I couldn’t help but feel nervous listening to singer-songwriting legend Graham Nash’s recent guest spot on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 show.
The Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Hollies star came over a little direct … abrupt maybe … and I got a distinct feeling his experienced host was working hard for his wonga. So where would that leave me when it was my turn the following morning?
Here was a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Grammy Award winner, best-selling author and Officer of the Order of the British Empire with an enviable back-catalogue across the years. What’s more, his publicity people ominously insisted interviewers shouldn’t dwell on his past, not least I’m guessing because of his recent publicised feud with a certain David Crosby. Instead, we were asked to listen to his latest LP and build questions around that.
I shouldn’t have worried though. This Path Tonight – 10 brand new songs on an album of ‘reflection and transition’ – is a winner. And while this 74-year-old Salfordian clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he proved great company during our 15-minute telephone chat.
Graham was briefly over from America to publicise dates to promote his new LP, including one at Manchester’s Albert Hall on Saturday, May 21, and a personal appearance two days later – ‘A conversation with Graham Nash’ – celebrating an exhibition of his photography back in his native Salford.
And the man who gave us such classics as Carrie Anne, Marrakesh Express, Our House and Teach Your Children – and that wondrous voice on so many more great songs – was fired up about his latest album, truly impassioned talking about his new material.
“Well, I’m really proud of this record!”
It’s not just a Graham Nash album either. There’s a proper band feel to it.
“Isn’t it great!”
That prompted Graham to go into detail about what he initially asked of his producer (and guitarist) Shayne Fontayne, who is also playing on his forthcoming UK, European and US tour. But I was slightly distracted, having realised the cable had come out of my recorder, quickly plugging back in just as he added, “I knew it was going to be a great session, because Myself at Last was the first attempt at the first song we tried.”
It turns out that he wrote 20 songs in a month with former Bruce Springsteen and Maria McKee collaborator Shane, recording them in eight days. And as he puts it, “The music has a different feel to my earlier albums, although I hear echoes of each one. This journey was one of self-discovery, of intense creation, of absolute passion.”
Suitably recovered from my technical trauma, I told him the sparse version of the title track he played live on Radio 2 further proved the strength of the song, bringing to mind Johnny Cash’s work with Rick Rubin.
“Well … how fantastic. What a compliment – thanks!”
Ever contemplate recording something as raw as those albums?
“It’s very possible. That happened late in Johnny’s life, and Johnny was a dear friend. I have an incredible amount of respect for what he did in his life. He was a true American.”
The opener, title track This Path Tonight is very much a statement of intent, an inspirational call to arms, suggesting, ‘We’re not done yet, I still have plenty to offer’.
“That’s right, we’re not done yet, kid! I know, I’m 74 years old so how much longer can this go on? But I’ll be rocking until the very end, I hope.”
Despite his American tones – he’s been a US citizen since 1978 and lives between California, Hawaii and New York – Graham’s pronunciation of ‘path’ somewhat underlines his North West English roots.
“You can’t take the Salford out of me, I’m afraid! Don’t forget though, I’ve been in America for almost 50 years now, and all my family think I talk like a Yank.”
Do you consider yourself a Lancastrian, Salfordian, or a world citizen first and foremost?
“I’m a Salfordian, and proud of it.”
Back to the album, and the reflective, near-perfect Myself at Last leads me to chance my arm, suggesting it carries elements of a certain Neil Young at his melodic best.
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment! I have great, great respect for Neil. I think he’s an incredible musician.”
It’s not just when the harmonica comes in either. It’s there throughout, not least in his voice.
“Well, I’m like Neil – I love those first takes.”
Meanwhile, Cracks in the City crept up on me around the second listen, its late ‘60s/early ‘70s feel perhaps the closest we get to Crosby Stills Nash and Young, America, or The Eagles.
“I think Cracks in the City sounds very much like Paul Simon.”
I can see that, although the lyrics suggest something less transatlantic, about being back on home soil maybe.
“I wrote that about New York City, but it applies to every single city. Every city I go to in the world is slowly rebuilding itself.”
Beneath the Waves follows that lead, Graham’s vocals as gloriously-recognisable as ever. How does he think his voice has changed over the years?
“I don’t think it’s changed at all … not since I was a kid.”
Do you have to work hard to keep it in good shape?
“Not at all. Not one thing. I don’t have a vocal coach and don’t have exercises to do. I warm up five minutes before I go on stage. Other than that I don’t do anything to prepare my voice.”
