Interview: Marshall Crenshaw – Travels in Jaggedland

Marshall Crenshaw - JaggedlandThe songs on Marshall Crenshaw‘s new Jaggedland (released in June 2009 on 429 Records) work as a cohesive whole; while Crenshaw can always be counted on to turn in a quality set of songs, there’s a unity about this group of twelve compositions. “I knew that I was crafting an album, you know what I mean? Of course I gave great attention to detail on each individual song, but I had an agenda: there was this group of songs that hang together and complement one another.” This approach has served him well over the course of his thirty-plus year career. Prior to his first album (1982’s Marshall Crenshaw), he says that he “just had a bunch of songs. So I grabbed some from that group, the ones that would fit nicely into an album. But ever since then, I’ve pretty much thought in terms of albums.” There’s an old axiom that a new artist has his whole life up to that point to compose material for a first album and then a mere months to create material for the follow-up. In Crenshaw’s case, “I guess I did and I didn’t. I wrote all those songs (for 1983’s Field Day) and maybe ten more in a really short period of time. But the two or three years leading up to that time, I had been traveling all around the country…seeing it up close, and seeing a lot of it. I was gathering up of all these impressions of different places, soaking up whatever I was soaking up.” Crenshaw believes that it was during that period that he truly became a songwriter.

In our previous (2007) interview, Crenshaw characterized his solo gigs as “kind of the singer/songwriter circuit, the ‘NPR circuit.'” He’s less willing to pigeonhole the music on Jaggedland: “I just think anybody who would hear it might like it, you know?” When comparing the new album to his past efforts, Crenshaw insists that “this record is on another level; it’s really outstanding.” Yet he does his best to keep commercial considerations — the success of the album in the marketplace — out of mind. “There are so many trains of thought you can get lost on if you start thinking about ‘the marketplace.’ When I’m creating songs, I don’t want anything to cloud my thinking.” He believes that a songwriter’s goal should be to “keep your focus where it belongs: on the thing that you’re crafting, the thing you’re creating, the thing that you’re trying to express.” Crenshaw admits that mundane outside concerns “do intervene, but I was lucky to find enough of those moments to create. I was able to stay on the righteous path and think clearly about what I was doing. I tried to keep all the extraneous b.s. out.”

Marshall Crenshaw produced the tracks that make up Jaggedland with co-producers Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, Richard Thomson, Vashti Bunyan) and Stewart Lerman (the Roches, Dar Williams, Jules Shear), and went for a “live” ambience. When an artist opts for a live-in-the-studio approach, motivation can often be traced to specific place: economic concerns (as in, get it done quickly to save money). But in Crenshaw’s case — this time at least — “mostly it was an artistic call. It’s just more musical this way. I’ve done the ‘solitary genius’ thing a lot,” he laughs. “But I’d much rather be in a room with a bunch of great musicians, where we can get that communication happening.” He says that when he does go the solo recording route, “I just play. I’m not one to cut and paste. But on this album it was just incredible to be sitting in a circle with Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and all those guys. It was amazing to get kind of a vote of confidence on the songs, and on the direction I had in mind for them.”

Renowned session drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Ry Cooder) is the embodiment of taste; he instinctively knows what to do, what not to do. “The thing that I like about him,” Crenshaw observes, “is that there’s an eccentricity there. Somebody once said of one of his drum fills that it sounded like he thought of it after he played it! He comes up with brilliant, off-the-wall stuff. That’s what really appeals to me, the way he’ll leap out at you sometimes with this crazy gesture, and it will really create a lot of interest within the song.” Crenshaw cites the spontaneously created back-end of the album’s opener (“Right on Time”): “The song fades out, and then it fades back in. Jim just goes bananas and does this Jackson Pollock thing, and we just sort of join in with him for that moment of madness. When I heard that, I said, ‘that’s gotta be on the record!'”

On Jaggedland, Crenshaw ceded backing and harmony vocals to Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers. Viola is perhaps best known for his lead vocal on the title song from the film That Thing You Do! “There was a time when Mike was managed by Danny Bennett, Tony Bennett’s son. I got on their mailing list — I don’t know how — and I would get Mike Viola records and Tony Bennett records in the mail. That was nice while it lasted!” He recalls how he met Viola: “We met at the Power Station recording studio in New York. We were both working on Freedy Johnston’s version of ‘You’re My Favorite Waste of Time’ [originally a Marshall Crenshaw b-side from 1982] for a movie soundtrack. The producer was John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants. I didn’t really see Mike for a while after that, but then I attended the premiere party for Walk Hard.” [Crenshaw’s song for that film was nominated for an Golden Globe Award.] The two got friendly again then, and that led to Viola’s participation in the sessions for Jaggedland.

Marshall Crenshaw

The way Mike Viola’s vocals are mixed, his voice blends seamlessly with Crenshaw’s. The net effect isn’t all that different from how it might have sounded had Crenshaw overdubbed his own voice, albeit with more of a “live” feel. “The idea was to do the background vocals as fast as possible, because we were just banging this thing out,” Crenshaw admits. “And it felt good. Everybody who was in the studio was there to play. We weren’t there to let grass grow under our feet, so to speak. We got everything accomplished quickly. We came up with the vocal arrangements right on the spur of the moment — although I did have certain ideas going in — and we cranked out all the backing vocals for the whole album in about two, three hours. When I do overdub all my vocals, believe me: it takes me a lotlonger than that! I really torture myself. But it really transforms things when you have another person there to do backing vocals. For some reason, my instincts really sharpen with other people around in the studio.”

