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David Crosby Talks Creativity and Collaboration, Past and Present

David Crosby has played many influential musical and cultural roles over the course of his long career. He is a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, a pioneer of folk rock, psychedelic rock, and soft rock, and an enduring symbol of the 1960s hippie spirit. Crosby has continued to explore new terrain on his most recent releases, including his newest album, 2017’s eclectic “Sky Trails.” Before his event on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at Sanders Theater, the Crimson spoke with Crosby about his decades-long career of musical creativity.

The Harvard Crimson: Your latest album, “Sky Trails,” is stylistically all over the place. There’s old-fashioned folk-rock on some songs, but there’s jazz, neo soul, and lots of other stuff going on. Do you think about stylistic consistency or diversity when you write and record?

David Crosby: No, we don’t think about it at all. The songs are really the key to the whole deal. The quality level of the songs defines the whole experience, so that’s really the key deal. When we go writing for a record, we’re trying to write songs that will mean something to you, that’ll move you. We don’t really try to do this kind [of song], and that kind, and the other kind, and spread them around, or have a plan. It’s not like that at all. The songs just grow organically of themselves, and they tell us what to do.

THC: So you don’t think, “I want to write a jazz album,” or “I want to write a folk album,” or “I want to write an album that has lots of different styles in it?”

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DC: I think, “I want to write an album that has a lot of good songs on it.”

THC: One thing I’ve observed that’s constant in your work, from the Byrds to newer songs like “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love,” is unorthodox and unusual sequences of chords. Joni Mitchell calls them “chords of inquiry.”

DC: Well, you know, she can call them anything she wants. Basically, I got turned on to pretty dense chord structures by jazz keyboard players: Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, people like that. They would play these big tone-cluster chords that just thrilled me, and I couldn’t play them on the guitar in regular tuning. What I found was that, in other tunings, I could play them, so that’s how I started being a tunings guy. Then Joni Mitchell became my old lady for a year, and that was an education in tunings, and then I ran into Michael Hedges, who was probably the king of guitar tunings. They gave me a way to do more complex chords, more intricate stuff, which fascinates me. I love it.

THC: Another thing I see throughout your career is that you love working with collaborators. You’ve worked with Graham Nash a lot, you work with your son, James Raymond, you do stuff with Michael League, to name a few. Why are you so drawn to musical partnerships?

DC: Because the other guy always thinks of something you didn’t. Think about it this way: Imagine yourself and another person making a painting. And you have seven colors on your pallet, and they have seven different colors on their pallet. You combine the pallets, it’s a better painting.

THC: Is there song you can point to and say, “Here’s a part where my collaborator made it better?”

DC: I’ll tell you the most recent example that really thrills me. Have you heard the [2018 single] “Glory?” Well, when we walked into the studio, we did not have that song. I had part of the guitar changes, but the four of us [Crosby, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League] wrote that song together. I’d never written with four people together, and that’s an amazing thing, that we could write together, and that we could get that quality level to happen. That’s a really, really good song, and we walked in and wrote it together, the four of us. And that’s a thrill to me, a very exciting thing.

THC: One thing that I really admire in your work is your harmony singing, especially with the Byrds. On songs like “Here Without You,” “Have You Seen Her Face,” and “5D,” your harmonizing is so free and unpredictable. I have theories about where you’re coming from — there’s a tradition of high-part harmony singing in rock music that runs through Phil Everly and Paul McCartney, and some country singers who came before them — but you’re much freer than those guys. Where did your harmony-writing sensibility come from?

DC: Ah, I don’t know. A lot of it comes from listening to classical music, a lot of it comes from listening to folk music, and a lot of it comes from listening to jazz. I just naturally go there. It’s my natural thing to do, to sing harmonies. In the Byrds, it was mostly two-part [harmony arrangements], which gives you more room to mess around. Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies were mostly three-part, much harder to do interesting stuff there, because there’s not as much room to maneuver. In the Byrds, it was only two parts, most of it, so I could maneuver a lot, create tension and release, and it was pretty fascinating.

THC: Another thing I hear that’s unique in your music, starting with the Byrds and continuing through a lot of your solo stuff, is a sense of spaciousness and relaxation that I don’t hear in other pop/rock music that came before you. For example, the Byrds song “Bells of Rhymney” sounds similar to the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone,” but “Bells of Rhymney” feels much more unhurried and spacious.

DC: It does have a really good feel to it. I think “Bells of Rhymney” is one of my favorite ones, and I think the feel comes largely from Roger [McGuinn, Byrds co-founder and lead guitarist]. Roger is a really brilliant musician, and he just inherently can do things that other people find difficult. He played a certain feel on there, and I think that’s where that one came from. He did a great job.

THC: McGuinn has said, and others have written, that he was the leader of the Byrds. Is that true? And what did his leadership look like in practice?

DC: It’s absolutely true. There’s no question about it. Being the best musician of us, he knew a lot more about how to play than we did, and he was very, very good at arranging, for instance, Bob Dylan songs into pop music. He had a beautiful talent for it. And when other band members brought in original songs, he would come with arrangement ideas, and they would be good. He’s a really good musician.

THC: Well, you heard it here first.

––Staff writer Alasdair P. MacKenzie can be reached at alasdair.mackenzie@thecrimson.com.

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