With a new solo album on the way music legend Graham Nash is heading for Bluesfest!
By Brian Wise.
Perhaps you shouldn’t talk to someone due to turn 74 years of age soon about mortality but it is an inevitable conversation starter with Graham Nash, one third of Crosby, Stills & Nash and a quarter of CSN and Young since 1968.
Nash, who was last here with his pals David Crosby and Stephen Stills in 2012, is just about to start an American tour in support of a brand new album, which means he will have twenty gigs under his belt before he arrives here for Bluesfest.
When we catch up by phone it is just a few weeks after Eagle Glenn Frey died unexpectedly after battling health issues for some months.
Nash had known Frey since the late ‘60s when Nash, the former member of the Hollies, left the band he helped to form in December 1962 and daringly relocated to Los Angeles
“He was a friend. We actually lived on the same island in the Hawaiian chain for about 30 years,” says Nash. “A very sad death and way too young to leave us, of course. I keep coming back to the same thought that I always have when we lose somebody like that – what songs are in their head that we will never hear?”
That’s true but as a key writer for America’s most commercially successful band Frey has left us a great legacy of songs that epitomise the laidback South Californian sound of the ‘70s.
“Absolutely,” agrees Nash. “He was a really, truly fine musician.”
As a 25 year-old Graham Nash arrived in Los Angeles to find an amazingly fertile scene with literally hundreds of musicians living in the canyons that surround the city, most notably Laurel Canyon.
You can read all about it in Barney Hoskyns’ excellent books Hotel California: The True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Waiting For The Sun: A Rock & Roll History of Los Angeles. Then there’s Michael Walker’s great work Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.
Of course, you can also read all about that and more in Nash’s own autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life – a terrific read and a detailed and fascinating look back at his career. The Los Angeles era figures prominently and he gives a surprisingly honest appraisal of his relationship with Joni Mitchell and the intriguing and ongoing relationship with Crosby, Stills and Young.
Suffice it to say, that the canyon scene produced some of the most respected, creative and successful musicians of all time: Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt Warren Zevon, Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young. And, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash, who also later teamed up with Neil. Then there was Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Little Feat but that’s another story.
“It was, absolutely,” agrees Nash when I mention that it must have been a wonderful scene. “It was warm and sunny and free and full of music, full of friends, full of dinners and parties, exchanging ideas and some of the new songs. It was a great time.”
“I think I was born in a really great age,” he continues, “because, I’m alive at the same time as the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Joni all the great musicians that exist today.”
While music is obviously the major part of Nash’s life, the other aspect is politics and he has been committed to various ‘liberal’ causes since the ‘60s. The CSNY Freedom of Speech tour in 2006 was the most recent manifestation of that commitment. It is not unusual for Nash to spend some time in a concert talking about various causes or encouraging audience members to become involved.
Our interview is on the eve of the Iowa and New Hampshire Presidential primaries. Having spoken about one of his favourite people in Glenn Frey, I now ask him about one of his least favourite people, Donald Trump. I mention that from afar we look at Trump’s campaign with a certain disbelief.
“I don’t quite have the same disbelief because in a population of over 300 million there’s bound to be a few stupid people out there,” he responds. “I think that Donald Trump is brilliant at playing to the fear within those people. I think he does a great disservice to democracy and I’m not happy at all about it but I’m not surprised. Don’t forget, we elected Ronald Reagan twice and don’t forget we elected George Bush.
I mention that there must be more than more than just a few stupid people out there and he laughs.
“I was being English,” he says and I congratulate him on his diplomacy.
Of course, Nash ran into a few of those people on the Freedom of Speech tour in 2006. If you have seen the film of the tour you will have noted the fiery reaction from some of the right-wing audience members to the political songs.
“That [hostility]became very evident,” explains Nash. “I’d never been on a tour where there were bomb sniffing dogs and I’d never been on a tour where – at a certain point in the program where we sang a song about ‘Let’s impeach the President for lying’ – about ten per cent of the audience walked out. They had every right to walk out, absolutely, but you know what the truth is? I would like to ask those people right now what they think of what happened to George Bush, if they thought he was still a great President, because I’m sure that a majority of them will have changed their minds by now?”
Nash has no problem speaking his mind about music and politics, what is more surprising is that he is also very forthcoming about his personal life and the inspiration for his brand new album, This Path Tonight.
Apparently, the inspiration for the title song – and what prompted the recording of the album – came at a Napa Valley winery where Nash, an accomplished photographer, was opening an exhibition of his photographs. [Nash also has a thriving photography business called Nash Editions that specialises in fine art digital prints].
As he walked through the winery he began thinking about his life’s journey and the path that he was about to take.
“Well, when you’re faced with life’s changes you better get on the horse and ride him out,” explains Nash, adding that he wanted the album to be ‘a personal journey.’
“I was married for 38 years and it just sort of wound itself down,” he continues. “At the same time I found new woman in my life, loving me and supporting me and they are dramatic changes in my life – but at least I have the courage to talk about them.”
“Where will it lead me?’ sings Nash in ‘This Path Tonight’. “I’m stumbling to my heart’s desire.”
I ask Nash if the process of making the album was cathartic for him.
“Very much so,” he replies. “How lucky are we to be to able get our feelings out. We have a form of expression that is fantastic and it’s one of the reasons why I really love the United States because we get to speak our mind. No one has to agree with you.”
“I try to question all the answers,” he sings and adds later, “I may not know where I’m going but I’m on this path tonight.”
