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Back Stories | My 2016 Interview With David Crosby

The folk-rock legend talks aging, playing it straight and watching African elephants.

Photo by Glenn Francis/Pacific Pro Digital Photography

I was sad to hear that David Crosby died at age 81. I was lucky enough to interview the folk-rock legend back in 2016. I had never spoken to him before, and like a lot of old pros, he was friendly and chatty. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised at how down to earth he was — and how sincerely happy he seemed with his life and career at that point; his gracious appreciation for what he had was a far cry from the jaded ennui and entitlement you sometimes encounter with celebrities. As with most interviews, a big chunk of our conversation had to be cut for space, but I’ve resurrected it here. Enjoy.


It’s deja vu all over again for David Crosby. Except better. After more than half a century in music, the acclaimed singer-songwriter is in the middle of a creative and personal rebirth. But this comeback comes with benefits.

“I have people who like my music already,” he says with a chuckle. “That helps a lot. That makes it possible. But yeah, it does feel like a fresh start.” And he’s making the most of it. The walrus-’stached troubadour has not one but two new albums ready to roll: Lighthouse, a stripped-down collaboration with Snarky Puppy leader Michael League, and Home Free, a full-band sequel to his 2014 comeback Croz. It’s a remarkable return for an artist whose tumultuous offstage life — marred by substance abuse, incarceration, a liver transplant and strained relations with his CNSY bandmates — has often overshadowed his artistic achievements.

While enjoying a breakfast of coffee and corn flakes somewhere on the endless road, the cheerfully laid-back singer talked about turning 75, playing it straight, and watching African elephants.

I was shocked to see that you just turned 75.
Yeah, it’s amazing, huh? Who’da thunk it? (Laughs)

Honestly, you don’t look or sound it. Do you feel it?
No, not really. I mean, I have in the past. I’ve been through some hard stuff physically. But right now things are going very well. And I feel wonderful, to tell you the truth. I’m singing real well. And even more amazingly, I’m writing a ton.

Yeah, you’ve had a real creative burst in the past few years. Can you attribute that to anything specific?
I know this sounds really corny, but I think it’s got to be that I’m happy. My family and I are really very tight. I’m happily married. Two of my sons, James and Django, are out here on the road with me. I feel good about life and what’s important to me. I’m just a really happy guy, man.

Could part of it be that for maybe the first time in your career, you’re truly a solo artist?
Yeah, that’s true. There’s a freedom to that. I have enjoyed being in the bands I’ve been in. They’ve been good bands and they’ve been successful. But after a while, you know, you get tired of it. And it kind of devolves to the point where you turn on the smoke machine and play your hits. That’s not really good enough. There’s no forward motion. And I need that. I need it very strongly. I need to keep making new music. And I need to feel like I’m having fun.

It seems these days, you’re pretty … let’s use the word disciplined.
You mean I’m not stoned? (Laughs)

Actually, I was talking about the fact that you’re playing and singing and writing every day.
I am. I don’t take it for granted. I do work at it every day, because I freaking love it. I love writing new songs, and not just sitting there waiting for the next thing to happen.

Let’s talk about the new songs you did with Michael League on Lighthouse.
Well, it’s inspired by my first solo record. We both really loved that record and Michael wanted to make a record using the same tools: Big vocal stacks and a lot of acoustic guitar. So it’s derived from that. But it is its own thing. And I think it all starts with having quality songs. The songs have to make you feel something. If they don’t, all the production in the world can’t save ’em. But we were very fortunate to have written songs that do make you feel something. And we did them very simply and plainly. We didn’t try to get complex.

Simplicity is hard to do. The compulsion is always to add one more thing.
Oh yeah — ‘You need a little tambourine on the last part.’ It’s tough to pull back like that. But he and I have both made a lot of records, and we understand the process pretty well. We knew what we wanted, and I guess we just lucked out because we got it.

Is there that intangible element to that process as well?
Yeah, there’s a chemistry that either happens or it doesn’t happen. And with us it happens big-time. I’ve only had a writing chemistry with one other person like this in my life, and that’s my son James.

Can you tell when it’s good, or do you need outside ears?
I can tell. But that comes at a price — you have to do it for a long time before you start to know what’s what.

As you mentioned, your voice has held up well. Do you do anything to take care of it?
I’d love to give you a real silly answer like, ‘I eat hazelnuts’ or something, but no. I don’t understand it. I don’t have any reason for why I can still sing the way I can. All I can tell you is if it’s going to be like that, I’m going to do a lot of singing.

A lot of your peers and contemporaries are pretty tired of the road. You still seem to enjoy it.
Well, I’m not going to say I like hotel rooms. I don’t. I’m in a crappy hotel room right now somewhere — I don’t even know what town I’m in. And I had to go out to the bus to get breakfast because they don’t have a restaurant in this hotel. And it’s hard to get more than four hours sleep in a row. So it’s not easy being on the road. But the couple of hours when you’re singing? That’s fun stuff.

You are very active on social media, which seems pretty gutsy these days.
I have a lot of fun with it. You run into some trolls and people that just want to have a fight with you, but mostly I just have fun. I get in trouble when I get really opinionated and say Kanye West doesn’t have any talent, or when I called Donald Trump a walking intelligence-free zone. But I like it. I like communicating with people.

You must be asked about CSNY constantly. It that a compliment or does it get tiresome?
I’m proud of the good work we did. I love it. I’m not ashamed of CSN or CSNY. I think we made some good records. But you know, that was then and this is now. I don’t think it serves anybody very well to spend your time looking backwards.

Do you have any big goals left to achieve?
Yeah, more! I want more! (Laughs) Really, I just want to do exactly what I’m doing. I want to make more quality music that makes people feel things. This is going to sound corny too, man, but I feel music is a lifting force. It makes things better. And I’m doing a good thing if I bring more music into the world. I’ve got the right job.

What about personal goals?
Oh man, I have a list of things I’d like to do. I can’t believe I haven’t gone and watched elephants in Africa. That would be a thrill. I love elephants. It costs a lot of money, but I’d like to do it.

I’d like to think you have a lot of money. You should.
I definitely do not have a lot of money. (Laughs)