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David Crosby Talks About His New Album, Protest Songs, and the Random People He Meets on Twitter

A Q&A with the folk-rock legend

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

David Crosby has sung enough songs, played alongside enough legends, fought enough battles, and tweeted enough tweets to last anyone several lifetimes. As a founding member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Sometimes Young), he’s indomitable folk-rock royalty, with a six-decade career that is now somehow speeding up instead of slowing down. With relatively little CSN reunion talk to distract him lately, the 76-year-old has fired off three lovely and idiosyncratic solo records in the past four years, from 2014’s Croz (dig the majestic cover), to last year’s gentle Lighthouse, to this week’s looser and jazzier Sky Trails.

He is on a tear, in several mediums. Produced by Crosby’s son, James Raymond, Sky Trails is a deft and engagingly odd affair; its highlights range from the delicate title track (a duet with young singer-songwriter Becca Stevens), to the anti-Congress jeremiad “Capitol,” to a reverent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” But Croz’s other essential 2017 body of work can be found on Twitter, where he engages in lightning-round Q&A sessions with seemingly hundreds of random fans. He is also happy to talk trash about any number of worthy adversaries, from Spotify and the larger streaming-music complex, to Trump, to Ted Nugent, to Kanye West, who drew Crosby’s ire after declaring himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” during his set at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival.

I talked with Crosby about his love for Steely Dan (the jazz-rock giants lost founding member Walter Becker this month), his social-media habits, his faith in the power of a protest song, and his enduring distaste for “pop crap.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.

I really love the new album, and it made me mourn Walter Becker all over again.

[Laughs.] I can totally get that.

I’ve seen you call Steely Dan your favorite band after the Beatles—what about them does it for you?

You know, sophisticated music. Highly complex chords. Highly complex melodies. Really, really sophisticated word writing. Probably some of the best songwriting of anybody. Dense chords. Pretty high level of music. They’re excellent musicians and excellent writers. They got me. I just love ’em.

Did you know those guys well? Were you peers? Were you competitors?

I know Donald [Fagen] now. I never did get to know Becker. But I know Donald.

I don’t get the impression many people got to know Becker that well.

No, no. And I don’t think many people get to know Donald, either. These are not easy, fun, social kind of guys. That’s their thing.

You’ve put out three solo albums in four years now—is that surge mostly a product of having less reunion drama to deal with? Is it a relief to be on a tear like this on your own?

It’s a release, yeah. Not wanting to characterize anybody badly, but there’s a thing that happens to bands. You start out, and you really like each other, and you’re really excited with each other’s music, and it’s really fun. Forty years later, when you don’t really like each other, and it’s devolved all the way to just “turn on the smoke machine and play your hits”—ah, you know. It was starting to poison the music for me. And music’s my life, it’s what I’ve given my life to, it’s what I do.

So I’m glad I got out of CSN. I think it was the right thing to do. It certainly made it much harder on me. Because we lost all of our income from records in the last couple years, because of streaming. Now it’s only live performance that I can earn a living from. And by myself, of course I earn a tenth as much as I used to. It’s difficult, but I think artistically, it was the right thing. The proof is in the pudding: I’ve made three records in a row I’m really proud of.

Your son [James Raymond] plays on Sky Trails and he produced it. I’ve always wondered how that changes the dynamic—if it’s easier or better with a family element, or if it’s a little awkward, too.

You almost never see it. There’s almost never a family connection. In my case, James Raymond is a brilliant producer. For anybody. There ought to be a line of people down the block trying to get him to produce their records. He’s that good. He’s also a fantastic writer. I love having him produce my records. He did a great job on Croz, and he did a great job on Sky Trails. These are well-produced, really fun, really interesting, wide-spectrum records. And they’re not predictable. They’re not, you know, pop crap.

What makes him a good producer? What is it that sets him above?

Song sense. He and I and Mike League, who produced Lighthouse, and other people like us have a song sense. We listen to a song and say Oh, that’s a pretty interesting song. I like where the words are going, the melody’s interesting, the chords—we have a song sense, right? And that’s the first thing producing is. You need to be able to tell one hook from another, and they need to have the bar set pretty high on quality level. Second thing is, they have to understand proportionally how a record gets structured together, and what will work with what. A record is a composite of a bunch of pieces of music, and they work only in a certain order, and in a certain juxtaposition with each other. That’s all producer stuff.

