Planet of Sound
Hearsay #16 / 1997 / Interview with Ewen

"The response that I got from Warner Brothers was, 'oh, are you going country on us now?' The postmark on the envelope said 'Nashville' and that scared them!"

Ladies and gentlemen... he's played Buddy Holly on screen, John Lennon on stage, written a book on rock'n' roll movies, written quite a few songs, made some records, worn some glasses and many many more! It can only be MR MARSHALL CRENSHAW. He has also played on some Freedy Johnston albums. Which is lovely. And Ewen asked him all about them. (Except the Freedy Johnston albums.

HEARSAY: Do you consider the self-produced Miracle of Science a new beginning or an attempt to get back to your roots?

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: Sometimes I get nostalgic for the time when I first got the idea to become a recording artist. I was working in this show called Beatlema­nia, I'd been doing it for a year and a half. And prior to that I'd been playing around the western parts of the US, on the club circuit, playing places like Colorado and Wyoming. There was this really fast-paced time in my life: first I was out west, then I was in New York... somewhere in the middle of that I got the idea I wanted to make records and write songs. I bought a four-track from another guy in Beatlemania and set it up in my apartment in Pelham, New York. I had a high-impedance microphone and a couple of stomp-boxes, one for echo and one for compression. I made, like, fifty demos on that set-up. It was a great time for me, every time I turned around I had a new song and my brother and I were running around New York the whole time dropping off songs. Doing this new album was an attempt to recapture that feeling I had back then of freedom and self-sufficiency now that I have gear at home I can make pretty good recordings on.

Your recent move to Razor & Tie after years on Warner Brothers parallels the career moves of many esteemed songwriters of late. Do you find being on a hip indie preferable to shacking up with a money-grubbing multinational?

Well, things were great at the beginning at Warner Brothers but the relationship started to sour by the time of my third album. It was a difficult thing for me to deal with—I was real sad about the way things had gone. Every time I did a record, I couldn't avoid being conscious of the fact that every song I wrote was going to be scrutinised and judged by a group of people. Every group who's on a major label has to deal with the fact their songs are going to be critiqued before they can even get into the studio. I was lucky in that they let me make the records I was contracted to make—I never spent a protracted time in limbo like some people have to—but there was a lot of wear and tear on my psyche throughout the latter part of my stay! I was carrying a lot of baggage around while I was there. I really feel like I've got past that now and I think the work I'm doing is pretty pure, it suits my own taste and it's not filtered through anybody else's point of view.

Interesting to note you play so many of the instruments yourself—songwriters often don't see themselves equally as musicians and tend to import the session players when it's time to record...

You know, of all the things I've done, it's songwriting that's brought the most financial success and it's my primary focus. Over the years I've just tried to be a good musician and I work at that on a daily basis. But I don't write songs day in, day out; long periods of time go by when I don't try to write songs. I play guitar every day and I've got my ears open every day. I'm a songwriter, but it's incidental to being a musician.

It's curious to note the high quotient of covers on some of your records particularly Good Evening (1989) and Miracle... It's unusual for a songwriter who's on the receiving end of covers to record so many diverse works by other writers.

I've always done covers in my set and there's always been one or two on every album I've done. I like a balance of emotions on my records. You might hear something in another person's song you'd never have thought of yourself but for some reason you just connect with it. But I will say this: Good Evening was my last record for Warner Brothers and the real reason there were so many cover tunes on it was that I was in such an uncomfort­able situation with them by that time that it was completely impossible for me to write songs. I spent the beginning of 1989 down in Nashville when I was thinking of moving there, and I wrote five or six songs there and made some demos and sent tapes out to six or seven people at Warner Brothers. The response that I got back from them was, 'oh, are you going country on us now?' The postmark on the envelope said 'Nashville' and that scared them! After that I just said, 'God!' and I really didn't know what to do. So the album ended up being half cover tunes.

Has the Nashville experience been fruitful? We've interviewed some songwriters who've been dismayed by its song-mill mentality they found so antithetical to the way like to work...

