When David Crosby comes to town this weekend for the second show in his North American tour, he’ll be accompanied by his son James Raymond on piano. Their story is the stuff of fiction: something that you might expect to come out of Hollywood. The legendary singer/songwriter and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer only learned of his paternity as he lay in the hospital waiting for a lifesaving liver transplant. Raymond had been adopted as a baby, and sought the identity of his biological parents when he was a young adult.
By then he’d studied Music Theory and Composition in college and had gotten involved in the Los Angeles music scene, becoming a reputable session musician and composer in his own right. When the young man’s adoptive father learned that Crosby was seriously ill, he wrote a letter to let him know his son wanted to meet him. And with this twist of fate, they were reunited and have played and worked together ever since.
In a career that spans six decades, Crosby created songs not only as a solo artist, but also as a founding member of the Byrds and the Woodstock era-defining groups Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He has collaborated with dozens of artists, including Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Phil Collins, Elton John and Carole King. Inducted into the prestigious Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2009, he has written songs that piqued our social conscience, and has likewise donated concert proceeds to numerous worthy causes.
Known for his incisive lyrics and unique vocal harmonies – sometimes stacked so seamlessly that a listener isn’t certain where the melody lies – Crosby is also the author of three books, including Stand and Be Counted: Making Music, Making History/The Dramatic Story of the Artists and Causes that Changed America and two autobiographical works: Long Time Gone and Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell about It.
His newest album, Lighthouse, will be released on October 21 on GroundUP Music/Verve Label Group, offering the iconic voice in a stripped-down set of songwriting and equally enjoyable guitar work. With Michael League’s skillful production – League also co-wrote half the songs and pushed the just-turned-75-year-old master to record the album in 12 days – the full emotional weight of the lyrics stands out. The nine-song collection clearly pleases Croz himself as well. “To create brand-new music that I’m excited about is a pearl beyond price,” he says.
Have you ever figured out where songs come from? You’ve said before that whole songs land in your brain, imaginatively, intuitively. Do whole songs come to you still?
They do; and no, I cannot figure out where they come from. They come every which way. They’re inspired by love more than anything else, probably. They come from my life, and I can’t explain the process that makes them happen. But it’s been happening a lot.
Do you prime yourself to take this stuff in, to receive whatever is floating around out there? Obviously, you’re very tuned in to social issues and all of that.
I don’t write about that as often as I should. But I do. I have two social-issue songs on the first of these two records I’m about to put out. One is about the Syrian refugees coming ashore in Greece. I have a friend who’s been there, pulling people out of the water; kinda got me stuck on that. And another one about the politicians who send our kids off to war. They don’t send their kids, of course, but they do send ours. And I’ve got one about Congress on the second record, Home Free: a very severe indictment. It will be out at the beginning of next year.
In terms of your work, it seems to me you have at least two modes of operation: You’re either composing and writing, and then you go out and perform. Do you make a distinction between these two modes of creative self-expression?
Yes, but no. They are completely different in terms of action. If you’re out on the road, then that’s really what you’re doing. Your whole day – and life – is focused around the two or three hours that you spend in the evening working. But I write pretty much write all the time. If I get a few words in a row… It’s a thing I learned from Joni Mitchell. I said something to her, and she said, “Write that down.” I said, “Why?” “Because it was good. That was a good phrase. You say stuff that most people can’t write, and you need to write it down, or it didn’t happen.” So, I do write all the time, whether I’m on the road or at home. But I think I write more at home. I’m really happy at home.
Do you live in LA?
I don’t. LA is not really a habitable place. I live near Santa Barbara in central California. It’s really quite nice; I live in the country.
I listened to Paul Zollo’s 2008 interview with you at the Aspen Institute. The very first question out of his mouth is one I had already written down to ask you myself. It has to do with the ability to harmonize. It seems to be a distinct talent. When did you discover that you had a voice that you could use to harmonize with others?
I started singing harmony, my family tells me, when I was six. And I’ve been doing it ever since. We used to sing folk music, our family, together. And that’s where I started doing it. I do love it. I like singing by myself, too, because I can get more expressive. But I love harmony singing. I love building what we call “stacks of harmony.”
Is anyone else singing with you on Lighthouse?
A lot of people are singing with me. Michael League is, and on at least one tune, Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis are singing with me as well. I’m going to do a tour at the end of this year with them – all four of us together.
Talk about working with James Raymond for the past 20-or-so years.
It’s really amazing working with Mr. Raymond. Mr. Raymond’s gonna show you a trick when we do these shows.
Is that the end of the hint? Are you gonna…?
No, I can’t tell you! It wouldn’t be a surprise.
Was it a fluke when you started working with him and Jeff Pevar that you took on the name CPR? Was it indicative of what was going on in your life at the time?
No, it’s not “cardio-pulmonary resuscitation”! [laughs]
On this tour, will your playlist include both old and new music?
It will have everything from the Byrds up to stuff I just wrote last week.
How do you keep going? What keeps you…?
You know, I don’t know how to stop. I love singing. It’s so much fun. Eventually, I’ll be too decrepit to be able to get out there and do it. But as long as I still can, I really love doing it.
In looking back at the music of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it seems like there must have been something in the water. What was going on then that spawned all the musical creativity?
I think a lot of us were very affected by Bob Dylan and wanted to write as well as he did. And of course the Beatles did the same thing. And people like Joni Mitchell came along and hammered it.
It seems as though there was an explosion of unique talent in that era.
I think that’s fair. I think there really was.
An Evening with David Crosby, Saturday, August 20, 8 p.m., $60-$80, Bardavon, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 339-6088, (800) 745-3000, www.bardavon.org/event_info.php?id=923&venue=bardavon.