The title track, “Sky Trails” is definitely the highlight for me—that’s Becca Stevens on that?

That’s Becca, yeah. I was just looking at her. She’s here at my house right now. We’re about to start a writing session as soon as I get done with you.

What is it the two of you have together?

Well, we’re friends, and we like each other’s writing. I think she is one of the most talented young people I have been able to find. I’m always lookin’, man. I discovered Joni Mitchell, and I kind of discovered Jackson Browne, too. I really like finding good singer-songwriters. And I’m always lookin’ for ’em. And I think Becca’s one of the very best I have ever found.

And what is it you’re looking for? What’s the common thread between Joni, Jackson, and her?

Quality of songs. Invention. Dedication. The lack of pop crap. It really has to do with why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it because you really, desperately want to get noticed, and you want to be famous, and you want to be a celebrity, I don’t even wanna talk to you. That’s some shallow shit. If you’re doing it because you have to, because it’s a central part of your soul and your life, and music drives you, well then god bless you.

See, the thing is about this, and I hope you quote me: Just as war brings down the human race, drags the human race downward and brings out the very worst in the human race, just so does music lift the human race and make it better. So when I see people taking other human beings on these little emotional voyages that lift them up—even just makin’ ’em boogie—I see a positive force. I see it as a really great thing.

What is your working definition of “pop crap”?

[Cackles.] Couldn’t resist it, could ya? Oh, god. You know. Shallow shit. [Derisive voice.] Ooh baby, ooh baby, I’m so cool, I’m so cool, ooh baby. Pop crap. Shallow stuff that’s highly polished and has no content. I’m not gonna name names, but you know who I’m talking about.

So you turn on the radio, you turn on the TV, just walking around listening to music—what percentage of what you hear would you classify as pop crap?

Mmm, a very great deal. An awful lot of what you see commercially out there is very shallow and pretty much constructed. They didn’t start with a song, they started with an image they wanted to project. And they do a huge amount of production, a huge amount of polish, but the substance wasn’t there in the first place.

Is that consistent across time, from when you started to now? Is it getting worse? Is it getting better?

We go through periods. When Bob Dylan hit, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell—that was a good period. We had a pretty rich time there, of songwriting. Pretty great. Both of the Pauls. Randy Newman. A lot of great writers. A lot of great writers. Shawn Colvin. I think Joni’s probably unquestionably the best writer I’ve ever encountered. But there were and are a number of them.

Out of Joni’s catalog, what drew you to “Amelia” for this?

I’ve always wanted to sing it. It’s one of my favorite songs of hers. I think she’s the best writer alive. That song, the way she mixes her own loves with Amelia Earhart’s life, it’s just brilliant. It’s a brilliant multi-level song. I really wasn’t sure I could hack it. I’ve always wanted to sing it, and I’ve always been a little afraid to take a swing at it, ’cause it’s Joni. After she sings something, you pretty much don’t want to get in there and try to compete. But I couldn’t resist the song. I did it much simpler than she does it. Just trusting the words, you know?

You wrote “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” with Michael McDonald—he’s a guy who, every year I see more and more people who might’ve once turned their noses at him acknowledge how great he is. What makes him right for something like this?

Well, he’s my friend, A, and a really, really, really brilliant writer, B. And I think he’s one of the two best male singers in the world.

Who’s the other one?

Stevie Wonder.

That’s quite an honor, for both of them, but for Michael particularly.

I think it’s fair. I think it’s absolutely fair. Stevie, I think, is the greatest living rock star. Not Kanye West.

Yeah, I got that. I’ve always had this vision of you going on a Kanye binge, and getting it all of a sudden, and turning into a superfan.

No. I don’t see it. I don’t think his words are that good. Certainly he can’t do anything else: He doesn’t know how to play an instrument, and he can’t sing. I’m not trying to be cruel or anything—that’s how I read it. Maybe it’s ’cause I have the bar set very high, but as a songwriter, he doesn’t cut it next to Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. He’s just not in the same universe with those people. And he never will be.

And what you seem to take objection to is that he keeps trying to insert himself into that universe.

Well, he said, after that hideous performance at Glastonbury, which was so embarrassing, he said, I’m the greatest living rock star! Well, bullshit! You’re not. Go over to Stevie Wonder’s house and stand out front: That’s what the greatest living rock star looks like.

