Perhaps the most gifted American songwriter of his generation, Marshall Crenshaw is known chiefly for his retro-minded, radio-friendly singles from the early 1980s—the jangly, rockabilly-influenced hit “Someday, Someway” (immortalized esoterically in performance by Robert Gordon on SCTV, of all places) and the fuzzier, anthemic “Whenever You’re on My Mind.” I arrived at Crenshaw’s corpus through the former, a formidable power-pop polyp head that buoys the sleekly nerve-riddled, tentacular rock n’ roll of his first album, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since that watershed amalgam of soul and roots rock, Crenshaw has inched beyond appropriating sounds one might have heard in Memphis or Detroit in the late ’50s/early ’60s to atmospheric indie (“Starless Summer Sky”), Tin Pan Alley balladry (“Will We Ever?,” “Sunday Blues”), and even covers of Bootsy Collins show-stoppers. But the emotional essence of his craft remains throughout: an alternately overloaded and sympathetic voice taking desperate refuge in vague friendship, comfortingly strophic pop songs, and guitar tones so buttery and reflective one could run them through his hair.
Crenshaw has plans to release a new series of vinyl and web-only EPs and is currently touring in the New York City area. I spoke to him about his upcoming solo shows, the painstaking metaphysics of songwriting, and how three year olds occasionally come up with the best titles.
I have to say I’m an ardent fan of your music, though I seem to have only encountered two kinds of people in the world: ardent fans of Marshall Crenshaw and people who haven’t heard of Marshall Crenshaw.
How about that!
Your debut is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and you’ve got a free download available on your website right now: a live version of “Maryanne,” which of course was originally recorded on that eponymous first LP. That’s as good a reason as I need to ask you about writing what I think is probably one of the most emotionally resonant and compulsively listenable pop songs ever produced.
I had the idea to write a song called “Maryanne,” that was the first thing. Just kinda the way the word rolls out of my mouth was a good thing. I don’t remember when I wrote the music, but that would have come first. I usually get the piece of music before the words. I’m guessing it was around the same time I wrote “Someday, Someway” because they both have this kind of hypnotic, mantra-like thing that I was getting into. [I was trying to] find the point where the repetition is just right, the point where it creates a hypnotic effect rather than a numbing effect.
I was actually at a rehearsal the other day with a friend of mine and we were gonna play that song and go over it, and he asked me, “What’s the guitar you’re using on the record, because it really just sounds like nothing else.” It’s probably six or eight tracks of the Vox 12-string [electric guitar] and then maybe four of this Rickenbacker 12-string that I had. It’s a big, massive, buzzing wall of 12-string guitars.
[As for] the lyrics themselves, the idea is that I’m reaching out to somebody and expressing sympathy. At the time I had a friend who’s girlfriend married another friend of mine. This was like 1979, 1980. In my head I was consoling that person. But the lyrics aren’t specific, they’re just kind of general. Sometimes you just have to laugh at life, laugh at your misery to keep yourself sane, etc. That’s the only way you can go forward sometimes. I remember at the time I was trying to be very minimalistic with lyrics.
That subtlety could come across as lazy, but with you it always seems inclusive. Subject-wise, most of your songs like to juxtapose two nearly universal experiences—romantic love and a sharp dissatisfaction with culture and society…and routine, maybe. Sometimes the juxtaposition isn’t obvious either: “Hold It,” from your second album, Field Day, is on the face of it a very tender love song, but through the whole thing you’re addressing these depressing parts of life and telling them to stop beating you down, to “hold it,” while you cling to the object of your affection.
My life is kinda like that. I’m a cranky person sometimes. I have a real low tolerance for a lot of stuff in mass culture and feel bombarded. I also have someone who I’ve been close to for most of my life who’s been a strong ally. So I refer to that kind of situation sometimes, where there’s this one person who keeps you from losing your fucking mind [laughs]. I write about that a lot.
Someone asked me about the song “Cynical Girl” the other weekend. I kind of spelled it out this way: The part about the girl is just kind of off-the-shelf, rock n’ roll language. There really isn’t any girl that I was thinking of in the song. It’s really about “I hate TV.” I’m saying I hate lowest-common-denominator mass-culture bullshit, and that I don’t wanna hang around with people who don’t. People ask me, “Did you find the cynical girl yet?” It’s not about the girl. It’s about the other stuff.
Sometimes I’d just use words because they created an atmosphere. Just rock n’ roll words and rock n’ roll images. But they weren’t always specific to things in my life. I would just use them musically.
It’s like rock n’ roll cubism—breaking it down to its essential elements and taking away all the context. I actually read somewhere that you got the idea for “Cynical Girl” when you were waiting in line to pay a traffic ticket and watching an overhanging TV…
Kind of. I was walking back to the car after paying the ticket [when I got the idea]. I guess the point of that story is that the song was just suddenly there in my head. That’s how it works a lot of the time. You pound away mentally and there’s nothing, and then it’s time, and boom—you get it.
You’ve said that the music usually comes first, but do you get music in your head that just arrives spontaneously, or is it usually images or words or all of the above?
Well, it’s just a whole different thing for me to write the music as opposed to writing the words. I do them separately. I enjoy the music-writing part of it a lot and don’t want to complicate it by thinking about words. That next step is often a painstaking deal for me. When I write the music it can be anything, and far as the storyline of it goes; I haven’t committed myself to anything, it’s just a piece of music that’s suggesting all kinds of things. So then I have to kind of pin and down at some point and say that instead of being about anything it’s about this one thing. It’s a hard leap for me to make because I come at it first as a musician.
