By Brian Ives
Graham Nash is going through a strange time; at age 74, he’s in the midst of a divorce from his wife of nearly 40 years, and his future with Crosby Stills and Nash seems uncertain (and the future of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, as always, seems way less certain). But things aren’t all dark: he’s in the beginning of a new romantic relationship, and his creative partnership with CSN touring guitarist Shane Fontayne has led to a full album worth of songs that hold up to his catalog, This Path Tonight.
He spoke about all of these topics, as well as the upcoming Presidential election, in a a recent interview with Radio.com.
So, in 2016, most people would expect a Graham Nash solo album to have political leaning lyrics, but you had so much going on in your personal life this time around.
This Path Tonight is, I guess, an emotional journey through my life as it is right now. There are some political songs on there, but they’re the three bonus tracks. One was written by Shane and I about Michael Brown when he was killed in Ferguson in Missouri, and the other one about the three students that were killed in mid-sixties when they were helping black people vote in Mississippi. And those songs didn’t quite fit with the emotional journey that my personal life is going through right now. That’s why they’re the bonus tracks. But This Path Tonight is what’s happening to me, right now, in my life at 74 years old.
Did you hesitate to write about your life and put it all out there, given what you’ve been going through?
I think that one of the responsibilities of an artist is to be as honest as possible. And This Path Tonight are songs about what’s happening to me right now. I’ve been married to the same woman for almost 40 years, and we’re getting divorced. It’s chaotic and it’s traumatic; there are children and grandchildren involved. But at 74 years old, I need to think that whatever I have left of my life, I’m gonna be reasonably happy.
I can see why you’d want to do a solo album; I imagine it might be uncomfortable to work on these songs around guys who you’ve known for fifty years.
That’s a pretty accurate statement. For the last 10 or 12 years I’ve been totally immersed in the music of CSN and CSNY. I’ve put out about 16 CDs in the last 10 years, David’s boxed set and Stephen’s boxed set and my boxed set, and the CSNY 1974 boxed set and the Greatest Hits and the Demos [collection]—I’ve been a busy boy. This year is for Graham Nash. I really am very proud of this record, and I need to give it the best shot as possible, because we’re competing for [media attention] with Justin Bieber’s monkey.
This feels like a different album for you.
It’s a poignant album, but my life is like that right now. I must tell you that as a writer, it’s a great compliment when you sing a brand new song to someone, and they get on their feet clapping at the end. That’s a tremendous compliment for an artist. Because I understand if they hear “Guinnevere” or “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “Our House” or “Teach Your Children,” I understand that they like them; they’re 45 years old, those songs. But a brand new song they’ve never heard that they’re standing on their feet for, fantastic.
It must be challenging to write songs that hold up to your catalog.
It’s challenging, but don’t forget, if a song makes it through my filters, there’s probably a good chance of you enjoying it too. It’s gonna get past me first. And I’m my worst critic.
So talk about the song “This Path Tonight”: on it, you sing “I try my best to be myself, but wonder who’s behind this mask?” I think a lot of people could relate to that.
Yes, who am I? I know who I’ve been for the last 74 years, and I’ve been a musician and an artist and a person that tries to communicate, but who am I really when all this is gone? I have a song on the album called “Encore,” which suggests the same thing. Who are we when the last song is over, when the last show is done? We’ve got to be human beings and decent people, and I hope I’m heading in that direction.
I thought “Encore” was a great ending to the album (bonus tracks aside). It is a real poignant song. When you’ve been playing to large audiences for 50 years, I’m sure that applause becomes something like a drug.
Exactly. Life is not easy, and we should be grateful that we’re alive and breathing and reasonably creative, and I feel very grateful, and I feel very lucky to be here in America.
I think I’ve been busier in this last five years of my life than I’ve ever been. And it doesn’t show any sign of stopping, and I’m glad.
Are there more songs that you recorded from this album?
