A.J. Croce unveils his latest collection, "Twelve Tales," on Compass Records this week. The singer-songwriter recorded the album over the course of a year – with six very legendary producers.
Croce told Billboard that he traveled to five different cities to record the disc, working with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, Greg Cohen in New York City, Kevin Killen in Stamford, CT, Mitchell Froom and Tony Berg in Los Angeles, and the late "Cowboy" Jack Clement in Nashville. Croce laughed when asked about how well the album came together with so many different producers, because he himself wondered the same thing.
"As I went along, I was scared it might not be cohesive, or the songs that one producer might have done would work well together, but I wasn’t sure it would all work," he admitted. "It was the most fly by the seat of my pants project that I ever worked on in my life. But, we accomplished it."
Working with Clement – who passed away in August – was an unforgettable experience, allows Croce. "I recorded two songs with Cowboy – two songs with each producer. It was really special because there were a couple of things on this record where it was really meaningful in a number of different ways. My first gig in Nashville happened because of a meeting with Jack. I was introduced to him by Mae Axton, who had heard me play and told me I had to meet Jack. I was seventeen, and I went to his house, and we talked for hours and hours. I remember he had such good advice. He was really supportive, and I dug him so much. He was such an eccentric – such an unusual man," he said.
Despite Clement being in the latter stages of a battle with cancer, Croce said his adrenaline and passion for the music was never in doubt. "He was sick when we worked together. I remember doing the actual recordings in one day. We spent one day with me playing him the songs, and having him pick. I sat with him for about an hour, and we picked the songs he wanted to produce. Producing seemed to be the same for him as it was back in 1956 – Find a good song, pick the right players, and get a good take."
The two Clement-produced cuts were "Momentary Lapse Of Judgment" and "Easy Money." Croce said that in retrospect, the latter was tailor made for Clement’s production style. "I thought that was something that Allen Toussaint would take, but when Jack said he was into it, he said ‘This is an early Charlie Rich kind of thing,’ and when we approached the song, it came from ‘Mohair Sam’ or ‘There Won’t Be Anymore."
Croce shares the songwriting spotlight on "Rollin’ On" with Leon Russell, which he said was also a "pinch me" moment. "I got a call that he wanted to write. He’s been a hero of mine for years. We played three or four shows together over the years where I opened for him. We didn’t get to know each other until he and Willie Nelson were doing a tour together. I was just on the bus, and he and I really hit it off. He’s such a shy and humble guy, considering all he’s accomplished and his abilities. Most of all, we have a lot of the same influences – old rock and roll, and also Gospel, and the early blues. Even though he’s had an amazing career, we connected on a musical level. So I wrote the chorus, and he said ‘You send the music to me, and I’ll write the lyrics.’ Within an hour or two, I got the lyrics back. We’ve got about an album’s worth of stuff now. Whenever we have time, we send stuff back and forth."
Recording "Twelve Tales" has seemed to stoke Croce’s creative fire as never before. "I think it’s stronger in some ways. I’m even more grateful to be able to do it. I’ve taken all the influences that I wore on my sleeve as a kid, and about 10 to 12 years ago, I started to feel that I was hitting my stride as an individual," said Croce, whose famous father Jim died in 1973. "I found my identity, and once that happened, writing became different. I had always enjoyed it, but I really started to know what I was doing it for."
Croce will be on tour in 2014 to promote "Twelve Tales."