The Popdose Interview: Christopher Cross

For the first few years of the 1980s, there was virtually no artist who was more ubiquitous on your FM dial than Christopher Cross. Whether it was the singles from his self-titled debut, like “Sailing” or “Ride Like the Wind,” or the theme to “Arthur,” which – thanks to a lyric on loan from Peter Allen – spoke of the perils of getting caught between the moon and New York City, Cross was everywhere…and not only was he everywhere, he was winning awards left and right, including Grammys and even an Oscar. But the problem with having sudden success with your first album is that people expect you to duplicate it with your second album, and despite giving it the old college try, Cross’s sophomore effort, 1983’s Another Page, only floated about half as many boats as his debut. Granted, that meant it still sold three million copies, but there was change in the air, and with MTV looking for the next heartthrob and having lots of British pretty-boys ready to fill that void, Cross’s songs simply weren’t in vogue any longer. Subsequent albums like Every Turn of the World and Back of My Mind didn’t set any sales records, and before long, our man Christopher was more or less officially off the radar. A few other records followed, but soon Cross retired from recording and shifted into touring mode for the long haul.

Recently, however, something strange has happened: Christopher Cross has started to become…well, let’s not go crazy and suggest that he’s actually hip again, but there’s definitely been a newfound appreciation of his work. People started off by mocking Yacht Rock, but then they realized that there were some damned fine tunes in there, and suddenly Cross was appearing on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” getting a song on the “30 Rock” soundtrack, and even getting namechecked on “Glee.” Surely we can all agree, then, that there could be no more perfect time for Cross to release Doctor Faith, his first new studio album in more than a decade. Popdose talked to Cross about the new record, the old friends who stopped by the studio to help him, and as much about his past as we had time to delve into.

Popdose: I just have to say that it’s somewhat surreal to see the name “Christopher Cross” come up on my caller ID.

Christopher Cross: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m calling from my cell. It’s easier than dealing with the hotel phone.

Well, I gave Doctor Faith a spin the day it arrived, and I’ve spun it a couple of times since then. It makes for a nice listen.

Well, thanks! Yeah, the reaction’s been really great, I have to say. It’s been 12 years since the last record, so I guess people are just curious, if nothing else. But the reaction from journalists has been very positive.

I was curious about the process of putting together an album after being out of the studio for so long. Was it a case where you suddenly decided, “Say, I think I’d like to make a new record,” or had you just been writing songs all along and then realized that you’ve accumulated an album’s worth?

Well, that’s typically the case with me: every three years, I manage to get enough songs together. But, really, I think…I went through a divorce after about 18 years, and that was kind of a distraction. I did do a Christmas album during that time which was released only in Europe. It’ll come out this year in the States. But, really, to tell you the truth, Will, I think sometimes the well runs dry and you just sort of have to take a break and let it build up. And so I think I got to a place where there was something to say and tried to do it. And, also, this is the first album produced on my own. Well, I did produce the Christmas album, but it’s the first pop album of my songs that I’ve produced on my own. In the past, typically, I’ve worked with Michael Omartian. I approached it from a real guitar place. I’ve been doing a lot of research and kind of getting back into the guitar thing, ‘cause that’s where my roots are from, so…I don’t know, I just got real energized and made a record!

Was there a particular song in the process where it went from recording some songs into, “This is going to be an album”?

(Considers the question) If there was one, I think it might’ve been “Hey Kid.” That was one of the first ones that came along where it felt like I’d really started doing something. And then, as you said, once you get a little spark like that, it starts to roll.

Of course, you’ve got your good luck charm – Mr. McDonald – on the album’s title track.

Yeah, with Mike, it’s always been…we’re such good friends that it’s really when his voice is called for, when I have a part that screams Michael, that I’ll ask him. As with “Ride Like The Wind,” “Doctor Faith” just seems perfect, with his voice stuck out there where you can really hear him.

You’ve got another old friend on the album, too: Eric Johnson.

Right! Yeah, Eric and I have been together since teenage days. Actually, there’s a special version of the record in Europe that has a 7” single in it – it’s, like, 3,000 units, so it’s a collector’s item – and inside there’s a single from 1974 that I recorded with Eric called “Talking About Her.” So we go back a long way. These are very dear, very close friendships, and I think that’s part of why I included them on this record as well.

