GRAHAM NASH  -  SOUL AND SURVIVAL

GRAHAM NASH’S SOARING VOICE AND heartfelt songs have touched our souls for half a century. One of just a handful of artists inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than once, Nash began his long career with the Hollies during the early-’60s British Invasion. After contributing to such hits as “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne,” he quit in 1968 and promptly created a string of era-defining albums with frequent collaborators David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young. He’s also issued many fine solo albums, from 1971’s Songs for Beginners to 2002’s Songs for Survivors. Nash has also left his mark as a champion for human rights causes, and as a highly respected photographer. He spoke to us recently from his home in Hawaii.

“I’VE NEVER REALLY BEEN A MAN TO LOOK BACKWARDS. I’M MUCH MORE INTERESTED IN THE SONG I’M WRITING RIGHT NOW." 

You often perform without an instrument, yet you create many of your songs on piano and guitar.
Yes. I don’t play piano very well, but I certainly appreciate this new Yamaha that I have [an AvantGrand N2]. It sounds incredible, and it feels incredible. I can just turn it on, transpose, and find different sounds instantly. I’m not as technically adept as, say, James Raymond, who is David Crosby’s son and our current keyboard player. He knows his way around every synthesizer and every piece of outboard gear.

You’re modest about your piano skills, but you’ve created some immortal piano parts, like CSNY’s “Our House.” You must have walked into cafés all over the world and heard people playing that.
Yeah, and it’s kind of funny to me. I’m a very simple songwriter. I want your attention immediately. I don’t want to get to the second chorus before you figure out what I’m talking about. It’s not easy, though. It’s something I’ve learned and refined over the years.

graham-sideThemes of simplicity and humility come up often in your writing.
Yeah. I’m a lucky man. I’m glad to be alive, and I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing. [Laughs.] And I’m still waiting to get found out.

What reactions do you have today when listening to your old songs?
All kinds. There’s a line in my song “Chicago” that I wish I’d never written. But they are what they are, and you have to let them go at some point. Besides, I’ve never really been a man to look backwards. I’m much more interested in the song I’m writing right now.

Has it gotten easier to express yourself over the years?
Much easier, because I realized when I joined up with David, Stephen, and Neil that there was no limit to what you could write about. There is so much going on in the world on so many levels that it would be insane to run out of things to write about.

What was it like to leave a successful British group and start over in California?
I was thrilled. I had a lot inside me that needed to get out. And the songs David and Stephen brought to the party for that first Crosby, Stills & Nash record! “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” “Guinevere.” Are you kidding me? It was very exciting for me to be in another environment where I felt appreciated and wanted.

You had such different voices, but they made sense together.
Isn’t that strange? But really, it’s one voice, isn’t it? Three-part harmony is only a reinforcement of the melody. Anyway, we didn’t work hard to make it click. Whatever sound Crosby, Stills & Nash has on record was born in the first 45 seconds of us singing together.

Really?
Absolutely. In 1968, I went over to Joni Mitchell’s house for dinner one night after flying from London. David and Stephen were having dinner, too. After dinner David says to Stephen, “Play Willy that song that we were just doing.” [“Willy” is Nash’s nickname in CSNY.] They’d just finished rehearsing a song of Stephen’s called “You Don’t Have to Cry,” which was later on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash record. They got to the end, and I said, “Wow—incredible song! Do me a favor and sing it one more time.” David and Stephen looked at each other kind of funny, but they sang it. When they got to the end, I said, “OK, one more time,” and I sang it with them. I remembered the words, the phrasing, the tuning, how David was breathing, how Stephen’s body language affected the way he played. We had to stop in the middle of the song and start laughing because it was so ridiculously good. I knew at that point that my life had changed drastically.

You’re a photographer and a painter as well. What does that bring to your music?
I’ve actually been a photographer longer than I’ve been a musician. In my photography book, Eye to Eye, the first portrait is one I took of my mother when I was 10. I didn’t become a musician until I was 13 or 14 years old. But I don’t see much difference between the energy of music and the energy of light. When I look at a famous photograph, I can look at the dark areas of a photograph and imagine cellos. I can look at the clouds in the sky and realize that they’re a lighter shade of gray, and I can hear the violas and the violins. It’s all the same energy to me. If I’m stuck on a song that I’m writing, then I just leave it percolating in my subconscious, and I go paint.

Have great songs come to you at the easel?
Absolutely. My latest song, which I wrote for my wife and my children. My son Jackson gave us a granddaughter 11⁄2 years ago, and my son Will and his wife are expecting identical twin boys in a month. So I started to think about how lucky I’ve been to be married to Susan for 37 years and to have three beautiful grown-up children. And I realized with the advent of grandchildren that my DNA is screaming into the future. It makes me feel good.

Are you still maturing as an artist?
Absolutely. I try and get to the very essence of what I’m trying to say, in a way that you would understand immediately. You know, I’ve been cursed to be a songwriter. I swear I would have ended up in an insane asylum if I hadn’t been able to get these feelings out of my system. And right now I’m going to go down to my studio and start writing on my new Yamaha piano.