How David Crosby Followed Joni Mitchell’s Lead on His Great New Album

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Photo: Anna Webber

The best song on David Crosby’s new album, Sky Trails, is a cover: a quiet, tender, almost devotionally simple version of his old friend Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” In the original, from Mitchell’s 1976 masterpiece Hejira, the singer is on a long, solo drive through the desert, lost in thoughts of Amelia Earhart’s final flight and her own life as a successful artist. She mistrusts her gifts, sees poetry everywhere, and can’t decide if it means anything. She’s lonely and brilliant, and suspects the two qualities are connected. At the end of each verse, she gives a cryptic sigh: “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.”

The narrative viewpoint in “Amelia” is so specifically Mitchell’s that the song feels almost uncoverable; it’s jolting at first to realize how well it works with the perspective shifted to that of a cantankerous rock-and-roll survivor in his mid-70s. “I’ve loved that song for a long time,” Crosby says from his home near Santa Barbara, California. “Truthfully, I’ve wanted to sing it for a long time and been a little intimidated by it. I wasn’t sure that I was good enough to sing it. And finally I couldn’t stay away from it anymore.”

Crosby has nothing but kind words for Mitchell. They’ve stayed in touch through the years; at a recent dinner, he was pleased to see her continuing to recover from her 2015 brain aneurysm. “She has trouble walking. She does not seem to have trouble thinking,” he tells me. “She’s a tough woman. I’d bet on her.”

Mitchell’s influence is apparent throughout Sky Trails, in its jazz-inflected ballads and its tone of coolly removed reflection. He credits her, too, with inspiring his habit of jotting down ideas for songs as soon as they occur to him: “If I get four words in a row that I like, I write them down. I learned that from Joni many years ago. If it’s the middle of the night, I pick up my phone and send myself an email with four words in it.”

The next step in Crosby’s current creative process is his nightly writing sessions, which begin after dinner and an hour or so of TV (usually an episode of Vice News, John Oliver, or Stephen Colbert) with his wife, Jan. “We have a huge stone fireplace in the middle of our bedroom,” he says. “I build a fire and I turn on these pretty stained-glass lamps. The light’s really nice, it’s warm, it feels good. I may or may not be herbally enhanced at the time. Then I take a guitar off the wall and I see what the guitar has to tell me.”

Crosby’s thoughts flow light and free on songs like “Curved Air” and “Here It’s Almost Sunset,” whose verses sound like he’s floating through a lucid daydream. There are moments when Sky Trails resembles a spiritual sequel to his cult-classic 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name; like that album, it’s about time, looking back at past lives and imagining new ones.

Sky Trails is the third album Crosby has released since 2014, when he ended a 20-year solo drought with the well-received (and even better-titled) Croz. He’s quick to acknowledge the link between this renaissance and his latest rift with his on-again, off-again bandmates of four decades in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I was bored and unstimulated and unhappy there, and we didn’t like each other,” he says. “You get out of a situation like that and, yes, there is a certain creative whiz-bang.”

Just as quickly, he changes the subject to how much he loved working with his collaborators on Sky Trails, who include folk singer Becca Stevens, Crosby’s son James Raymond, and iconic soft-rock baritone Michael McDonald, whom Crosby calls “one of the two greatest living singers.” The other greatest living singer, in Crosby’s estimation: “Stevie Wonder, of course. He’s the guy Kanye West wishes he was.”

Oh. Right. The Kanye thing. Crosby’s intense dislike of West has been extensively documented, and we’re only a few minutes into our interview when Croz, unprompted, laces into his favorite hobbyhorse. “The guy’s a poser,” he says. “I’ve tried to listen to a couple of [Kanye’s songs]. I found them painful … His words, his raps, are lame. You want to see someone do it right, listen to Lin-Manuel.

It’s sad to hear one great artist talk this way about another, but in Crosby’s slight defense, Kanye is far from the only individual or entity he loathes to this degree. He’s even harsher on the subjects of Trump (“We’ve got this idiot in the White House. He’s a vile human being. He’s a racist and a sexist and an asshole”), Congress (“greedy, stupid, and owned by the corporations”), and climate deniers (“ignorant putzes”), all of which seem like fair points. He’s also not a fan of the streaming economy, or those sites that list the net worth of celebrities. “The problem is that there are sites out there that say I have $40 million. I’ve never had $40 million. I wish to fuck I had $40 million! But no, it’s a joke … I’ve got a wife and kids, I live in a house with a mortgage, and I just lost half of my income to streamers. It’s gone, and I don’t think that’s okay. "

Nor is he incapable of self-criticism. “I’m an old curmudgeon,” he concedes after a while.

This is the riddle at the heart of the man: He’s one of rock’s all-time grouchiest sourpusses, and also one of its most gentle harmony singers; he’s an eternal optimist with a deep cynical streak. Through it all, as Sky Trails proves once more, the Croz abides.

How David Crosby Followed Joni Mitchell’s Lead