So how did you and Eric first meet?

Well, you know, I’m from San Antonio, Texas, and Eric’s from Austin, and we were playing a lot of the same clubs. (Hesitates) You know, it’s hard to remember, but if I’m not mistaken, Eric had a band called Mariani back in that day – he was playing guitar, and there was a singer named Vince Mariani – and…I actually subbed for Richie Blackmore in Deep Purple one time…

(Laughs) Actually, I saw that in your Wikipedia entry, but I was, like, ‘I don’t know if this is a case of being crazy but true or a complete fabrication, so I’m going to have to broach the subject with caution.”

Yeah, what happened was…I was in San Antonio, and there was a big local promoter in San Antonio that was sort of managing me at the time, and he used to put me on some big bills with (Led) Zeppelin and people like that for about 30 minutes as, like, a local act. That’s what they used to do in those days. So Deep Purple came to down, and Richie got a reaction to a flu shot and couldn’t play, and it was their first show in the States, and…I think Jon Lord didn’t want to cancel the show, and in the dilemma of discussing what to do, Joe Miller said, “Look, I’ve got this guitar player in town…” My real name is Geppert, not Cross, and he said, “I’ve got this guitar player, he’s called Chris Geppert and he’s pretty good, and he’s a big fan of Richie’s. Maybe he could just step in.” So they went on with the show and announced to the audience that Richie was sick and wouldn’t play, and anybody who wanted to stay could, or they’d give refunds. And about 80% of the people stayed, and we played the hits and got through the night. A few of the band members were a little disgruntled at Jon’s decision, but we got through it. But, anyway, Mariani opened the show, so I think that might’ve been the first time I met Eric. But, you know, this was back in an era when, like, Billy Gibbons used to share a lot of bills with Eric and I, too. My band was called Flash back then, and Billy’s band was called the Moving Sidewalks, which was the precursor to ZZ Top. So we go way back. I’ve got some scary pictures of us back then, and Billy without a beard, and that sort of thing.

Billy Gibbons without a beard? I don’t believe it.

Well, not much of a beard, anyway. (Laughs) But, anyway, it’s funny, ‘cause Edel Records in Germany, who has the European release of Doctor Faith, also has Deep Purple, and Max Vaccaro, who’s head of the label, I asked Max, “Hey, mention this to Jon Lord and see if he’s kind of into the trivia.” And he has no recollection at all of it! I’m sure in Jon’s case he tried to block it out of his memory. (Laughs) Whereas for me, it lives in infamy. I mean, that’s one of my moments, you know?

So what are your expectations for a Christopher Cross album in 2011? I mean, your profile’s still relatively high, all things considered. Certainly, being on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” didn’t hurt you any.

Yeah, Jimmy’s a friend. It’s funny, I actually met Jimmy through Dudley (Moore), because of some tribute shows for Dudley. Jimmy was on one of them, and he’s a very, very nice guy. I think Jimmy just called up and said, “Hey, I’m into this Yacht Rock thing, and would you be willing to come on and do ‘Ride’ with Mike?” And I said, “Yeah,” ‘cause…I don’t really have a lot of reason to promote catalog, but we did it, and it was fun to play with The Roots. And he got a lot of ink from the thing, so I’m hopeful that Jimmy will have me on with the new record. But, you know, Will, really, the expectation’s very similar to the first album. I had no expectation. I was hoping that maybe I could make three albums for Warners. In those days, they’d let artists really kind of develop, and then maybe by the third album I’d have a radio song or something, so when everything happened, I was really taken by surprise. It’s the same with Doctor Faith. We’ve come so full circle I feel like I’ve escaped the gravity of that kind of meteoric success and expectations, and I just make records now just for the love of making them. It’s what I love to do, and I’m enjoying it more than ever. So whatever happens, happens, as they say. I’m very pleased that it seems like people are really responding well, I guess, just to the fact that I’m still around and doing it! But the songs and the record, they’re really being very kind about it. So I just have to hope that it will do something, because, as I say, I do think it’s just a strong record, and, again, after all this time, maybe there’s still an audience and it’ll have some success. But I certainly don’t expect a re-visitation of the earliest success, by any means.

