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Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Crosby is not losing any sleep, or ground for that matter, distancing himself from the abrupt split with his decades-old partners Stephen Stills and Graham Nash by hitting the road behind his latest solo project.
Crosby returns to The Ridgefield Playhouse with a set list that includes new material alongside songs spanning his career. “David Crosby & Friends Sky Trails Tour” takes the stage on Monday, November 20, at 8 pm.
In an exclusive chat with The Newtown Bee, the artist opened up about his work in crafting his newest album Sky Trails, the impact and influence his long-lost son James Raymond continues to have on his solo work, and even discussed a recent and intimate meal he shared with ailing singer / songwriter Joni Mitchell.
Sky Trails, his third album of original material in four years, takes the folk rock legend in a new musical direction as the set tilts toward a full band sound with deep, soulful grooves following the decidedly more acoustic sounding Lighthouse, which came out in 2016.
“It’s a natural thing for me,” says Crosby, who according to an advance has embraced the challenge of the shifting song structures. “I’ve always felt more comfortable there. There’s complexity, intricacy, and subtleties in the music. I like that stuff.”
Crosby also said he found himself reinvigorated by the stellar musicians with which he’s surrounded himself. “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” he said.
The folk rock pioneer, who was inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, has also served as our social conscience, not only writing about societal issues on such songs as “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Wooden Ships,” but continuously donating concert proceeds to like-minded causes.
Crosby opened his conversation with The Bee saying that the current political climate motivated him to go back out on yet another concert tour to help lift the spirits of those with who relate to his music and messages.
David Crosby: So many people are depressed, they really need music right now!
Newtown Bee: That being said, on a personal note, I want to thank you for your song “Delta.” No matter what kind of crap I may be going through, I can put on that song and get lost in it — it’s simply one of the most beautiful songs from your entire body of work.
Crosby: I really love that song, and I’ll tell you a little story about it. The reason that song got written — well, that was one of the few songs that I wrote during the time when I was such a mess and doing hard drugs. I was hiding out in a place and Jackson Browne came over to see me. He listened to what I had put together and said the words were pretty good, and that I ought to finish the song. So I said I didn’t have a piano, and I started writing the song on piano. So he got me in the car and drove me over to Warren Zevon’s house, and I finished writing it on Warren’s piano. It was Jackson who just wouldn’t let me quit writing. When I wanted to stop writing and go get loaded, he wouldn’t let me do it, so I owe Jackson a big debt over that song.
The Bee: But the new album is a fantastic piece of work as well — and it also has Jackson’s stamp on it because you did a bunch of the recording in his studio. So let’s start the interview at the end of Sky Trails and talk about this song that has its roots in Connecticut, “Home Free.”
Crosby: There’s a friend of mine, a writer named Jeff Benedict who wrote a book about the case called Little Pink House. When I read the book I was very moved — it’s a very moving story. So then he called me up one day and said that people were going to make it into a movie, and would I consider writing a song about it. And I said absolutely, because I love that story. It was a difficult story, but beautifully told. So I went to my son James, because we write together, and I wrote the words and he wrote the music. And it turned out to be a really, really expressive and emotional song. So we were really proud of it. And come to find out they’re going to try to get it nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t know how a small movie like that can make that happen, but they’re trying.
The Bee: Joni Mitchell is coming out publicly about her diagnosis with Morgellons disease. So I wanted to ask how Joni is doing, as far as you may want to discuss?
Crosby: I had dinner with her a couple of weeks ago, and she took a hit. She really took a big hit, but she’s a very tough woman. I would bet on Joni. She’s having issues walking, but she thinks clearly and she talks, she’s a very courageous human being, so I would bet on her.
The Bee: You decided to cover her tune “Amelia” on Sky Trails. Of all the Joni Mitchell songs, what made that one the right choice at the right time?
