“I want to be as intimate as I can and make it as real as possible.”
The emperor has no clothes. In this scenario, the emperor is Graham Nash, the legendary British component of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and no clothes refers to his new solo album This Path Tonight, out today on various formats via Blue Castle Records. In fact, This may very well be the most personally raw and direct album of the acclaimed singer/songwriter’s long career, which has flourished for many decades thanks to indelible, generation-gap-bridging hits like Our House, Immigration Man, Teach Your Children, Just a Song Before I Go, and Wasted on the Way.
Nash’s conversational vocal style dominates the mix of This Path Tonight, as he and co-producer Shayne Fontayne endeavor to put you right next to the man himself in the studio so you can feel just what he feels as he explores new hope on Myself at Last, reasserts his mojo on Fire Down Below, and confronts his own mortality head on in the album’s chilling final two tracks, Back Home and Encore.
“I don’t know how much more naked I could be,” Nash told Digital Trends. “I start the album [and the title track] with the line, ‘Where are we going?’ It’s about me walking into my future. Shane and I wrote 20 songs in a month, and then we recorded the album in 8 days. I couldn’t have been more direct.”
On the eve of release, Digital Trends met with Nash in midtown Manhattan to discuss the advantages of high resolution audio, how he’d map out a potential surround sound mix, and the album’s parallel with David Bowie’s final words. Not only that, but we also shot the accompanying DT exclusive video Q&A with Nash on the topics of streaming, vinyl, and 5.1.
Digital Trends: This Path Tonight is an intimate listening experience. I really love on the title track when you get to the line “Who’s behind this mask,” and you change the vocal inflection to such a degree where it sounds like you’re only speaking to yourself.
Graham Nash: (nods) I am. I’m talking to myself. Most of the songs I write, I’m talking to myself first. Part of the art of songwriting is to take something that happens to us and make it into music that you can understand so you go, “Oh, I see how he dealt with that. Maybe that’s helpful to me.”
You recorded this album in hi-res at 96/24. Why is it critical to you as an artist to record your music at the highest quality?
Streaming is supposed to make a billion dollars. Why not share that with the artists you’re ripping off?
I want to put you as close to the flame as possible. That’s one of the things I love about Neil [Young]. He’s a stickler for hi-res. I think it puts you closer to that moment of creation in the studio. And like we’d talked about before, Myself at Last is the first attempt at the first song. So when that happens, the rest of the sessions have got to be incredible.
In Myself at Last, the way you punch the “st” at the end of words like “last” could get lost if you listen to a lower-grade MP3. We wouldn’t actually get to hear you enunciate that as clearly as we hear you in hi-res.
Right. I wanted you to hear every word of this.
It’s critical that it feels as intimate to us when we’re listening to it as it did to you when writing and recording it.
I agree. Losing that connection would be awful. I wanted it to be as intimate as I could make it and as real as possible. This Path Tonight is six people recording together in the studio [mostly at The Village, in Los Angeles] all at the same time, and looking at each other.
And there are minimal overdubs?
Minimal overdubs, yeah. And a lot of the vocals are live takes, like Myself at Last, Encore, Behind the Waves, and Cracks in the City.
Are we getting a surround sound mix of this album at some point?
Ahh, interesting! We don’t have one yet. (pauses) I’ll have to think about that.
Please do. There’s a production thread here that reminds me of your last solo album, Songs for Survivors, which came out in surround from DTS on DVD-Audio [in 2002].
That’s right. I got the very first digital album award, before they even had that category in the Grammys. [Nash was deemed the Surround Artist of the Year for Songs for Survivors, which was one of the first albums by any major recording artist to be released on the DVD-Audio format before the traditional CD was made available at retail.]
And that was basically a sequel to your first solo album, Songs for Beginners [1971, later released in surround sound on DVD-Audio in 2008], so doing This Path Tonight in surround would complete the trilogy.
Indeed. I think it would.
You’re running your own label, so you can make that decision.
(laughs) You’re right; I could.
So let’s do it! Put me in the middle of the room as the listener, surrounded by all of you in the studio who made it. How would you position me in that mix?
I think hi-res puts you closer to the moment of creation in the studio.