How did you first hear about the fact that you were name-checked on “Seinfeld”?

Well, it’s like when I was just mentioned on “Glee”: the phones go crazy. In the case of “Glee,” I was momentarily cool to my daughter, which was kind of nice. But with the “Seinfeld” thing…I mean, the minute that happened, it was the shot heard ‘round the world, and everybody told me about it. So I’ve seen it, and it’s real flattering. Those things pop up every once in awhile, and it’s a huge thrill to be associated with a show that big. I don’t know any of the principals (of the show) at all. Julia Dreyfus, her son went to school with my daughter, so I’ve met her a few times. I did meet Michael Richards once. But I’ve never met Jerry. I did meet Larry David. He parked his car in front of my house one day, and I went out and introduced myself. But most recently, a similar kind of thing happened with Tina Fey, ‘cause Tina mentioned me on “30 Rock.” She sang this little piece on “30 Rock,” so I took it and turned it into a song called “Lemon’s Theme” and produced this whole track to this little song she did. And it ended up being a collaboration between us and ended up on the “30 Rock” album, and Perez Hilton and all these people talked about it. I subsequently got to have dinner with Tina about a month ago, and that was a huge thrill, ‘cause I’m a massive fan. I just have so much respect for her. And, so, there’s been a lot of those instances where I’ve been connected to these TV shows, and it’s always fun.

Even beyond your pop-culture profile, you’ve certainly kept yourself out there by touring steadily. I saw you here in Norfolk a few years ago, playing a chili cook-off, of all things.

Oh, yeah, sure! Yeah, we do those kinds of things, for sure.

And that’s obviously a way to maintain your profile. But how’s your online profile, or your web presence? I know you have an official website.

Well, you know, we’ve got a nice website, but that’s pretty minor these days. I mean, I do have a Facebook and MySpace page, but I don’t interact with that stuff. I turn 60 in May, and I’m not too hip on the social networking. I need to be better about it and get on Twitter and all that stuff, but I don’t. I’ve always just assumed for the most part, being Boomers, don’t, either. You know, it’s always been a young person’s game, and that’s still true, but people are living longer, I still have an audience, and there are a lot of young people that come to my shows, so… (Trails off) I’ve continued to tour. I’ve made eight records, and the middle years…after the first two records, those records certainly weren’t noticed as much, by any means. They’re on iTunes, but they’re relatively unknown, and when I play live, one of the things I love about it is getting to play songs from that era that they aren’t familiar with and expose them to those. But, you know, from the age of 10, this was always what I wanted to do. I had more success than I ever imagined I would. I feel really relieved, actually, about the early success and the Grammys and all that stuff. It’s sort of nice to have those out of the way, ‘cause a lot of friends and other artists are wishing they could get one. So I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. I see the cup as half-full, really, and I think it’s great, ‘cause I’ve established my name, as you said, to where most people on the street would respond to a question about who Christopher Cross is with, “He’s that guy who did ‘Sailing.’” So it gives me a certain cache to continue to do what I do.

Talking about those “middle years,” has there been any talk of putting Rendezvous or Window on iTunes?

Oh, God bless you for knowing what they are!

(Laughs) Hey, man, I do my homework! But, also, I worked in a record store for several years, so I remember when they came out.

Well, it’s funny, ‘cause whenever I play a show and I’ll play something from one of those albums, there’s always some rabid fan in the audience who’ll clap, who’ll know those songs. And I’ll always comment, “Oh, you’re one of the six people who bought it.” (Laughs) I don’t know. They’re on iTunes. They’re not in print anymore. I own those records, and there have been discussions of a box set. I think now that I’m back with real record label, this big independent Edel in Germany, and now with Eagle Rock Universal in the States…I’m actually meeting with them today about the record, and I may suggest that, thanks to you, that we think about something like that. It might be interesting to try and do something. The problem with that is that the first few records that are on Warners, that’s catalog and that’s hard to get from them. But there’s ways around that, with re-recording stuff, so that might be interesting, to try and do a box set at some point.

(Writer’s note: Although Cross says they’re on iTunes…and they may well have been at one time, since I mentioned their absence to our own Jeff Giles, he swore up and down to me that, at the very least, Window was on there…I promise you, I wouldn’t have asked the question if I hadn’t checked first, and I hereby swear to you that, as of this writing, neither album pops up when you type “Christopher Cross” into the “Search Store” box.)

