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How David Crosby Found a New Harmony

The veteran singer-songwriter on why his current band reminds him of CSNY’s early days and what’s inspiring him to stay busier than ever at age 77

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While in the studio making his upcoming album, David Crosby opened up about his late-career creative renaissance.

Anna Webber

One afternoon this past spring, David Crosby found himself facing two unlikely scenarios: He was in New York’s grimy East Village, on the other side of the country from his California home, and the notoriously assertive musician was being given orders.

“Turn off your cell phone, Croz,” says Michael League, the bearded, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist and leader of the multi-genre band Snarky Puppy, sitting in the control room of a funky studio above a bodega. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Becca Stevens then dashes into the booth where Crosby is about to lay down vocal parts and makes him hand over his chiming phone. Finally, Crosby starts adding his voice to the track, but his delivery is a bit grainy and he needs time to warm up. League periodically cuts him off, telling him not to fall off his syllables so hard.

“I’ll learn it,” Crosby says over the mic from inside the booth. “It takes me a while, guys. This will happen to you when you get old and decrepit!”

All in good work fun, the moment is part of the late-life second — or third, or fourth — wind Crosby has been experiencing in the last few years. Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young) remain in limbo, yet Crosby has moved on. For the last two weeks in New York, he’s been in the midst of making his fourth straight album in five years, a remarkably productive stretch for someone who not only turned 77 this summer but survived a debilitating addiction in the Eighties and is still coping with health issues, including diabetes. “He says to me all the time, ‘I shouldn’t be here — I should have been gone a long time ago, the way I lived my life,’” League says. “I think music keeps him alive.”

Following 2014’s polished Croz, 2016’s acoustic Lighthouse and last year’s yacht-rocking Sky Trails, the album in progress, Here If You Listen, out October 26th, represents another twist in Crosby’s reinvention. When touring behind Lighthouse, Crosby recruited League (who produced that album), Stevens and Canadian singer-songwriter-keyboardist Michelle Willis as his backup band. The setting — no drums, mostly acoustic guitars and keyboards, male and female voices enveloping Crosby — recast his new and old songs and gave Crosby the idea for yet another project: making a group album with them. “We were wrong,” Crosby says, referring to the biases of his generation. “Having women in bands is a great idea.”

For name-recognition purposes, Here If You Listen, which arrives next month, is billed to Crosby. But it’s a truly collaborative effort, with all four writing the majority of the songs together and trading lead vocals. The album retains Crosby’s trademarks — unusual guitar tunings, dissonant harmonies, floaty melodies — but injects kaleidoscopic vocal arrangements that launch his music in fresh directions. Willis and Stevens’ voices are often as prominent as their boss’. Two tracks, “1967” and “1974,” are based on unreleased Crosby voice-and-guitar demos from those years, onto which League, Stevens and Willis layered their own voices and instruments to extend what Crosby had once started.

At Crosby’s insistence, the album also includes a version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” rearranged for their four-part harmonies. The group had played it live but weren’t sure they could top previous versions. “They questioned that — they said, ‘We have other songs,’” Crosby says. “I said, ‘This one is too much fun not to put on.’”

Although League says he grew up with Crosby’s music around the house, especially 1971’s cult stoner classic If I Could Only Remember My Name, his two bandmates weren’t as intimately familiar with Crosby’s work. “It kind of tickles David that I didn’t know how amazing he was to the extent of people from my dad’s generation, who are like, ‘Oh, my God, David Crosby!'” laughs Stevens, who caught up on his past when she saw one of CSN’s last shows. Willis recently sat down with headphones and a copy of If I Could Only Remember My Name, which made her realize the connections she had with the older musician. “It’s so free,” she says. “It feels like it goes on forever in this beautiful way, like you’re drifting through the whole album. Listening to it made me feel I could do this.”

The three musicians, each about 40 years younger than Crosby, do share certain traits with him, like a love of jazz and improvisatory, experimental music. “They encourage some of the weirdest stuff,” Crosby says. “They accept my wandering around the landscape. They encourage it.” Based on an image Crosby had of Venice, Italy, submerged after a future climate-change incident, Stevens wrote a melody, and then all four chimed in on lyrics. The result is “Vagrants of Venice,” a vision of the post-apocalyptic city (“Two young orphans burning ancient paintings and Victorian tables just to keep from freezing in the night”) that brings to mind the similarly catastrophic vision of “Wooden Ships.”

Crosby’s political consciousness is also of a piece with the trio’s. “Other Half Rule” calls for women to run the planet and, after the recent U.S.–North Korea reality-TV moment, chastises the “two blind men/Fat fingers on the trigger/Rock men and little hands/Never taking time to listen.” Written soon after the Parkland shootings, the snippets of new lyrics in “1967” evoke protest-march sentiments. Of the way Crosby’s vintage voice gives way to theirs on it, Willis says, “David’s the Pied Piper of the past, and we’re the voices of the future trying to learn what’s happened before us and seeing all these parallels.”

