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Graham Nash: Wild Tales Over The Years
The singer-songwriter talks about his new retrospective album, Over The Years..., his upcoming intimate theater tour and his life as a Transatlantic musician and activist
Interview by Michael Burland
Hi Graham, thanks for talking with The American. This is a reverse for us – our interviews are often with American artists coming over to the UK, but you're famously a Brit who went 'over there'. Where are you at the moment?
I'm in New York, it's a beautiful sunny day, about 60 degrees.
You live in NYC now, but you were living the ultimate Laurel Canyon, Californian dream.
Sure, I did my time there.
What made you cross America?
Um, family disagreements. Getting divorced from my wife [Susan Sennett] and falling in love with a beautiful New York artist [Amy Grantham]. She's an incredible painter.
You became an American citizen in 1978, do you have dual citizenship?
I actually do not have dual citizenship, I can apply for it but I have not so far. I have been an American citizen for 40 years.
You left The Hollies and more or less went to America with just your guitar, a story you tell in your book Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. You just upped and went in December 1968 – did you need a new life or career?
I wasn't seeking a new life, you know, I was happy in The Hollies – apart from when it started to get a little weird at the end. But I had to follow the sound that David [Crosby], Stephen [Stills] and I created when we first sang together and made our three voices into one. When I first heard that sound, I wanted it to continue, and the only way it could was if I left The Hollies and joined David and Stephen.
So you and the others weren't really seeking it, it happened magically, by accident?
Absolutely! I'd come from London to Los Angeles to spend a few days with Joni [Mitchell] and when I got to the house there were other people in there – which pissed me off a little! But it was David and Stephen, they were having dinner with Joni. David said to Stephen “play Willy that song that we've just been working on". [Graham's middle name is William and it became his nickname, as in Joni Mitchell's song 'Willy': “Willy is my child, he is my father / I would be his lady all my life / He says he'd love to live with me / But for an ancient injury / That has not healed."] They started singing a two-part Everly Brothers kind of trip. The Byrds had thrown David out and the Buffalo Springfield [Stills' band] had already ended their relationship, and so they were trying to get a duo together. I'm a harmony singer – of course! – and when they played that song, I wanted a part of it. When I added my voice we had to stop within a minute, because it sounded so ridiculously great.
In my head I've got a picture of the two of them sitting, Stephen playing his acoustic guitar, with you standing behind them and then your harmony soars in? Their faces must have been a picture!
Their faces were a picture! I was checking them out very carefully because I wanted to know whether what I was feeling was what they were feeling ...and it was. We realized that our lives had changed massively. Particularly in my case, because I didn't even live in this country then.
Your three voices are almost like sibling harmonies, your voices fit together so well.
Almost but not quite. David and I can do two-part singing pretty good, but we're not genetically connected. When I listen to Don and Phil [Everly] singing, I know that they've been doing that since they were in the womb! But we created a sound that was completely unique. With all due respect to The Hollies, the Byrds and the Springfields, they were pretty good harmony bands, but this was completely different. We recognized it and thank God we went for it.
Did your Englishness add to it or is your nationality an irrelevancy?
No, no, it was very important. There was a certain energy coming from England. I never quite understood: how English rock and rollers took American rhythm and blues and did it their way, then managed to sell it back to the Americans in the British Invasion, but hey! I'm glad it happened.
How do you think of yourself?
I'll always be English. It's just the way it is – I was born in Blackpool, at the end of World War 2. My sister Sharon passed away about six years ago, but my sister Elaine still lives in the north of England and I see her every time I go, I love her dearly. I do feel different from the rest of the boys. I'm not sure how they feel about my Englishness. I do love this country, America, I think it has the possibility of being a great, great country.
One of the really important things that you were involved in was over here – the Wembley Stadium concert in 1974. . You brought that West Coast music over here for the first time, and Californian weather too. [Crosby Stills Nash & Young were supported by Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott and the LA Express, The Band and Jesse Colin Young. I was there – ed.]
