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David Crosby
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In Conversation: David Crosby

By Nathan McLaren Stewart

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“Humans are trying to build a war robot. They’re trying to build an AI- a real AI. A big computer that wakes up and becomes sentient,”

David Crosby is talking about his song Secret Dancer; taken from his new record For Free, released a month before his 80th birthday. If the new album is one thing, it’s a testament to Crosby’s ability to craft beautiful music well into his prolific career. It’s also a non-surprisingly far out release from a man who’s seen it all.

Despite health scares, lost relationships with former bandmates and friends and living through the wildly changing terrains of making music in the 21st century, he’s still the same hippie he was when he founded The Byrds in 1964. He beams a warm smile, he’s attentive, thoughtful and his passion for music is infectious. The moment he joined the call, he commented on my shirt that read Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. “He was a real cool cat, man,” he says with Crosby cool, before giving me anecdotes on the late country singer.

For Free sees Crosby work with collaborators both old and new. The cover of the record is a painting by his friend Joan Baez, it’s produced by his son James Raymond and it’s played on by his Sky Trails band, which in his words are “me, James and whoever the fuck we decide to use.” Other close collaborators on For Free are Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and the multi-Grammy Award-winning Sarah Jarosz. It’s a record with influence from great musicians, yet ultimately is yet another example of how Crosby’s definitive, ethereal musicianship is still very present in 2021.

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Congratulations on the new record, For Free. Another album under the belt. You worked closely with your son James on this release, didn’t you?

Yeah. James is such a thrill to me. He’s turning out to be a better songwriter than I am. The best song on this new record is ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’. There isn’t any question about it, it’s the best song. That’s James, man. He wrote that. You have to imagine what it’s like for me to watch him grow into the stature of the guy he is now.

It must be a special thing for you, sharing your passion for music with your son.

It is, but the thrill is in the song creation. He’s really good at creating songs now. I had several friends call me up about that particular track – they were crying on the phone and saying, “what the fuck, that song!"

It hits like a ton of bricks listening to it. I felt like it haunted me for two weeks after listening.

No kidding, man. Truthfully, I count myself to be the luckiest motherfucker. I certainly don’t deserve it, but these wonderful people I get to write with were just dropped into my lap. That’s really what the key to the record is.

You’re such a prolific and wonderful writer yourself. This record was released one month prior to your 80th birthday. How does it feel to still be creating such important music this far on in your career?

It’s pretty weird! It’s weird being old man. I feel pretty good, I try take care of myself, but you know when you’re in the last part of your life. There’s jack shit you can do about it, so it occurs to you, you can worry about it - what’s going to break, how soon and being really upset about the fact that you’re close to the end of your life - or you can be really grateful that you’re in the here and now and live it to the fullest.

Look, this is gonna sound very cosmic and hippie, but I think the world is in a pretty sad shape. Most of the people I know are a little bit frightened by how things are going, at least here in the United States. Most of us who can think are worried. Music is a lifting force. It makes things better, makes you happy, takes you on emotional voyages that widen your world and it’s a good thing, unanimously. The world needs it. It’s also the only contribution I can really make. I can get out on the street with everyone else and protest war and all, but the only real contribution I can make that anyone is going to notice is in the music, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to fill up the last part of my life here with as much music as I possibly can.

Joni's as good a poet as Bob [Dylan] and she’s a way better musician. Way fucking better. Ten times the musician he is. I love Bob, he’s my friend. I think he changed American music, but I think she’s better.

Let’s talk about the record for a bit. You cover Joni Mitchell on it, and that song is the title track of the album. Both the cover and Joni’s original version are beautiful renditions.

As far as I’m concerned, she’s the best singer/songwriter alive. She’s as good a poet as Bob [Dylan] and she’s a way better musician. Way fucking better. Ten times the musician he is. I love Bob, he’s my friend. I think he changed American music, but I think she’s better. She’s a goddam genius. I’ve been in love with 'For Free' for a very long time, I love what it says. This is the third time I’ve recorded it, which is weird - I break a lot of rules. I’ll tell you how the recording happened for this album.

