Written by: David Porter
(Photo courtesy of Geoff Tischman)
In 1982, following the release of his eponymous debut, a young Marshall Crenshaw told Kurt Loder, “that’s what I wanted: to have a job to do and have it be music”.
Jaggedland, released on 429 Records this past June, is Crenshaw’s tenth studio album and his first since 2003’s What’s in the Bag? Featuring production by Jerry Boys and performances by a diverse group of industry legends, including Greg Leisz, Jim Keltner and Wayne Kramer, Jaggedland bears the usual Crenshaw hallmarks – dreamy hooks, thoughtful lyrics and impeccable musicianship. Two of the album’s finest songs, “Passing Through” and “Sunday Blues”, are heartfelt, melodic pop epics that can line up alongside any of his classic songs.
After 30 years, his music still evokes an era when pop songs were shimmering confections of less than three minutes, recorded in mono with analog equipment in Clovis (NM), Detroit, Memphis or London, to be played on portable record players and AM radios. “What you fall in love with at 17 does stay with you”, Crenshaw told John Bruenig of The Stamford Advocate in 2006.
Without further ado, the Stereo Embers interview with Marshall Crenshaw.
This is easy…
Stereo Embers: What did you love so much about Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban’s Mambo Sinuendo (2003)? How did this come to bear on the writing and recording of Jaggedland?
Marshall Crenshaw: One thing about Mambo Sinuendo that I loved, as it relates to Jaggedland, is just the sound of it, the way it’s recorded – it suits my taste exactly. Jerry Boys (engineer on Mambo Sinuendo) is just a really fine craftsperson and artiste…If you haven’t heard the record, I’d describe it as sort of retro-futuristic, highly sensual twangy guitar rock ‘n’ roll music from Havana – right up my alley. But again, the way Mambo Sinuendo influenced Jaggedland is that I wound up connecting with Jim Keltner (drums) and Jerry Boys because of it.
SE: In the press release for Jaggedland, you are quoted as follows: “It’s getting pretty jagged out there”, and in “Eventually” you sing about watching Headline News: “Sociopaths and fools on parade/Of course we all will be paying for the mess they’ve made/There’s more dark business in the newspapers/And magazines on the shelf…” Can you expound on this “dark business” and what’s making it “pretty jagged out there”? This is the first time you’ve mentioned politics or social issues in one of your songs. What’s changed?
Marshall Crenshaw: My stuff isn’t what you might call “lyric-driven”, but I do have huge respect for the power of words, good writing, etc. I wanted to try and take things up a few notches this time, in terms of focus and quality, and to break some new ground in terms of subject matter. When I was writing the lyrics for the songs on Jaggedland, I wanted to make sure it all reflected what I felt and believed and cared about, whether it was a love song or something else…So a lot of what I’ve been emotionally involved with over the last few years is in those songs. The lyrics you cite above were written in December 2008, just as the US economy was imploding. To just block all of that out and write another love song would’ve been weird…
SE: “Passing Through” seems to be about walking through New York: “In our old shoes we walked last night/Sparkling concrete under the lights/Traffic sounds bouncing off the steel and glass/We traced our steps from the past/Shadows in the curtains on the second floor/I used to have a key to that front door…” Do you miss living in the city?
Marshall Crenshaw: You got it: the song is sort of a dream-like description of Ione and me walking through all the neighborhoods we used to live in – the song also contemplates mortality, talks about ghosts, etc. Right now I don’t really miss living in NY. I like where we’re living now (the Hudson River Valley), plus NY isn’t going anywhere – Ione and I will most likely live there again sometime. I seem to have about a 4 to 7 year threshold, though – I get overwhelmed/overloaded after awhile, and I have to go back to the country…But it’s a place we both love, and we never want to be too far away from it.
SE: You’ve put a lot of work into your album covers – two of my favorites are Good Evening and Mary Jean & 9 Others.
Marshall Crenshaw: Well, the one time that I let somebody else handle it the results were so fucking terrible, to say the least, and that was Field Day. It’s just a matter of getting great people involved…
SE: As an ardent student and practitioner of songwriting, can you explain what makes a great song? In 2005 you gave a songwriting workshop at the Watercolor Café in Larchmont, NY. Can you discuss how this experience might have helped you come to a greater understanding of the craft of songwriting and your own process? Can you give us a list of ten or so songs that, in your opinion, exemplify perfect songwriting?
Marshall Crenshaw: I hardly remember the Larchmont thing, but I do like being in those classroom/workshop-type situations. The first time I did it I was surprised at what came out of my mouth – I didn’t realize I knew so much about songwriting.
