After 13 albums released in the conventional manner, Marshall Crenshaw was ready for something different. The rocker, author and radio show host has launched a new, KickStarter-funded vinyl EP series, each featuring a new song, a re-recorded classic and a cover. We talked with Crenshaw about EP #1 (I Don’t See You Laughing Now), the first song he ever wrote and more.
Why did you leave your last label and start a Kickstarter project to fund your current record?
The sun is shining, I just finished a delicious breakfast; I don’t want to ruin my morning by thinking about my last record label experience. It’s just something that I intend to never repeat, and I don’t mind that that part of my life is over. But I still feel compelled to make recordings, and to get them to people who want to hear them. This is just another approach to that process.
What’s the idea behind releasing vinyl EPs?
I’ve listened to lots of digital sound of course; I think it’s making me go deaf faster, or maybe not. Digital is more convenient, I’m on board with that, but I think that analog is actually better, vinyl sounds the best, etc. The other thing is that I just love records, and so do lots of other people. When I got the first copies of my new EP I stared at the thing just like I used to do.
What are some of the cover tunes you have planned for them?
The current one is an album track by The Move, called “No Time”, a song that I just used to marvel over as a kid; I still needed help picking apart the arrangement by ear, and got that help from Glen Burtnick, PK Lavengood, and Plink Giglio, the other guys on the record. Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne of The Move, and ELO, are songwriting heroes of mine; they had a bunch of apocalyptic-themed tunes. I interpret “No Time” as a song about the End of The World, after a war, or an environmental upheaval. The second cover tune is such a crazy-assed choice; I want to keep it a secret for now. The third one will probably be “Never To Be Forgotten” by the Bobby Fuller Four.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
A lot of the usual suspects, like Leonard Cohen, Smokey Robinson, Percy Mayfield, Chuck Berry, Stephen Sondheim, etc. Also, in the ’80s I used to like lots of Tom Kelly/Billy Steinberg songs, like “I Touch Myself,”,”Like a Virgin,” etc.. Those guys had a sense of humor that I liked. I like some of Desmond Child’s stuff too.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I always sort of dabbled in it but started for real in about 1979. I was 25-26 at the time and things just suddenly came together in my mind in terms of a personal approach. Once that happened and I knew what I was doing I wrote a flood of good songs.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Like I said, I always sort of dabbled in it, but the first one I wrote where I really thought “Eureka”, etc., was “Someday Someway.” By this time I’d already written “(You’re My) Favorite Waste of Time” and some other good ones, but I really thought that “Someday” was a breakthrough. I liked that it had this hypnotic riff-type basis; I’d used the basic groove to “Lotta Lovin'” by Gene Vincent as a starting point, thought that that was cool. And I liked the lyrics, they were nice and spare but had some depth, lots of possible meanings and implications, etc. There was something kind of mysterious about it and I liked that. It was one of those ones that came out in a rush.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I finish most of them; it’s always a piece of music first, then the lyrics later. The second part takes a lot longer than the first..
What’s a song on the album you’re particularly proud of?
I’m especially proud of the A-Side, “I Don’t See You Laughing Now.” This is just my opinion of course, but I think that greed-driven people are jerk-offs, I have zero admiration for people like that; we have lots of villains of that stripe in our society and this song is a rant against them, a good one I think. It’s an expression of moral outrage, but mainly just a really good Rock and Roll song.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It takes me a long time now to write a set of lyrics and really get it right, but I just wait it out, try not to panic . . . It seems though, that when I finally hit on the “right” idea or the right phrasing, that it just pops into my head in a instant, but that’s after a lot of feeling clueless. It’s just really important to me anymore not to have anything be a throwaway.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I can’t think of any. What I like to hear in a song, of course, is something fresh and surprising that feels exactly right, and I love it when I stumble onto something like that myself.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I hear great things from people, like “Our kids were conceived to your music,” or, “We met at one of your shows.” It really floors me sometimes. It’s usually in general terms, but a song from my last album, one called “Live and Learn” is one that gets singled out a lot. I wrote it with Matthew Bair (aka Matthew Koma), and Dan Bern; it has a lot of language in it about trying to attain wisdom, experiencing regret, etc. That’s a song that I’m really proud of.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I have done a bit of other kinds of writing, but only when people have asked me to. Back in 1982 when James Jamerson died I was asked to write his obituary for Rolling Stone; I had no idea then why they asked me, but it was more than an honor to do it. A couple years after that I got a phone call out of the blue from Alan Slutsky, who I didn’t know at the time, asking me if I could help him launch his Jamerson book project, which I was able to do. Eventually Alan made his film, “Standing In the Shadows of Motown”, which led to lots of recognition for The Funk Brothers, etc. I did have a role in the beginnings of all of that, which makes me so happy. Also, during a time when I was sort of in limbo as a musician, etc., I got asked to work on a book project called “Hollywood Rock”, a comprehensive guide to R&R movies; there were tons of great people involved with that, I was mostly the spokesmodel and guiding intelligence. A lot of people got a kick out of that one; it was nominated for a Ralph J. Gleason Award. There’ve been a few other instances.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
This guy is not underrated by people who know his work, but I just did an edition of my radio show made up mostly of Peter Case tunes, including some tracks from a great 3-CD Peter Case tribute album, A Case For Case. He’s one of the best I can think of. Oh, and Bobby Womack; he’s not underrated really, but I should have mentioned him among my songwriting heroes.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Just for three examples, I always pick “Many Happy Hangovers to You,” a Jean Shepard hit from 1965 as a perfect song in my mind. It’s very spare, a minimum of words but very powerful and vivid. To go to the other extreme, I love “Highlands” by Bob Dylan; 16 minutes long and I’m always bummed when it’s over. Another great one is “2541” by Grant Hart, again very spare but vivid.