Q&A: David Crosby Talks Twitter, Streaming, Kanye, And His New Album Lighthouse
David Crosby is a legend, but you already knew that. Between the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, & Nash (& sometimes Young), he’s been in some of the most foundational classic rock groups out there. These are the kinds of bands where entire genres and sounds owe a debt to the specifics of their work, from the jangling guitar of the Byrds birthing whole swathes of indie-rock to the layered folk-rock harmonies of CSN defining a time and yielding a host of imitators.
Today, Crosby is in his mid-70s, and he doesn’t let the magnitude of that history weigh him down. In recent years, he’s been reinvigorated creatively and writing constantly. His new album, Lighthouse, is exactly what you’d want from the man all these years later — it’s a thing of fragile beauty, a mostly acoustic record that occasionally veers into otherworldly sounds when Crosby does his thing and stacks his vocals. But it’s also only one installment in a busy couple of years for him. The pseudo-self-titled Croz, which he wrote with his son James Raymond, came out in 2014, now there’s Lighthouse, and he’s working on another album with Raymond that will be out next year.
Crosby and I spoke about the new album, where he finds inspiration now, Twitter, what he’s listening to these days, and the political climate of 2016.
STEREOGUM: Where’s the title Lighthouse come from?
DAVID CROSBY: That’s an odd thing. Normally, picking a title for a record has to do with the content of the record and you very often pick a line out of a song or something. This one just popped into my head and said “I’m the title.” I went for it because it felt right. I can’t logically present a serious case for it, but I can tell you it feels right, so I’m happy with it.
STEREOGUM: You collaborated with Michael League from Snarky Puppy for this album.
CROSBY: Yeah, he’s a very interesting guy. They’re a really good band, and he’s a terrific musician and a very good writer. We became friends and I asked him to come to my house, and we wrote three songs in three days. Three really good ones. Three of the best ones on the record. And I thought, “Oh my God, this is pretty good, this is pretty terrific.” So I’ve been working with him. We did that whole record, I think we wrote like six of the songs together. He’s very, very good at the job and we did it very fast. I was happy with it.
STEREOGUM: So you had come across his music online randomly at some point?
CROSBY: I was listening to his stuff off the record We Like It Here on YouTube. It was very, very impressive to me. As I said, I asked him to come to my house and write with me and the writing went extremely well, so then I wanted to record with him. I’d like to do another one with him. This one went great.
STEREOGUM: This album doesn’t really have any percussion and is sparse overall. He’s the one who pushed you in that direction, right?
CROSBY: When I asked him to work with me, I thought I was getting a master craftsman with a gigantic toolbox. Namely: his band, who are a bunch of unbelievably good players. So I thought we’d use them. He said, “Well, we could. But I loved your first solo record and I love the idea of big vocal stacks and acoustic guitar. If we could do one like that, I would feel better.” I said, “Well, that’s right in my wheelhouse. That’s exactly the stuff that I love to do, so that’s what we’ll do.”
STEREOGUM: There are some personal songs on Lighthouse, as well as some political or current events songs. How do you find the things you choose to write about these days?
CROSBY: The way I see it is: Our job is to write songs that take you on little voyages emotionally. It’s difficult, because most of the pop stuff, most of the things you hear and see most of, are very shallow stuff. At least in America, anyway. Mostly, the pop music is all surface and no substance, which is the opposite of what we want to do. We want to write about things that matter to you. We want to write about emotionally strong stuff. Occasionally, I think we need to say, :Hey, take a look at this because we don’t think it’s right.” But I don’t think you can do a steady diet of that, or you’ll lose everybody. I think what you want to do is take people on voyages and make ‘em boogie, write about love mostly. I’m pretty happy with the spread of songs. Writing “Somebody Other Than You” about the people who send our kids off to war — that’s legit. I’m good with that. Writing “Look In Their Eyes” about the refugees trying to survive, trying to keep their kids alive — I think that’s completely right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. But I certainly don’t want to give you a steady diet of that. I think just a little bit of that is a good thing.
STEREOGUM: Has your process changed much over the years, or how does it change when you collaborate with different people?
CROSBY: I work at it everyday, just about. Trying to either write words or write music, one of the two. I write by myself, but I also love writing with my son James [Raymond]. He and I have written a bunch together and it works really well. He and I have written most of another record that we’ll put out this spring. It’s going to be called Home Free and it’s almost finished already.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that one as well. I’d heard you had two albums coming out in quick succession. What can you tell me about that one?
CROSBY: Well, as Croz was, Home Free is a full-band record, generally. I think there’s one song on there that’s just acoustic, piano, and vocal. But the rest of it is a full band, so it’s different than the approach with Michael. It’s James and I writing together, which you heard on Croz. If you liked that, then you’ll like this. We think we’re writing really good songs. We think it’s a very strong record.
