By Lee Zimmerman
As one of the most indelible musical icons of the past 50 years, David Crosby casts a presence that’s seemingly inescapable. In the ‘60s, it was his image of a beaming young man in a cape and fur hat with a mischievous look in his eyes and a kind of beatific attitude that first drew attention on the cover of the early Byrds albums. After parting ways with the band as they grew tired of his controversial comments, he grew his hair into a lion’s mane, doning a fringed buckskin jacket to pose on a coach besides his brothers in harmony for the cover of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. Later he shifted personas again, taking on the role of a defiant, paranoid druggie who railed against authorities with absolute indignation.
However, as years went by, all essence of amusement drained from his persona. He was the emaciated-looking man, ruined by the ravages of drugs, who made a plea for redemption from the pages of People magazine. Later, as a stone-faced, glassy-eyed mannequin he became little more than a token prop as he attempted to hold himself together onstage with Crosby and Nash. Then there was the shock of seeing the newly shorn ex-con managing a smile on his release from the pen following his conviction for illegal possession of a handgun. More recently, he’s had the look of a benevolent, snowy-haired granddad happy to be immersed in harmony. A steely-eyed elder statesman, he readily shares his knowing smile.
It’s the latter persona that he projects on the phone, an eager, energetic enthusiast filled with exuberance and exhilaration because he’s still allowed to do the thing he loves, singing songs that satisfy him in a spiritual sense. Projecting that irrepressible optimism, he dutifully answers a reporter’s inquiring questions while speaking from his home in Santa Barbara. In fact, he comes across as earnest, affable and animated as an old pal you’re reconnecting with after far too many years. He’s so damn friendly and down-to-earth in fact, that two minutes into the conversation you abandon any obligation to call him Mr. Crosby and settle instead for just plain Dave.
That excitement was especially obvious when the subject turned to his new album, Sky Trails, the third in a series of recent releases following last year’s Lighthouse and 2014’s Croz.
Goldmine: Congratulations on your lovely new album. It’s truly bewitching, Mr. Crosby.
David Crosby: Thank you, man!
GM: Were these songs written over a period of time, or were they written specifically for this record?
DC: I write all the time. The way I feel about it is that it’s my life’s work. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. So I don’t really think about which record they’re going on until I have them developed a little bit. I just like to write all the time. I was writing this record at the same time I was making the Lighthouse record. I started this record the day I finished that record. I came back in the studio the next day and started this one.
GM: This seems like a one-two punch.
DC: It’s really a one-two-three punch because there’s a trifecta, three records. Croz, which my son (James Raymond) produced and did a great job on, Lighthouse, which Michael Lee produced. He did a great job and made a great record. And there’s this one that my son produced again.
GM: And he’s all over it, too.
DC: He and I write together better than any other people I know.
GM: There are some songs on this album which seem very specific. The song “Before Tomorrow Falls On Love” seems very nostalgic in a way.
DC: Yes, I wrote that one with Michael McDonald.
GM: Indeed! How did that come about?
DC: Mike and I have been friends for a long time. I’ve sung with him before and I think he’s an astounding talent. He’s probably one of the best singers alive. He and Stevie Wonder are the best singers in the world. I’ve always wanted to write with him because he’s a brilliant writer. I gave him a set of words and he wrote the music and expanded the words, and we both love it. Now I’m trying to get him to write another song with me. He’s a wonderful cat, and great to work with.
GM: This song takes a look back.“Where’s that brave new world?”
DC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s exactly the thing. We were kind of looking at this lost hippie ideal, and wondering where all that went.
GM: And you’re the perfect person to offer a perspective on that, because you were so much a part of that era. That feeling of hopefulness and optimism. Do you think that’s all disappeared?
DC: No, I don’t think so. I do think times have changed. I think we’re really going through a horrible period in the United States right now. We have the worst Congress in history, they have the lowest approval rating Congress has ever had, and then, on top of that, we have the worst president we’ve ever had. A bad child of a president. It’s pretty tough. That’s why I wrote the song “Capitol.”