We recorded twenty songs in eight days. So and there’s only ten on the album with three bonus tracks, so that leaves another seven that we really like. And I’m still writing with Shane today. So yeah, everything looks good.
How did Shane join CSN’s live band? Stills is obviously a great lead guitar player and you and Crosby play rhythm.
We first met Shane when he was playing with Marc Cohn, a great American songwriter. Crosby and I were gonna go to Europe [as a duo]; our guitar player, Dean Parks, didn’t want to go to Europe because he was a very [in-demand] session player, and if you leave for months you kinda lose your place in the queue, and he didn’t want to do that, because he’d spent a lifetime building up a clientele.
So at the same time as that was happening, we sang with Marc at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, and Shane was the guitar player. So we talked to Shane, and he learned me and Crosby’s set, which was at that time I think about 35 songs. He learned them all in two to three days.
When did it became clear that he was the collaborator that you needed for this album?
Here’s what happened. Because of what I’m going through in my personal life, I’d started to write a lot of lyrics about what was going on with me. And I would write a set of lyrics at night, and I would email them to Shane. And lo and behold, the next morning there’d be a new song. He’d put all my words to music. So on this record, the truth is that 98 percent of the lyrics are mine and 98 percent of the music is Shane’s.
It’s a good relationship. I’m not fond of writing with other people most times. But writing with Shane was a pure joy and still is.
“Myself at Last” has a lyric that resonates with me – I’m in my 40s – but I think it works for anyone at any age. “And the day that is before me may never be surpassed,” that’s a great thing to be able to say at any age.
The song “Myself at Last,” which is as you know the second song on the record, is actually the very first attempt at the very first song we tried. Wow.
I imagine that “Encore” speaks to the experience of a lot of your peers.
I hoped it speaks a lot of people. This is my intent, through music to touch your heart and to touch your mind and to maybe have you remember feelings you went through or feelings that are happening to you right now.
Talk about “The Fall.”
That was a personal song from me to my girlfriend, Amy Grantham, who also did all the photography on the artwork. Yeah, she was going through enormous personal changes with her previous boyfriend, and it was a song that I wrote to Amy to comfort her.
One of the bonus tracks is “Mississippi Burning,” which reminded me a bit of Richard Thompson, who I know you covered on your last solo album.
Right, yeah. It’s very unusual for me. I wanted it to sound like it was done in the field with people working in the field singing. I wanted it to have that kind of, not a “recording,” but a “happening.” And I think I got that from Shane. He produced a fabulous track for that song. It’s very different from a lot of my music.
I know you’ve played some of the new songs with CSN. Any hesitance to play these songs with them?
I didn’t wanna work with David and Stephen on this record. I just didn’t. I could’ve. I could’ve called them, they could’ve come down and sung or played or played lead guitar or done something. I wanted this to be a personal form of expression. I didn’t need anybody’s help to get my feelings out.
I can imagine Crosby singing on some of these songs.
I’m sure it’ll happen at some point.
When I last spoke with you, we were talking about the CSNY 1974 box set, and we started discussing the CSN album that you started working on with Rick Rubin. You said that you guys left the record label, they own the record, you’ll never let them put it out, and that you started re-recording the album at Jackson Browne’s studio. Do you think that album will ever come out?
I’ve got a million things on my mind for us to do. But it’s very difficult to get three people on the same page that have busy lives. [pause] If I was to make a guess, I don’t think that record will come out.
Is there a timeline in your mind for when CSN will start working again?
The last show that CSN did was the one song that we did, “Silent Night,” at the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I haven’t spoken to David since then. [pause] I need a rest from them, quite frankly.
Given the drama going on in your life, I guess you didn’t really need the drama of a band also.
What was the significance to you of playing at the Obama White House?
Having met Barack Obama several times, I do believe he has a great heart, and he has a great brain. I believe he tried his best. I believe that the Republicans from day one decided that they would not say “Yes” to anything that he proposed. I think he’s been finding an incredible uphill battle against the Republicans, and I think he tried his absolute best to be a great president. And to me, when you think of somebody like George W. Bush, there’s absolutely no comparison.