When I went there for the first time I immediately made some friends and they've remained friends, especially Bill Lloyd who's a good buddy of mine. I felt good about Nashville from the get-go, I was getting covers out of there right from when my first album came out. I had some ambivalence about it but kind of dug it once I got out there and had met some people. It's more diverse than people think. Obviously the commercial country stuff gets everyone's attention but there's a lot of good rock musicians out there too. As far as the song mill thing goes, that is a bit of a befuddling thing for me. I don't have an easy time sitting in a room with total strangers trying to write a song. Whenever I get involved with that, I brainstorm the song but then do whatever work I do on my own. I tried it the other week with Raul from the Mavericks and we had a great time hanging around together and we started a song. I worked on it some more when I got home, sent him a tape of what I'd done and now I'll just wait to see if he finishes it. But, yeah, I find it jarring to be in a room with people—I need to be isolated and alone to really write.

Like David Baerwald and Jules Shear, you dextrously juggle the roles of 'singer-songwriter' and 'hitmaker': if you'd been born twenty years earlier, would you have been employed by the Brill building?

I always say I'd like to have been around at that time. But on the other hand the publishing deals are much better now! I really revere that Brill building stuff: the best of it is just magical to me and the same goes for Motown, that Detroit thing. The year they moved to Los Angeles was the year I got my driver's licence, but if I'd been born two years earlier I would've gone down there just to hang around and watch people go in and out of the building. When I really got serious about songwriting was around 1979 after I'd been hanging around with two guys from the Detroit area. They were typical Detroit song-hustlers, they wanted to write hit singles and make a million dollars. I don't think they ever did, I don't think they even made a hundred dollars. But we wrote some songs together and their thing was all about hooks: 'if you're going to write a song, write a hit song, otherwise why bother?' I've dug that coz seventy per cent of the music I've loved best is pop music, from all different eras, especially the 50s and 60s.

Have your portrayals of John Lennon (on stage) and Buddy Holly (on screen) informed your subsequent work in any way?

I first read about Beatlemania in Time Magazine. I saw the pictures of the guys in the Sergeant Pepper costumes and I cringed. I thought, 'This is it: our culture is doomed. It's the fake Beatles.' But a couple of years later I got a chance to be in the show and I took it right away! I got really burned out on the Beatles while I was doing Beatlemania. I was really a Beatle fan and listened to their records straight, on acid, anyway you can... except backwards. But I thought the way their music was interpreted in the show was really half-baked. The guys in the show weren't musicians, they were aspiring actors. They'd learn to play just enough to get by; it wasn't really about the music. I did it as long as I could stand it but I ran into trouble after a while. I finally quit and it felt so good; I would've gotten kicked out if I hadn't quit. Being in Beatlemania didn't do anything for me except this: I was around other guys in my age group who were more ambitious than I was and were making tapes and hustling themselves to get going. That inspired me and got a competitive thing stirred up inside. Buddy Holly was the same thing: being in La Bamba was fun but I was already way, way into his music.

So who will play you in the inevitable movie of the Marshall Crenshaw Story?

How about you? You look kinda like me! Maybe Wesley Snipes. Or E from the Eels. He looks a little like me and he'd probably sing like me too... if he inhaled some helium.

You've always been on the periphery of film —cameo roles in La Bamba, Peggy Sue Got Married, you've written a book on Rock'n'Roll films, co-written Till I Hear It From You from fab Empire Records... Does your Theme From 'Flaregun' disclose a secret ambition to score film and TV?

I did write a song for a movie a couple of weeks ago called Pants On Fire, it's finishing up right now and it's kind of a suburban farce. It's a modest little film, I don't know if you'll ever see it in Europe. An old friend of mine from Beatlemania, days, Robert Miller, has a good thing going as composer of orchestral music for films and he asked me to write it. As far as scoring films myself, I'd love to do it but I haven't got the call yet. I think I should be trying to seek out an opportunity to do that. As I'm sure you know, there's no such thing as a TV show or movie called Flaregun; I just got the title from Smoke On The Water.

Do you write well at night? Miracle of Science struck me as having a surprisingly hypnotic, almost nocturnal feel in parts.

Really? I'm really glad you said that—no-one else has mentioned it. Yeah, back in the 70s I was really starting to make judgements about what I really liked and just chose sounds that hit a nerve with me. I used to come home from my gigs in bar bands and stay up all night listening to stuff on headphones or in the car. I guess a lot of the really serious listening I do is done completely in isolation. I work on a lot of the stuff in isolation too and most of the songs I do have a real one-on-one subject matter. So, yeah, it is kinda intimate music. That's how it was conceived and that's a really important part of it.