You brought up “Yacht Rock” when you were talking about being on Jimmy Fallon’s show. What was your first introduction to the phenomenon?

Well, I mean, when I started out, it wasn’t a phenomenon. (Laughs) Chris, a drummer friend of mine, sent it to me and said, “Hey, have you seen this?” And it was the very first one they did, which features Mike and Daryl (Hall)…or, you know, people playing us…and I thought it was really funny. I enjoyed it. I thought it was pretty cheesy, but it was funny. And I sent it to Mike, and it went around to all us. They’ve done quite a few of them. I think the 12th is the most recent. Someone else sent it to me, and…I guess it’s a bigger production by their standards, but as I remember, Mike goes into outer space and saves the world with “Ya Mo B There.” I was just with him at South by Southwest – his son Dylan is a fine songwriter – and I got down to South by Southwest, ‘cause I’m from Texas, so Mike and Amy (Holland McDonald) came down, and we were hanging out, and I was telling him about the latest one, and…I can’t say he was terribly interested. (Laughs) But there’s been some talk…somebody said (Kenny) Loggins said something about, “We should do a Yacht Rock tour!” It’d be a lot of fun. I think there’s a big cult following in Japan and stuff. The problem is when you look at all the principals involved – Mike and Kenny and Daryl and John (Oates) and myself – it’d be a fairly expensive tour to put on. Not in my case… (Laughs) …but certainly in Daryl and John’s!

Talking about tours, I wanted to ask you about doing “A Walk Down Abbey Road.”

Yeah, you know, it was the second one of those. Actually, I was managed most of my career by Irving Azoff but left some years ago, and then I started being managed by a guy named Toby Ludwig in New York. Toby’s the producer of those shows, and we’ve been friends for a million years. I actually met him through Todd Rundgren, and Todd was on those shows, so between Todd, who was suggesting who should be on them, and Alan Parsons, who kind of created the tours and is a friend of mine, I got asked to do the second one. It was a lot of fun. I love working with Todd and Alan, and I particularly liked the tour I did, which also had Jack Bruce and Mark Farner. It was a real thrill to play with all of them, but Jack in particular, having been a giant Cream fan. I have so much respect for Jack’s musicality. He was classically trained in England, plays cello, sang opera, and…he’s an amazing player and just an icon. So it was a lot of fun for me to play with Jack and just sit around hear him talk about Cream.

Speaking of Alan Parsons, how did you come to sing on his song “So Far Away”? Had you known him prior to that?

Yeah, I had. Um…again, it’s so hard when you get to my age to remember anything! (Laughs) How I met Alan…? We’d have to sit down and kind of pick our brains. I really don’t know how I would’ve met him. It’s hard to remember. It’s been a long time. But we’ve been friends forever, and Alan was just…well, he’s always used singers on his records. He’s used Gary Brooker, Paul Carrack, a bunch of people over the years have sung on his stuff. So he just asked if I’d sing a song, I said, “Of course,” and he sent me the track in L.A., and I sang it and sent it back to him. And a lot of people have come up to me at shows and said, “Hey, do you ever do that Alan Parsons song?” I say, “Alan and I have agreed: he won’t play any of my songs and I won’t play any of his.” (Laughs) But it’s a very nice tune. Alan’s had an incredible career, and we remain very good friends. I see him when I can. He lives in Santa Barbara, and we get together. He’s a wonderful guy. He just released this big DVD series…

Yeah, actually, I interviewed him right as he was releasing it.

Yeah, you know, my career got started a lot later than a lot of these guys, so meeting people like Alan…that was an incredible thrill, having followed his career. But I’m kind of a techie guy, so following his career, with everything’s he done… (Trails off) And it doesn’t hurt to hang out with Alan, ‘cause you get to meet people like David Gilmour. (Laughs)

I wanted to ask you about your second album, Another Page, and how it was received. Critics love to throw out the old “sophomore slump” line, but were you happy with the record and its sales?