Every so often there’s a run on younger bands who are really pushing a folk-heavy, vocal-harmony-driven sort of thing—do you hear yourself in a lot of new music? Do you gravitate toward that kind of thing?

If it’s really good. I hear bands that can sing, but I pretty rarely hear bands that can sing and write. Little Feat could sing and write. There’s bands out there that can sing now, but they can’t write.

Who’s a band who can sing and can’t write?

Fleet Foxes.

That’s one specifically where I think of you a lot when I hear those guys.

Yeah. Well, there were other people who copied us much more faithfully. America, bands like that. They’re nice guys—I like ’em. They’re friends of mine, but.

So Fleet Foxes get halfway there.

Well, they sing pretty well together, don’t you think?

So this firestorm right now about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem—it’s such a striking image that for the moment, sports has become the focal point for political activism. Is music’s role in activism receding a little bit?

It’s not receding, we just haven’t got the particular fire lit that we need. I’ve been on social media saying, “Hey, please, I’m trying to write a song like ‘Ohio.’” To really be a sort of fight song for us. But I haven’t got it yet. So if any of you out there have a song like that, or even the thesis to start a song like that, do it. We need that song. We need to fight this crazy person that’s in the White House, and this disgusting pile of crap that we’ve got for a Congress. We have to fight like crazy to get our country back. We need a song like “Ohio.” We need a song like “We Shall Overcome.” We need a focal point.

What is it about “Ohio” that made it break through like that?

It was honest. We were pissed. We saw them shooting down our own children. I mean, not much question in your mind it was wrong. It was our kids protesting, which they’re legally, constitutionally allowed to do. And they get gunned down. Shot. By military people with military weapons. It went on being bad. It was really awful right at the start, but none of those people ever got charged. No one went to jail. Nobody was ever even arrested. It was murder.

What I see as far as protest songs now, it can’t break that bubble of preaching to the people who’re already converted. The people who’re already on the singer’s side.

That’s why it needs to be very broad, and very strong. “Ohio” did that, and busted out of preaching to the converted.

So you’ve been trying. Have you gotten close?

I have been trying, and I’m still trying. I mean, I have songs like that. “What Are Their Names” is probably my best one. It calls it like it is. It says, “OK, our country is owned and run by the corporations.” And it is. It’s not a good thing.

You’ve been vocally anti-Spotify, anti-Pandora. Is that a winnable battle? Do you see that situation ever improving at all?

No, I don’t see myself winning. I’m just not gonna roll over and put my paws in the air and say [derisive voice no. 2] OK, fine, you can steal my music and make billions of dollars off it, I don’t care. Because I do fuckin’ care. I thought that music up, and those people are selling it and making billions-with-a-B dollars, and they’re not paying us. They’re not paying any of us. To put it in perspective for you, it’s as if you did your job, and you get paid a nickel. For a day. Would you be OK with that?

I don’t think that I would.

I don’t think that I’m gonna be OK with it, either. I don’t have a solution, and I don’t think they’re gonna stop wanting to rip us all off, because they like the money. But I’m not gonna shut up, and I’m not gonna pretend that it’s okay that they’re stealing our money.

I’m totally fascinated by your Twitter account, just the rapid-fire give and take you have with seemingly anybody who tweets at you. Where are you usually, physically, when you go into a tweeting binge?

Ha ha, it’s not exactly a binge. But I do it here in my house. I’m here on my computer, or I’m on my iPad.

What percentage of the people who tweet at you do you get to? It feels like 100 percent a lot of the time.

I don’t know. I don’t answer all. I mean if you ask me, [derisive voice no. 3] Do you like blue? What’s your favorite color? What was it like at Woodstock? I tend to ignore you.

So there is a bar.

What I have found that’s pretty interesting is that people have found that I’ll listen to their brother’s band, or their new song, and I’m—uh, I’m, you know, I try not to be too unkind. If it’s really horrible, I just don’t say anything. But I have discovered people there. I’ve found stuff. Really good stuff.

Do you wish that you’d had Twitter in your younger, wilder days, or is it maybe better that you didn’t?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to quantify that. I don’t know if it would’ve been better or worse.

If Twitter had existed in the ’60s, which rock star do you think would’ve been the most insufferable on it?

How would I know, man? [Laughs.] No idea.