You've worked with a slew of wonderful producers in the past including Mitch Easter, Larry Hirsch and T-Bone Burnett. Do you feel you've learned things from each of them?

I can only hope that I have coz a lot of them are some of the best guys. I loved working with Steve Lillywhite and Scott Litt; the three of us made a great team. Everyone involved with that record [Field Day, 1983] had the greatest time. We'd just go out every night and go nuts and then go back in the studio... it was just a really fun record to make. T-Bone also impressed me whole lot. On a personal level it was sometimes difficult—he's pretty temperamental and I wasn't in great shape at that time either so we rubbed each other the wrong way once or twice, but I really admire and respect him. The thing I got from him is to not be afraid of the microphone, to really stand and deliver. You can fake it and patch it up in the studio, you can do twelve takes of vocals and take a syllable here and a syllable there and patch it all together but it works best when you really get your shit together and just do it. That's what his approach was, his thing was, 'we're not going to fix it later.' He wasn't going to fudge it or fake it and I thought that was cool. The next guy after him was Don Dixon and I had a lot of fun with him. I tried to learn from all of them, I'm glad to have been around those guys. I've worked with Don Was too but that never came out. As a producer I'm not as experienced as those guys.

Anyone else you'd like to pursue for collaboration?

No. That whole time of big budgets and money to waste... that part of my life is long over! I realised that before I started to make this record: if it was gonna get done I just had to focus myself and work up the ambition to do it and that's the way it's gonna be.

Although I should say I was really helped tremendously by Brad Jones. He's producing a lot of stuff: Imperial Drag (a couple of ex-members of Jellyfish), Jill Sobule and Swandive. I really started to get seriously under way with this record when I first went to visit Brad in his studio. I'll probably work with him more in the future—maybe the next record will be a co-production between him and me.

Do you hope for a swift follow-up to Miracle of Science?

No! [laughs] I'm not in any hurry at all! I've hardly thought about it. I have written a handful of songs this year but none of them have really been for me. Truthfully, I'm trying to get away from that mindset right now. Most of the writing I've done in the past fifteen years has been focused on my songwriting. It's like, 'what would I do now if I were me?' I've been trying to maintain a body of work. Right now I'm trying to cut myself loose from that. I have one song that I'd put on an album, so I guess that's a start!

What inspired Miracle's zippy packaging?

You'd have to ask Stefano, the guy who did it. He got nominated for a Grammy for this packaging. The Grapevine version has a fold-out inlay but the Razor & Tie original is a quarter of the size and the disc was a hologram. You could move around, look at it from different angles and put yourself in a trance. It was psychosis-inducing! A beautiful package. The other guy involved was a photographer named Thomas Schierlitz, he's from Germany and Stefano is from Vienna. Tom had a lot of good ideas and for each roll of film he'd give me a little acting assignment. There's the picture that's in Time Out this week [above] where I'm screaming, and I'm really screaming. He said, 'I don't wanna see any mirth lines around your eyes—think of something that horrifies you, that you can barely stand to think of and just scream!' There were other pictures that came from that session—I had a cheap suit and a pair of my dad's glasses that I'm wearing on the cover and he told me to look like a deranged door-to-door salesman.

Are you optimistic? Do you feel happy with your level of making records?

Optimistic, well... I'm always kind of optimistic. I have a pretty resilient ego. I've had bad years definitely but I look back and realise I did have a positive outlook and things really do go up and down with me, too. Last year, ‘96, was an amazing year for me, the best one I've ever had, in terms of income. Old songs of mine just started popping up in funny places, y'know. I am pretty optimistic coz I've been able to do a lot of things. I should be optimistic because looking back I see just how much I have done. My luck rises and falls but it always seems to keep coming back and I really think that my work continues to develop. Some of the stuff I've done I don't like any more but every time I finish a song I always think it's gonna transform my life. When I first finish it, I always think, 'this is great! It's really gonna turn everything around!.' So, yes, I'm optimistic by nature.

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