David Crosby Talks Steely Dan, UFOs and His Fantastic New Solo Album 'For Free'
"What matters to me is the songs. They're a place where you can talk to people."
David Crosby won’t slow down. Or, maybe he simply can’t? The man who formerly put the C into CSNY is in the midst of a creative renaissance that’s almost entirely unprecedented for an artist of his generation. Five solo albums in the last seven years; each one building on the sleek, sonic dimension and lyrical depth of the last. Not bad for a guy who was averaging about a record a decade throughout the course of the 20th Century.
Crosby’s latest project, For Free, which is set to drop tomorrow, might be his finest yet. I feel like I say that almost every time he drops a new project, but it really is true. Concocted alongside his son James Raymond, Croz waxes poetic about love, death, and sentient dancing robots over a vast array of gorgeous jazz chords that have become his bread and butter.
A collaborator at heart, he also pulled in an assist from Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen and on-again/off-again Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, who provided lyrics and vocals respectively. That’s in addition to a gorgeous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s planative, 1970 piano ballad “For Free” alongside Texas-based, singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz. This actually marks the third time Croz has tackled that particular track, after covering it on The Byrds’ final studio album in 1973, and again in 1998 on the CPR live album Live at Cuesta College.
Talking to David Crosby is certainly never a dull experience, and our recent interview proved that once again. We spent some time chatting about how the new record came together through the pandemic, his undying love of Steely Dan, as well as his intriguing theories about visitors from far away Planets…
Hey David, thanks for talking to me today. How've you been holding up this last year or so?
Well, it works like this. We had two sources of income. Records and touring. Along comes streaming and they work it out to be able to not pay us. So there goes half my income. I'm trying to be grateful that I can still play live, and pay the rent, and take care of my family. And along comes COVID and I can't. So then I've just lost both ways that I had of making any money to support my family, which is what I'm supposed to do, right?
So, I sold my publishing. I did not want to sell my publishing, but I did and that solved the money problem. I still am making up songs with [my son] James Raymond and with Michael League and Michael McDonald, and with Donald Fagan and these people. And I love them, and I love making music. So even though they're not paying me for them, I'm making records and I'm enjoying making records. I'm making them for the pleasure of making the music.
The last four records, I'm really proud of. This last one that you just listened to is I'm proudest of all. I think it's an amazing record. I think James, well, he's matured as a writer to where he is as good as I am, if not better. He wrote the best song on the record. I don't think there's any question about it. “I Won't Stay For Long,” that's the best thing on here. I've had friends, man, good friends call me up crying on the phone because they just listened to that song.
Ending the album with that song felt very poignant. It really sticks with you.
Well, that's what we were trying to do, of course. And in that particular song, I think it's so evocative. I don't know why. I don't understand how it works, but it's just a stunner of a song.
You turn 80 next month and you've lived, I mean, a dozen lives in that time. I'm curious, what are some important lessons that you've learned along the way?
God, there's so many. I think you have to look for where the value is. You have to look for where the core of a thing is. I've had to look at my life and at the things I've been through, and I felt a lot of fake stuff. Celebrity doesn't mean jack shit. Fame doesn't mean jack shit. Money, truthfully, aside from the fact that you need it to take care of your family, doesn't mean jack shit.
What matters to me is the songs. They're a place where you can talk to people. You can communicate; really, actually communicate on a very high level. Very multilevel, textured, strange, beautiful level. I love it. I love being able to do it. And I'm grateful for it.
You mentioned your son James a moment ago. You guys have been writing music going all the way back to the ‘90s with your band CPR. What’s it been like watching him grow as a songwriter from when you first started to now where he's making songs like “Rodriguez for a Night” with you?
It's amazing to watch. I think anybody that tells you that it's not genetic should come talk to me. Because, well, he became a musician without knowing that I was his dad. And when he found out, I think he probably wished that it had been a keyboard player. Elton, or Billy Joel, you know? [Laughs].
