Just an interview before Graham Nash goes back on tour

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For someone who has been a popular musician for more than six decades, dating back to the British invasion, Graham Nash shows no signs of slowing down at age 80.

As the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer works on a new solo album and a reunion with his earliest collaborator, Nash has just released a live double album featuring full performances of his beloved solo albums “Songs for Beginners” and “Wild Tales.” He also recently released a book of photographs called “A Life In Focus.”

With the worst of the pandemic behind us, Nash has several concerts coming up in our area:

July 14 at Infinity Hall in Hartford
July 16 at Tarrytown Music Hall
July 22 at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie
July 23 at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington
August 1 and 2 at the House Theater at Tree House in South Deerfield

Thank you, Ian. How are you doing?

I’m doing well, excited to talk to you as always. Thank you so much for coming back to the show. It’s been since before COVID-19 that we’ve spoken. So how have you been the last three years?

It’s been fabulous for me. I know that times are very difficult. But I was able to utilize this long downtime in the best way possible. And in as you as you mentioned, I’m actually after this interview, I’m going to the studio to finish the 10th track with my friend Allan Clarke. Allan Clarke and I started The Hollies in December of 1962. And it’s taken us almost 60 years to be able to sing together as an album. So it’s Allan Clarke’s solo record. But I’m singing on all the 10 tracks with him.

I also have a studio album that almost ready to go that was done mainly remotely. And if you don’t know what that means, I’ll explain quickly. I would put on a song on tape with my acoustic guitar and a voice, I would send it to my friend Shayne Fontaine, who lives in California to put on his guitars and maybe the bass and a vocal, he would send those files to my piano player, Todd Caldwell, who lives in Brooklyn, and I’m living in Manhattan right now. And he would send those files to his brother, Toby, who was the drummer on the live record that you just mentioned. And he would put the drums on. And the main technical difficulty is trying to make it sound like all those guys were in the same room at the same time. And I’ve managed to do that with this new record.

How do you like that process of recording versus the “old-fashioned” way of everyone getting into the same studio for weeks or months?

It’s very interesting. I’m, you know, I’m not a party goer. And I don’t go out to concerts with 20,000 other people on what a baseball game or basketball game. I’m not one of those people. So you know, my life didn’t change that much during this lockdown. Because I love to stay in my apartment and create. And that’s what that’s exactly what I did.

Getting ready to speak with you, I heard you talking about your home studio setup, which you described as being in the bathroom or a little room. Do I have that right?

Yes, it’s a very simple. It’s a very, very simple little studio. And he has a great microphone and La la la la la. And it’s laughable really. I mean, I’ve had studios all my life. I’ve had studios that took up entire buildings. But this one is in my bathroom.

And you’re satisfied with the sound you’re getting out of there?

Absolutely. Wait till you hear it.

So this is for the follow up to ‘This Path Tonight,’ which you wrote with Shayne Fontaine, your solo album from a few years ago. And any idea when we’ll hear this one?

Probably at the beginning of next year, which sounds like a long time, but it’s only about six months away.

What have you been writing about?

Everything that I write about: what the hell happens to me in my life right now. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve always just woken up in the morning and tried to figure out what it is I can talk about and before I write, I must feel something in my heart. I must recognize that. We must as artists reflect the time in which we live. And that’s what I do. And I challenge the universe to show me great stuff, particularly with my camera. In the mornings, when I’m walking out with my camera, I can just say an internal…it’s not a prayer, but it’s just a statement. I go, OK, universe, what have you got to show me? I know, there’s something crazy out there that you want me to see. Bring it on. And that’s what I do. And invariably, it works.

Is that part of the reason that you moved back east from your life in Hawaii?

It’s one of the reasons, yes. The island that I lived on in Hawaii, there’s not a great deal to do except enjoy the beautiful people and the beautiful countryside. But I needed more. And I moved to Manhattan, in New York, of course, eight years ago, and I wish I’d done it years earlier. This is an incredible city. I can hear 12 languages before I pick up my coffee. I see beauty in the gutter, I see beauty in the clouds, and everywhere in between.

One thing that kind of surprised me about you as I was preparing for this, our latest conversation, is that you consider yourself a private person, which you know, for somebody who makes his living on stage and on record might be a little unusual. So do you live like an anonymous life in New York City? Do people recognize you?