Well, y’know…uh, no. (Laughs) I mean, basically, it sold about half as many records! But the first album did six million or something, and the second one did three, so it wasn’t bad. Actually, it’s funny, ‘cause sales that year…Another Page was the second biggest record Warners had. Rod Stewart was the only one who had a bigger record. Now, sales weren’t great that year, but…to be perfectly honest, the sophomore thing, it’s not an illusion. I mean, people that win Best New Artist…if you look at (Bruce) Hornsby and Tracy (Chapman) and Rickie (Lee Jones) and all the people who did, it does create a certain expectation, and I think all of us kind of struggled with that a little bit.

With me, I was just in this whirlwind, and, you know, it was almost like Dorothy in the tornado. My first marriage ended, and I met this wonderful girl named Paige and kind of fell in love with her, and I ended up making this album called Another Page. And it’s sort of dedicated to her, and her picture…she’s in a picture with me on the inside and all that, and a lot of the songs were written for her, so it’s almost like this love album dedicated to her. Subsequently, during that time, her best friend Laura Carter was killed very tragically, and I was very close to Laura, so I wrote “Think of Laura” in tribute to her. And the album was so ballad-heavy and just kind of “oh, I love you, blah blah blah” that…I mean, there were some real nice songs, like “Talking in My Sleep,” which I did with Artie Garfunkel, and “Baby Says No,” which Carl (Wilson) sang on, which is a huge memory for me, ‘cause I was very close to Carl. But Paige actually said, “Look, all these songs are real romantic. Why don’t you just do something up and positive about us?” And so then I did “All Right,” and that was the last song I did for the album.

But to answer your question, I think it was kind of a personal record, and it was involved connected a lot to my personal life – my marriage ended, I met Paige – and was affected a lot by that. Maybe it wasn’t as eclectic as the first album. It was more of a ballad record. I could’ve teetered either way at radio, and with the combination of Another Page following “Arthur,” I was pretty much cemented in the ballad world. Some people told me, “If you sing on the Oscars in a tuxedo, you’re done,” and so…

Of course, you would be now, because it’d be all over YouTube.

(Laughs) Right. But, of course, I didn’t really care, Will, because what happened after I sang on the Oscars? I got the Oscar! So screw ‘em! (Laughs) But I’m really proud of the record. I think there are some wonderful songs on it. Another one is “Words of Wisdom.” And as I said, I got to meet Carl and sing with him on that. So I think it’s a real nice record. It’s a ballad record, it’s more mellow, but I’m proud of the songs and I think they’re good.

Speaking of Carl, you guys also got to sing back-up together on David Lee Roth’s cover of “California Girls.”

Yeah, after I got to meet Carl, he and I really became very good friends, and…I think the two people in this business that I’ve become close to and remained friends with have been Carl and Michael McDonald…and, of course, Carl passed away twelve years ago from cancer, sadly. But, yeah, it’s funny, but Carl and I sang on a lot of things together. We sang on some Olivia Newton-John stuff, too. I think what happened was that, as the years went on, with Brian (Wilson) not being as available, people would want that sound, and…I certainly grew up emulating Carl. Carl and Karen Carpenter are big vocal influences. And so people thought, “Well, if we can’t get Brian, then we’ll get Carl and Christopher.” And sometimes, as in the case of David and Ted Templeman, I think what happened was…they really wanted a stamp of approval and validation on doing “California Girls,” touching something like that, and truth be told, I think they knew I was close to Carl, and they thought, “Well, if we get Christopher, then we can get Carl!” (Laughs) And they didn’t care about me, ‘cause they got a real Beach Boy! So it was fun. But it’s always fun. It was great to do that with Carl, and I did a lot of things with him like that. It was a lot of fun, and as I said, I have very fond memories now of all that, with losing him.

Was it your relationship that led you to develop somewhat of one with Brian? I know you did background vocals on “Nighttime” (on the Brian Wilson album).