The stirring Fire Down Below is another song that might belong to any of the last few decades, yet again it’s fresh and somehow contemporary.
“Well, this woman I’m in love with right now has set me back on fire!”
It turns out that Graham’s currently in the process of a divorce, after 38 years of marriage to his second wife. And his sixth solo album in the 45 years that have lapsed since his impressive 1971 debut solo LP, Songs for Beginners, certainly seems to cover a few personal issues.
“Very much so. Having said that, I think a lot of people are going through similar changes to me in my life right now.
“You get to the age of 74 and look around and you’ve lost Bowie and Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner, and all of a sudden you start to think about your own longevity and your own life. I keep getting back to the same simple thing – utilise every second you can the best way you can.”
Along those lines, there’s a heartfelt tribute to The Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, Back Home, on this album.
“Indeed, and that’s my demo from the bus!”
I believe he’s referring there to an impromptu writing session with Shayne four years ago after they heard about Levon’s passing while touring.
Songwriting has clearly been important to Graham’s career development over the last five decades. In fact, I understand he was the first to encourage his Hollies co-founder and old schoolfriend Allan Clarke and the band’s guitarist Tony Hicks to write their own material (at first under the collective pseudonym L. Ransford) rather than rely on outsiders.
It’s not just about the lyrics though, and on Another Broken Heart I hear elements of George Harrison and several others who followed Graham’s path to some extent, like Tom Petty and Mark Knopfler maybe. Do those artists mean a lot to him?
“Indeed, and especially people like David Gilmour. I love singing with Gilmour, man. He’s an incredible musician.”
I mentioned former relationships, and the evocative Target’s riff invites comparisons to past love interest Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, albeit with shades of Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill and Young-esque harmonica again.
And finally, the closing three songs – the reflective Golden Days, the afore-mentioned dream-like Back Home and the questioning, rather apt Encore – provide a perfect ending.
“I think so, especially Encore. I mean, who are you when the last show’s over? Are you a decent person? Do you want the best for everybody? Who are you when the lights go out? That’s a question I’m asking myself.”
With all those songs, you’re wistful without being too melancholy, pensive without being over-sentimental. Is that part of your Manchester upbringing?
“Absolutely. When I was born, World War Two still had three years to go. You never knew whether your house was going to be there tomorrow or if your friends were going to be alive.
“Once you’ve overcome that, there aren’t really too many problems. Just because your coffee’s too cold, you can’t complain. It’s like, ‘Come on – it’s not the atom bomb!”
Talking of roots, Graham was born at Blackpool’s Kimberley Hotel in early 1942 – as brought into Military Madness on Song for Beginners – his Mum an evacuee escaping Salford at the time. Not as if he remembers his brief spell on the Fylde coast.
“My first memory is of being back home in Salford. I was about a year and a half, looking at a Beano comic which was upside down, seeing my mother drawing the blackout curtains.”
Graham has just four dates here this time, as part of a larger world tour, but he’s looking forward to playing those new songs. Others in hiss position might find it all a bit of a bind these days – the travelling between, the sound-checking and so on …
“I don’t find any of it a bind. If I did, I wouldn’t do it.”
So what is it about Graham and Shane working together on this latest project?
“When you strip a song down to its very essence, you either have a song worth singing… or you don’t. Playing music with Shane Fontayne is and always will be very satisfying. He has an innate sense of performance and of arrangement. He never loses sight of the fact that the song must come alive, must have a reason for being sung in the first place. We want to look in the eyes of our audience, we want to know that we are connecting on a very real level. What a pleasure this tour will be for me.”
Graham confesses he knows very little about his Manchester stop-off, Peter Street’s grade two-listed Albert Hall, a Wesleyan chapel resurrected by those also behind The Gorilla and Deaf Institute venues.
The same goes for the location of his May 24th London sell-out at the Union Chapel in Islington, on a brief UK stint that also includes dates at Birmingham Town Hall on May 22nd and G Live in Guildford on May 25th.
But there’s an extra appearance in more familiar territory, with Graham talking about his photography at Salford Museum and Art Gallery on May 23rd, helping publicise the My Life Through My Lens exhibition, which runs from April 23 to July 3.
He’s garnered a lot of praise for his photographs. Is that an extension of Graham’s work in song? Or does it involve a different approach?