Let’s hear it.

I’ve been listening to this group called I’m With Her. They are three incredible musicians and songwriters - I really love them. I particularly like Sarah Jarosz, she had a record called Build Me Up From Bones. It really resonated with me. I had to call her up and say, “I’ve just listened to this record for the twentieth time, I love it, I want to sing with you”. She wanted to do it. We had no plan, no record, no idea what to do, I just wanted to sing with her. I suggested Joni’s 'For Free' and she loved that song. I asked James to help, and he outdid himself. The piano piece to it is so evocative and inventive. That made me record really good vocals. I sent them off to her and she came back with the harmonies. She essentially made it an instruction booklet on how to do harmonies. She’s a genius at them, man, she blew my mind. A fantastic singer.

That’s amazing. The other song I love on the record is ‘Rodriguez for a Night’. I love the line “drugstore cowboy”. That was penned by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, right?

Donald wrote the words - he sent them to us and James wrote the music, with help from me. Of course, we Steely Dan’d it right into the middle distance. If you love great songs, you love Steely Dan. Our relationship is an ongoing fan/friend thing. I’m a little too much in awe of Donald and Walter [Becker] to be fully comfortable but I absolutely love Donald. He’s a wonderful cat, man. He’s a great singer and great writer. The fact that he wanted to send us some lyrics, I was thrilled.

That sounds like such a natural and organic way to collaborate, working with someone you see as a friend but also greatly respect as a musician. Collaborations have been so predominant throughout your career - Joni, James Taylor, Elton John and all your work with Nash, Stills and Young to name a few. How valuable has collaboration been to your artistry?

Tremendously valuable. Most people want all the credit and all the money. Publishing rights is one of the only things an artist owns. Early on I wrote 'Wooden Ships' with [Stephen] Stills and Paul Kanter [Jefferson Airplane] and it taught me a lesson: the other guy always thinks of something you didn’t. It’s like having two painters - one has seven colours on his palette and the other has seven different ones. If they team up, they have fourteen. It’s a better painting if you’re picky about who you do it with. I am very, very picky. Writers normally peter out towards the end of their lives; they feel like they’ve said what they’ve got to say. Writing with other people has probably lengthened my life as a writer by ten years. I’m still producing records that I like - that’s a gift from god, man.

Overall, For Free sounds like a very upbeat and uplifting record.

Well, I was trying for that. It either happens or it doesn’t. The song ‘I Think' characterises the record for me. It’s up and happy. I normally write these tortured ballads; they go on forever and they’re really complex. But this is just very direct, simple, good music with complex chords. I’m very fucking happy with it and I think I’ve got a couple more records in me, for sure.

You’ve been on this planet for almost 80 years, you’ve been in bands since the early to mid 1960s. In all the years of this incredibly fruitful career and life you’ve had so far, what are you proud of most?

My kids. I’m really lucky. Hugely lucky. I had six, I’ve got five. I lost one. I love them.

And what has troubled you or made you feel regret?

Wasting all that time being a junkie. What a fucking waste. Apart from the fact it almost killed me, I wasted that time, man. I wasn’t working. It gave me a tool, a surgeon’s scalpel, and I used it to dig in the garden for ten years. It was fucking ridiculous. I could have been making music the whole time. It makes me laugh now though, the record is only just out and I’m already on to the next ones. I love making music and I’m going to do it because it’s fun.

My last question for you, David - what is one thing you’d like a listener to take away from listening to For Free?

That’s a good question. The simple joy of music, first of all, but beyond that, your life isn’t over at 60. It’s not over at retirement age. If anything, this record says that if you stay involved you can still be involved. You just have to keep breathing and keep your eye on the ball, and that’s what music is about. Not being a celebrity, not fame, not money. That’s all shallow bullshit.

David Crosby's new album, For Free, is out now via Three Blind Mice / BMG.