An Exclusive Interview with David Crosby. Interview conducted, transcribed, and edited by: Katie Abrams
David Crosby is a folk rock legend, to say the least. As one of the founding members of the prolific supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash (CSN, Y with the addition of Neil Young), he has performed at various iconic venues and concerts throughout his career, including Woodstock and the Monterey Pop festival. He has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame not once, but twice for his amazing talent as a part of CSN and The Byrds. GEN-ZiNE got the chance to talk to David Crosby, and dive into who he is not only as an iconic musician but also as an outspoken political activist.
Crosby was interviewed at his beautiful ranch-house, surrounded by his three dogs, two horses, and lovely wife, Jan. For a rock-n-roller, it was a very peaceful scene. Being a huge fan myself, I wanted to ask slightly cliche questions of Crosby’s musical influences and some of his favorite pieces of music. Crosby listed off many former collaborators and people who were also at their height in the 60s and 70s. “The initial people that inspired me, the first people were... a folk singer named Odetta, folk singer Josh White, folk singer named Pete Seeger, the band Pete Seeger was in called The Weavers. [Those were] My first experiences with music, with words, and they affected me very strongly. Then along comes the Beatles, who just ripped my mind out and stomped on it on the floor. And it changed everything.” Crosby goes on to list Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne as influences. Going on to say, “A lot of people man, that have really, you know, impressed the shit out of me. Some of them changed my life. And the Beatles definitely changed my life. There's no question about it. You know.” Many of these influences were people Crosby sang with, wrote with, and performed with. The most endearing part of it all is the praise Crosby gives them, and rightfully so. When asked his favorite song, Crosby said so profoundly, “You know, I try not to have just one on any given day, it'll probably be, you know, very often it's McCartney’s... There are a number, you know, one day it'll be James Taylor's ‘Shower the people with Love.’ Another time will be Joni's ‘River.’” He is an extremely humble and intelligent man, who gives credit where credit is due. He remains inspired by the words and emotions that music creates.
One thing David Crosby really values is passion. Throughout his illustrious career he has consciously remained an outspoken political activist. Some of the songs he is most famous for are powerful anti-war anthems. We wanted to ask him about what 2020 was like for him, observing so many young people fight and speak out against injustices they have seen and want to change. Crosby said, “ [It’s] Daunting and rewarding at the same time, daunting because you watch people deliberately abusing democracy, which I treasure. And inspiring when you see all of those people get out in the street and make it happen, man. When the Women's March happened, I was literally in tears, I was so thrilled. When the Young People's March happened, March for Our Lives, when I see people do stuff like that-, when I saw the people dancing in the street in New York when Trump lost- When you see people willing to stick up for what they believe in. That's inspiring to me, you know, and there's been a lot of that, we'll have to see what happens now. We're certainly a crux part of the United States history and growth. We have a large portion of our population that doesn't even believe that the election took place, have a bunch of people in our country that are uneducated and stupid and behaving badly, and and they are affecting our course as a nation. We need desperately to deal with global warming. That's the real overriding issue… You know, that's a problem and we have to deal with it.”
There is something so beautiful about his words, how WE could possibly inspire him, but it goes to show how far we have come as a generation of not only change makers, but real people, and how our actions are heard and seen and treasured around the world by those who have done the same years before. But, his message also relays one other crucial thing; we must keep going.
Crosby has been in the music industry for more than 5 decades now, and has experienced first-hand many changes in the industry. One of the things we asked about first was how a musician can choose to be politically active in their music, or why they should be. Crosby spoke about how music nowadays often is not political, not because an artist does not want to express their feelings on hot button issues, but because so often labels, management, “the man” if you will, tells them not to. Right now, it’s about money and winning. And I can’t disagree with that.
However, if an artist does choose to speak out despite that advice, Crosby says, “I think that the answer is not to be worried about turning people away. Not always. If you have an idea that you want to express, if you have something that really matters to you to talk about if you're a young person of color and you want to write about Black Lives Matter, you ought to. You need to, you have stuff you need to express. If you were a young person in the United States of America and you believe in democracy and you don't want to see it trashed, you have something to say. Say it. Don't worry, let the chips fall where they may. Don't worry about getting in trouble for it, don't worry about blowback, don't worry about people disagreeing with you. Don't worry about any of that. Express yourself...and don't hesitate about it. I would say, don't ever think commercially? Don't. Just don't.” One thing I took away from this particular quote is that even someone with years and years of success under their belt, someone who has gotten in trouble for perhaps being too political, remains steadfast to their beliefs and morals even now, when the industry as they knew it is no longer.
Moving forward, for me the most interesting perspective Crosby brings is from the lens of an established artist, as he is, and has been for quite some time. We have been living through this pandemic for almost a year now, and I wanted to ask, from his unique point of view, how the pandemic has affected artists that are just starting out trying to make a name for themselves, trying to make it. He said, “Well, the effect [of streaming] is very bad. Here's the deal an established artist, somebody who's already here, has sort of a catalogue. We have records that we already put out long ago that are still paying us, you know something. The way it is now with streaming, you don't get paid for records. It's as if you did a regular job and they paid you a nickel for a month. So you'd be pissed and I am, but they don't really pay for records anymore, so, OK, that's half of the possible income and then the other half is live performance, which nobody can do in the middle of a Covid epidemic. It's just not happening right now. So most of the young people who are trying to establish themselves as artists now are failing miserably. They're sleeping on their mother's couches. They're skipping meals. They're selling their one guitar that they own, so they can eat. It's very bad. The really talented young people that I'm trying to help are all struggling really badly with the situation. And I don't know how to improve it. Nobody is trying to help musicians or bands, or crews, at all. The big companies get bailed out but people like us don't. The situation is very grim for young people trying to come up right now. It's very, very tough. And I'm trying to help them when I can. But I'm just one guy and can't do much.”
