Q&A: Graham Nash Talks New Album and Why ‘CSN and CSNY Is Over’
“Where are we going?” Graham Nash sings at the opening of his new solo album, This Path Tonight, over a foreboding minor-key groove. At 74, well into the sixth decade of his music career, Nash is quick to admit that he has no answer. “Where are we going? Where am I going? I don’t know,” he says during a phone interview shortly before the album release. “But I know there’s going to be a lot more beauty and creation in my life.
“I’m on fire right now.”
This Path Tonight, Nash’s first solo studio album in 14 years, comes out of a period of upheaval for the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as he ended his 38-year marriage to Susan Sennett and embarked on a relationship with artist Amy Grantham. At the same time, the always volatile mix of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young combusted over various personal feuds—and Nash has vowed the band will never play again.
In his 2013 memoir Wild Tales, Nash retraced his eventful life, from his childhood in post-war England to pop stardom with the Hollies through the harmonic convergence of CSN (and sometimes Y)—and all the rock ’n’ roll decadence along the way. On This Path Tonight, he explores his emotional journey in a set of songs co-written with Shane Fontayne, former guitarist for CSN, who also served as producer. On the gently fingerpicked “Myself at Last,” one of the album’s most poignant tracks, Nash ponders the question, “Is my future just my past?” In the closing “Encore,” he wonders, “What are you gonna do when the applause is all over / And you can’t turn your back on what you face?”
This Path Tonight is a worthy addition to the enduring catalog of songs that Nash has penned, from “On a Carousel” with the Hollies to “Marrakesh Express” and “Lady of the Island” on CSN’s debut just a couple of years later; from the cheerful “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” (Nash’s celebration of domesticity with Joni Mitchell in the late ’60s) to the trippy “Cathedral” and the rocking protest anthem “Chicago.”
Along with his fruitful new songwriting partnership with Shane Fontayne, Nash remains prolific as a visual artist—especially with his first love, photography. All these art forms feed each other, Nash says at the close of this interview on this new phase in his creative life.
“It’s all just energy.”
You’ve said that this album comes after ten years of being somewhat flat in terms of your music. Is that how you feel?
Not necessarily in terms of music, but in terms of my life. I like to be on fire, I like to be alive, and I’d been kind of coasting. I’d been doing great work, I think. With Joel Bernstein, I produced 16 CDs in the last 12 years: Crosby’s box set and mine, Stephen’s box set, and the CSNY 1974 stadium tour and greatest hits and demo records. Also in those ten years, we’ve done 400 shows. So I certainly haven’t been sitting on my ass, but This Path Tonight definitely came out of chaos in my personal life: my divorce from my wife and my falling in love with a beautiful New York artist who actually shot the album cover.
Did this album feel like a burst of something new for your songwriting?
Yes, it was definitely a burst of something new that I had to follow. I mean I’ve been writing songs in the last ten years, but they didn’t fit this emotional journey that Shane Fontayne and I planned.
Shane and I share a bus as we travel around America and around the world. CSN and CSNY have their own buses, but we take various members of the band with us, and Shane happens to be on my bus. So I’d be writing all these lyrics and pouring my heart and soul out into my notebook or my laptop, and Shane and I created 20 songs in a month with a new kind of feeling because of what was going on with me personally. We recorded them in just over a week, so it was an incredible outburst of creative energy from all of us.
Is that how the co-writing process went: You wrote the lyrics and then you and Shane worked on the music together?
Yes, exactly. And it was very interesting, because I’m usually not comfortable writing with other people. But writing with Shane is almost like writing with myself. I felt very comfortable with the melodic structure he put with my lyrics in this project.
With the opening track, “This Path Tonight,” I gave him these lyrics on the bus and he came back a couple of hours later with a great rock ’n’ roll song. We rehearsed it in the band dressing room on tour with David and Stephen. It was obvious from that moment that we were going to be able to write really good songs together.
How did the recording process go?
Well, first of all, I can produce records myself—I’ve been doing it for almost 50 years. But I trusted Shane completely. I told him I wanted an album that was more immediate, more intimate, more personal, and more real, and he put the band together. A couple of the [session players] I’d never met before in my life. “Hey, you’re the drummer—great, let’s record.” It was an interesting experience.
