Nearly five-and-a-half decades into his career, David Crosby might finally be hitting fourth gear. A new record, Here If You Listen, his second in collaboration with vocalists Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens, along with Mike League of Snarky Puppy, is sweeping and gorgeous. To hear Crosby tell it, and to hear the record, is to know that the pairing of musicians has been exhilarating to him. Catching up from his home in California, Crosby spoke about the formation of his latest venture and the freeing feeling it’s given him.
Aquarium Drunkard: To start, can you tell us a bit about the band, how this project came to be. It seems like a unique grouping.
David Crosby: I can tell you how it happened. A friend of mine turned me onto Mike League’s group, Snarky Puppy, and I loved it. I thought that the writing, in particular, was really impressive. I got a hold of him, told him how much I really liked his music. He ended up being an all-around, incredible guy. He had produced with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, who are two of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I asked him to produce a record for me, and he said we should invite them to sing on it. And we did! And we had an unbelievably good chemistry. You learn to spot these things over the years, working as a musician, you look for it — but you don’t often find it. And when I worked with these people, it was just a natural, really good chemistry. So for this record, the next time around, I said I don’t want to do another David Crosby record, I want to do a group record — write it together, sing it together. And they asked, “Are you sure?” And I was absolutely sure. So we did it! We went into Michael’s studio, in Brooklyn, and we two songs: “Janet,” a song that Michelle had written, and we had “Your Own Ride” which I wrote with Bill Laurence, who is Snarky Puppy’s classically trained pianist, really, really good musician. We had those two songs and that’s it. We went into his studio and wrote the entire record in 8 days! We recorded it and mixed it in the rest of the month; in one month, we created, from scratch, a brand new record.
That’s a chemistry I’ve never seen the like of anywhere. I’ve never been able to write with four people, are you kidding? You’re lucky if you can write with one other person. Writing with four others is impossible! We did it — we wrote a whole record together and it’s really good. The most lasting impression I have is that I’m the luckiest guy you know. That’s the only thing I can figure: I’m just the luckiest son-of-a-bitch on the planet, cause this stuff just keeps happening to me.
AD: What is it that allows you to so easily trust other people in your writing process — to come into your creative space where many artists have no room for other voices.
David Crosby: Well, I don’t know. I think they’re being silly. I have always found that, it works sort of as if you’re both painters, and the other person has seven colors on their palette, and you have seven colors on your palette, but when you put them together you have fourteen colors, and that makes a better painting. I find that the other guy always thinks of something I didn’t think of, and that I always think of something they didn’t think of. The creative process, the spark, you hear somebody sing something to you and you think, “Oh shit, that’s good, we could…” and you’re off and running. That process to me is an absolute joy. And I’ve never seen it work better than with this group. It’s astounding.
AD: This is the first project where you’ve collaborated with female voices in such a way. Is that a big factor in why it seems to click so well for you?
David Crosby: Yes, I do. I don’t know why it took me this long to realize that, but oh-my-god can they do stuff that we can’t do. I don’t think it’s just any female voice, but these two are two of the best singers I’ve ever heard, they’re just stunners. The result has been fantastic. I’m just about to start rehearsing with them for the tour we’re about to do, and I cannot wait for them to get here so I can start singing with them!
AD: One thing that stuck out to me in your choice of collaborators, listening to the record, is that none of them really do this sound. It’s not really in their precise wheel-house.
David Crosby: That’s one of the things we love about it.
AD: How did you find that space together?
David Crosby: We didn’t think it up, it just happened organically, when you put us in the same space. We noticed it. We started singing together and realized it was fucking wonderful. We couldn’t resist doing it more.
AD: You mentioned Michelle Willis wrote “Janet.” That song stands out in that it’s got this funkier vibe, quite different from the rest of the record. Why include an outlier like that?
David Crosby: With “Janet,” we all thought that it widened our spread considerably, and we loved that song, we begged her to let us have it.
AD: The first couple of tracks are beautiful to me in how they use a lot of space and silence between moment, between notes — how did the group come to trust each other in those less cacophonous moments, and let the sound speak for itself?
David Crosby You just have to trust it. If you’re working with the right people it happens organically. You don’t even have to think about. Good musicians know the value of space, the value of quiet, the value of moments of silence — good musicians are the only ones I want to work with anyway, so there you go.
AD: When you were taking the rest of that month to record the record. Can you speak a bit about the process? Some songs are lush and ornate, some have that space we just talked about, some have the feeling of being recorded by a friend on a lark.
David Crosby: That’s the producer. That’s Michael, he knows how to build a record out of a bunch of different textures and he creates different textures on purpose, so he can build an overall structure. He’s thinking about it from the first minute of the first song – he’s already got a plan for the entire record. I don’t think about it at all. I don’t think about structure or the overall attitude or what are we trying to say here. I don’t have to think at all. All I got to do is think up words, think up music, and sing. And they point me at a microphone and they let me work. That’s really fun. I can’t tell you, I really enjoy it.
AD: Would you say it’s freeing? Does it allow you a level of creativity you haven’t been able to find?
David Crosby: Yes it was freeing, but not that I haven’t been able to find it before – but that I’ve not had available to me, in the big groups, for a long time. CSN, CSNY… haven’t felt like that for many, many years — many, many, many years. And believe me, it is so refreshing to feel this… it’s yeasty, it’s ebullient, it’s a wonderful energy. It’s fertile ground, is what it is.
AD: A stand out, to me, is “Other Half Rule.” Can you speak to the inspiration there?
David Crosby: That’s a fascinating one. That’s us asking the female half of the population of the United States of America to please save the rest of us by taking over and running the country — we think they’d do a fine job.
AD: You don’t see people singing about, or writing about these topics — they might be in our collective zeitgeist, but it hasn’t found a home in our art yet. What pushed you to write a song that might be considered so “political?”
David Crosby: Politics isn’t really a separate thing — politics is what’s gonna happen to you next week. The way that us, writing about the real world and the situation that we’re in – viewed it, the more women get involved in running the country, the better. It’s not us sitting down and saying we’re gonna write a political song, we just are dealing with life as it smacks us in the face. I don’t think it’s a question that the country is in a lot of trouble, politically.
AD: What are you looking for an audience reaction to be here? Do you want people to boogie to this music, or to contemplate? Is it just for pure enjoyment?
David Crosby Everything. We want to get them on every level. We wanna get them by the heart, by the mind, get it all. words / b kramer