We made a box set of that tour [CSNY 1974] after I heard a bootleg of the Wembley show. I did not want the public image of CSNY to be that bootleg so I went to Neil [Young] and we found the tapes. I spent 4 years with my co-producer Joel Bernstein and my engineer Stanley Johnson – who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago – putting together what I considered to be the best of what CSNY was. I wanted people to know that we were a great rock and roll band: yes, we had songs; yes, we had 4 strange people up there; but we were a good rock and roll band!
You've been very involved in protest movements: Vietnam, No Nukes, the Occupy Movement later on, among many other causes. Have things really changed?
They have, but it's a slow process. Trying to change the trajectory of this planet and its cultures is incredibly slow. You want to stop the Vietnam war and you get a lot of people to write to their Congressman and their President, and you think it's going to be done tomorrow, but it was 5 years later when the war ended. The momentum of this planet is such that it takes a long time to change, so it might appear that we're not learning anything from our history but, as my wife says, history is being made now.
Did you think of yourselves as protest singers at the time, using your music for political purposes as well as entertainment?
I would slightly change that. When four kids at Kent State use their God-given right to protest what their government is doing in their name and they get slaughtered at school, is that political or is that human? When you chain Bobby Seale to a chair in the courtroom and gag him with gaffer tape and I write 'Chicago', is that a political song or is that human? I believe it's human. The songs are personal and political, both at the same time, because you can't separate the life of people from the people that are running those lives. The political aspects became bigger for me after I moved to the States, but we gave our shot too, The Hollies did a song in 1965 called 'Too Many People' about the population explosion. I used to watch Bertrand Russell and the Aldermaston Marches protesting against nuclear power and I was into it, but it was hard to get The Hollies to go in that direction. So-called political songs weren't supposed to be part of your pop sensibilities. But when I came to America and I saw what David and Stephen and Neil were doing with their songs, I decided that if I could take my ability to write melodies, that maybe you couldn't forget if you played them a few times, and put better words to them, I could have better songs. That's what I tried to do.
Are they still relevant today?
Yeah. Do you think 'Immigration Man' is not relevant today?
You were appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) a few years ago. Are you a part of the establishment now?
I thought about it. A lot of people think that the monarchy is an old idea that should be gotten rid of, you know, Kings and Queens – why are they better than us? But I must tell you that my only thought when I was there in front of the Queen in Buckingham Palace was how thrilled my mother and father would have been. My father died when he was 46, my mother passed away 25 years ago, so they weren't there to see what happened to their son. But when you're standing in front of the Queen of England and you realize that she has the genetic stuff going on that makes her the epitome of a thousand years of English Kings and Queens, I was completely honored. As a matter of fact at the end of my conversation with Her Majesty I said 'quite frankly, Your Majesty, I didn't think anybody was watching what I was doing in America' and she looked at me and smiled and she said 'And now you know.'
So you had a chat with her, not just a deferential bow?
I did! She asked me how The Hollies were! I just was like wait, wait, is this a crazy scene where someone is going to go 'Cut!'? I had no idea that the Queen even knew who The Hollies were!
There've been different permutations of you and David and Stephen and Neil, but the one that lasted the longest long time, was as a duo with 'Croz'. Your voices work perfectly together, you write beautifully together, but you're not talking to each other now. What happened?
The truth is, Michael, I don't want to talk about it. I'm done with Crosby, our friendship is at an end and that's the end of that.
I want to ask about visual arts as well as music: your dad gave you your first camera, you collect photography, and you're a published photographer yourself. You're holding a camera in your hand on the front and back covers of Wild Tales too.
I've loved photography ever since my father showed me the magic of putting a blank piece of paper into this colorless liquid and this image appears out of nowhere. In a book that I put out 5 or 6 years ago called Eye to Eye the third portrait is of my mother, which I took when I was 11. I've been a photographer longer than I've been a musician. I didn't start playing music until I was 13 or 14 and since then the two have always gone together.
You're important in the photographic world as well, because you helped develop digital photography didn't you?