Oh, people do but it’s different here in New York. When people recognize me, they tap me on the shoulder and give me a thumbs up. They don’t ask me, you know, who Crosby slept with last night or what color my socks are? You know, or where’s Neil. It’s different on this coast. People are very respectful of artists. They’ve seen everything here. You know, and so it’s not a big deal if I’m walking around the Village, you know, people do recognize me, of course, you know, I mean, I been somewhat, you know, popular for 50 years. But no, it’s very different here in New York City. They’re very respectful.

When did you first come to New York City?

1965.

And that was with the Hollies?

That was with the Hollies, when we played at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. We were playing with Soupy Sales. It’s a name that you probably have never heard of. But he was very popular in the 60s in America. And they did an Easter Show. Little Richard and his band were the headliners. And The Hollies were one of maybe five or six acts that were on the same bill. So 1965 is the first time I came to America. I loved it, then I couldn’t wait to get back. And then when I finally had the opportunity I moved here.

Was Hendrix still with Little Richard then?

I’m afraid he was. One of my great memories is of one of the last shows. I watched from the side of the stage, you know, Little Richard as of course most of the musicians did. And then he started arguing. ‘Don’t you play your bloody guitar in the back of your head? Who the fuck do you think you are upstaging Little Richard?’ And they were arguing in the elevator. And as it goes up 10 floors, the argument became less and less discernible, but they were still arguing. And it was Jimi Hendrix.

Obviously the U.S. made quite an impact on you. Eventually you decided to become an American citizen. And as we’ve said, you’ve lived here for a long time. When you were starting out in the north of England, with your friend Allan Clarke, and then you know, The Hollies became a pop sensation, what did you envision for your career in music? Because at that time, rock music and pop music was still sort of new and it was ephemeral. And I get the sense that there was a question about how permanent it would be.

Yeah, wasn’t it Mick Jagger that said don’t trust anybody over 30? And look at us now. Mick Jagger is still rocking, still in great shape, still making good music. And you know, of course, you never thought that it would last this long. I mean, holy shit, I’m 80 years old now, you know, but I only know that when I look in the mirror, because internally, I’m still a teenager.

Has your perspective changed at all?

Yes, it has. And I’ll tell you why. We thought that Nixon was bad. We understood what was happening in Watergate. You know, we sang ‘Ohio,’ we sang ‘Military Madness,’ we sang ‘Chicago/We Can Change the World,’ we sang ‘Immigration Man.’ And those songs that I wrote all those years ago are still relevant today. And it is very disturbing. What I’m kind of witnessing right now, I think, is the end of the American empire. There are many empires that have risen and fallen in the last, you know, 2000 years, the Egyptians, the Russians, the British Empire, and I think I’m seeing the end of the American empire.

Are you keeping politics a part of your new songs that you’re writing right now?

Absolutely. Why not? Look what’s going. I think every artist, their main job is to reflect the times in which they are living. And the times in which I’m living are insane now. Totally insane. How we got Trump, how we got four years of that madness, how we got COVID, how we deal with the last two years of lockdown, it’s been insane. I have never…I’ve been here a long time, over 60 years. And I’ve never seen it this crazy.

I’d like to ask about your work with Allan Clarke a bit if that’s OK. You two became friends at age 6 and started singing together almost immediately. He had retired for a while. So what’s the material that you’re doing with him on this new album?

Every song except one was written by Allan. He sent me a couple of tracks and would I be interested in harmonizing with him and which I did. And then he just kept sending songs. And I liked them enough to want to sing on them. And I was honored to be able to sing with him, you know, as a duo for you know, after all these years of making music together, because as you said, he’s been my one of my main best friends for 74 years.

And did you find that the sound that you had captured as young men is still there?

Absolutely. Wait till you hear it. And I think Allan is thinking that his that his solo record with me on it will come out in October.

That’s so exciting, given the fact that he had hung it up, to have more music coming.

That’s true, but he is singing very, very well right now. When he quit The Hollies, I kind of I kind of wondered, how does somebody’s voice disappear, you know, I mean, how does that work? And I began to realize that maybe it was just an excuse that he needed to be able to leave The Hollies, you know, because Holy Toledo, he is singing great right now.

I have another question about your time in The Hollies. You were obviously a great harmony singing band. And a lot of the songs, even though you have described them as sort of moon and June pop songs, the vocal parts are very intricate. And your band often had to play over screaming girls. So I’m wondering as a singer, an intricate singer, how you approached concerts like that in the era of the screaming?

