A.J. Croce just released his latest album, Twelve Tales, which took him all over the country recording with legendary producers such as Cowboy Jack Clement, Allen Toussaint, and Mitchell Froom. The son of Jim Croce, A.J. started in music at an early age and worked his way up so he was able to co-write with artists like Leon Russell and Willie Nelson. Check out what he has to say about his co-writing experiences, his father’s music, and some of his favorite lyrics in our conversation below.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Ray Davies, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Fats Waller, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Lennon/McCartney, Leiber and Stoller, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jagger/Richards…
How did you get to know Willie Nelson? He speaks very highly of you.
I met Willie through Connie Nelson, who is a good friend and Willies ex-wife. We played an AIDS benefit in the early 90’s with Arlo Guthrie. Three generations of songwriters. Over the years we’ve hung out a number of times. I feel honored to have been able to share the stage a few times and most of all to listen to the music.
Did you spend any time on “Willie’s bus?”
Yes, many times in many cities. My favorite memory was outside the Coach House. He and Leon Russell were playing a duo tour, and while I’d opened for Leon and met him at different gigs, I really connected with Leon and Willie that night.
Cowboy Jack was known for his eccentricities – was he eccentric in the studio? Did he try any eccentric production techniques?
He was an eccentric for sure. Ironically, when it came to production, I think his approach was the simplest of any producer I’ve worked with. He picked the songs he wanted to record, chose the players, hit record and stopped us when we had a good take. Two songs complete in five hours.
What’s co-writing like for you?
I love collaboration. I can write without compromise on my own time. When I have the opportunity to write with someone who is really good, there’s an amazing thing that happens. Everyone brings a different perspective to a song, so when you’ve completed a tune, you have your own perspective, your co-writers perspective and a third point if view that is the combination of the two which is unique and separate from what you could ever write by yourself.
How would you compare your music to your father’s?
My music is different because my musical palette is more eclectic, but we have many of the same influences. Leiber and Stoller, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith. . . Some of my influences I got from his record collection. That was my starting point.
This is an over-simplification, but I often feel my dad had two sources of influences that inspired him. The first was R&B, character songs like “Leroy Brown,” “Roller Derby Queen,” “Speedball Tucker,” “Rapid Roy” and the like were straight from that Leiber & Stoller school of writing. The thing that made him original was that he made heroes of his everyday characters. The flip side of his writing was the Elizabethan Folk influence in songs like “Time in a Bottle,” “These Dreams,” etc. They are beautiful pieces of melody and counterpoint even without the lyrics. Two very different styles, and still the records sound great.
How would you describe the new album?
From a production point of view it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. 12 songs, six producers, six bands, nine engineers…I liken it to six cohesive 45’s. From a songwriting perspective the songs are really in keeping with my goal of writing a simple and soulful song with a pop melody. The story comes first and then finding the balance between all these facets comes next.
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing songs around 13 or 14 and they were mostly soul and blues inspired. Especially Ray Charles and Stax inspired. The flip side was that I was really influenced by the Velvet Underground, The Kinks, the Who, the Stones as well as contemporary music of the time like Squeeze, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. I wore my influences. I wanted to be Ray Charles but I knew I had to invent my own music. While as a writer, I think I started writing well in my late teens, I don’t think I really came into my own as an artist until I turned 30. I’m kind of a late bloomer in some ways.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
“Nuclear Blues” was the first I remember. In the vein of a Willie Dixon-style or Jimmy Reed song. It was around the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and I was involved with friends in a “shadow project,” painting shadows on the ground or against buildings in remembrance of the lost lives and dangers of the bomb.
How do you go about writing songs?
I sit down and play. Every instrument brings out different ideas, every chord, every change. As a huge fan of music I’m neurotically aware of which other songs have the same rhymes, changes, melody and rhythm, so part of it is putting that aside and finding a story. Once I’ve got the story it all comes together quickly. Then I fine tune it. I never feel that songwriting is a precious thing. Sometimes it can take years and half a dozen songs, trying to tell a certain story before I feel I’ve gotten it right.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Simplicity is key. Rhymes should be secondary to the story. I use all kinds of rhyme schemes. I try to recognize by the end of the first verse if I’m writing myself into a corner, i.e. the rhymes are too demanding to be inventive, or the story doesn’t need a bridge. I try to catch the weaknesses of a piece early on. Finishing a song is very important. Nobody ever needs to hear it, but I need to feel a sense of completion. The other factor is not taking myself too seriously, which is a tricky balance between being tongue and cheek or writing a corny comedy song and also being too serious and without humor at all.
My last record “Cage Of Muses” was a collection of all the songs that I was proud of but that I couldn’t complete. So in recording that album I ties up a lot of loose ends.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I have a few I’m really proud of on this album but my favorite is “Tarnished and Shining”. It’s autobiographical, simple, and even though I hear several other songs in it, it’s unique and original. Also, the arrangement that Allen Toussaint did is beautiful.
What are some of your favorite lyrics?
Our little dream castle with every dream gone / Is lonely and silent the shades are all drawn / and my heart is heavy
As I gaze upon /
A cottage for sale
A Cottage For Sale
Music by Willard Robison Lyrics by Larry Conley
No one likes us / I don’t know why / I know we ain’t perfect / but heaven knows we try / the whole world ’round even our old friends put us down / let’s drop the big one and see what happens…
Edna Million in a drop dead suit / Dutch Pink on a downtown train / two dollar pistol but the gun won’t shoot / I’m on the corner in the pourin’ rain…
“Jockey Full Of Bourbon”
Dirty old river must you keep rolling
flowing into the night / people so busy, makes me feel dizzy taxi light shines so bright / but I don’t need no friends / as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise
Are there any words you love or hate?
I don’t hate any words, just the order they’re in.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I wrote a song about a certain sincerity and hypocrisy of faith called I Found Faith. I’ve emails from a woman who was fighting cancer who had a tattoo of the lyrics. That was heavy.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I’ve experimented with short stories, though I’m not particularly confident writing anything but songs.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Prince, Bob Dylan, Bernie Taupin, Fiona Apple…
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Ray Davies. I know this sounds weird because he’s had so much success, but in my opinion his lyrics are the most powerful social commentary of his generation, which includes Lennon and Dylan. And Fiona Apple. Very successful but it’s her lyrics that slay me. Completely original rhyme scheme and phrasing. She’s brilliant.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
There isn’t one perfect song there are thousands of perfect songs. It’s like picking a perfect breed of dog, you might want a St. Bernard in the snow but you wouldn’t want one sitting on your lap. It’s like deciding that one painter is the best or one architect. Music is emotional and emotions aren’t that simple.