STEREOGUM: This has been a pretty fertile, prolific phase of your career, and you’re in your mid-seventies. How does that come about? Is it like a flood of inspiration, or is it just a matter of finding the right people to write with?
CROSBY: I can’t figure it out. I do not have a nice, fluid answer for you. I’m happy. That’s, I think, what’s going on. I think it’s as simple as that. I’m happy with my family, I’m very happy with my life, and I’m very happy with music. I think that has to do with me doing as well as I’m doing…if that’s all it is, there couldn’t be a better reason.
STEREOGUM: There’s just as much inspiration in living a long life and being happy as in that whole “tortured artist” archetype, huh?
CROSBY: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a real thing. I think people do the tortured artist thing just so that they can have their life in complete disarray and have an excuse. [laughs] I think that’s just bullshit.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been recording and releasing music for over half a century at this point. And it’s a long and storied career involving multiple other influential and famous artists or groups. Do you ever feel the weight of your past? Does it ever impact your thinking as you’re writing now?
CROSBY: No, not really. I mean, I know it’s there. And it’s not like I’m not proud of it. I am proud of the work that I’ve done in the other bands and stuff. But no, I don’t think about it at all. I think about what’s going on today, and I think about what I have to do tomorrow. I think about what I’d like to do next week and what I might be able to do this year. That’s where my attention is, entirely. I don’t think about the past at all.
STEREOGUM: That seems like a pretty liberated place to be in considering the amount of records you’ve made. I saw a comment you made about how a lot of people your age are doing their Sinatra covers albums by now.
CROSBY: Yeah. I don’t want to do that! [laughs]
STEREOGUM: This is a broad question, obviously, but you’re still putting out records in 2016. What do you think about the changes you’ve seen in the last 15 years, let alone when you were in the Byrds back in the ’60s?
CROSBY: Well…you know, I’ve been OK with all of it. I’m disturbed that we can no longer make any money off of records. We love records, we love making them because they all last a lot longer than we will. It means we get to make art that will stay. It’s good art that we care about. But we don’t make any money off of it anymore. We don’t make shit. And the streaming services, which is the direction it’s going in, are worse. They don’t pay us at all. If you played “Déjà Vu” 10,000 times I could buy you a cup of coffee. Is that right? No, that’s not right.
STEREOGUM: Probably not even a cup of coffee.
CROSBY: It’s pretty bad. The only way we can make a living is by going out on the road, and I’m getting too old to do that. In the future here somewhere, I’ll just have to quit.
STEREOGUM: Had that ever crossed your mind before?
CROSBY: No, I love singing, man. I don’t ever want to quit.
STEREOGUM: I talk to a lot of younger artists and many predict they’ll have to quit much younger. Basically as soon as they’ll want to have some semblance of a home life or whatever, because of the fact that you can’t make any money off of records and you just have to tour incessantly to support yourself.
CROSBY: If they say that to you, tell them, “Well, there you go, this is the job you’ve chosen.”
STEREOGUM: Do you see anything in the industry that makes you think this could fix itself, or people will just have to be road warriors and that’s the way it’s going to be?
CROSBY: Yeah, the record companies like it this way. The streaming services love it the way it is. They’re making millions of dollars without having to do any work. Everybody else is perfectly happy to keep it the way it’s going. But the artists are being screwed. The artists don’t have a unified voice speaking for them, which is part of the problem. We try. I know Don Henley put together a pretty large group of people to try and lobby about the streaming services. We’ll see how it winds up.
STEREOGUM: Aside from Snarky Puppy, are there younger artists you’ve come upon and keep up with these days?
CROSBY: Oh, yeah. You’re talking to the guy who discovered Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. I’m looking for new people all the time. And I’ve found a number of them. There’s a girl named Becca Stevens from North Carolina. She lives in New York. She’s an absolutely stunning writer. Listen to her last record; it’s called Perfect Animal. She’s amazing. There’s a girl from Toronto named Michelle Willis who is absolutely terrific. There’s a guy from Boise, Idaho named Marcus Eaton, who’s a terrific writer, a terrific singer, and a stunning guitar-player. There’s a group of three girls called the Staves. Oh, stunning. Stunningly beautiful music. There are three women who are individual singers who work together…Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. They go under the name I’m With Her. Stunning music. Absolutely stunning music. There’s a lot of people out there that I think are pretty terrific. I think Shawn Colvin is probably — now that Joni’s out of play — the best lady singer-songwriter alive.
STEREOGUM: When you’re looking around trying to find new people, are you looking for kindred spirits? Are you looking for potential collaborators? Something that surprises you?
CROSBY: I’m looking for songs. It all runs on the songs. I’m looking for songwriters. That’s the key to the whole thing. If you have a song that makes you feel something, then you have the beginning. If you don’t have a song that you can sing to somebody that makes them feel something, then you’re nowhere.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel influenced by any of these new artists you find?