GM: That song is reminiscent of a song from If I Could Only Remember My Name, your first solo album, The song was called “What Are Their Names.”
DC: Yup. It’s odd how that song “What Are Their Names” keeps getting truer. Every year that passes, that song becomes more relevant than it was the year before. I should know. I’m the guy that wrote it.
GM: It’s true that a lot of the songs you wrote back in the day still resonate. It’s sad that we still have to learn the same lessons over and over. But in a way that’s what makes your music so timeless, and timely.
DC: Thank you. I appreciate it.
GM: There’s another song on the album that’s kind of sweet in another sort of way. “Somebody Home.” It’s almost like a hapless pick-up song.
DC: The guy’s trying to pick up this chick and apologizes to her up front. It’s sort of an apology to all women from all men for us being so fascinated by the outside wrappings. We forget that the real gift is what’s inside, and that’s what the song’s about.
GM: Is that based on your own personal experience, dare we ask?
DC: From many personal experiences.
GM: You work with the band Snarky Puppy on the album, Please tell us about that experience.
DC: There I was in New Orleans with Snarky Puppy, and they were such a pleasure to work with because they’re so good. That’s Snarky Puppy all over (“Somebody Home”).
GM: How did that collaboration come about? Seems an unusual combination.
DC: I just fell in love with their music. Somebody turned me on to their music two albums back, a song called “We Like It Here.” It’s up on Youtube. Go check it out. They shot it with the audience mixed in with the band all in one room, everybody on earphones. It’s one of the best live performance records and videos you will ever see or hear in your life.
GM: Are you one of these people that actively seeks out and tries to discover new music?
DC: Yes, I am. You have to remember, I discovered Joni Mitchell and I discovered Jackson Browne. That’s pretty good. (laughs)
GM: Speaking of Joni Mitchell, you do a lovely version of “Amelia.”
DC: Thank you. Isn’t that a lovely song? I’ve wanted to do that for years, and always been kind of intimidated by it. It’s hard to sing something that Joni’s sung, because she’s not only one of our best singers, but also one of the best writers. I couldn’t resist. It’s so good.
GM: And you don’t make any radical changes to the arrangements.
DC: I just depended on the words to carry it.
GM: You come from a folk background, and that sort of sensibility seems to pervade your music. And on this album, there’s more than a hint of jazz as well.
DC: That’s sort of a normal thing for me. I’ve always liked jazz and always tried to drag it into the pop music that I’m making. If you listen to “Eight Miles High,” that solo that McGuinn plays, well that came from Coltrane. And it goes back and forth. Sometimes they listened to us. Miles Davis did cut “Guinevere.”
GM: It’s interesting how these seminal sounds of yours still find a place in your music. You’ve stayed loyal to that muse.
DC: That’s the music that makes me happy. What can I say?
GM: You’ve put out these three solo albums in rapid succession. These days, you’re writing for one. In the past, you wrote for The Byrds, you wrote for CSN and CSNY… Is there a different process involved when you’re writing only for yourself?
DC: When I try to write the songs, I don’t really think abut where they’re going that much. I try to get the songs done and see where they’ve taken me. Then, my job is to serve the song and whatever production and instrumentation and treatment it gets depends on the song. Some songs don’t need much, and some songs lend themselves to a full band and horns and everything else.
GM: The harmonies were always a big part of your music. So is it different now writing for a solo voice with the harmonies in the background?
DC: I don’t really look at it that way. I don’t have a plan when I do it. I do what seems to work for each individual song.
GM: You don’t play a lot of guitar on this album.
DC: Not a whole lot. There is some but no, not a whole lot.
GM: Why is that?
DC: Because it didn’t call for it. I don’t worry a whole lot about that. I use whatever tools I need for a song rather than show everybody what a clever guitar
player I am.