Jaggedland‘s instrumental title track sounds unlike most of what’s in Crenshaw’s catalog. But that kind of atmospheric, evocative composition may point a direction for some of his future work. “I love writing instrumental music,” he says. “It’s kind of a pure form of expression for me. I feel like I have a lot more facility with music than I do with rhetoric, poetry, storytelling or whatever. I’m more of a ‘muso’ than I am a word guy. The way I come at songwriting, I come at it as a musician first. The first thing for me when I’m writing is to get a piece of music that I can play, that I wantto play. So all of my songs start out as instrumentals. Ninety percent of the time I know I’m going to write words for them, but quite often I’ll write a piece of music and then just set it aside, sometimes for several months. Sometimes for years, literally. And then sometimes the piece of music itself is better just left alone. So that’s what I do; I just let it speak for itself.”

So it’s a choice, not a lack of the lyrical part of the inspiration equation, Crenshaw explains: “Not so much anymore, but there have been times when I just couldn’t find it within myself to write words to songs. I’d have a piece of music, and I’d think, ‘okay, at this point, it could be anything. It could say so many different things standing on its own. So if I tie it down to one story line, I’m kind of limiting it.’ I kind of got hung up that way for awhile.”

“I was writing a lot of instrumental music during a period a few years ago. I did the music for a PBS documentary about Yogi Berra [Déjà Vu All Over Again]. And then a little while after that, I got asked to write some stuff for Sex in the City, which I did. So during that time, I sort of got into it.” Crenshaw reveals that “when I first wrote the piece that’s now called ‘Jaggedland‘, it was a fast piece of music. For a chase scene, or that sort of thing. But then I got the idea to slow it way down, and it took on a whole ‘nother quality; slowing it down changed the whole message of it, the whole shape of it.”

On Crenshaw’s 2007 solo dates, his sonic approach had a definite jazz feel to it. A track on Jaggedland, “Someone Told Me” is reminiscent of his guitar style on those dates, but in fact it didn’t grow out of that period at all; it dates from a year or more earlier. “I wrote a handful of tunes after I got back from playing a three-day gig at a casino in Wisconsin. I took Graham Maby on bass and Diego Voglino on drums — he plays on “Someone Told Me,” in fact — and it was great fun. It took me back to earlier times with bar bands, reminded me of casinos in Nevada where I used to play.”

He continues on this related tangent: “For a little while I was on this circuit through the West — not with my band, but with a Top 40 country band that I played with for a little while — and we played these casino lounges in places like Elko, Nevada and Wendover Utah…all these backwater joints. It was a really cool time in my life.” [Note: there’s more on this period in Crenshaw’s career in my 2007 interview.]

Marshall Crenshaw

“But anyway,” he continues, returning to the genesis of some of the new songs. “I came home from Wisconsin and thought, ‘we’ve got to get some good rock’n’roll tunes that this band can play.’ So I wrote the music for ‘Someone Told Me’ and ‘Never Coming Down’ and ‘Right on Time.’ All within about two weeks’ time. All the while I was thinking about this trio I had just played with.” The songs are imbued with a strong sense of dynamics: “On ‘Someone Told Me,’ the verses sort of hang back, and then the choruses explode.” The inspiration for that song came from a truly unlikely place: “I was listening to a CD of Benny Goodman concert [from 1938] at Carnegie Hall. And at the beginning of one song, Gene Krupa is just keeping time on his bass drum or his hi-hat…and then by the end of the tune, he’s really bangin’ it out.”

The lyrics for that “Someone Told Me” came later. Crenshaw wrote it against the backdrop of being in “the throes of, let’s say, the last eight years politically, you know? So there’s a lot of angst in there over things that bothered me, things that were going on in the world.”

“Well, I know a man who can’t own up to the things he’s done /
He’s got no sense of honor and never did have one /
Where would he be without a wall to hide behind /
I’m glad I’m not the one living in his mind.”

Crenshaw has a number of concert dates planned to promote Jaggedland, beginning in September. “So far, they’re about half and half,” he says, divided between solo acoustic dates and full-band gigs. The latter will feature David Mansfield (Bob Dylan, Sting) on steel guitar: “I discovered that steel guitar is the perfect ‘fourth instrument’ for my band,” Crenshaw says. “Most of my records have slide guitar or steel guitar, and I don’t play it myself. But I really love that sound; I’ve always been drawn to it.” The rest of his onstage companions have interesting pedigrees as well. “I did a gig in Philadelphia a little while ago with the rhythm section from Ollabelle: Byron Isaacs on bass — I’ve worked with him a bunch — and Tony Leone on drums. They’ve both played with Levon Helm’s band. So, some of the time I’m with them — two or three of them — and sometimes I’m by myself.”

Crenshaw has no illusions that promoting the album will be an easy, passive endeavor. “I knew going into this exercise that it was going to be a long slog, a gradual process. But, you know, fingers crossed. Show business is very mercurial. But I believe one hundred percent in this stuff, in this music. And I’m pretty optimistic.”

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