We knew that the music that we created that made people scream and rush the stage and all that kind of stuff, that was the emotional part of music. And we just kept doing it because they were reacting and rushing the stage and pulling our clothes apart. You know, it was complete madness, I must admit. But of course, later, you know, when, for instance, when we did Woodstock, you know, me and Crosby singing ‘Guinevere.’ There were just two voices and one acoustic guitar to a half a million people, that was it different thing. But yeah, we played music regardless of what was coming back.

I saw your show from which this album is drawn in Albany when you had a new band put together and you played your first two solo albums back to back. Is part of your album from the concert in Albany?

Yes, and with each track at the end of the track, I say which show it came from. I only did four shows but I’ve marked where every track comes from. And several of them, of course, are from Albany.

How did you like that particular band?

I was amazed at their musicianship. I was amazed that we were able to pull off a really fine recording, when we’d only rehearsed for a week. When Shayne Fontaine, my guitar player and Todd Caldwell, my keyboard player, put the band together, obviously the band were sent the original albums. And so they kind of knew the songs. But I wanted to do it exactly in the same order. And there is no talking on the record. I mean, yes, I do welcome them at the beginning. Thank you for coming. And at the end of ‘Wild Tales’ at the end of the of the evening, I say thank you for coming, but there’s no talking.

The Graham Nash who wrote that those albums, especially the first one, was going through some, you know, emotional turmoil. A lot of the songs, you’ve said, are about the breakup you had with Joni Mitchell. How come it didn’t work out with Joni?

How come any relationship doesn’t work out? Who knows what the real reason was? Usually, it’s a bunch of reasons all together that culminate in something that you argue about and then the relationship is over. I spent a couple of years with Joni, they were magical years. I love her to death. Who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t? But at some point I believe that Joni thought that if we were going to marry, that I would want her to clean and cook. And that was the furthest from my mind. Who in their right mind would ever want Joni Mitchell to not write and just cook eggs and bacon?

You have stayed friends, though.

Absolutely. My last contact with Joni was about two weeks ago. She was made Person of the Year at the Grammy’s MusicCares program. It raises money to be able to help musicians that have lost their way and need help desperately. And so each year they anoint a person of the year. And last year was Joni and I sang ‘A Case of You.’ I couldn’t be there in person because I was on tour. But I did a video of me and Shayne and Todd doing ‘A Case of You.’ And it’s a beautiful recording of that song. It’s one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs.

You were talking earlier in this interview about writing songs at home and then sending the track off in pieces. Do you start writing on piano or guitar nowadays?

I start with my mind. I have to really feel something before I can start to write about it. I have to search my heart and then search the internet for as much information I can about what it is I’m about to try and write and then I start to write and I’ll use whatever I’ve got. If I don’t have a piano or a guitar. You know, I can imagine guitars in my mind. You know, I’m a musician. But I do love to be able to write music and then spread it around with people And I do miss being in a studio with four or five guys or ladies and make music together at the same time. But these COVID times precluded my being able to do that. But I did take full advantage of being locked down for two years. It didn’t change my life too much. I’ve always wanted to stay in my apartment and create and the two years gave me that opportunity.

Did you miss performing?

I did. I’m a musician. The first thing you do when you write a decent song is play it for somebody. And I certainly don’t want to waste your time playing you a song that isn’t worth anything. I want to make sure that the music I’m sharing is worth sharing.

In your family, where did your creativity and your artistic ability come from?

It came from the encouragement of my mother and father when I was 13 and 14 years old, and I was listening to the American Top 40 and I was plunking around on a cheap acoustic guitar trying to learn three chords so I could play every song that Buddy Holly ever wrote. They didn’t try and dissuade me and get a real job. I mean, the real job in Manchester where I came from, actually Salford, which is a suburb of Manchester, I mean, you only had two jobs, you either went down the mine to dig coal or you went into the mill to make cloth. And that was what you’re supposed to do. And I managed to be able to be encouraged by my mother and father in my passion for this new kind of music. And I’ll be forever grateful.

You’ve talked about the fact that your dad went to prison for a year. And the reason was he had brought home a camera for you, which ignited a lifelong passion. And the police later found out the camera had been stolen, and he would not reveal the name of the person who sold him the camera. So he ended up going to jail. What was that year like for you and your family? Were you able to see him?

