Just Before The Dawn: A Conversation With David Crosby

During the past year, David Crosby, a man for whom live performance has always been an essential part of his being, found himself at home, pondering an uncertain future. The pandemic may have put his live performance plans on indefinite hold, but the music has never stopped.

David Crosby
(Photo by Anna Webber)

Fortified by his family and the reassuringly constant presence of the Muse, Crosby has forged ahead, recording his fifth album apart from CSN/CSNY since 2014, and is already getting ready to begin work on the next album. His “Ask Croz” feature with Rolling Stone continues, much to his fans’ delight, and he has once again recently been in the news, joining the ranks of many notable artists selling off their songwriting catalogs to achieve both financial security and legacy management of their life’s work. Crosby sold his publishing and recorded music rights, including his solo work, as well as his work with the Byrds; Crosby & Nash; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group. He calls the deal “a blessing for me and my family” and refers to Azoff’s company as “the best people to do it with.”

Crosby has been navigating unchartered waters but is managing to keep his proverbial ship afloat in these challenging times.
“It’s very tough,” he admits. “We can’t play live. At all. And that was my most fun thing, you know. You can write music, and you can record music, but you can’t get paid for it, which is weird, so it’s been very, very odd. You know, I definitely can’t play live and that was the last source of income that I had. I had to sell my publishing, and so this COVID thing affected me very strongly. Shutting us down from being able to play live completely changed everything I was able to do. I had to reshape plans for my life.”

From left: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby circa 2010
(Photo by St. Jean/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

And so it was, earlier this year, that Crosby joined the ranks of other musical icons including Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Linda Ronstadt, who have decided to cash in on their life’s work. The song catalog acquisition business is thriving these days and for very good reason.
“If you’re going into the world with $100 million to invest in the stock market, you take $50 million of it and put it in T-bills, because you know exactly what they’re gonna pay, and they’re safe,” Crosby explains. “Then you take the other $50 million and go adventuring to try and make money. Well, then you think about publishing. You have 20 years of records and know exactly what it’s gonna pay. It has that same security. The only thing is it pays a lot better than T-bills—a lot better. They used to buy publishing by a multiple. For most of my life, 10 years of your publishing’s yearly earnings was what your publishing was worth. When it got to 19 [years], faced with the situation I was faced with, selling was definitely the right thing to do. It’s that and also [how] the tax situation is now more advantageous in the leftover situation from Trump than it will be when it readjusts to a more reasonable and less permissive kind of way of doing things. So, if you were gonna take a bunch of million dollars for making one of these deals, you’d want to do it under this (tax situation) and not the next one.”

Asked how he was feeling, Crosby chuckles.
“My normal answer is ‘elderly and confused,’ but I’m actually pretty good today,” he said. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Crosby found a silver lining.
“Spending time with my family,” he explained. “I love my family a whole lot, and being there when I normally would be gone, trudging around playing, has been good for my family; it’s been good for me with them. The more time you put into it, the better it gets. Frankly, it’s been very good that way, and I’m grateful for it.”

His new album is entitled For Free, inspired by a Joni Mitchell song he’s performed live in the past, He shed some light on the songs it contains, his writing and recording collaborators and when fans can expect the album’s release.

“The release date was supposed to be May but I’m being told it’s July because they have a bottleneck on producing vinyl,” he said. “Apparently, making the vinyl was slowed up by COVID, Like all of my records in the last 10 years, it’s a very cooperative effort. It’s me and James (Raymond); it’s the Sky Trails band, but it’s really just me and James. We used all kinds of jazz musicians and rock musicians to make the record. Number one, the touring band, the Sky Trails band, that’s pretty fixed. The people who made the record, well, this one was pretty astounding, man. I’ve been friends with Donald Fagen for a while and I finally convinced him to give me a set of words, so we took that set of words and James and I ‘Steely-Dan’ed’ it into the middle distance, that’s one of the songs.”


Michael McDonald appears on the forthcoming David Crosby album
(Photo by dbking/ CC BY 2.0)

Crosby added, “We wrote another one with Michael McDonald called ‘River Rise’—mostly James wrote it. I’ve been bugging James to write us a single forever, (telling him) ‘C’mon, man, we need to pay the rent here.’ And he did it, it’s a single. Michael McDonald sang on it with us and actually helped write it. James is maturing as a writer to where he’s as good as I am, if not better. He wrote what I think is the best song on the record, called ‘I Won’t Stay For Long,’ that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever sung. I absolutely freakin’ loved and I killed it. There is a lot of my favorite thing, which is cooperative effort, all over the place. We are doing it and it’s good. We got this one mastered and started writing for another one. We don’t know what else to do.”

The title of David Crosby’s forthcoming album For Free is inspired by a Joni Mitchell song Crosby has performed live in the past
(Public domain)

Crosby appears more candid than ever to discuss the breakup of Crosby, Stills and Nash. When he released Croz in 2014, CSN still had a full year and a half to go. I asked him if during the tour to promote Croz, he foresaw an end of the road for CSN.
“Yeah. It gets a little mechanical for a while,” he said. “You do it for 40 years and it turns into ‘Turn on the smoke machine and play your hits’ and that’s really not good enough for me. I think we stayed with it longer than we should have. I think we should have branched out more, but it is what it is. I’m here, making records that I’m really proud of, I mean. I think I’m making really good music. That’s really all I’m responsible for—making the best music I possibly can. I don’t see that happening with the other guys. They seem kind of stuck in place. I can’t really vouch for that.”

While hopeful about the resurgence of live music based on long-term pent-up demand once the pandemic is behind us, Crosby is realistic in his expectations.
“The answer to that is gonna depend on vaccination,” he said. “When you say, ‘Look, to buy a ticket, you’ve got to show us a vaccination sticker. If you can show us that you’ve been vaccinated, you can buy a ticket.’ Okay, when they do that, if they do that, then they will have audiences that are safe and then we will have audiences … [but] not until.”

Visit Island Zone Update for the complete conversation.

Roy Abrams
Roy Abrams is a musician and a veteran music journalist. For more, visit his blog, Island Zone Update.


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