The ten songs for the new album, which is due out a couple of weeks after Bluesfest, were written in a burst of activity in October last year. Nash got in touch with producer Shayne Fontayne, former sideman for Springsteen and Maria McKee, to help make his first solo album of new music in fourteen years.
Nash and Fontayne wrote twenty songs in a month and then took a mere eight days to record them. Fontayne, who played guitar, put together a splendid studio band consisting of Todd Caldwell (Hammond organ), Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (piano). You’ll notice that several of the musicians are often favoured by Joe Henry for his productions.
“I’ve known Shane for four or five years,” says Nash. “He was playing with a great American songwriter called Marc Cohn when David and I did a show with Marc. We were so impressed with Shane that we decided that we would try and make music with him. He’s been playing music with us now for at least the last four or five years.”
“I don’t think he’s been producing anything,” he continues. “I think this is the first album he’s produced other than his own solo records. He’s done a remarkable, remarkable job. I wanted a certain feel, a certain sound on my record, a certain demo kind of feel, funky, and he put together an incredible band.”
“It was the only time I’ve ever recorded where I’ve had to introduce myself before we started to play,” laughs Nash. “I’d never met Jay Bellerose, the beautiful drummer before. I’d never met him!”
“It was very fresh. It wasn’t better,” replies Nash when I ask him how the latest sessions compared with working on CSN albums. “It was fresh and new and unexpected. The second track called ‘Myself At Last’ – that’s the first attempt at the first song we tried. One take, start to finish, no overdubs, everything complete.”
It sounds like it was a revitalising experience for him going into the studio again.
“Absolutely, absolutely!” he enthuses. “It’s a great feeling going into a great studio with great musicians and songs that you believe in.”
For the forthcoming tour Nash will be presenting a show that we have never seen him give here previously. Quite different to the last time he was here with CSN and also the first time he toured Australia in the ‘60s with The Hollies!
“I’m going to strip all the songs down to the very essence of how we wrote them,’ he explains, “and I’m going to do a kind of an acoustic tour, albeit solo, but Shane will join me on guitar. When I get to the summer tour that’s when I’ll go out with that entire band that we just made the record with.
“When you do strip a song down to it’s essence, you’ve either got a good song or you don’t.”
“It’s going to be a little more personal or a little more intimate,” says Nash of his forthcoming shows. “Obviously there’s no way that I’m not going to sing ‘Chicago’ or any of the other stuff that I wrote that is a little stronger but I’ll give people a good sense of the history of my personal music, from my days with the Hollies all the way to David and Stephen and David and Stephen and Neil and all our songs and stuff.”
“I’m probably going to start with some Hollies stuff,” promises Nash. “I started that band and left in 1968. The Hollies made some great music. They really were a fantastic band.”
The Hollies following reached right to the top. When he met the Queen in 2010 to receive his OBE Nash was stunned when her Majesty asked him about the band.
In Nash’s six years with The Hollies they released 13 singles and eight albums. Nash also wrote one of the band’s best songs, ‘King Midas In Reverse,’ but it was not a commercial success, barely reaching the Top 20 after a string of Top 10 hits. Amazingly, it was not included on UK version of the group’s 1967 album Butterfly.
I have to admit that ‘King Midas in Reverse,’ is my absolute favourite Hollies song. I still have the original single!
“I love that song myself also,” says Nash.
“That could have seen a big change in direction in the band but it wasn’t necessarily as successful as it should have been, I think?” he continues. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the Hollies and I started to drift apart.
“They started not to trust me and then they wanted to do an album of Bob Dylan songs that I didn’t agree with. Then I’d heard Neil and David and Stephen sing together and that’s all I wanted for the rest of my life.”
And a good decision that turned out to be too!
“I believe so,” he agrees, “although they did have the audacity to have a couple of Number One records after I left!”
I tell Nash that the Hollies Sing Dylan is one of my son’s favorite albums. We discovered it at a friend’s beach house one summer and, let’s face it, Dylan’s voice is an acquired taste and not likely to appeal to youngsters. The Hollies provided another entry into his songwriting.
“Maybe I’ll check it out,” says Nash. “I was so against it I’ve never actually listened to it, so maybe I will check it out.”
One of the other aspects of Nash’s recent career is his work on compiling and releasing the CSN archives – individually and collectively. Last year we enjoyed CSNY 1974, the multiple disc and DVD box set that chronicled the infamous 30 date US tour (plus one concert in the UK). Crosby called it the ‘doom tour’ and while it grossed US$11 million, the band members got less than half a million each.
“Right now I’m going to concentrate on me,” remarks Nash when I ask if we can expect anything else from the archives. “I’ve concentrated on me and David and Stephen and Neil for the last 10 years. I need a break from their music.
“What probably is the next major thing will be that some of our best shows were done at the Fillmore East in 1970 and 1971 and all those shows were recorded and several of them were filmed. So that’s probably going to be the next big archive kind of thing.
“I’m also working on a album of acoustic stuff of me and Crosby from 1992 with Jeff Porcaro and Craig Doerge. Fabulous, fabulous record. So, there’s a lot to come.”
After spending some time on the phone with Nash it seems obvious that he maintains a passion for music.
“I have so much passion for music it’s hard for me to sleep!” he laughs. We’ll get a chance to share that passion at Bluesfest!
This Path Tonight by Graham Nash is due for release on April 15 on Blue Castle Records.