By Derek McKissock
News Editor 

Crosby Talks On The Craft Of Writing A Song

 

May 6, 2019

David Crosby was 20 years old when he wrote his first song, but it “wasn’t that good,” he said.

Now, more than 55 years later, Crosby, a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby Stills & Nash, is enjoying a rich vein of songwriting and will bring these new tunes and some of his best-loved songs and greatest hits to the Songsmith Gathering at Brevard Music Center on May 18.

The 2nd Annual Songsmith Gathering is a fundraiser for the Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club and, as well as Crosby, will feature Mipso, The Suitcase Junket Brevard’s Sarah Siskind, Hush Kids, Stand & Sway, 5J Barrow and Warren Givens.

In a phone interview last week, Crosby talked about songwriting.

Crosby was born in Los Angeles, Calif., and credits his mother, who sang in the church choir, for the role music has played in his life.

“She is where I think I got all the music stuff (from),” he said. “She would listen to music all the time and turn me on to music, and my brother was musical, so I think that’s where I got that.”

That first song that Crosby wrote, the one that “wasn’t that good,” was called “Cross the Plains” and appeared on the 1962 album by Travis Edmonson, a folk singer, who performed solo and in the group Bud & Travis in the 1950s and 1960s.


“He was a good singer/songwriter,” Crosby said. “I was fascinated by that, and I would go and watch him work. I was just fascinated with the guy, so that was when I wrote my first song.”

Crosby said his songwriting process in the early days was “very haphazard.”

“I would just wait until something would come along and sing it until I liked it and sing it to someone else,” he said. “I didn’t write it down. I don’t even have the copies written down for ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ or ‘Wooden Ships.’”

“Almost Cut My Hair” appeared on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album “Déjá Vu,” while “Wooden Ships” was the first cut on the 1969 “Crosby, Stills & Nash” album.

“My writing process has changed totally several times and in several ways,” Crosby said. “One of the biggest has been the advent of the computer, because then you can see how something works and move parts of the song about – take things out. It makes you a much, much better editor of your work.”


Crosby didn’t use a computer when he wrote “Guinevere,” which also appeared on “Crosby, Stills & Nash” and is noted for its unusual guitar tuning and time signature.

“I just did it. I just wrote it,” said Crosby, who was shown the tuning by another musician.

“The reason I got into the tunings was actually jazz piano players — Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, in particular,” he said. “I would hear the chords they would play and I wanted to play those chords, and I couldn’t do it in regular tuning.”

Harmonizing has been another key element in Crosby’s sound and that of the bands he has been in.

“What built my harmony sense was classical music and jazz and listening to horn players,” he said. “And the Everly Brothers — they really affected me strongly because they sang so well together. And, also, a lot of world music.”

Crosby said he really found his voice as a songwriter after he left The Byrds in 1967: “When I got out of the Byrds and was writing ‘Déjà Vu,’ ‘Guinevere’ and ‘Long Time Gone’ and ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ that was when I really started to hit my stride. I stopped writing when I was a junkie. That stuff just destroys your writing, but as soon as I got straight, I started writing again.”

Crosby said he now writes “all the time.”

When asked whether he could explain the writing process, he said he couldn’t.

“I cannot, but I can tell you that you can’t take it for granted, or I can’t take it for granted,” he said. “It’s so precious to me that I work at it every day. I try and open the day and look around and say, ‘Hello muse, are you out there,’ and try and make it happen.

“Sitting around and waiting on it is not good enough. There’s inspiration, and then there is work.”

Crosby stays attuned to new songwriters and their music and is enthused about their influence on him.

“The people I listen to inspire me all the time,” he said. “They just make me crazy. I was just working on a Becca Stevens’ record and listening to how she writes, which is unlike any other human being on the planet, and it inspires me to write better, to go further. The same thing happens to me when I listen to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers. They are so sophisticated in what they do. I hear a song like (and begins to sing the line) ‘As God is my witness, I made this for you” (from Thile’s “I Made This For You”) and I want to write a song that good.”

Stevens, who is from North Carolina, is a member of Crosby’s Lighthouse Band, which also includes Michael League and Michelle Willis.

The four’s songs appeared on last year’s “Here If You Listen” album.

This tour features Crosby’s Sky Trails band, named after his 2017 album, and features his son, keyboardist James Raymond, bassist Mai Leisz, drummer Steve DiStanislao, guitarist Jeff Pevar and Willis.

The Sky Trails album includes collaborations with Stevens, Leisz, Michael McDonald and five songs with Raymond.

Crosby sees great value in collaborating on songwriting.

“When I wrote ‘Wooden Ships’ with Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills, I realized a real truth: If you write with someone else, they always think of something you didn’t,” he said. “And that’s a very good thing. It works. It widens the possibilities. They always think of something you didn’t. It ups the quality of the songs. I’m a good songwriter, but when I’m writing with Michael League, I’m a better songwriter. When I’m writing with Becca, I’m a better songwriter. When I write with my son, who I write the most with, I’m a better songwriter.”

Raymond’s songs have appeared on the 2004 “Crosby & Nash” album, Crosby’s solo albums and the CPR (Crosby, Pevar and Raymond) albums. Crosby and Raymond are now working on Crosby’s fifth album since “Croz” was released in 2014.

“He’s writing the most incredible (stuff),” Crosby said of Raymond.

On this prolific recent run of songwriting, Crosby said it’s because he “wants to be” doing it and that he is “very lucky” with the people he is working with.

When asked who are the “great songwriters,” at the top, he ranks Joni Mitchell, who Crosby championed and helped to get her career kick started in the 1960s.

“Joni is as good of a poet as Bob (Dylan) and a way better singer and musician,” Crosby said.

He went on to talk about how much he loved Dylan, however, quoting “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the title track on The Byrds’ debut album and a number one single in the United States and Great Britain.

As well as Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, Crosby highlighted Stevens, Willis, League, Raymond, Shawn Colvin and Marc Cohn as among his favorite writers.

“I’m also a giant, died-in-the-wool James Taylor fan,” he said.

When asked if there were any of his own songs he was particularly proud of, Crosby said it was “like saying which one is your favorite child.”

In response to whether he would like to be starting out today as a songwriter/musician, Crosby was emphatic.

“No, it’s terrible now because of streaming,” he said. “It’s absolutely terrible. They don’t pay us for records. It’s like you work for three or four weeks and they pay you a nickel. I had a hard time trying to make it, but I could sell records and get paid for it. Now, they can’t sell records and get paid for it, so the only way they can make a living is off the tickets they can sell. And when you are trying to start out — that means that you’ve just got, you know, say, $288 and you have to put gas in the van, feed everybody and drive 300 miles to the next 85 people. It grinds them down and makes it really, really hard for them to make it. And I’m talking about people with talent. It’s just a real struggle for them because of how it is. I don’t like it, and it’s not going to change and I can’t do anything about it.”

For budding songwriters, Crosby has some advice.

“Don’t do this for a living unless you absolutely can’t help it,” he said. “If you are driven to do it, and if you are miserable when you don’t do it, then do it. But understand, because of streaming, there is no…way you are going to make a living out of it.”

For more information about the festival and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.songsmithgathering.com.

Tickets may also be purchased at GRAVY on West Main Street in Brevard.

 
 

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