But I think he was pretty happy. I know that he did a wonderful thing, man. He came to me without bringing a bunch of baggage. The kid shows up to that meeting going, "Well, yeah, you left me and mom. We weren't good enough for you? Huh?" And it goes downhill from there. He didn't do that. He gave me a chance to earn my way into his life as a human being. And we became very, very close. You know, I have to tell you, it's a little odd because in the relationship, he's the adult and I'm the kid.
You know, I believe it.
It's not hard. Right? Most people who know me well absolutely believe it. I knew that I was going to grow up, man, but it didn't pan out.
You’ve got the lyrics for “Rodriguez For A Night” from Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. I don't know if you're the biggest Dan fan in the world, but you got to be at least top hundred. What is it about their music that resonates with you so much?
Sophistication, complexity, beauty. Donald and Walter [Becker] were arguably the best pop writers of our times. They produced a higher level of music on record than anybody I know about. And frankly, that's just how it is. Aja and Gaucho are two of the best records ever made, and you can't argue with them.
I'll tell you a funny story. Okay? The top three guys who were road managing Steely Dan all used to work for me. They're all friends of mine. One of them's [Graham] Nash's kid, Will. I'm not friends with Nash, but I am definitely very good friends with his son. They give me wonderful access to Steely Dan. So, the band is playing in Santa Barbara, and I'm backstage. I'm hanging out. I go to their rehearsal, their soundcheck. And Donald has found out from those same guys that I used to sing “Home at Last” with CPR. So he comes up to me, he says, "Hey, you sing ‘Home at Last.” Why don't you sing it?"
I said, "No." Next, the whole band is standing around us. They all start laughing because nobody says no to Donald.
I said, "No. I'm chicken." And they started laughing harder. I said, "I'm not going to sing your song in front of you in my own town's biggest venue when I haven't sung it in 10 years, when I'm not sure of myself. I'm scared, so I'll sing in the back with the girls on the choruses.”
They all just cracked up totally.
Donald says, "What do we have to do? Learn Wooden Ships?" And they all lose it completely. Now I know he's fucking with me. That means he likes me. So later on, he says it again, and I say, "Jesus, you don't know ‘Wooden Ships.’" And he says, "I can learn it in 10 minutes. It's only got four changes."
He's fucking with me, right?
Okay, so I let it lay. A couple of days later, or a couple nights, later at 1:00 in the morning for me, which is 4:00 in the morning in New York, I get a text. It says “‘Wooden Ships’ is a fucking great song. I just listened, it's a fucking great song. I'm going to teach the girls and the band ‘Wooden Ships.’”
Now, okay, my heart flutters pretty much because I've never heard him say that about anything. I never heard of him learning anybody else's songs. He's not a dude to give false compliments, you know? I was just fucking thrilled. So I said, "I don't believe you." He says, "No, I'm serious. Come to The Beacon and do it with us." So I did. I went to The Beacon. I went to soundcheck and son of a bitch, they had learned it. And, oh my God, man. And they killed it. They fucking killed it. So I was like, totally fucking thrilled. I walk out that evening. They introduced me. I walked out and the audience goes pretty bonkers. They were not expecting that. And then we do “Wooden Ships.” We almost did structural damage to the building. I mean, the audience just went batshit.
They went so batshit crazy that we had to do it again the next night. We did it twice, and it was fucking stellar both times. So, that kind of cemented the relationship. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t like me, so I think he likes me now. So, I said, “Pleaaaaase give me some words.” And he did. He had set of words that he liked, and he sent it over. And we Steely Dan'd it right into the middle distance. I just wish he'd send me some more!
Maybe he will? Maybe you'll make a collab record after this comes out?
Yeah, it'd be fine with me! He likes the tune. He was very happy with it. He said some really nice stuff about it, so that's great.
When you say you “Steely Dan'd it,” what era were you going for? Did you kind of Aja it? Can't Buy Me a Thrill? Pretzel Logic?
I mean, it's not a style. It's just trying as hard as you fucking can and then getting lucky creatively, you know? And that's what we did.
Speaking of Steely Dan vibes you pulled in their most famous backup singer, Michael McDonald to assist on the song “River Rise.” Tell me how that happened?