Don’t you think history will remember him as a good/great President? He didn’t get everything done that he wanted to…
He’s been trying to close down Guantanamo Bay; granted he should have done that seven years ago…
He couldn’t do it seven years ago. But there’s also immigration and the Defense of Marriage Act, and Obamacare, I think he’s done a tremendous amount for the people. In terms of politics, I certainly wish that Bernie [Sanders] had a little more foreign policy expertise. I think that’s where he’s lacking a little, and that’s where Hilary [Clinton] really shines, having been Secretary of State, of course. But it doesn’t look like a crazy house.
If the Republican race is now a three-man race, right, with Trump and Cruz and Rubio, and there’s only Hilary and Bernie, that means that one of those five people will be your next president. I feel very comfortable with two of them. But there’s another three. Listen, remember this country elected Ronald Reagan twice. We elected George Bush twice. Anything can happen.
And Donald Trump, as crazy as people think he is, he’s showing brilliance at the game that he’s playing in terms of attaching himself to fearful things. A lot of people are saying, “Well, he’s saying what everybody else wants to say but don’t have the courage to say,” and it may be true. But let’s hope that he’s not speaking to the majority of American people who agree with him. I think it would be crazy to have Donald Trump as president.
Would you do fundraisers for anyone running?
Yeah, but it’s very difficult to actually back politicians, because the first thing they have to do is get reelected. And the power of that process is to take money from people that want something in return. Everyone is saying all these millions of dollars that are being spent by large corporations and individual wealthy people to be able to buy democracy, that’s really happening. The Koch brothers are really trying to buy the democracy of the United States. And I think it behooves everyone to recognize what they’re doing.
Back to music: is there any chance CSNY will play together again, given the very public spat between David Crosby and Neil Young? You seem to be the guy who can get everybody on the same page.
I’m not sure I can undo this one. This one is a deep one. You can’t insult Neil Young personally like that and hope to get away with it. And I told David that he was wrong to have said that and that he should jump on it and try and figure it out with Neil. But he waited about a year, and that’s way too long, and he did it publicly on The Howard Stern Show, apologized to Neil. But it was way too late. Hey listen, I’m the guy that wrote “Wasted on the Way” because of all the songs that I wish we had written and had sung and had been together enough to make more music than we did. But I guess it’s what it is. I mean if CSN or CSNY never play another note of music, then that’s how it is.
It sounds like there’s a bit of sadness in your voice at the prospect of never playing with them again.
There is a sadness in my voice, because I love the music. When we put our voices together behind a great song and make a great track, we do good work. And I want it. There’s a definite need for what we do in this world, and if some ill-chosen words between David and Neil mean that CSNY will never play again, that’s sad. Of course there’s a sadness in my voice. I love those guys.
When you say there’s a “need” for what you do… I was at your 2006 tour, where you performed songs from Neil’s “Living With War” album. Most bands with your history playing amphitheaters in the summer stick with the hits; that was a really aggressive show. It still amazes me that you got booed for singing “Let’s Impeach the President.”
The one thing that I was curious about is, if you buy a ticket to a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young show, what are you gonna expect?
You know, the truth is probably almost every night between 7 and 10 percent of the audience would leave when we got to “Let’s Impeach the President.” And not only that, I would like to speak to every single one of em who thought George W. Bush was an incredibly great president and see what they think about him now.
Are the other archival projects that you’re working on?
There are many other projects. Right now I’m putting together the finishing touches on an album… David and I have been lucky enough to sing with some incredible artists. And so the album I’m putting together now is David and I singing with James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, Michael Hedges, John Mayer, Jimmy Webb. Incredible album.