CROSBY: Absolutely. I sing with those two girls — Michelle [Willis] and Becca [Stevens] — and Michael League on this record, on the last song [“By The Light Of Common Day”]. That’s the four of us singing together. We loved it so much we’re going out on tour together in November and December.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any plans beyond the record in the spring? With how much you’ve been writing, I was curious if you already know what you want to do after that, too.
CROSBY: Yeah, we’re already trying to book next year. I’m already writing the next one. I think between my son James and I and a band, that’s one avenue that I’ll definitely be doing, and the other avenue will be Michael League and I and Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis when we go out on the road in November and December.
STEREOGUM: Another contemporary thing that didn’t exist for much of your career: Twitter. You’re very active on there. Do you enjoy that as a format for conversation?
CROSBY: Yeah, I do. I like talking to people. I like Facebook and Instagram, too, but I function best on Twitter because I’m a words guy. I like communicating with people. It’s fun for me. I don’t answer questions if they’re too dumb. “What was it like at Woodstock?” That’s just dumb. It was big. It was big! But if you ask me something that’s a reasonable question, like “How do you feel about this?” or “What do you think about that?” I’m likely to answer if I can think up a short enough answer. I enjoy it. I get in trouble there, mind you. I get in trouble there saying Kanye West has absolutely no talent and is a complete poseur. I get in trouble there saying Donald Trump is a walking intelligence-free zone. But I have fun.
@adamweiler_ as I said ..he can't write , sing , or play
He is an egomaniac
He is dumb as a post
He creates nothing
Helps no one
— David Crosby (@thedavidcrosby) July 9, 2015
STEREOGUM: So why don’t you like Kanye West?
CROSBY: It has a lot to do with him at Glastonbury, saying he was the greatest living rockstar and taking that Queen song [“Bohemian Rhapsody”] and singing it so shitty. When Freddie Mercury sang the shit out of it. I frankly think he’s just a poseur. I don’t think he can write, sing, or play. Any of the three.
STEREOGUM: Are there other rap artists you like more than him? Or is that just not really your thing?
CROSBY: Oh, yeah, the guy who did Hamilton.
STEREOGUM: Lin-Manuel Miranda?
CROSBY: Yeah, OK, he’s fine with me.
STEREOGUM: Did you see Hamilton?
CROSBY: No, but I’ve seen him work, and the guy’s brilliant.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned people are still asking you about Woodstock today. Have you played any of the big festivals today?
CROSBY: Yeah, some of them. We headlined at Glastonbury and a couple other big places. We haven’t done South By Southwest. I don’t think we will now.
STEREOGUM: This is another big change in the industry. Bands have to play all the festivals every year to actually make money, you know? What is that like, seeing that versus Woodstock, back when it was this singular, unique event?
CROSBY: Well, all the festivals are less than a wonderful way to watch music, because you’re outdoors. It’s an uncontrolled acoustic environment. You can’t possibly do it as well as you can inside a theater. That’s where I like to work.
STEREOGUM: There are just certain artists that don’t make sense in that context, too. Your new record is like that. It belongs in a theater.
CROSBY: I don’t personally like big festivals. People are out there so far away that you’re just a speck in the distance. You can’t work ‘em. You can’t tell them a story. They can’t see your face.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you another thing about Twitter. You said if people ask you questions, you might engage with them. It’s a much more direct engagement with fans versus what you would’ve generally been able to do in decades past.
CROSBY: Yeah, it is. It wasn’t possible before. It’s a situation where you don’t have to expose yourself any more than you want to, and you can pick and choose who you talk to. I think it’s fascinating, myself.
STEREOGUM: So, this is one of those things I have to ask. Crosby, Stills, & Nash reunion — do you think that’s ever going to happen now?
CROSBY: I never say never, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think we’re…there’s no…[sigh] I don’t want to talk about it.
STEREOGUM: I know some things were said in the press between you guys. And it seems like you’re personally in a really good place with your own stuff.
CROSBY: I am. I’m very, very happy. That’s the most positive thing I can tell you. I’m extremely happy where I am right now.
STEREOGUM: Obviously you’ve written a lot of political music over the years and, well, this is a hell of a year politically. I’ve seen a lot of writers compare it to what was going on in the late ’60s. I was curious for your take on 2016. Does it remind you of some of the things you witnessed back then?
CROSBY: The problems with racism and civil rights remind me of the ’60s a lot. Except that, if anything, it’s getting worse, not better. The rest…nah, it’s a new set of problems, and it is very distressing that an imbecile like Trump could even become a candidate for the highest office in the country. It’s disgusting and very, very disturbing.
STEREOGUM: Does this stuff influence your songwriting as much as it did when you were younger?
CROSBY: It does some. I try to limit the amount of stuff that I try to be the town-crier about, because I think our job is mainly to take you on emotional voyages and to write about all the different kinds of love there are. I don’t think that we should be preachers.