Yeah, and I did the Imagination album, and I toured with Brian for a little bit. Yeah, meeting Carl and, you know, getting involved with the Boys…I toured for about a month not too long ago in Australia with Mike (Love) and that Beach Boys. So I got close to the family after meeting Carl. I got to know Audrey, Carl’s mom, and…I did meet Dennis (Wilson) years before, with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, when she was dating him, but it was a very brief meeting. But, yeah, through Carl, I got to meet Brian, and…I tried to do some writing with Brian and stuff like that. Carl would have me interact with Brian. And then, as Brian came out of the whole (Eugene) Landy thing, he’s gotten so much more accessible. Actually, when I moved to L.A., I moved to Palisades, and I lived right on the same street, on Greenleaf, with Brian and Landy, and Randy Newman and his wife, Roswitha. It was quite a street. (Laughs) We had quite a collection! But, anyway, yeah, I’ve remained close to Brian, and I see him quite often. Jeff Foskett, who’s the musical director for Brian’s band, is a very dear friend of mine, and I do run across Brian quite a bit and see him and Melinda. And I’m also very close with Annie, Carl’s wife, the mother of John and Justin, and Marilyn, and Wendy and Carnie (Wilson). So the whole group… (Starts to laugh) A very old friend of mine actually married Annie some years after she and Carl divorced. So it’s kind of an incestuous thing: I know all those people and I’m pretty involved in that whole group. It’s great. Brian’s wonderful, and…it’s surrealistic, you know, to sort of just hang out with Brian and just be around him and talk a bit about music and stuff, considering the influence he’s had on me, you know?

I’ll wrap by asking what it was like getting to collaborate with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Peter Allen on “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” Also, how much actual collaboration was there?

There was actual collaboration. I went up to…well, I was asked to score the picture initially, and then Steven Gordon, who wrote and directed the picture, decided that, even though I was hot, I didn’t have the experience to do something like that. So they gave it to Burt, and then Burt called me and said, “Hey, look, I understand you were going to score this, and you’re not going to score it anymore, but we still need to work on a theme. Would you want to work on it with us?” And so I went up to Burt and Carol’s – they were married at the time – and, you know, it was pretty intimidating. I mean, certainly Carol I have tremendous regard for, but in the case of Burt, it was very intimidating. He was a huge influence on me and my craft throughout, as I think he is on just about all songwriters, and, fortunately, he’s intimidating because of the immense talent he has, but he’s not personally. He’s very warm, and he made me feel about as comfortable as I could…considering I was sitting with Burt Bacharach! (Laughs) But it was very wonderful. I got there about midnight, and it was about five in the morning when we finished the song. We ended up collaborating with Peter over the phone, in Australia. So it was a wonderful opportunity for me. And then I wrote another song with them for the Olympics (“A Chance for Heaven”). Y’know, it’s a moment I’ll always remember.

I see Burt rarely, but, you know, I think anybody who’s worked with him just can’t help but be…I mean, it’s a moment in your life you never forget. Harmonically, he’s one of the great, great writers of all time. As is Hal David as a lyricist. It’s funny, ‘cause I was talking to Todd Rundgren the other day, and we were talking about people we’ve met or would like to meet, and Todd got to meet and work with Laura Nyro, who’s someone I would just love to have met. And then Todd said the one person he hadn’t met was Burt. And I said, “Well, fortunately, I can introduce you to Burt sometime. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of meeting Laura.” But, anyway, yeah, it was a huge thrill, and it just worked out really well. It’s funny, ‘cause after the Grammys, I was just still in a spin, and then when we finished “Arthur,” Burt and Carole said, “You know, this sounds like it could be an Oscar song.” And I was just, like, “You guys are crazy. Come on…” It just seemed…I mean, I was sitting and looking at two Oscars on Burt’s mantle… (Laughs) …but that just seemed out of the realm of possibility. And, of course, then it wasn’t. But, anyway, yeah, it was great to work with all of them. I had known Peter from before, from doing some shows with him, but they’re all immense talents, and, as I said, particularly in Burt’s case, harmonically he’s just a genius.

So, now, is your Oscar on your mantle?

You know, I’ve got some shelves in my bedroom, and I’ve got my Oscar, my Grammys, and pictures of my kids. The things I’m most proud of in my life. Certainly the children first and foremost… (Laughs) …but, you know, I am very, very proud of the awards. I try not to let them dictate my life and career, but I’m very proud of them, especially since they were voted on peers. I’ve put them in their place and tried to move on, and I try not to let them define who I am, but, you know, they’re very treasured things. However you get them or whether you get them all at once at the beginning, I’ll still take ‘em. (Laughs)