Marshall Crenshaw: A New Chapter in a Timeless Story
Marshall Crenshaw. At this point, one word sums him up: legend. From his entry into the fray with his now-classic “Someday Someway” to recording some of the most solid albums of the ’80s (think Field Day and Downtown) to writing songs for one of the best spoof-rockumentaries, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, his career has been varied, always evolving and highly respected by critics and fellow musicians alike. With the release of not one but two new three-song EPs available for download, beginning an ongoing series, Marshall Crenshaw now moves into the next phase of recording while balancing live performances and hosting a weekly radio show as well. I had a chance to speak with Marshall from his home; my thanks go to Mr. Crenshaw for the time and as always, Cary Baker for the assistance.
Thanks very much; it’s great to finally get to talk to you after so many years of great music, so thank you for that; much appreciated!
Hey, I recognize the name Popdose; have I ever talked to Popdose before or do you know?
I think so; it may have been a while. I just started writing for them a couple of weeks ago – they’re of the same musical mindset that I come from, so it seemed like a good fit. And after talking to Cary, and seeing the artists on his roster, I thought it would be nice to have a chance to chat with you. (Note: We’ve spoken with Mr. Crenshaw on a few different occasions, and we’re always happy to do so again. –Ed.)
Oh, well that’s great; that’s really nice.
I do owe you an apology; I would have loved to see last week’s show at City Winery but we had a work event that night, so…
It was a good show. You know – dare I say it: an all-star band with longtime friends of mine and a really nice audience – it was great.
It’s definitely one of my favorite venues. The first time I went was last year – in fact, your old Paradox Records labelmate Richard Barone did “Cool Blue Halo 25” there and it’s a fantastic room.
Oh, cool. That must have been great. Richard’s a great fella; I like him.
I also heard you’re going to be at the “Big Star 3rd” show at Central Park.
That’s right! With Chris Stamey. I guess Mitch Easter’s going to be there – I haven’t seen Mitch in ages, literally decades; haven’t had contact with him, so it’ll be nice to see him. I always liked him. I think it’ll be a fun social experience. I always really like those multi-artist “hangs.” I did an Alex Chilton tribute at City Winery a few years ago that was organized by a woman in New York named Stephanie Chernikowski… That was a really fun time; a lot of those guys came up from the South. Chris Stamey and some of that crowd; Gary from the Box Tops, Jody Stephens was there… Anyway, yeah – I’m going to be on that show – the “Big Star 3rd” show and I’m excited about it.
I’m going to be there, so hopefully we’ll have a chance to say hello. I can’t wait to see this show. It’s funny; last year, my wife and I went on our honeymoon after 15 years of marriage – if you can believe that – and we went to Memphis…
Yes and we had the chance to go over to Ardent and meet Jody – it was a real thrill. But it’s such an interesting thing that Big Star has managed to bring so many people together.
I’ll be honest; I never really checked them out until Alex died. It was then that I finally really listened to Big Star and listened to their records. Up until then, I never had; I’d just heard about them from people I knew. But they were really idolized by a lot of my friends, especially some of the ones from the South. I’d never heard them until then and I was really impressed; they were pretty great.
In many ways, it was the same with me – when my band was going in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, people used to always say “you must be influenced by Big Star.” And I would say “Who? Who are Big Star?” I’d heard the name in passing, but we had copped a lot of our thing from The dB’s and R.E.M…
And as the main songwriter, I tried to pinch a lot from you; Field Day was one of my templates…
…and finally #1 Record/Radio City came out on that single CD and that’s when I said “okay, now I get it” because it really was familiar to me.
Yeah, yeah… I mostly steered clear of that Anglophile thing but they had a lot more going on than just that. They were really talented people. Alex… I really liked his solo stuff. I’d heard his solo material before I heard Big Star and I dug what he was doing; I dug his sense of humor. But yeah, that’ll be a fun show.