A great song is one that engages you, stirs your emotions, your imagination, etc., and a perfect song, to me, is just one that does the above and seems totally inspired throughout. I’m also a big fan of economy of language – that’s just a personal thing. I once got a book of Noel Coward’s lyrics, and in the foreword he said that he would never settle for an imperfect rhyme (you hear lots of songs where people rhyme “time” with “mind” – Noel Coward would never do that). I admire that kind of formal craftsmanship, but for my money the opposite can be just as great. I love John Lee Hooker’s songs – he probably never did any of them the same way twice.
As far as a list goes, this is strictly random:
- “Many Happy Hangovers to You” by Johnny MacRae, Jean Shepard sings it (get the original 1966 version). The lyrics are so perfect, you can really see it and feel it.
- “Gimme Danger” by The Stooges. Iggy’s one of my favorite writers.
- “Murder by Mistletoe” by The Felice Brothers. Again, you can see it and feel it.
- “Hooray for Hollywood” – I just watched a great documentary about Johnny Mercer, my favorite guy in the whole Great American Songbook crowd. This is just one of his that I love.
- “Leave My Wife Alone” by John Lee Hooker
- “Highlands” by Bob Dylan. 16 minutes long and I’m just riveted every time I hear it.
- “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry
- “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. Jerry Leiber says it’s the greatest song ever (I think I read that). I like Ray Charles’s version too.
- “Lonely Avenue” by Doc Pomus. Speaking of Ray Charles…
- I don’t know, how about “Loudmouth” by The Ramones? That’s a perfect song. I could name a hundred more…
SE: Gary Stewart and David Gorman compiled The Best of Marshall Crenshaw: This Is Easy! (2000) for Rhino. Did you assist them in selecting the songs for the album?
Marshall Crenshaw: I had some input into the thing, suggestions about who they should get photos from, about who should write the liner notes (my good friend, the late great Cub Koda), but they wouldn’t take any of my suggestions about song selection – they really wanted to run with that themselves, which I actually think is cool. For them the whole thing was a labor of love, which meant a lot to me.
SE: In a 2008 interview, you told Bill Kopp of Skope Magazine Blog, “John Lennon was like a heroic figure to me”. Can you discuss this in greater detail?
Marshall Crenshaw: I had a really keen sense of the absurd as a kid, and a mistrust of the adult world – John seemed to have that worldview also. He had the most acid sense of humor in The Beatles. He had balls, self-confidence, was obviously smart as hell, and all of that just really appealed to me. He seemed like a good role model.
SE: I remember hearing “Better Back Off”, the first single from Life’s Too Short, on WNEW in New York and thinking, ‘this rocks a lot harder than anything he did in the Eighties’. The drums and the guitar playing were much more forceful, and faster, than anything on your previous records. The Smithereens had made a similar shift in 1989, with 11, and 1989 also saw the release of Appetite for Destruction, followed by The Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker in 1990 and the return of hard rock to the pop charts.
Marshall Crenshaw: On “Better Back Off” you can tell from the music that I’m trying to write a big Rock-radio anthem. But the lyrics don’t quite get there – they describe an intimate conversation between two people, not very anthem-like…I liked what Kenny Aronoff (drums) and Ed Stasium (production) were doing right then, I liked them both personally, and I wanted to work with them, so off we went…
SE: You’ve long been a champion of unheralded American songwriters, including Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Dwight Twilley and Ben Vaughn, among others. Can you talk about some of the current crop of people who fall into this category, as well as some of the American songwriters you feel never got the recognition they deserve?
Marshall Crenshaw: That’s a hard one. For one thing, how do you measure how much recognition somebody deserves? Anybody I name, I would’ve heard of them through some media outlet or another, so they at least got some recognition – maybe they got as much as they wanted or “deserved”. I think most of the music that’s mass-marketed these days is really crass and cheap-sounding, but I certainly don’t hate all of it…I also think the “mainstream” ignores almost all of the best current stuff that’s out there, but I barely pay attention to the “mainstream” anyway – fewer and fewer people do pay attention…As far as recent stuff that I’ve bought goes, I already mentioned the Felice Brothers. I like the Brian Blade Fellowship, I got a beautiful CD called Ojos Negros by Anja Lechner & Dino Saluzzi (from Argentina), and there was some cool stuff on Dan Auerbach’s record (Keep It Hid, 2009)…I don’t think any of this stuff had much mass popularity, but what do I care?