And he isn’t wrong. The federal government has done little to nothing to help support independent music venues, artists, crew and all involved. However, included in the latest stimulus bill is theSave Our Stages Act, so there is some help on the way. The passing of this act brings in $15 million in aid to the live music industry, yet it does not cover all avenues, so we must keep fighting.
The music industry has undoubtedly changed quite a lot over the past few years, but even more so recently with streaming becoming the primary source of music discovery and listening for the average consumer.
“The digital world is completely different than the one that I started out with. The techniques of recording have changed totally drastically, the business has changed, as I described completely from being a record business to being a streaming business,” says Crosby.
He also goes on to say that the reason we have shifted into streaming so heavily is because the major recording companies all have small pieces of the streaming companies, so they are making money directly from those streamers, and going right around the artists to do so. For a lot of people, mainly artists, this may make them truly believe the industry is evil. According to Crosby though, the industry is not evil, it’s “sShort sighted and greedy. Greedy, shortsighted people who have no value for music. The people in the music industry that run the business are mostly people like the shoe salesman. They have no idea what our music is. The days of somebody like Ahmet Ertegun running Atlantic Records are over. There is not one record company that's being run by somebody who loves music. It's just not, not going to happen.”
Well Mr. Crosby, I really hope that changes someday. But for now, he is right. No longer do we have Bill Graham booking every concert in his own venues for $5. Big corporations are funneling enormous funds into digital and streaming and forgetting what music is all about. When we think about what music is “really about,” it would be remiss to say our minds do not go to the 60s and 70s, when music was all about peace and love, collaboration, and protest- not getting the #1 chart position.
I wanted to ask David Crosby, someone who was very active in this period, if it really was that special, or if it had simply been romanticized heavily, as the past often is. He said, “You know, it was uncomplicated and it worked. We could make records and sell them and get paid for them, and that was really good. And we could go out and tour live, and on any level from coffeehouses to stadiums. And I did. And I don't like it that I can't play live. It's like not being able to walk or something...It was special, but it's also been romanticized, both. Here's the thing. There are periods in history when art does upward swells. That [Renaissance] period, in Europe, there was a definite up swell. It started in Italy in the 1500s and then, you know, there is a break and then all of a sudden there's, you know, Van Gogh and Monet and impressionist painters, you know, just like it changed everything. There were other places that similarly had peaks and valleys. Those swellings take place and sometimes they're in visual art like paintings. In Paris in the 30s it was with writing. Sometimes they're in audio art- The 60s and early 70s were one of those times for songwriting.” In his eyes, the 60s and 70s were somewhat of a renaissance for songwriting and musical production, with people like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell really changing the game and reframing what was possible. Coming up in an age of counterculture and great music must have had its challenges, but many of them contributed to the melting pot of music, culture, activism and storytelling that we all dream about to this day.
With all of the reflecting on the past, we wanted to take some time and look to the future of the music industry, and what might be changing in the next era. “I think [the industry] is going to look totally different than we see, then we have any idea right now. Something is going to change really drastically. Another method of transmitting music will come along. And this time, hopefully Artists Will not get shut out. The people who did it to us this time, you know, they're they think they're very smart, you know, very clever. They make lots of money. But it's not right what's going on. So I'm hoping that it'll change.”
One thing in particular, streaming, has been a point of contention for many artists, including Crosby. He says, “It just means that I can't make any money. It means that my favorite art form, the thing that I will leave behind, all of my work, has been devalued by them towards... Not worth anything. And I think it still has value. So... I don't necessarily mean money value, I mean value as art. And I think it should not be treated that way. But, you know, I'm not in charge here. I still get to do it, but I don't make enough money off of a record to pay for having made it. It's that bad.”
Streaming has devalued music in more ways than one, and has left many artists without a sustainable source of income. It may leave many artists disillusioned with the industry, and cause them to leave it behind. The problem is extensive, and I think Crosby summed it up perfectly.
Sitting with David Crosby, it is clear how much he values words. He knows what he wants to say, chooses his words wisely, and creates profound beauty through his music. He pauses when speaking, as if to make sure he means what he is saying. The last piece of wisdom Crosby left us with is to value love above all else. Even though it may seem like everything is dark, and even music is being stripped of its core values, we must remember to value our love and passion for things above anything, otherwise we will lose ourselves.
It is humbling to have written this piece on someone who’s music I have listened to since literally being born. David Crosby provides lessons from the past and hope for the future. He gives inspiration to a new generation of music. I urge all of you to heed his advice, and remember he is just as inspired by us as we are by him. It may not be the age of Woodstock anymore, but that does not mean we should not have kindness and love for each other, and encourage collaboration and creativity more. And if reading this interview got you nostalgic for the golden age of music, make sure to listen to “Almost Cut My Hair,” a classic Crosby counterculture political anthem.