Cool. Well, let’s talk about the new EP, Stranger And Stranger. I love the idea of recording in – and maybe I’m phrasing it wrong – in a modular fashion. You’re doing these with a new song, a cover and then revisiting one of your older songs. I think that’s a brilliant idea. How did the concept come about and where is it going next?
It’s simply a case of trying to figure out how to keep moving forward as an artist in an interesting way. I don’t feel inspired in the least of making another CD in a plastic jewel box; it doesn’t thrill me. I don’t know why this idea took shape the way it did in my mind; maybe it was my taste for vinyl records – the idea of putting out stuff in an ongoing basis rather than all in one shot was another thing that appealed to me. So that’s really kind of it; the idea was just there one day and it seemed like the right thing to do.
The cover tune part of it is really fun; it’s a fun exercise and I think people really have really dug the choices I’ve made so far with those because they’re slightly off-beat choices. And the thing about the revisitation of some of my older tunes was simply a matter of having some interesting versions of my older songs in my archives and wanting to put them out. That’s really all there is to it.
It’s a great idea that works really well. Both EPs were a lot of fun to listen to and I’m happy to purchase them as they come along, so congratulations.
And congratulations on a wonderful canon of work. Out of curiosity – in doing this, do you foresee doing another full length album – not perhaps in the standard physical CD format but full length in terms of songs?
Right now I don’t but you know I can’t say “I’ll never do this” or “I’ll never do that.” I learned over the years not to do that. I’m really proud of this project because it seems unique; I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing what I’m doing. It’s really fun for me to be in that mode of having a new record out over an extended period of time. And to be working on a new record all the time, too. And having the stuff coming out like it is keeps me gassed up about the whole thing, which is cool. So at least for the time being I say no, there’s no album – this is the album over the course of two years, it’s going to be. We’re going to do a half dozen of these, I think.
Yeah – unless I change my mind, but I think it’s going to be six, which over the course of two years is eighteen tracks, which is a lot.
It’s not only a lot to look forward to, but keeping it fresh is, I think, paramount when you’re recording. God knows, being in a studio setting can be tedious at best; when it becomes a chore…
Yeah – this suits me; the album thing is for people who want to go down that road but I think it’s a good shift for me to make at this time. The album thing is worn out; it’s played out for me now, so I’m going to see how far I can take this. I don’t know how far that’ll be yet, I just think this is it. I came up with the idea myself; I just dig the feel of the whole thing, you know – with the artwork… And now that there are two of them, it’s starting to look like something.
When the first one came out, it was like “okay, great, three songs,” but now there’s a second one and it’s starting to look like a thing. (laughs) I’m really proud; I’m really proud of this project. I’m really proud of the two a-side songs; “I Don’t See You Laughing Now” is a great song, I think; it’s a real magnum opus, very powerful tune, I think and “Stranger And Stranger” is nice also. It’s been working out the way I hoped it would.
Like I said, they’re a lot of fun to listen to and it’s nice to know that there’s going to be a series of these; for those of us who want to get them, we’ll have something to look forward to. It’s always a good feeling to know that something new is coming out. From the fan angle, it’s something I appreciate. When do you think the next one will be out – I know this one was released on May 7th…
The next one, I think, is supposed to come out in September. I’m nearly finished with it, kind of banging away at it right now, as we speak. I know already what it’s going to be; I know what the three tracks are, so again, I think it’s September.
With all of this, tell me about the radio show, for those who might not know and should be tuning in.
Yeah, okay! I’ve been doing the radio show steadily since 2010. It was on a radio station here in the Hudson Valley during 2010 and 2011, a station called WKZE and back in 2005, 2006, I did this show for a little while on WKZE, so that’s where it started. The person who owns the station – I just approached him point blank in 2005 and asked him if I could go on the air and he said, “yeah, fine,” so I did. And it was something I found myself suddenly wanting to do. What finally pushed me over the edge was going on the Steve Earle show, playing some records – I remember I played… he said “just bring some of your favorite records, like a half dozen of your favorites and we’ll talk about each one”, and I’d done that once before. “A Little Café” with David Dye; one time with a guy in Australia, once with somebody at BCN in Boston – just a handful of times over the years when I was invited onto people’s radio shows to play records and talk about the music that I love and so forth.