And sometimes you don’t even make that leap. Your albums on Razor & Tie have these beautiful instrumental pieces. But even those seem to suggest an emotional journey. For example, the instrumental “A Big, Heavy Hot Dog” that closes the album What’s in the Bag? could be interpreted as very angsty.
Oh, that piece of music was supposed to be in the end credits of this movie I was working on that I never got to finish. I was working on a project for Disney Television Animation and wrote five songs for it. I got paid for writing them, but before the whole thing got finished the executives I was working for got fired, so the project fell into the crapper, so to speak. But that piece of music was an end-credit thing. So it was supposed to be a summing up of this movie. I forget what it was about now.
And then there’s the title. When my son was about three years old I was working on something in the studio, maybe mixing that song. And he was knocking on the door of the studio trying to get in, but I didn’t hear him knocking. And my wife told me he went back into the house [looking dejected]. She asked him what was wrong and he said, “Well, Dad wouldn’t answer the door, he didn’t let me in.” And she told him, “He was probably working on a song. Could you tell what it was called?” And he said, “I think it’s called ’A Big, Heavy Hot Dog.’”
[laughs] Man, that’s great.
He was only three years old, you know. He just made that up.
What kind of a guitar was that recorded with? The strings sound kind of warble-y and slippery.
That’s two Stratocasters. That’s been my main squeeze for a long time. It’s got that kind of 15-inch-speaker sound to me too.
I’m curious how much of an influence Curtis Mayfield was, especially on your guitar playing. He also favored Stratocasters…
I feel a real empathy with him because there’s often this sense of real vulnerability in his stuff and yet it’s warm and romantic and beautiful. I love his music. I get very emotional when I listen to some early Impressions records. “I’m So Proud”? That song floors me whenever I hear it. As somebody who’s had a long-standing relationship with somebody, that’s one that really does it to me. And all those songs from the civil rights era: “It’s Alright,” “We’re a Winner,” “People Get Ready.” They really do a number on me.
And I do think that I’ve been influenced by him musically. Those riffs he has with the fourths…all those pretty riffs that Hendrix copied. I’ve really taken those to heart over the years. His stuff and early Smokey Robinson stuff.
The spiritual affinity with Motown is also relevant because of their focus on singles rather than albums. Now, all your albums are certainly cohesive entities, but there’s never any one track that seems more radio-friendly than the others. So I was intrigued when I read in an interview recently that you were going to be putting out digital singles.
I’m probably going to be able to announce the singles project pretty soon for real. It’s looking really good. I’m gonna do a three-song EP once every four months for three years. It’s vinyl and downloads. The vinyl part of it is really important, though it’s been the hardest part of it to swing. The downloads are just reality. But the real deal for me is the vinyl. The sound on these EPs is gonna be really crushing.
And some of them are going to feature re-recordings of your old songs?
[The old songs] have just been in the air. I did my 30th-anniversary shows at the City Winery in New York City last spring, three nights’ worth, and we played my whole first album top to bottom and addressed the early part of my legacy, yadda yadda yadda. I realized that that stuff has real significance for a lot of people and for me. And I happen to have a lot of really cool versions of those songs that people haven’t heard. I have a really nice acoustic, pretty version of “Maryanne” that I actually did for another film project a few years ago that didn’t go anywhere. I’m anxious to have that out there.
I also did a version of “Someday Someway” where I changed the drum beat, and that is really a great version. I don’t think it’d be a bad thing if there’s another version of “Someday, Someway” out there, one that’s as good as the earlier one but doesn’t negate it. It sort of proves that there’s more than one way to approach the song.
That seems to be a common thread throughout your career, the tension and maybe forgiveness between Marshall Crenshaw, songwriter, and Marshall Crenshaw, performer. Earlier you said that “Maryanne” was recorded with multiple guitars in the studio and obviously you can’t duplicate that when playing live. The live “Maryanne” available on your website actually sounds more like the Field Day version, it has the same distortion and echo as that album. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between playing in the studio and playing live?
I just have a real love for the act of record-making. It’s a great art form and it’s really gotten short shrift lately. I’ve always had a love for it and a feel for it. And sometimes the way I do it does resemble live performance. For my last album, Jaggedland, we cut [the backing tracks of] eight of the 12 tunes completely live, all the players sitting in a circle, all complete takes with no editing, no punching, no fixing.
But a record is a record. It’s like a piece of sculpture or a painting. There aren’t any rules about how to go about creating it. And live is live. You’re there and in the moment. When I play live I don’t feel like I’m there to reproduce the record, I’m there to experience that moment in real-time and do whatever the moment dictates and try to put some energy into the room.
So what’s the energy like when you’re playing solo? You’ve got a bunch of solo shows coming up at the end of the month that I’m excited about.
I started playing solo around 2000. I got to love it real fast once I figured out a way to do it. It’s basically…I’m sitting, because I like to keep the beat going with my left foot. That’s the way it works. Keeping time with my foot just sort of glues the whole thing together. And the stuff is laid bare. It’s really very pure as far as a presentation of the songs. I think I get a nice groove going by myself. Whenever I tour with a band I find that I’m really happy to get back to solo thing. And vice versa too. I’m really happy now that I have both on a regular basis.