Let me see. If the room was this square, Jay Bellerose in drums would be there [points far right], bass player Jennifer Condos would be right there [points right], me [points straight ahead], microphone, Shayne with his guitars over here [left], Patrick Warren here on keyboards and piano [further left], and Todd Caldwell over here [also left] on keyboards, and Hammond organ. So we’re all in the same room. Yeah, good point.
What’s the best way to listen to this album?
Any way you can. The journey still holds up when you’re in a car — maybe even more so in a car, because when you step into a car, you’re going somewhere, on some journey.
We can also take the journey on 180-gram vinyl, right?
Yep! It sounds fantastic. I’ve already checked it. The vinyl sounds fabulous. I’m very happy that it’s coming out.
People are going to dial this album up on their phones, on Spotify — as an artist, how do you feel about the streaming universe?
I think it’s a great way of getting your music out there. My only beef is: Pay us decently. Spotify and Pandora, all they’re doing is collecting people’s music and putting it out there without paying us as much as they should.
Do you see any statements, or get any checks with just pennies on them?
I haven’t seen any statements for mine. I have people who deal with my business; I don’t particularly want to deal with it. But I know they’re making a fortune. This year, streaming is supposed to make a billion dollars. And I go, “Well, why not share that with the artists you’re ripping off?”
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that a song like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Find the Cost of Freedom is as relevant in 2016 as it was 46 years ago? [Find the Cost of Freedom was originally the B-side of Ohio, in 1970.]
It’s a strange feeling. On one side, there’s a feeling that your music is going to make it longer than your physical body would, and that’s all cool. But at the same time, Military Madness [the lead track on 1971’s Songs for Beginners] was written about my father going off to World War II. We don’t seem to have learned much.
A younger generation listener hearing that song for the first time can equate it to what’s going on in the world right now.
Of course. And that’s part of the art of a songwriter. You’ve got to make them as timeless as possible.
As somebody who has to translate perfectly recorded material to the live arena, what is your goal when you take it onstage?
Military Madness was written about World War II. We don’t seem to have learned much.
To deliver the song. You gotta deliver the song. It’s one of the reasons I like first takes and early takes of songs. By the time you’ve sung it 12 or 15 times, you’re not singing it — you’re reciting it. On those first two or three takes, you’re actually singing the song, and I like that myself.
Is Target a song like that? It’s a little softer in tone at the outset.
Yeah, it is. There are several songs on this album that were unusual for me to write, and Target is one of them. It’s really just a love song, with me as Cupid. Ugly thought. (smiles)
You are an archer, after all, as the first line goes…
Right. “With my arrows and a bow.”
Do you have to go back and rewrite any of your lines, or does it just all flow?
Occasionally, you have to. You hear a line and you go, “Oh shit, I could have used that rhyme.” So, yeah, you may go back and punch a word back in, or a sentence.
Do you generally feel, “first thought, best thought”?
Yeah. As a writer, yes. It’s another one of the reasons I love Neil so much. He’s adamant about using the earliest take possible.
I feel like the last two songs, Back Home and Encore, should be played while I’m sitting in a casket or an urn. Maybe that sounds a bit weird to say, but that’s how they make me feel.
(laughs) I know, but it’s nice. It’s the end of the journey. On Encore, I’m talking about, “Who are you when the last song’s done? Who are you when the last show is over? Are you Graham Nash, or are you just this good person who wants to put good shit into the universe? Or are you a dick? Are you an asshole? Who are you, when the last show’s over?” That’s what I was writing.
When will we find out the answer? Not until after we get there when it’s over, I suppose.
No, we won’t.
At least you’re still searching for it. Back Home really takes us on that possible final journey.
Yes it does. And there’s a lot of my own mortality on this record, too. We’re getting on in life.
There’s a bit of a parallel here with the subject matter of David Bowie’s Blackstar.
(nods) I think the first words [of Lazarus] are something like, “Look up here, I’m up in heaven.”
They are. And the videos he made for the album are so chilling.
But it’s so Bowie, isn’t it? How great to be who you are on your last act.
So perfectly done, I agree. I’m hoping this isn’t your last act.
I hope not too. I’ve still got a lot to do. I’m a very busy boy.