It was something I found I liked doing; I would find myself being very profuse in those moments when I would have a lot to say about each thing so I thought maybe I could pull off doing a radio show. And when I started doing it, I found that I really liked it. That’s what it is; it’s essentially coming from a personal place – stuff from my record collection that I play every week and so far, I’ve been able to not repeat myself much, which is kind of cool. I usually have a couple of months’ worth of ideas ahead of the game; I don’t know – I always have ideas about what to play. I’ve just been having fun with it and people love it too.
I wish I had that kind of foresight in my brief stint doing college radio. Repetition is the biggest killer of all, especially when you get behind your favorite artists and unfortunately – in hindsight – playing them to death.
Oh yeah! Fortunately, I don’t have that problem. This stands apart from the everyday fare on the radio station. It’s never the same thing twice.
Out of curiosity, is there a possibility of taking it on to satellite radio too? Really get it across…
I’m actually working on that now. Not satellite radio so much, although that might come down the road, but there are a couple of NPR stations that have expressed interest. I’m going in that direction. It’s on public radio now; I love public radio – you know I always keep it on the left side of the dial – and I just think that’s where the show belongs. It’s a good fit at WFUV, definitely. So over the next few months, I’m pushing in that direction.
Congratulations – I hope that it comes to fruition.
Yeah, me too! (laughing)
Unfortunately where we are – even though we’re on a very high point on Staten Island – the signal for FUV is just not that good.
Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot. The station is a big success story, and this is funny because I was at this big gala they had last week at the Edison Hotel ballroom in New York and it was really fun. It had all the trappings of prosperity and success, basically, and I get out in my car, pull out of the garage – I’m on the West Side somewhere – and I flip on the radio to WFUV and it barely comes in! (laughing) I’m like “this is so ironic”!
(laughing) It irritates me! I can’t even get WNYU, which has a fairly strong signal for a college station. Everybody else seems to get it; I can’t pick it up. Like I said, I’m on a high hill, near the ferry – but in the end, I had no alternative but to go to satellite radio. Unless I’m in the car and I might tune into BGO, Jazz 88 but they’re from Newark which is close and they have a strong signal.
But okay – last question – any more shows coming up in the city?
I think I’ll be back in the city in December with Dave Alvin. He and I just had a really nice tour of the West Coast, where we did nine shows and seven of them were sold out, so we’re feeling like it was fun and satisfying for everybody. So we’re talking about bringing that particular thing to the East Coast; that would be December. So cross your fingers.
Before we go, we didn’t really talk much about “Stranger And Stranger”- the song itself!
Okay! I’m game!
(laughing) Because I found that I haven’t been! I’ve been talking about the series of records but not about that particular song, which is new, now. It’s the newest song that I’ve written and I think I should say a couple of things about it.
Well, what happened was a couple of people in my orbit passed away. This one woman who died about a year and a half ago… I couldn’t help but be emotionally affected by it; she was a really sweet gal. The thing about it was I couldn’t figure out why it happened – what was it that took her out? She was a healthy person, didn’t have any self-destructive habits – was it something that she ate or breathed or drank? What was it? And I was chewing on that question in my mind as I was writing the song. That’s what really inspired it, initially. I don’t think it’s a morbid song or a grim song, but in the lyrics I’m chewing on those questions. The other idea of it is told from the point of view of someone who’s trying to keep their spirit intact in the aftermath of some kind of loss. I don’t spell it out in the song whether the person has left – really left this Earthly realm or if they just left this person whose voice is in the song.
There’s that sort of stuff going on and then as far as the track goes, there’s a guy playing vibraphone on the record named Bryan Carrot, who I think deserves a name check; he’s a really brilliant fella. I really love the vibraphone; I love what he did on the song – you know, I really like the way this is going. This project has given me a chance to continue as a recording artist and to work with great people and that’s really gratifying.