And I’m using, if I get to do what is in my mind, I’m using the original master of the singles. For instance, “Mexico” by James Taylor, big hit, right? That’s me and David singing with James. “Doctor My Eyes” with Jackson Browne. That’s me and David singing with Jackson. “Love the One You’re With” with Stephen, that’s me and David singing with Stephen doing the backgrounds. We’ve done backgrounds on a lot of great songs. And it’s really a phenomenal record.
Obviously you’re a guy who can run the show in the studio; what’s your approach to being a guest singer on someone else’s album?
I want to be used as a tool. If you’re gonna ask me and David to sing with you, let us do what we did. My father once said, “Never buy a dog and bark yourself.” So if you’re gonna ask me and David to sing, get out the way. We know what we’re doing.
One of the projects that I’d really like to do is CSNY at the Fillmore East in 1970 and 1971. Some of those shows were filmed, and some of them were recorded. And they were really excellent shows; we were a great band. That’s one of the things I wanted to do with the CSNY 1974 box is let people know that this CSNY band was an incredible rock ’n’ roll band.
How long would it take to put the Fillmore album out?
Oh, that’ll be a several year project. It took me four years to put the CSNY ’74 stuff together, but now there’s film, right, of the Fillmore East stuff. So it would be an interesting project, but one that was well worth it I think.
Is it now more difficult to get everyone to sign off on this because of the drama within the band?
I want to ask you about something you told me about last time we spoke. You told me that you’re good friends with a guy who runs a military based magazine called Jane’s, and that you want to work with him to change the way the military is perceived.
I talked to him two days ago. His name is Nick Cook, and he’s a writer for Jane’s magazine, the military magazine, which has been there for, I don’t know, 120 years in England. And he has an interesting thing that he wants to do. He wants to change the profile of the military. Why when you say “the military did it,” why is that a negative? Why aren’t they heroes? Why aren’t they solving climate change? Why aren’t they investigating new forms of energy? They have the budget. They have the brains. The military could be heroes of this world instead of this kind of strange, negative thing that they seem to be now. Why not? Why not take all that incredible energy, all that incredible money, and all those incredible brains and do something instead of making bullets to kill people with?
Is that idea getting traction with military leaders?
Yeah. This year I’m gonna be meeting with Nick and a bunch of military people to try and push this idea a little further. There’s no reason why the military can’t be the heroes of the world. Nick Cook, who wrote this book called In Search of Zero Point, which is a book about German aviation at the end of World War II and the control of gravity in terms of flying machines. It’s a brilliant book. But Nick’s point about making the military into heroes is one that I could really get behind.
Let me ask about your other former bandmate: Allan Clarke. You told me last time that you were warming to the idea of perhaps doing something with him in the future.
It depends on whether Allan can sing continuously. When we were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 and I got him over to come and sing, he could sing for a half hour, but if you’re gonna [air quotes] “do something,” then it’s weeks, or tour for months or whatever it is. Allan, I think he’s one of the most underrated lead singers of any band from the British Invasion. The guy’s got an incredible voice. But I have no plans. We have been talking lately, but we have no plans to do anything.
You’re TV show in the early ’90s, where you interviewed artists including Gregg Allman and Queen Latifah, was really cool. Is there any chance it could ever come out on DVD, or even just release mp3s of some of the performances?
I sure hope so, and I’m gonna talk to the people that produced that, because I thought there was some really interesting interviews. Grace Slick, Dwight Yoakam… Gregg telling that incredible story of him shooting himself in the foot to get out of the Vietnam War, it’s like yeah. And Queen Latifah and me? Look at this white boy. I’m talking to Queen Latifah; she was a vision. She was beautiful. Yeah, Inside Track is what the series was called, and I think I did thirteen of them. The masters are around somewhere, and I am, in fact, gonna try and track them down and see if we can revitalize that.
It wasn’t easy to do. I had an earpiece in [during the shows], and I was getting four conversations, one from the director, one from the floor manager, “Oh, the lady over there in the pink dress. Walk over to her, she has a question.” And then trying to be normal and natural. It was quite difficult, but I think I pulled it off.