY; I only wrote for myself. If somebody picks up on a song and Stephen goes “Fuck, I have a great opening!” and David is already singing the chorus, then it becomes a CSN song but I only write for myself.
Pick a few songs you wish you’d written.
Graham Nash: The Ballad Of Hollis Brown by Bob Dylan is one. God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. Another one is Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. I’ve recently been playing Old Friends by Simon & Garfunkel off the Bookends album too. Songs like that I really like.
How do you mitigate the major changes in the industry and how they impact on the way you approach your career?
Graham Nash: I think it makes it a little more difficult because there’s a very vital link in the chain of the path between a musician and his music or her music and the audience. That’s why I’m loving doing this Record Store Day in a few days.
Record Store Day was started by a guy named Chris Brown from Portland, Maine. About nine years ago he was saying, “You know, all these independent and mom and pop record tires are very important” and so he started Record Store Day. It’s now in about 21 countries.
It happens one day a year that vinyl is celebrated and record stores are celebrated and mom and pop stores are celebrated. I think it’s an important link between me and my music and you as an audience.
Are you pleased vinyl is making a comeback?
Graham Nash: Yeah, it’s absolutely back. The increase in vinyl sales over the last several years has been 783%.
What is drawing people back to vinyl?
Graham Nash: I think that younger people are beginning to realize the difference they feel when they’re listening to an analog source like an album and a digital source. And I think they know the difference. I think they can feel the difference and that’s what’s going on. It’s very difficult to discern with your ears but it’s the feeling that analog gives you and I don’t know what that is.
Is that something we’re used to? I recently was in Fort Myers, Florida and I went down to Thomas Edison’s house and saw the original gramophone records and original record players. It was amazing to see and now you’ve got a thousand tracks in your iPhone.
I think analog is much warmer and digital is a colder medium.
Graham Nash: Yeah, that’s right and also you can’t roll a joint on a CD cover. (laughs)
In 2016, away from music, what are the things you value you most in life?
Graham Nash: Well, I think waking up and realizing I’m still alive. (laughs) That would be it.
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