For their part, League, Stevens and Willis learned not to overanalyze their own work so much. Crosby kept insisting they use the phrase “Buddha on a Hill” for a song about his home life, even though, to the others, the title felt incongruous. One day, the other three were working on the music for that song when Crosby woke up from a nap and began singing that phrase along with them, and the combination suddenly clicked. “He was always arguing, ‘You guys are thinking about things too much! Just shut up and go with the thing that feels good!’” Stevens says. “I learned from him that that’s more important than making sense.”

For Crosby, the allure of a new band, and one steeped in multi-part vocal harmonies, couldn’t have arrived at a better time. CSN and CSNY may be over for good, especially after Crosby made an unfortunate comment about Daryl Hannah, Young’s new partner, in 2014. Crosby later apologized, but the band’s future remains foggy. “Never say never,” Crosby sighs. “But I don’t think you’re going to see that band. I don’t think Neil wants to do it. And it’s up to Neil. I would love to do [CSNY], but I’m not expecting it.” Adds League, “David’s expressed how much he loves those guys and has also expressed regret for the state that that relationship is in. He wishes things were cool.”

For their part, the three younger musicians in Crosby’s band shy away from any comparisons to Crosby’s older quartet: “Nothing could compare to those guys,” says Willis. “They’re eternal.” But Crosby says the rapport in his new group is “a contributive effort, not a competition,” like his other band could sometimes be. “That kind of chemistry is a joy,” Crosby says. “I miss it and I remember it from the early days of my other band, where we were still very much loved each other’s writing. I remember how good that felt. And that’s what this is.”

That camaraderie is evident in the studio, when Crosby gives Stevens pointers on a guitar part she’s adding to one track (“try locking in — it will fly like a big bird,” he tells her), and they all crack up when Crosby repeatedly sings “your own life” instead of “your own ride” in the song of that name. (With lines like, “I’ve been thinking about dying/And how to do it well/How to stand up and face it/Or just lie where I fell,” it’s a particularly sobering Crosby lyric.)

“I thought I would be in charge and have my own band,” Crosby says, before laughing. “No, not a chance. They kick my ass regularly.”

“David’s wife Jan sent me an email once and it said, ‘David functions best while simultaneously praised and abused,’” League smiles. “But it’s really true. He loves playfulness. It hits him in the right place.”

During a break to celebrate League’s 34th birthday, complete with cupcakes, League, Stevens and Willis remind Crosby of his insulin shots and the risk of eating something so sweet. (“I don’t want him to have sugar crashes,” Stevens laments, “but you can’t really control David.”) Living up to his remark that he’s “the child” in the group, with Willis and Stevens the “big sisters” and League “the adult,” Crosby jumps up when his cell phone goes off, waving it around to show everyone that the caller is Cameron Crowe (who is working on what Crosby calls a “dangerously honest” documentary about him). “Look who’s calling me! Look who’s calling me!” Crosby exclaims.

“I thought I would be in charge and have my own band. No, not a chance. They kick my ass regularly.”

“David is a 20-year-old at heart, if not a 10-year-old,” says Willis. “He’s got this childlike excitement. I think we all relate to that part of him.”

Even with the Here If You Listen album and a band tour starting in November, Crosby is already writing new material for another album with a different set of players (like his son, keyboardist James Raymond). It’s possible the record will include a song he’s co-writing with new friend Jason Isbell. Isbell invited Crosby to join him at the Newport Folk Festival this summer, where the two performed “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio” with Isbell and his band. “Someone turned me on to him, and I like his words,” Crosby says. “I sent him one of my favorite sets of lyrics that I’m working on right now and we may try to get together in a room to write. That’s the way he likes to do it. It’s for another time, but it’s a matter of time.”

One project that doesn’t involve Crosby is the current tour reuniting two of his former Byrds bandmates, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who are performing their 1968 post-Crosby country crossover Sweetheart of the Rodeo in full. Although Hillman said in a recent interview that Crosby was “very upset” when he heard about the tour, thanks to “incorrect information,” Crosby waves off any issues. “Not rattled, but jealous,” he says. “What they’re doing now is something I was never a part of. I understand that. They made that very clear and that’s absolutely fair. I’ve wanted to do a Byrds thing with Roger and Chris for a long time and that’s reasonable. But I don’t think Roger wants to do it. He’s been pretty consistent about that. I gotta respect that. But I understand what they’re doing now and it’s fine with me. It’s not the same Byrds.”

Nonetheless, Crosby’s current bandmates, who are well aware of his checkered past, marvel at all the projects he does have going at his age. “If this guy’s gone through what he has in life and chooses not to be comfortable or go on vacation but to create new things, that’s inspiring,” says League. “It says to me, ‘You have no excuse, motherfucker!’” Adds Willis, “I think David’s sense of time has shifted in a big way. He is aware that may not have as much time as he used to think and he wants to make as much music as he can.”

During a break in the sessions, Crosby, his white hair still falling to his shoulders, retreats to the studio lounge. He looks worn down, but at least another week of work awaits him before he heads back home to his home outside Santa Barbara. “I’ve got to make the most of every minute I have,” he half-sighs. “Wouldn’t you?”

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