How David Crosby Has Maintained a Late-Career Creative Upswing: Exclusive Interview
David Crosby has been on an astonishingly prolific streak. While it seems increasingly likely he'll never record with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young again, he's remained busy by putting out five albums since reemerging as a solo artist with 2014's Croz.
His latest, titled For Free, arrived on July 23, and he's already sketching out plans for two more LPs.
Crosby, who turns 80 in August, says he he's fully aware that there are more miles behind him than there are ahead. Worse, "I think maybe COVID stole my last functioning year" for touring, he tells UCR.
Still, he's not focused on regrets, instead putting his energies into recording and collaborating with bandmates. "I know it’s going to end. I mean, that’s what happens. You get old, you die," Crosby says. "You don’t know how much time you’ve got. You don’t know if you’ve got two weeks or 10 years.
"What you do know is what the quality of your life is, how you spend that time. I’m trying to spend it making music, because I think it’s a contribution. I think it makes things better and that makes me feel good," he adds. "And I’m trying to feel good. So this is all a complete joy to me. I’m loving and enjoying it."
For Free is a triumph, featuring a dream collaboration with Donald Fagen and a new song written with Michael McDonald, who also shares the vocals with Crosby on "River Rise," the new record's lead-off track.
Crosby tells UCR about his new music below and the joy of finally connecting directly to the source for a very personal Steely Dan moment.
Watch David Crosby's Video for 'River Rise'
I’ve heard each of the previous four albums you’ve done, going back to Croz in 2014. It feels like you tapped into something really special with this album. Can you talk about how this record took shape?
I’ve got two bands. You know that. One of them is this one. In actual fact, it’s really just me and my son James [Raymond] and whoever we decide to use. We write by ourselves, together and with other people. But we write and he produces. That’s the Sky Trails band. Between that and the Lighthouse band, which is the one with Michael League, Becca [Stevens] and Michelle [Willis], yeah, four records in the last five years – and now six years and five records! I’m justifiably proud of it, because they’re really good records. If I was just crankin’ out crud, that would be one thing but they’re good records. These are really good songs and they’re really well-made records. I’m extremely proud of ‘em. This one, I don’t know, I think James and I just hit a really sweet patch [on For Free]. We had a couple of pieces of good luck. You know, Michael McDonald writing the second verse to “River Rise,” that helped, when he was here to do the harmony. Donald Fagen sending us a set of words, that’s a miracle. You know, it’s my favorite band in the world, Steely Dan. So, to get to work with him at all, is just a huge privilege – really, enormously exciting.
The best song on the record, I think is James’. It’s “I Won’t Stay for Long.” I think James has matured as a writer now to the point to where he’s at least as good as I am, if not better. That’s pretty shocking and pretty great. So I’m very happy about it. You know, they don’t pay us for these records. But we didn’t start out makin' 'em for money in the first place. We made 'em because they were fun. I think us going back to makin' 'em for the fun, well, it’s hard to make a living, but we certainly do love making the music.
What’s the story behind the audio of Brian Wilson counting in on “I Won’t Stay for Long?”
We love Brian Wilson. It’s pretty simple. All of the real songwriter/song-lover people in the music business love Brian Wilson. We don’t love the Beach Boys in its current form. Nobody loves Mike Love. He’s an asshole. But Brian Wilson, man – reverence there, for the writing and the singing. He’s just brilliant.
Listen to David Crosby Perform 'I Won’t Stay for Long'
What are some of your favorite memories of experiences and encounters that you've had with Brian Wilson?
Well, I went to AA meetings with Brian. So I know stuff about Brian you don’t. [Laughs] I like him a lot, man. He’s a very, very fine guy.
There’s video on the web of you paying tribute to Wilson, singing “Surf’s Up” with Vince Gill and Jimmy Webb. Anybody that picks that particular song, that kind of says, “Okay, this person’s a fan,” because that one’s off the beaten path a little bit and such a great tune.