“Myself at Last,” which is the second song on the album, was the very first attempt at [recording] the very first song we ever tried. That’s how those sessions were going. That’s why we could record 20 songs in seven, eight days.
‘We knew how to make hit records; we knew how to create music you couldn’t forget after you heard it twice.’ —Graham Nash
These songs have a reflective mood—almost elegiac at times.
I know that at 74 years old, I’m not a spring chicken, but I’m not an old man either. It is interesting getting to this point and making changes in my life that are this drastic, this profound.
I’d like to talk a little about your beginnings with music. How did you initially learn guitar?
I had a friend called Fred Moore, and for his 13th birthday he got a bicycle. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would just go toodling around Salford [outside of Manchester, England], where we came from. He actually rode his bike all the way to Bad Nauheim, in Germany, and met Elvis. Of course, I wanted a bicycle for my 13th birthday, but quite frankly my family couldn’t afford it. My second choice was a cheap acoustic guitar.
Once I got that acoustic guitar, then we’d hear Saturday Club on the BBC with Brian Matthew, bringing Lonnie Donegan and the Vipers and early skiffle to England, and it made us realize that we could be in a band with a cheap guitar and a washboard for the drums and a box with a pole and a piece of string for the bass. You can actually make music. And then, of course, Radio Luxembourg was broadcasting early American rock ’n’ roll, and if the weather was kind to us we got the airwaves and we could listen to the American Top 40—Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, on and on and on.
How easy or difficult was it to find your way around the guitar?
It’s always difficult. There’s always a point at which you think your fingers are going to fall off, and you might not be bleeding, but almost. Those strings are very hard to push down. As a matter of fact, I made a very early mistake. I found a Rickenbacker lap steel with the amplifier in the case itself, and I was trying to press the strings down on a slide guitar, which was kind of impossible.
We had this passion to create and escape what our dads did and what our grandfathers did, which was go down the mine or into the mill. My parents recognized my passion for music and all they did was encourage me, which is why I’m talking to you right now.
Your songwriting changed dramatically from the Hollies to CSN. How would you characterize that change?
I was trained in my time with the Hollies to write two-and-a-half-minute songs to play right before the news. We knew how to make hit records; we knew how to create music you couldn’t forget after you heard it twice. But the lyrics were a little juvenile, a little teenager, you know—“Riding along on a carousel” and “Hey, Carrie Anne.” But when I came to America and started hanging out with David and Stephen and Neil and Joni, my songwriting changed. I realized that if I took the melodic ideas that I’d learned with the Hollies and brought more decent lyrics to those changes, we had a better song.
Many of your songs have a direct and plainspoken quality. As your lyric goes, “I am a simple man, so I sing a simple song.”
I want you from the beginning. I don’t want you to have to get to the end of the third chorus to know what the fuck I’m talking about. I want you in the first line, so that you listen to the second line and the third line and the fourth line. It’s not easy writing simple songs. A lot of people say you don’t have to think so cleverly to write a simple song, but I’ve never found it easy.
Do you typically work on songs with a guitar in your lap?
I can write in any situation I’m in. I don’t need to be in a room with a piano or a guitar. I can have ideas and carry them through in my mind. I have this little conveyor belt of songs in my mind where they keep clocking off the end when I get time to think about them.
It’s an interesting art form, writing songs, and not a lot of people out there know how it’s done. As a matter of fact, I’m sure not a lot of musicians know how it’s done. I don’t know what it is we do. I mean how do we turn our feelings into music? We’re just sculpting with air.
‘I created 20 songs in a month with a new kind of feeling because of what was going on with me personally.’ —Graham Nash
You wrote in your book about Joni inspiring you to explore alternate tunings. Have tunings continued to play a role in your songwriting?
I don’t use tunings a lot. I have written four or five songs in tunings. You don’t want to copy anybody, obviously, but there’s no way that you can be hanging around David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell and not be influenced.
So one of those alternate tuning songs is “Lady of the Island” [written in F F C G A C, now played down a half step, in E E B F# G# B].
