Three years ago, David Crosby was a man without a band.
His steady, lucrative partnership with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, one that spanned nearly five decades and became a firmament of the American musical landscape, fizzled out. As a man in his mid-70s, you could have totally forgiven him for packing it in; retiring from the road and spending the rest of his days playing around with his signature, weird guitar tunings on his front porch.
Except he didn’t do that. Instead, he found a whole new group of collaborators many, many years his junior and has enjoyed a creative renaissance that’s nearly unprecedented in the music industry today.
“I felt that I didn’t have any choice but to leave that band that I’m absolutely glad I did,” Crosby says of his departure from Crosby, Stills & Nash. “It was kind of like diving off a cliff. I tell you, it’s a very scary thing to do. But I hit the Lighthouse band and that was like growing wings half way down the cliff.”
Lighthouse was the 2016 album he created in collaboration with Snarky Puppy mastermind Michael League and vocalists Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens that drew an immense swell of critical praise for its stripped-down production and evocative songwriting. “When when we got together man, down in New Orleans, to work on that record, it was a week of absolute heaven for me,” he remembers. “I had found a whole bunch of people that were totally into the music and right here, right now. They were not in it for the money, and they were not in it for the fame, they were in it because they loved to make good music.”
Two years later, the foursome re-convened in the studio after Crosby stepped away to make a different, jazzier record with his son James Raymond called Sky Trails, that was similarly well-received. But where Lighthouse was billed as a David Crosby solo album, this latest project, titled Here If You Listen, is a group venture. Crosby’s name is the biggest and boldest on the album cover, but make no mistake, this is a real band.
“Michael League is one of the most talented people I’ve ever run into in my life,” Crosby said. “Becca, she and Michelle Willis are completely different from each other and both are stunner writers and players, both of them,” he added. “The chemistry was explosive. I have never seen such a creative flow, ever, anywhere. We wrote a whole record and recorded it in eight days! It was crazy! Absolutely crazy!”
It’s almost become rote at this point to commend Crosby for his late-career solo projects, but Here If You Listen may actually be the best of the four different albums he’s put out since 2014. As one of the greatest harmony singers of the last 60 years, the way he’s able to meld his voice with League, Willis and Stevens on songs like “Glory,” “Buddha On A Hill,” and “Vagrants Of Venice” is simply astounding. “We all were eager to add harmony parts to everything, all the time,” he says. “They do respect my musical ability but aside from that it’s very, very even-handed and fair and open between us.”
While many of the songs on this record were written in collaboration in the studio, two of the more interesting inclusions on Here If You Listen are actually several decades in the making. “1967” and “1974” were the product of old demo recordings that Crosby had held onto of himself strumming and humming into a tape recorder. “You can hear me actually writing the song, which is amazing,” he says. “We just happened to have a tape machine running, and while I was fooling around with the guitar, I found the melody and started the song right there on the tape.”
League happened to hear the recordings and decided they could do something pretty unique with them. ‘He said, ‘You know, we could start over, but I don’t really want to. What I’d really like to do is to give these a beginning, and then be a time machine and take it sort of then till now, right on the tape where you can hear it,’” Crosby recalls. It’s a unique effect, and as you listen to both tracks, you can almost feel the mood shift from hazy sepia-tones to magnificent, bright Technicolor.
The other return to the past came courtesy of a re-imagination of Joni Mitchell’s immortal ballad “Woodstock,” which Crosby first tackled while in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young back in 1970. “I came up with that different set of changes for ‘Woodstock,’” he said. “At some point, I showed it to Becca, and she can play it better than I can, so she started playing it and we said, ‘Oh fuck it, let’s try it.’ And we started singing it live. Four parts. And what happened was kind of magical. When we started doing it, the first time we hit that chorus, where it goes to reveal actual four different notes for a part, the audience started applauding right in the middle of the song.”
It was that enthusiastic response that led to its inclusion on Here If You Listen. “We thought, ah, it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the new stuff, but it just sounds fun — so we decided we’d just put it on.”
However, the LP isn’t strictly an exercise in looking backwards. Here If You Listen is very much an album of the moment, filled with songs that address the current sociological and political landscape. Songs, like “Other Half Rule,” which Crosby describes as a plea to “politely ask the women of the United States of America to save our butts,” after centuries of patriarchal rule.
There’s also inward-looking compositions like “Your Own Ride,” where Crosby addresses his own mortality, singing “I’ve been thinking about dying/ and how to do it well.” It’s a tough subject, but one that he tackles head-on. “I’m 77 years old, man,” he says. “I’ve had the latter act of my life. It’s part of the step that I have to look at.”
If you thought Crosby’s work ended with two bands, a just-completed tour of Europe and an impending run through North America, you’d be sorely mistaken. He also recently linked up with Americana star Jason Isbell after guesting with him at the Newport Folk Festival earlier this year for an incendiary live performance of CSN classics “Ohio” and “Wooden Ships.” They haven’t formalized anything quite yet, but are talking about getting together to possibly do some writing soon. “I like Jason a lot, I think he’s a really good writer,” Crosby says, while noting his affinity for Isbell’s plaintive tack “If We Were Vampires” in particular. “I would sit in with him again for sure. And I do think he and I are going to wind up writing a song.”
Crosby also just recently finished working with legendary filmmaker and music journalist Cameron Crowe on an unflinching documentary about his own life. “Cameron’s known me since he was a teenager, and he’s a very, very detailed interviewer,” he said. “It’s just a dangerously honest documentary… We all felt, you know, this is a pretty heartfelt story and there is a lot to be learned from it. And we thought, fuck it, we’re going to tell it like it is.”
Still gifted with that voice that made him the envy of every singer around Laurel Canyon in the 1960s — even after fighting crippling addictions and myriad medical afflictions — Crosby’s desire remains to use that voice to create new music with new people. Here If You Listen isn’t even out yet, and he’s already working on his next record with the same band that made Sky Trails. The man just can’t stop himself.
“I can’t tell you how much fun it is,” he says. “It’s just one long, funny, amazing ride to work with these people because they’re just so good.”