SE: In your liner notes for The Best of Ricky Nelson, you write, “by 1958 he (Nelson) had begun to acquire confidence and an understanding of his craft”. Can you pinpoint this moment in your own career?
Marshall Crenshaw: I think I had it right at the start, a really clear sense about what I was doing as an artist, what I wanted to do, etc. It wavered a bit from time to time over the years, but I think it came back once I got out of the major label world…
SE: Between 1982 and 1985, you released Marshall Crenshaw (1982), Field Day (1983) and Downtown (1985). Why was this was such a fertile period for you?
Marshall Crenshaw: Actually I’d say that it was partly due to a mistake – I got talked into the idea that I should get a second album out really quickly after the first one had run its course…
SE: In the early Eighties, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Springsteen all released massive albums, while the punk and alternative scene was exploding, with bands like the Blasters, Husker Du, REM, the Replacements and X all beginning their careers. You released your debut, Marshall Crenshaw, in 1982 – some of the other albums released that year include Combat Rock, Nebraska, Night and Day and, of course, Thriller (you mention ‘Michael on your radio’ in “Hold It”, the final song on Field Day).
Marshall Crenshaw: I was really engaged at that time, interested in current music, was still actually willing to listen to commercial radio, etc…All of the records and artists that you mentioned are really good, in my opinion…The ‘80s wore me out as they went on, though, and by the end of the decade I was less interested. For me the thing that really opened the door for a lot of witless plastic bullshit was the Linn drum machine, although I like the Prince records where he used one, and probably others, but for me drum machines mostly ruined R&B and pop music…
SE: Beginning with “Theme From ‘Flaregun’” on Miracle of Science (1996), you’ve recorded a number of instrumentals, including “Jaggedland” and “Eydie’s Tune” and “West of Bald Knob” (both from #447, released in 1999). What changed in the mid-Nineties that inspired you to start recording instrumentals?
Marshall Crenshaw: So much of the music that I’ve loved best over the years has been instrumental music, whether it’s Bela Bartok, Link Wray, Thelonious Monk, or whatever. And as you know I’m a big retro-rock guy – once upon a time instrumentals were a fixture in rock ‘n’ roll. For me it’s just a natural mode of expression. I tried it once and it worked so I’ve kept doing it…
SE: You haven’t released any demos since The 9-Volt Years (1998).
Marshall Crenshaw: “Gasoline Baby” on Jaggedland is what you might call a “demo”, just a quick and dirty recording I did at home. Also, the title track started out as a home recording – I did a lot of it in the spare bedroom of a house we rented during 2003 and 2004…But mostly I deliberately tried not to make the demos too interesting, so I wouldn’t get “demo-itis”, which is when you get hung up on the demo for some reason (probably narcissism) and are then disappointed with the record…
SE: Jaggedland marks almost 30 years for you in the music business.
Marshall Crenshaw: Phew, the music business…I had a pretty naïve view of it going in, but I got a big reality check early on when I went to a party Warner Bros. gave for us when my first album came out. I walked in and immediately saw that the lead singer of one of the great rock groups of the mid-‘60s, somebody who I was and am a big fan of, was the bartender at the party, and in that instant I became really ambivalent about show business. I think about people that I crossed paths with in the early days who were really driven, focused, and much more ambitious than I ever was…Over the years I’d say I’ve been relatively lucky – I’ve had at least a bit of success, have managed to hold onto at least some of my intellectual property, and am still doing what I love to do. And better than ever, I think…
SE: Last question, from one of our staff writers, Don Ciccone – what did you use for the drums on “My Favorite Waste of Time”? It’s a great track, and a great trick, whatever it is.
Marshall Crenshaw: If I remember correctly, when I did the demo for “My Favorite Waste of Time”, I did the maracas first, then for a bass drum I muffled a parade snare drum with my hand and hit it just right, then I used the same drum as the snare drum. That filled up 3 tracks on the 4 track machine, so I bounced it all to the 4th track and added tambourine…I was in a really live-sounding apartment living room with plaster walls and a high ceiling, no rugs on the floor. We couldn’t afford any.
Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
Field Day (1983)
Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)
Good Evening (1989)
Life’s Too Short (1991)
Live…My Truck Is My Home (1994)
Miracle of Science (1996)
The 9 Volt Years: Battery Powered Home Demos & Curios (1998)
This Is Easy! The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw (2000)
I’ve Suffered For My Art…Now It’s Your Turn (2001)
What’s In The Bag? (2003)