It’s really hard to do! [Laughs] I remember Vince – boy, what a singer Vince Gill is. He’s a great guitar player too, but what a singer. We had a blast doing that. It was an honor to do it. It’s probably the most difficult Brian Wilson song – both Brian and Van Dyke Parks, isn’t it? It was just fucking wonderful.
What’s difficult about it, particularly?
Everything! [Laughs] The vocal range is extremely difficult. You have to be able to go higher than I can go. That’s the part that Vince did of the song. I couldn’t sing that in a million years! The range is difficult. The technical ability to be able to sing that strange of a melody across that set of changes, you have to know what you’re doing. It’s a really wonderful song, man.
Watch David Crosby, Vince Gill and Jimmy Webb Perform 'Surf's Up'
As far as “I Won’t Stay for Long,” since you mentioned it: You hit on it with James. He really did hit the mark. It’s just a really poignant way to wrap up the record.
Oh boy, is it a good song. I have had a number of friends call me up, crying on the phone [and] saying, “Oh, my God, that song.” You know, he started out with the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, that’s where the story came from. But my God, what a song. Everybody that listens to it just winds up weeping. It really reaches you. I love it.
You’ve talked about how it was a thrill to write a song that was up and fun like “I Think I.” I think that’s what is striking about this record: Even if you personally perhaps weren’t in the best place, it seems like musically, you were able to get to a good place.
It’s tough to be in a good place in the United States of America in the last four years. It was very, very tough. We had a shitty president and it was really, really hard to smile at all. It’s getting better. Things are getting better. We’re at least headed in the right direction. We’ve got people trying to do the right thing. We’ve got a bunch of people getting in their way, but we do have people at least trying to do the right thing. So things are getting better in the United States. Me, I still think it’s real hard times in this country. I think people are not really happy. I think music is a lifting force. It makes it better. It makes people happier and makes things better. That’s one of the main reasons – I know that sounds hippie and cosmic and shit, but that’s one of the main reasons I do it, is because I think it helps. The better music we can make, the more it helps. Believe me, I’m happy about this one.
Listen to David Crosby's 'I Think I'
The pandemic affected all of us in different ways. You were already really struggling before that, and you've used music as therapy before, how much did that help here during the pandemic?
We had two sources of income, records and touring. Along comes streaming and all of the sudden we don’t make anything from records anymore – and that’s the truth. We don’t. If I had a million plays, I might be able to buy you breakfast. That’s it. It’s like if you did your job for a month and they paid you a nickel. You’d be pissed. I’m pissed. They’re making billions of dollars. Besides that, they’re crippling our scene, because they’re not making it possible for the young people to come up at all. They can’t make any money at all. But I’m trying to be grateful that I could still work live and pay the rent and take care of my family. And then along comes COVID and I can’t do that. Bang. So it’s been a very, very tough time. Now, I can still record. I don’t get paid for it, but I do love recording and it’s what I will leave behind. It’s where I make my mark. I’m happy about that. I’m not happy that somebody else is making billions of dollars off of it and not paying me, but I do love recording.
I think maybe COVID stole my last functioning year. I had three tours booked for the summer and they were good. I had two tours with me and James and the Sky Trails band, and another one of just me and Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin, going out and staying onstage together and trading songs. That would have been spec-fuckin’-tacular. I lost all three of those tours and I don’t think I can do another bus tour. Never say never: Maybe I could do residencies, if they paid me enough. But I think it’s entirely possible that I may not get to play anymore.
Listen to David Crosby's 'Secret Dancer'
You've mentioned Michael McDonald. Prior to this record, you wrote “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love”, which is a beautiful song. And then as you mentioned, you've got “River Rise,” which is an incredible way to lead off this new record. What is it that you like about writing and creating with McDonald?