Yes. The tuning that Stephen showed us, with all E’s except the B [E E E E B E], is really magical. If anyone wants to start tunings on guitar, try that one. Amazing tuning: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “4 + 20,” “Pre-Road Downs,” “House of Broken Dreams,” “Back Home” on my new record.
Speaking of Joni, the sound of your new song “Target” is so reminiscent of “California” and other songs on Blue. Was that intentional?
It wasn’t, but as soon as I heard Shane playing the opening chords that he’d written for “Target” on that beautiful bouzouki thing that he bought on the road somewhere, I immediately recognized the salute to the album Blue. And there were two or three songs on Blue that were written about me personally. I do love that record. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Which songs do you mean?
Well, obviously “Willy” [on Ladies of the Canyon] and “River.” And “My Old Man.” Interesting time in my life.
When you first wrote “Teach Your Children,” it had a completely different feel, and Stephen transformed it into the folk/country song we know. Did you immediately embrace the change?
Yeah. I obviously am still very English, but I was really English in the early days.
When I first wrote the song, I played it for Stephen. I sounded a little like Henry VIII, you know, and Stephen said, “That’s a really interesting song. Don’t ever play it like that again. Here’s how it should go.” And he put it into that country feeling. It was obvious that was best for the song, so I was very grateful.
Also in “Teach Your Children,” [sings descant] “Can you hear and do you care / And can you see we must be free to teach your children”—Stephen wrote that little answering part. And he put a minor chord in “Wasted on the Way” and changed the song coming into the chorus.
So we do help each other. If somebody has a good idea, why not use it? We’ve all helped to a certain degree on other people’s songs because we’re in a band and constantly writing and trying to get better.
Did Stephen’s abilities on guitar mean that you played less in CSN?
Yes. Stephen’s a brilliant musician, as is obvious. The truth is that he played a lot of instruments on that first record. David and I played our rhythm guitar on “Lady of the Island,” “Pre-Road Downs,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Long Time Gone,” and “Guinnevere,” but Stephen played bass, he played piano, he played B3, he played lead guitar, he played some rhythm guitar. I mean the guy was a maniac. That’s why when we made that first record, we kind of knew it was going to be a hit and we’d have to go on the road, and if we did go on the road, Stephen couldn’t play every instrument in every song. We had to get somebody else to help us, and that’s why we got Neil.
‘You know, CSN and CSNY is over. That’s the way it is.’ —Graham Nash
With the trio vocals in CSN, you use modal harmonies, countermelodies, dissonance—lots of sounds aside from the typical stacking of thirds. How did you work out those parts?
Yeah, we had a lot of fun playing around with voices, and we’d switch constantly. Normally the person who wrote the song takes the melody. And then if it’s a Stephen song, me and Crosby try and figure out if we should both go above him or if David should go under him and I should go on top.
We’ve been doing this a long time. The Byrds [Crosby’s previous band] and the [Buffalo] Springfield [Stills and Young’s previous band] and the Hollies were pretty decent harmony bands. It was just part of our craft. We’d work out whatever sounds better. If we had three different opinions, we’d go through the song and give our opinions, run it up the flag, and see who salutes.
After reading your book, I can’t help but think of the irony that a band so famous for harmony had so much dissonance and conflict behind the scenes.
That’s true, but you just can’t have four strong people in a band and expect everything to go smoothly all the time. It doesn’t.
You’ve said there will be no more music from CSN or CSNY, but the band has been through many schisms like this in the past. Do you think it’s different this time?
It is different this time. It’s much deeper than musical differences. There’s a lot of personal stuff going on between me and Crosby. And, you know, CSN and CSNY is over. That’s the way it is.
The new song “Golden Days” looks back very directly at your life in music. You sing, “I used to be in a band made up of my friends.” How do you look at that song?
I look at that song as [being about] my opening band, the Hollies. That’s the band I used to be in with my friends. And so the middle section is about how difficult life was, the broken days after World War II in the north of England, and the third section is the fact that I really believe these are the golden days.
There are a million things going wrong with humanity, and we all know them—we know climate change and terrorism and Donald Trump, etc. But there are a million beautiful things that go on in this land and this world that we don’t see because only bad news sells. You don’t hear all the great things that happen, but they are going on, and I want to keep reminding everybody.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.