I never did. Not for a year. At 14, I had to become the man of the family. I was the only son of course, I have two sisters. But I had to make sure that the door was locked and the lights were off and that the fire was dampened down. And I had to do all the stuff that my dad did, because nobody else was there to do it. So I had to become the man of my family. And it was very difficult for us. You know, after World War II, there was a lot of rationing. You had to have coupons to be able to get sugar or bread or milk. It was it was a bad time. You know, I lived in Salford, which I found out later was one of the worst slums in England. I never knew that, you know, I mean, everybody around me was the same. Everybody around me had the same amount of money, which was none. So nobody was any, any higher than anybody else. And it was it was difficult. But you know, I think I think what happened is that the year in jail and the humiliation that my father must have felt, you know, when people looked at us funny because dad was in jail, I think it broke his heart and he died at 46.

That’s so sad. Do you think about him a lot?

I think about him every single day.

Why was the post-war period in England so fruitful for music, especially the type of music that you were making?

Because after World War II, what did 14-year-old kids have to do in Manchester? Yeah, they’d have a ball to kick around. But what could you do? You know, and then skiffle came around, and particularly a man called Lonnie Donegan. He brought skiffle to England, because he was an Irish folk singer that had gone to America and seeing people like Leadbelly and all the folk people, Pete Seeger and the Weavers etc. And brought this very simple music back to England. And when I say simple, I mean, if you had an a cheap acoustic guitar, and a tea chest bass, which was just a pole on a base with a piece of string, use it as a bass, and a washboard that your mother used to and your grandmother used to do your clothes with, you would put thimbles on your fingers. And you know, that kind of thing for drums, so we could make music, we could make music. And that’s what we did. And then later, you know, it expanded. We heard the American rock and roll and we were off and running.

How did you get your hands on real instruments eventually?

I had a friend called Fred Moore. And he had a bicycle. And he drove his bicycle from England to Bad Nauheim in Germany and met Elvis. And I wanted a bicycle desperately. But my mother and father couldn’t afford a bicycle. They were expensive. And so my mother said, Is there anything else you might want for your 13th, 14th birthday? I said, yeah, you know, if I can’t have a bicycle, maybe a guitar? And so they bought me a cheap guitar. And that’s one of the reasons why you and I are speaking right now.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Elvis?

No. I did see him. I never met him. Crosby, Stills Nash and Young were playing at the Forum in Los Angeles. Huge show. We were in a limousine driving down Sunset Boulevard. We’re smoking dope in the car, of course. We stopped at a light. And I realized that the car next to me was a black Cadillac. And inside was Elvis. And we wound the window down and waved and he kind of half saluted and drove off. And that was my meeting with Elvis.

Have you done any Elvis songs in your career?

I’ve never been asked that question. Wow. I don’t believe I ever have. No, I don’t believe I ever have done an Elvis song.

Can you think of one that you would want to do?

Yeah, there is one. Elvis did a version of ‘Blue Moon’ that I still remember to this day. I used to work in a record shop when I was about 15 or 16 years old selling records. And I remember it was a foggy day in Salford and I’m walking towards the record store. And they had a speaker outside the record store playing music and it was Elvis doing ‘Blue Moon.’ And I thought it was such an incredible sound. You know? And what about ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for a great sound? Come on, man. Fantastic. And when you realize that those songs were only done on two tracks? I mean, now I have 1000 tracks in my bloody iPhone. It’s insane how much technology has changed. But then ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘Heartbreak Hotel?’ What great songs.

OK, if that pops into the Graham Nash setlist on this tour, I will be happy to take credit for it. Just one more question for you. You tell a story about writing ‘Just A Song Before I Go’ as a bet before you had to catch a plane and you were able to do it in half an hour. It became a big hit. What has been a time where the opposite was true and you just couldn’t nail one of your songs?

‘Cathedral.’ It took me three years. It took me four years to get the words correctly. You got to understand, Ian, when you’re talking about people’s religion, you better make sure every single word is correct. And because ‘Cathedral’ was a song about an acid trip that I took many years ago to Stonehenge and to Winchester Cathedral. You know, it was it was basically about what acid had taught me, that you know that people’s religion is precious to them, and that I better make sure that I got all the words correct. And that’s why it took me a long time to write ‘Cathedral.’

It’s a complicated song musically, though, but you had the music down and it was the words, huh?

Yeah, it was the words because when, like I said when you’re talking about people’s god you better make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Were you afraid to perform it given the subject matter at all?

No, once I realized that I’d gotten the words correct. The first time we ever did, it was at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. And it was a Crosby-Nash show. We sang the song, came to the end. They applauded. At the end of the applause, somebody shouted out, ‘Do it again.’ And we did. And so the first time I ever did ‘Cathedral’ was twice.


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