He’s a brilliant writer and player. I think you know, I’ve said for years that I thought the two best male singers in America were Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. I think they’re probably the two greatest vocalists alive. Stevie’s getting old now. He’s not as good as he used to be. So I think it’s Mike now. I think probably Michael McDonald is the most skillful singer in the United States of America – maybe in the world. And he’s my friend. You know, he doesn’t do that for anybody. He does it only for friends, same as me. I sing for people, but it’s for friends. That he likes me and wants to sing with me and is my friend and we have dinner and our wives like each other, we get to hang out and it’s just a treasure, man. He’s a wonderful cat.
Where was your head when you were writing “Secret Dancer"? That’s a really interesting song.
It’s about some people that are trying to build an A.I.-minded robot. Probably a war robot, right? But it’s A.I. They throw the phrase A.I. lightly, but a real A.I. would be a self-aware sentient computer. A computer that got so big and had so many connections that it woke up and became aware of itself. In this song, what’s happened is that they were trying to make one and they don’t know it, but it woke up a while ago. When it woke up, it looked at the human race, digested all of human history in about 10 seconds and said, “Hmm ... I don’t think I’m going to tell them I’m here.” [Laughs] Because it knew about xenophobia and it knew about witch burning and it understands that humans are scared of things they don’t understand. It also decided that it’s female. What it does is, after the humans leave, then it gets up and dances in the dark – because it likes to dance. It plays music and dances beautifully. Nobody can see it. It’s pitch black.
Listen to David Crosby's 'Rodriguez for a Night'
In an alternate universe, it seems like you could have been in Steely Dan, and I know you love that band so much. Fagen sends you lyrics for the new song that’s on this record, “Rodriguez for a Night.” Had you asked him to do that, or did that moment come out of the blue?
It came out of kind of a funny circumstance. I’ve always been a huge fan. They are my favorite band. The Beatles were my first favorite band, and along comes Steely Dan and I said, “Yeah, that’s my stuff.” The three top people road managing them all used to work for me. [Laughs] So I’ve got a lot of access and they like me. Donald likes me. I’m there at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and they’re going to play. My buddies that used to work for me have told him that I used to do “Home at Last.” [Fagen] says, “So, would he sing ‘Home at Last’?” I said “No.” The whole band is standing around us and they start laughing, because nobody says no to the Donald. I say, “No, I’m chicken.” And then they start really laughing. I said, “I haven’t sung it in 10 years and you’ve got higher range than I do.” I had a bunch of excuses. I said, “I’ll sing the choruses with the girls.” And so I did.
Afterwards, he says, “What have I got to do, learn ‘Wooden Ships’?” I said, “You don’t know ‘Wooden Ships.’” He says, “I can learn it in two minutes. It’s only got four changes.” Now, I know he’s just fucking with me. In a very friendly way, we’re screwing with each other. Then, I get a message at about 1 o’clock in the morning, which means it’s 4 o’clock in the morning in New York. The message is, “I just learned ‘Wooden Ships.’ That’s a fuckin’ great song. I’m going to tell the band and the girls to learn it.” I think, he’s gotta be kidding. I’ve never heard of him doing that with anybody. I check and he’s actually serious. He says, “Come to the Beacon and sing it with us.” I go and they have learned it. He’s written horn parts and it’s fantastic. [Steely Dan guitarist] Jon [Herington] knows every lick that Stephen [Stills] ever thought of, and has got a couple extra on top of that. It’s bitchin’ fine. It’s really good. I walk on and the audience is totally shocked. We do an unbelievable job with the song. We nearly do structural damage to the Beacon; we almost tore the building down. The audience went batshit crazy. It was so much fun that we did it again the next night.
The relationship with Donald had gotten better, right? He had this set of words and he sent them to me. We of course, Steely Danned them right into the middle distance, the best we could. It was a fun thing, I love the guy. I love his writing. Man, you know, Aja and Gaucho are two of my favorite records of my life. They’re up there with [Joni Mitchell's] Blue and [Weather Report’s] Heavy Weather and a couple other really serious ones.
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