I did. The company, Nash Editions, has been credited with being the very first atelier for digital photographers, and our first printer is now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. in recognition of the importance of what I did for that industry.
How do you split your time between music and photography nowadays?
About a week before I go on tour I start preparing my hands, getting callouses on my fingers, remembering words and all that stuff, then I go out for 5 or 6 weeks. When I come back I don't want to deal with music anymore unless new songs are coming, so I go to the artistic side of my life. I watch my wife painting constantly, every day she's always creating something.
You're touring again soon. Will Amy be coming across with you?
She came on the first couple of tours with me, and then realized exactly what that was – when I'm out on tour, it's my crew, my bus, my show, my band... it's all about me. It's very difficult to live for five weeks in someone else's world when you're dying to get to the canvas and start painting. So we stay in touch five or six times a day when I'm on tour, but she's been here, done that, thank you!
Your new album, Over The Years... is a retrospective of some of your favorite and most famous songs, along with demos. What sort of reactions have you had?
People are really responding very well, and more-so to the demos. When you appreciate music but you don't write music and you're not involved in making music, you're just a witness, the song-writing process has got to be stunning. People have no idea how songs get written, and quite frankly I'm not quite so sure myself! I know that I wake up every morning and I check on the world and I get on with my life and I get affected by stuff that I have to say in a song, that's my life. And I love my life. I'm a musician and I'm still creating and I realize that it might not go on for too many more years, you know – I am 77 years old. I often think 'how long can this go on?', and then comes another day!
The demo that surprised me most was 'Our House'. It's complete, almost exactly as it was when the finished record came out, and it's just you.
That's right! When I write a song I think about it constantly. In my mind when a song is ready to be played for other people, I've already thought about how to record it, who plays what and when we're going to do it. I mean look at 'Marrakesh Express' – it's just like the record, but without Stephen's 'train' guitar and our harmonies.
The album celebrates five decades in music, in fact it's probably a little over that. Did it come as a shock to you to realize how long it had been?
Yeah! Because I've never been a man to look backwards and think 'well I should have done this' or 'I should have done that'.
The reason I asked that was, listening to your songs through the years, most of them are set in the present, the now of what you're experiencing, what you're feeling, what you're thinking. You don't look backwards like a lot of people, you're not nostalgic. For Over The Years... did you have to do that?
Well no, because there's nothing you can do about it, and there's always things when you put out a record, you know, there's always a couple of mixes that you think you could've done better – 'if I'd have put that word in there it would've been different' – but after it's been delivered to the public there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to take a deep breath, let it go, move onto the next.
There's one song on which you do look backwards, 'Myself At Last', where you're looking back at your life and you even say 'It's so hard to fight the past'. I wondered why that particular song came to you, and why now?
It had been 14 years between solo records, but I was a busy boy in those 14 years. I made, I think, about 16 CDs – I did the CSNY 4 CD box-set and Stephen's 4 CD box-set and me and David. 'Myself At Last' is about being persuaded by Amy that I'm actually a decent man, I try my best with everything I do. I must tell you, that was the first attempt at the first song that we tried for the album. That became the master.
Really? The first take of the first everything?
The first take of anything. And that was an indication that the rest of the sessions were going to go very well – which they did.
In July you're coming across the Atlantic for some theater gigs in Europe and the UK, and some festivals. The theater ones are relatively small venues, for you. Are you looking forward to more intimate settings?
I'm telling you, it's been a Godsend! You know that I've played in front of hundreds of thousands of people with Crosby Stills & Nash & Young, but hey! I feel good about my contributions to the world. I think I've made music that makes people happy. When people are leaving the theater, they're smiling and talking about what a great time they had. That makes me realize that I did my job. I love these smaller theaters, I can see their eyes, they're only eight feet from me instead of forty.
Now, our traditional final question: what's the best thing about being Graham Nash?
I think in my life, I've really brought a little happiness to people, and myself. That's an incredibly rare thing to be able to do, particularly in today's incredible environment.