Well, he's been my friend for a very long time. I have been saying for, oh, I don't know, 20 years, the two best male singers in the country were Stevie Wonder and Michael McConnell.
Well, it's a real short one, but they're really fucking good. Oh man, are they fucking good. So, Stevie's getting old, so he's backing down a little bit. I think that now arguably, in my opinion -- I'll give it both of those caveats -- Michael McDonald is the best singer in the United States of America. I don't think anybody could touch him.
He's my friend. And he only [collaborates with] people he likes, and I only do it for people I like. We do it for friends. That's it. We don't do it for everybody.
I heard that he contributed another verse to the song?
Yeah. He wrote the second verse, yeah. We didn't have the second verse. He came in to sing the choruses and we didn't have the second verse. He said, "Well, give me a pencil."
I also really enjoyed “Secret Dancer.” I think that you’ve said it’s roughly about a robot that achieves self-consciousness. Can you extrapolate on that concept a little bit?
Yeah, here's the deal. The story is, the humans are trying to build a war robot with an AI mind, right? Now they talk about AI nowadays, but they're just talking about fancy computers. A real AI would be self-aware, sentient being of its own, right? That may have happened, but in this case, in our story, it happened. And the AI, in the first 10 seconds of being alive absorbed all of human history. It looked at everything... "These humans are kind of afraid of anything they don't really understand. They burn witches. Hmm. Yikes. I don't know. Maybe I'm just not going to tell them I'm here," which I think may have happened.
But in our story, it did happen. And she's decided she's a she. She's absorbed all of that and decided that she wants to be female. And she's decided that she likes to dance in the darkness after the humans leave, when they can't see her. She dances in complete darkness and beautiful, intricate, lovely, graceful, dances and makes up her own music and the humans don't know anything about it. She does it every night.
Man. That's trippy. That's a lot to think about, for sure.
Yeah. I like it.
Are you a big science fiction fan?
Yes I am.
What are some of your favorites? Like, maybe some more off the beaten path stuff that you’ve enjoyed over the years?
Oh, Jesus. Okay. [Robert A.] Heinlein. I know I read a lot of Heinlein when I was a kid. I read, hang on just one sec, there's one guy whose name I want to give you and I'm blanking on it. Iain Banks!
Yeah. He wrote the Culture series. It's my favorite science fiction stuff that I know of, but there's a ton of science fiction that I like. I mean, there's a ton and I read it all the time.
If you were ever given the opportunity, would you go to space?
Yes. Oh yeah. In a heartbeat. I think this is our future. That's the thing that Elon Musk and I agree about so much. It is what the human race should be doing. We should be going out there and meeting up with whoever's out there and starting find out what's going on. Look, did you ever see a photograph called the Deep Field photograph?
I have seen that. You can stare at that thing for hours.
Okay. Yeah. It looks like stars first glimpse, but it's not. Those are all galaxies. Everything in the picture is a galaxy with a billion stars in it. Now, we're looking at a picture to fill the entire screen and they're galaxies. Thousands of them, each with a billion stars, at least in it. Now, I don't believe in many laws. I don't obey many laws, but the law of averages I pay very strict attention to it because it works out to be true. True shit.
The law of averages tells me that you can't have that many opportunities and have us be the only time intelligent life developed. That's just not working. Too many opportunities. They're out there. I guarantee you, there are other intelligences out there now. Right now. It's just too many chances. It can't be any other way.
What do you make of those recent reports that have been coming out from the Pentagon that UFOs are real, and that they can’t explain what they are?
They are real, man. What I think is that they were here a long time ago. They took a look at us a long time ago and classified us as babies and said, "The infant race over here might turn out." And quarantined us.
There was a bunch of people in, I think, Borneo that were still stone age. They were A tribe that they found that was still stone age. They quarantined them. They said, "You can't take metal in there. They're too good an anthropological treasure. You can't fuck it up." So, they quarantined them. I think that's what they did to us. They said, "This is a baby race. They don't know what they're doing. They're still killing each other." And they go, "I think you have to invent a good enough tribe to get you out into space. And then you have to stop killing each other before we’ll actually have anything to do with you." I think they've been here many times. I think some of them were probably poachers and probably some of them were park rangers, casing the poachers.
You know, I don't think you're crazy. There might be something to that.
Yeah. I think they're definitely out there. I think they probably have been here.
What your plan for the next year or so as we come out of lockdown? Are you going to try to record another album? Are you going to hit the road?
I don't think I'm going to go on the road, man. I can't really sleep on a bus anymore. I don't think I can do it like I did for 50 years or 60 years. I might do some residencies, maybe. If they offer me enough money, I might try to do it. But I'm not guaranteeing that. I do have a couple more records maybe in me, if nothing breaks. I'm writing another one with Becca Stevens and Michele Willis and Michael League. We're writing long distance to each other. Then James and I, we're impossible to stop. We haven't even got this record out and we are already making the next record.
Are you still planning to launch a cannabis brand?
How's that going?
Well, it's going wonderful. Here's how it works. It's still illegal at a state level in many states and it's still illegal federally because we have a creepy bunch of people in our government. How it's looking is this. You pay your money in the United States to the federal government in taxes. Some of that money has always come down from the federal government to the states for health, education, and welfare stuff. That pipeline has always been constricted and there's never been enough money. And the states are at the bottom of the pipeline begging for more money.
Now, at the bottom of the pipeline are all the states in the United States of America, looking at Oregon and Colorado who can buy a school or a road or a hospital today. And the check is not going to bounce because they're making hundreds of millions of dollars on taxes off of weed.
That's the truth. Now that's one economic force towards legalizing because all those states are looking at it. Now, in those states there's two kinds of politicians, one kind who says, "I can take this money and do what I'm supposed to do. Help these people who elected me." The other kind says I can peel some of this money off the bottom and steal it. Either way, they want the fucking money.
Okay, so now the other big pressure is, because it's illegal federally they can't bank the money in the United States. It's not legal. That's why there's a guard at every single dispensary in America because they're having to do cash business only. And they've got a bunch of cash. That money is being banked in Canada. Our banks don't like that at all. Because Canopy and people like that are doing billion-dollar business.
Oh yeah, they're leaving money on the table.
Okay, so there you go. The banks want that fucking money, and they are pressuring our federal government. Our Federal Government's got plenty of people who know that it should not have been made illegal in the first place, and that it is like beer and wine and it should be legal, but it's the economic pressure that will change it. And I believe it will change it soon. And when it does, yes, I have a company called Mighty Croz.
What are some of your go-to smoke records? Not your own music, but just some stuff that you like to vibe to?
What have we been listening to is Sara Jarosz. Record called World on the Ground. It's just stunning record and my wife and I both love it. We've been listening to it steadily for quite a while. Ever since it came out, probably, we've listened to it maybe 50 times. Amazing, amazing record.
Stuff that I normally listen to? Oh, I listen to Weather Report, Heavy Weather. I listen to James Taylor's last record [American Standard] which was an absolutely brilliant, brilliant record. I listen to Steely Dan all the time. I'm always listening to Gaucho and Aja, and [Donald Fagen’s solo album] Nightfly. I listen to [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. I listen to Joni's Blue pretty regularly. I listen Hejira. I can't help listening to Joni. She's just too fucking good.
Well, I mean, you covered her again on For Free. You've been her fan from almost day one.
I can't help it. She's that fucking good. I listen to Shawn Colvin. I listen to Marc Cohn. I listen to I'm With Her, which are Sarah Jarocz again with Sara Watkins and Aoife O'Donovan. I listen to Bill Evans. I listen to Miles. I listen to Trane.
One thing I enjoy about following you on Twitter is that you still have your ears open. A lot of people will the same stuff that they like for 30, 40, or 50 years. You're always on the hunt for new things.
Well, people found out that I will tell them what I think. And so they send me their brother's band or the song that they think they wrote. 99% of its junk, but I can just listen pretty quickly. I can listen to, like, 10 seconds and say “Nice, but no.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.