“No, no … it’s all the same. It’s just a column of energy. Where do I want to plug in today? I’ll plug in here because that’s music and I’m thinking of a song. Or if no songs are coming to me I’m just going to take pictures … or collect … or paint.”
All part of that storytelling gene?
“All part of it … yeah.”
The exhibition includes shots of friends such as David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia and Johnny Cash. Did his closeness to those artists allow him to capture something others might not have seen?
“Absolutely. I want to be invisible when I’m taking your picture – I don’t want you to know I did that.”
Is there anyone from the old days to call in on when he visits Salford?
“I think most of my friends have moved on, but I see Pete MacLaine a lot. I’ve been a dear friend of his so long. In fact, when I married (first wife) Rose Eccles in ’64 we spent the night on Pete’s floor!”
The story of Pete, or ‘Jam Side Down’ as he’s known in certain circles on account of his many near-misses during a run at fame on the 60s’ Manchester beat scene, deserves to be heard.
This was, after all, the guy who partied with The Beatles, toured with The Rolling Stones, had his band The Dakotas poached by Brian Epstein for Billy J. Kramer, turned down a compensatory offer by friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney to write for him, and saw a Decca Records plant holiday closure end his best hopes of a hit single and was pipped by the Swinging Blue Jeans to a hit with a follow-up cover of Good Golly Miss Molly.
Incidentally, Pete’s career is properly chronicled – along with that of The Hollies and many more on that scene via the http://www.manchesterbeat.com/ archive.
And it seems that Pete’s still out there, laughing about his past endeavours and keeping on rocking with the latest incarnation of The Clan, five decades after rubbing shoulders with The Beatles, The Stones and The Hollies.
Ah yes … The Hollies, the band that helped launch Graham’s stellar career, from whom he moved on after six years in 1968, the increasingly-disillusioned guitarist/vocalist joining forces with The Byrds’ David Crosby and Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills.
That ground-breaking folk-rock trio with the rich harmonies became friends during a 1966 Hollies’ US tour, later becoming a quartet with the addition of further Buffalo Springfield recruit, Neil Young.
But that’s not what Graham’s here to talk about. So was the Salford he remembers more that of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town than the modern-day quays re-development?
“Absolutely! Actually, I only found out yesterday Ewan MacColl came from Salford. I never knew that!”
And do accolades like his honorary doctorate from Salford University and his OBE tug him back to this side of the pond, at least emotionally?
“Absolutely. When I was standing in front of Her Majesty the Queen and she was asking me about The Hollies, that blew my mind! I had no idea she even knew who The Hollies were.”
What would your folks have made of that?
“They’d have been so proud. That’s what I was thinking when I was speaking to Queen Elizabeth – how incredibly proud my mother and father would be.
“There are a lot of people who feel the royalty is a thing of the past and shouldn’t exist, but when you’re standing in front of the Queen and you realise she represents a thousand years of English kings and queens – that’s impressive, I don’t care who you are!”
You must have so many people tell you about certain songs you wrote or sang on, and their story around it. Is there a song or album you feel deserves a re-appraisal and that you’re surprised no one tends to bring up?
“Not really. People who love us and love our music know most things about us.”
By the time Graham reached California in the late ‘60s, he seemed more politically-minded, and that continues, as seen recently through support of the Occupy Wall Street movement and Bernie Sanders’ presidency campaign. So what rattles Graham Nash today?
“We get asked to do benefits a lot, and you have to prioritise your time so you figure out the two or three things that are most important to you, and concentrate on that.
“Right now, it’s our children and how we’re feeding them and how we’re educating them. And I think the biggest problem facing humanity is climate change. All these people who have been paid to deny the fact that human beings are creating this climate change – they’re just awful, awful people that are incredibly misinformed.”
Finally, on the strength of this LP we’ll be wanting another soon. Do you remain a prolific songwriter?
“Absolutely. I’m writing all the time. There’s so much stuff out there to write about. As a creative artist I need to reflect the times I live in and try and be as honest as possible.”
I’d like to have asked a lot more, but time was against me, the next interviewer waiting patiently for their allocated slot. So I bade farewell, Graham responding with a cheery Lancastrian, “All the best, lad!”
For further details about Graham Nash’s forthcoming tour and new album, head to www.grahamnash.com. Meanwhile, This Path Tonight is available for pre-order via iTunes and Amazon in deluxe and standard editions.