David Crosby Interview: 'For Free' Album, Turning 80, Steely Dan - Rolling Stone
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David Crosby on Channeling Steely Dan, Turning 80, and How His New Album Saved Him

“I’m having a rough go with it,” Crosby says of the trying period that led up to his new LP For Free. “I needed something that enlightens me, enlivens me, and makes me feel whole”

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“Eighty is not a birthday to celebrate,” David Crosby says. “I am celebrating that I am alive."

Anna Webber*

The past couple of years have not been easy on David Crosby. After the pandemic made it impossible for him to tour, his financial situation grew so dreary that he feared the bank would take away his house. The tendonitis that’s been plaguing his hands has advanced to the point where it’s difficult for him to play guitar. He’s also had to watch his beloved country get ripped in half by a president who refused to participate in the peaceful transfer of power, and endure the loss of his biological son, Beckett Cypher, who was raised by Melissa Etheridge.

Ironically, all this pain and suffering inspired him to write the cheery and optimistic songs that make up his new solo record, For Free, which arrives on July 23rd. “I’m having a rough go with it,” Crosby says on the phone from his California home. “I needed an uphill climb. I needed something that enlightens me, enlivens me, and makes me feel whole. This music has been a lifesaver for me.”

Crosby wrote and recorded For Free at the height of the pandemic, aided by his son and longtime creative collaborator, James Raymond. Much of the work was done in Raymond’s garage, but they also used studios around the L.A. area and recorded parts piecemeal to minimize any social contact. “James and I have an amazing chemistry, man,” says Crosby. “I can’t believe that he’s my own son. He’s matured with this record into a writer of real stature.”

The optimistic tone of the record is established on lead-off track “River Rise,” where Crosby pledges to ride out his remaining years without fear of death. “It’s out of my heart,” he sings. “It’s out of my head/It’s out of my hands … Time won’t slip away/Let the clock run out/Don’t care about it/Not today.”

Crosby’s longtime buddy Michael McDonald lends his voice to the song, and even helped Crosby finish it. “I’ve said for the past 10 years that two of the best singers in America are Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald,” says Crosby. “When we had him in the studio, we were working on the choruses of the song. I said, ‘We don’t have the second verse.’ He goes, ‘Really? Let me just …’ And he wrote the second verse, which was really wonderful. He’s just a wonderful cat and an astounding singer.”

Crosby sounds even happier on “I Think I,” where he sings the line “I found my way” over and over. “I sound happy, don’t I?” Crosby says. “Normally I write these tortured friggin’ ballads that drag on. I was so friggin’ thrilled to write something that was up and fun. That was really a joy to have happen. It was sort of a breakthrough with me.”

Another breakthrough was finally convincing Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, one of Crosby’s all-time musical heroes, to write a song with him. They’d vaguely known each other for years, but they didn’t collaborate until September 2019, when Crosby got onstage at a Santa Barbara Steely Dan show to sing “Home at Last” from Aja. Days later, Fagen asked him to fly out to New York to play “Wooden Ships” with them at the Beacon Theatre.

“I get there and they’ve learned it really well and they’ve written horn parts,” Crosby says. “It’s just smoking. I walk out and the whole audience goes absolutely batshit crazy. We practically did structural damage to the building. It was really good. After that, I really cultivated a relationship with Donald. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but he’s a brilliant guy. I admire him beyond belief.”

Not long after the Beacon performance, Fagen sent over a new set of lyrics for a song called “Rodriguez for a Night.” Crosby and Raymond then composed music to go along with the words. “We Steely Dan’d them right into the fucking ground,” says Crosby. ” It’s a story song and it’s really fun.”

Crosby doesn’t quite understand what “Rodriguez for a Night” is about, but he offers up a detailed breakdown of another song on the record, “Secret Dancer.” It centers around a robot created for war that achieves self-consciousness. “In the first 10 seconds, it learns all of human history,” says Crosby. “Then it goes, ‘Let’s see … witch-burning … xenophobia … Maybe I just won’t tell them I’m here quite yet.’ But at night, when everyone leaves, it dances. It also decides that it’s female.”

The title track is a cover of the 1970 Joni Mitchell tune “For Free,” performed as a duet with Sarah Jarosz. “I think she’s one of the most talented people in the entire world,” says Crosby of the Texas singer-songwriter. “I asked her to sing with me and she said, ‘Fuck, I’d love to do that. I just don’t know what.’ I said, ‘Let’s do “For Free.”‘ I’ve recorded it twice before, but I love the way that we sing it together.”

The album ends with the mournful ballad “I Won’t Stay for Long,” which was written by Raymond. “It’s the best song on the album,” says Crosby. “It makes me cry. I don’t even know what part affects me so emotionally, but I just break down. It’s such a beautiful fuckin’ song.”

Crosby hasn’t played a concert since the start of the pandemic, and he has no dates on the books now even though live music is returning all over America. “I keep going back and forth on that,” he says. “I can’t do a bus tour anymore since I can’t sleep on them anymore; I’m just too old. Also, my guitar playing is a real problem. I can still do it, but I’m down 20 percent from where I was at my best, and it’s deteriorating pretty steadily. If I play again, I’d have to bring another guitar player into the band.”

And while a cross-country tour seems unlikely at this point, he is considering playing a week-long residency in New York and another in Los Angeles. “All the musicians I talk to really want to do that very badly,” he says. “We’ve got good stuff to do. I’m not sure, but I do have a band in mind for it. And if I do it, it won’t be for the money.”

Money was a real issue until a few months ago when Crosby sold his publishing to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group. “That wasn’t a thing I wanted to do, but doing that deal with Irving made it possible for me to not worry about the money,” Crosby says. “I paid off my house. That was really scary. We were really worried we were going to lose it. I couldn’t work live and I couldn’t make any money doing records. That deal made a difference for us. It really helped a lot.”

The lack of any CSN/CSNY tours in the past six years also did little to help his financial situation. But he’s come to terms with the fact that the group will likely never play together again in any incarnation. “CSN/CSNY made a lot of great records,” he says. “So did the Byrds. I’m really happy with a lot of the stuff that we did. We should treasure what we did. It was good. I had a blast. I don’t regret any of it, and I don’t hate any of them, and I’m not obsessed with it at all. I’m proud of it. I think it’s really good. But it’s not where my focus is at.”

One might think Crosby’s focus is on his 80th birthday, which is coming up on August 14th, but he says he has no plans to celebrate the occasion. “Eighty is not a birthday to celebrate,” he says with a laugh. “No birthday party. I am celebrating that I am alive. I am celebrating that my relationship with my family has improved by being home. My relationship with my son has improved a lot from being home.”

And after everything he’s been through, he knows he’s profoundly lucky to be alive and making music. He’s even plotting out his next record with Raymond, and yet another one with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League. For those keeping track, these will be his sixth and seventh solo records since 2014. (Prior to that, he’d only managed three solo records during the entire course of his career.)

“I’m fuckin’ lucky,” he says. “I don’t know if I have two weeks left of life or 10 years, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do with the time. If you sit there on your butt and worry about dying, then you fucking wasted it. I haven’t been wasting it. I’m having a really good time, and feeling wonderfully about it. Sooner or later, something is going to break. Right now, my life is pretty great.”

In This Article: David Crosby, Michael McDonald

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