Crosby: The truth is, I’ve been wanting to sing it for years, but it’s a Joni Mitchell song so I’ve always been a little afraid of it. Trying to sing anything that Joni Mitchell has sung is pretty daunting because she’s pretty terrific. But that song to me is as good as anything on [her renowned album] Blue. So I turned my son James onto it and he started playing it on piano. When I heard it I said to myself, I’ve just got to try it — I can’t be afraid of it.
The Bee: It was wonderful to read about you being reunited with your son James Raymond after 30 years, and how he is so much a chip off the old block, so to speak.
Crosby: He is not only a terrific person, he is a terrific musician, terrific producer, and terrific writer. We get on tremendously and create some really great stuff writing together.
The Bee: Were there any songs on Sky Trails that you primarily or exclusively created that either James or you decided should not be tinkered with and appears on the album either close to or identical to the way it presented on the day it was finished?
Crosby: We developed just about everything writing together. But he and I look at everything as a work in progress until it’s shrink-wrapped. I mean we’re constantly working on stuff trying to polish and hone it and apply craft to it. You try and find inspiration in the art, and then apply craft to it to polish it into that finished product.
The Bee: On the track “Curved Air” I’m wondering did you imagine it with the kind of Flamenco feel it has on the new record, or did the instrumentation come on later?
Crosby: You know, I first started writing that about a guy getting blown up. Then James created that Flamenco guitar on his keyboard. So that was his idea. I’m not the only crazy one in the family.
The Bee: I understand that you did not set out to make a Steely Dan-sounding number with the opening track “She’s Got To Be Somewhere,” but was there a point during its production that somebody made the comparison, and the decision was made to just put it out there despite the fact that there would likely be speculation about its creative roots.
Crosby: We talked about it when we were doing it, but we are all lifelong Steely Dan fans, how can you not be? It’s some of the most sophisticated music ever. But we weren’t really aiming to do that, we were just trying to be true to the song. That’s really how we see our job — to serve the song. We create a song and then sit and figure out what’s the very best way to put this out so it will hook you and take you on an emotional voyage. So as far as anybody comparing it to Steely Dan, we didn’t really worry about it.
The Bee: How did “Before Tomorrow Falls On Love,” end up bringing you and Michael McDonald together for the session?
Crosby: I’ve been a huge fan of Michael’s forever. I think he’s one of the few best singers alive and he’s a friend. So I asked him over the years if we could write something together, and he said absolutely. So when I sent him that set of words, we worked on it for a few days and it turned out really well. Now we’re talking about doing another one because he’s such a great songwriter.
The Bee: Let’s talk about your touring ensemble — are saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, bassist Mai Agan, drummer Steve DiStanislao, and your multi-instrumentalist son James out on the road with you?
Crosby: Yup, and we have Michelle Willis, who is in my Lighthouse band. She’s playing keyboards and singing harmony. And we have Jeff Pevar, who has worked with me for 20-plus years. He’s a Connecticut guy who’s really at the top of his game. And a sweet man.
The Bee: How much of the live set is dedicated to the trilogy of new albums you’ve most recently released versus some of your more seasoned material? (Sky Trails follows last year’s
critically acclaimed Lighthouse, which was preceded by 2014’s Croz)
Crosby: The thing is, we have such a huge body of material to draw from — The Byrds, CSN, Crosby-Nash, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Crosby solo, and CPR [Crosby with Jeff Pevar and James Raymond] so we have a lot of materiel. We switch it around, and it wasn’t until just last night that we added in “Guinnevere.” I usually perform it as a solo acoustic thing, so with the band we weren’t doing it. But we figured out a way that it sounds good with the band.
The Bee: So with that musical support, are you getting a chance to put down the guitar so you can focus just on vocals?
Crosby: There’s band tunes where I play guitar and band tunes where I don’t play guitar — and it’s sounding great both ways!
The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge Road parallel to Main Street. For tickets ($126 – $1 added to benefit David Crosby’s Guacamole Fund), call the box office, 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.
Check out David Crosby performing “Delta” at the Grove Theater in Anaheim, Calif., last April 18:
David Crosby plays the CSN hit “Ohio” with his current touring band at City Winery Chicago on October 30, 2017: