After 30 years, this pop pundit is finally making music on terms.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Known mainly as one of Rock’s most reliable songwriters, Marshall Crenshaw isn’t the type of artist who’s easily pigeonholed. He’s worked in musicals — specifically a nascent role in the hit show Beatlemania — played Buddy Holly in the hit movie “La Bamba,” published a book Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies, compiled a collection of classic country artists Hillbilly Music… Thank God, Vol. 1, originated a weekly radio show on New York station WFUV and written the title track for the cult classic film Walk Hard. And that’s in addition to his nine critically-acclaimed albums and classic pop standards, “Someday, Someway” (a semi-hit for rockabilly artist Robert Gordon), “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “Til I Hear It From You” (written with and recorded by the Gin Blossoms) and “(You’re My) Favorite Waste of Time.”
Early on, Crenshaw was continually compared to Buddy Holly, due in no small part to the catchiness and cleverness so essential to his songs (not to mention he was something of a lookalike in his spectacles) and typecast as a power pop provocateur (a genre he later came to eschew). Yet, as he’s demonstrated over the course of his 30-year career, Crenshaw is more than simply a singer/songwriter of considerable merit. His know-how and staying power can attest to that.
Crenshaw’s newest venture breaks the standard once again. Turning his back on the tradition of releasing an album every couple of years, he’s started his own subscription service to provide fans and followers with a new vinyl three-song EP approximately every four months. After raising funds through a Kickstarter funding campaign, he now has the autonomy needed to control his flow of material. His initial release features a new song, “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” with a double B side comprised of a cover of an obscure song by the Move, “No Time,” and a new version of one of his seminal songs, “There She Goes Again,” recorded in concert with the Bottle Rockets.
BLURT recently had the opportunity to chat with Crenshaw and to listen as he shared his thoughts about his new EP – reviewed here at BLURT – plus his radio show, his career trajectory and those persistent Buddy Holly comparisons.
BLURT:Throughout you career, you had affiliations with major record labels, like Warner Bros. and MCA. Is that all behind you now? Would you ever go back to a major label if the opportunity presented itself?
CRENSHAW: As a recording artist, no. Never. I love the fact that we’re doing this and we have complete autonomy with it. This is a good project. I already know what the next one is going to be like. What it’s going to look like. What it’s going to sound like.This is really cool, you know? It’s the right thing for me to do right now.
After those high-profile affiliations, what encouraged you to go out on your own?
My previous record company experience was dreadful, never to be repeated again. That chapter in my life is over…
What experience are you specifically referring to?
For the last 30 years or so, I‘ve just been wired a certain way in my mind. It all had to do with making albums. I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to make records. All together, it took me about six years to write the songs that were on my last album (Jaggedland). I had this odd sensation after finishing that album and then dumping out all those songs at once. I just thought, “Oh, this isn’t the way to go anymore.” It had all run its course. So right around that same time that I was thinking that, I read something about Sam Phillips – the singer/songwriter – and I read that she was launching a subscription service. I thought that was interesting. And I read about a lot of people who had done that before, and I thought that would be really cool, rather than simply stockpile a bunch of songs and dump them out at once. What a great idea to have some mechanism in place to have something so you can immediately send it out there. Also, I read various things about vinyl and how certain people out there still embrace it. I’m one of those people. I still have a turntable that works. I added up all that stuff in my mind. I really do believe that sonically, vinyl is best, and analog is superior sonically. That’s just my own take. So that’s how the idea came together. And now we’re here – we have the first one out and I’m really pleased as hell with it in all respects. It looks like it’s going to work.
It’s very impressive that you included a cover of “Time” on the flip side. That’s an old Move song, no?
It was written by Jeff Lynne. I was a big fan of the Move. I don’t know how I caught on to them but somehow I did. I collected all their records while I was in my teens. That particular song was from an album called Message from the Country and I always just marveled over that song. I thought it was really special. It stayed in my mind all these years. I interpreted it as being a song about the end of the world and the aftermath of a war, or an environmental upheaval, or something like that. So it’s pretty timely. It works for right now. I recorded it in one afternoon with some friends of mine. We had fun doing it. I like ‘60s music a lot and I like Jeff Lynne a lot.
How often will these EPs appear?
There will be a new one approximately every four months. We have a product manager and he suggested we put the next one out on Record Store Day, so we’ll do that. That’s in April. It will be like four months and three weeks until the next one.
So let’s play devil’s advocate here. There will be a new EP every four months, which means one new song every four months. That seems kind of a long time to wait to accumulate a new album’s worth of tunes. Aren’t you worried your fans may get impatient with that pace of new product?
I don’t want to stay in my cave for however many years it is and write all these songs. And I hope that people don’t grow super impatient with the whole thing. But I think it’s a super time table for me. Somebody who gets the first one might say, “Wow, there’s only three songs. I wish there were more.” But someone who gets the second one and then has them both might say, “This is great. I have enough. This feels alright.”
The fact that you have written so many great songs and people know what you’re capable of may be reason why that anticipation is heightened that much further.
I don’t know. We’ll see. I guess I’m rolling the dice a little bit. I’m trying to manage expectations. But I just really like the whole shape of it and the whole concept of it. Hopefully it will seem alright in the end.
The new song, “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” is wonderful. That’s also a reason for wanting to hear more.
Because you have such a wonderful catalogue of material, do you ever feel intimidated when you sit down to write a new song. Is there ever a worry you can’t attain that high bar you set for yourself?
Yeah. Every time I start on a song it’s intimidating because I have a whole lot of respect for the power of the music and for the power of words, and I have high expectations of myself. Yeah, I’m aware of all of that when I start working on something. It’s a barrier I have to break through. But I have a space where I know that it’s working and it’s going to work. Many years ago I was a moderator on a songwriter panel at the CMJ convention and it included John Prine and Matthew Sweet. I can’t remember every single one of them, but everybody on that panel was accomplished. I threw out a question about writer’s block and John Prine was the first one to jump on the question. He said that every time he writes a song, he believes it’s the last one he’ll ever write. It would happen every single time. There’s also an intimidation factor for me every time for sure.
Still, you have the ability to write songs that are so instantly infectious, that grab the listener even on the very first listen. They take over immediately. They’re the epitome of classic great Rock ‘n’ roll.
Well, I know how to do that as far as the form of it goes. But the important thing is that there’s some substance to it, things that create hooks and repetitive patterns that grab people.
Is there some kind of formula that you feel you can rely on?
I guess I just… go for instinct. (pauses) Let’s just say I have a feel for it. I have some kind of instinct that this is right and this feels right. It’s all about feel. It’s an emotional ability, at least from my end of it. I really don’t know how else to explain it.
Back in the day, the kind of music you create would get on the radio in a heartbeat. Radio would be all over it. These days, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Does radio ever enter into the equation for you? Do you ever write a song and think, “This sounds like a hit?”
No. Not really. I never think about that. I learned a long time ago that if you want to get something on the radio, you have to pay to get it on the radio. You do. It’s never just a musical consideration when radio comes into it. It’s a business and it’s a whole other thing. I just think about trying to generate the feel good aspect of it and hopefully people will hear it some way or another. And they do. I guess there is some path out there for me where my stuff does get heard. So that’s okay. But as far as thinking whether it’s going to be a hit? No. I have no allusions about what that means. That just doesn’t enter into for me. I think there will be a video for the A side of this EP and that’s a great way for people to find it if they want to find it. In the meantime, I’m just trying to spread the word as best I can. I do think that when people listen to the song, if they’re paying attention, they’ll think it’s a great song.
When did you know that you could do this for a living?
Well, I started being able to able to support myself and live by just playing guitar. That started in around 1977. I got in a band in the Detroit area that was working five, six nights a week. It was almost no money, but it was enough money to share a house with some guys and buy some food. And then after that, I got into Beatlemania – I played John – so I did that for about two years and again, the money wasn’t great, but it was okay. It was enough to keep going. One way or another I’ve been making a living at this for a really long time. When I finally started writing the songs that were on my first album, I knew I was on the right path and that I managed to find a personal style. So that was the beginning of 1980 when it came together in my mind. I have been able to do it ever since.
What did you think of all those Buddy Holly comparisons that came your way early on? They helped in no small measure by the fact that you actually portrayed Buddy Holly in “La Bamba?”
Personally, I kind of resented it at first, but I think that was just because I was really kind of young and nervous anyway. It seemed that what anybody said back then made me nervous. I remember when people started calling and saying my record would make me the next big thing. That made me really angry and concerned. Just those three words together in a phrase, connected to something I did, seemed like the kiss of death. But then I got a little bit of distance from the Buddy Holly thing and I felt great about it. To be associated with anybody like that was more than cool. I saw him on TV when he was alive. I go back all the way to day one with him. He really appeals to me as an artist, and what little I know about him as a person I feel good about too. He was an admirable person.
Have you ever met his widow, Maria Elena?
Yes, I’ve met Maria Elena. She’s really a sweet person and she’s always been great to me. I’ve really met everybody that was associated with him. I’ve met his brothers. I met Mrs. (Norman) Petty. I met that whole crowd in Clovis (New Mexico). I played with the Crickets a couple of times. I’ve known just about everybody that was connected with him who’s still around.
That seems like real acknowledge of the comparisons that were being made.
Yeah, it’s been very cool. Maria Elena… every time I bump into her, I’m really happy to see her and she’s really great. And beautiful too. She seems to get more beautiful as time goes on, which is strange, but true. It’s been nice.
Have they shared any personal anecdotes about Buddy? Any inside tidbits?
The most of that kind of thing was when I went to Clovis and we were in the studio where they recorded. There’s an interesting group of people in Clovis. In that part of the country, all the towns are kind of far from one another, like little islands. So they’re quirky places. Especially Clovis. I kept thinking of “Twin Peaks” when I was there, because that show was on TV when I was there. I was definitely the outsider.
Tell us a little bit about the radio show that you do.
I have a show every week called “The Bottomless Pit.” All the stuff I program is from my personal record collection. Mostly stuff that I have some sort of longstanding emotional connection with. That’s about half the time, and then there are times when I’m exploring something. It’s all stuff that I bought or that’s been given to me. I’m just wired to it, because I’ve been doing it for a long time and I like doing it. So I try to keep six or eight shows ahead. They’re just kind of random ideas. A couple of weeks ago I devoted a show to Bobby Womack. This week it’s all stuff that was on this label called Northern Records.
Who are you listening to these days?
There’s a lot of good stuff out there. My daughter who’s in tenth grade is really into music. She plays me stuff all the time. She really likes Bruno Mars and she really likes Florence and the Machine…. Various things like that. I don’t really feel a deep connection with any stuff like that, but I do like this album by the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra from Oslo. It’s called Triads and War and that’s pretty brilliant. I heard this record on the radio by Francesco Tristano called Not for Piano. That was a real keeper for me. I recently bought an album by Toulouse Engelhardt called Martian Lust…
You apparently have very eclectic tastes.
Yes, I do. And then of course there are all kinds of stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s.
What are your touring plans looking like in the months ahead?
I play year in, year out. Months in, months out. January is looking pretty busy. I play with the Bottle Rockets. Then in February I have a bunch of dates with Dave Alvin on the West Coast. I have dates in March with Dan Bern. I’m always out playing.
So if anybody bugs you about not giving them enough new records, you can always tell them that you’re out on the road and too busy. There’s your excuse right there.