Marshall Crenshaw - Jaggedland: New Sonic Landscape
By Joanne Schenker
August 17, 2009
Marshall Crenshaw, noted guitarist/singer-songwriter has been making music for nearly three decades. His 1982 top 40 hit, “Someday, Someway” may always be synonymous with his name, but fans recognize him as an accomplished musician, actor and writer as well. He got his first big break playing John Lennon in the Broadway musical, Beatlemania and then the leading role of Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba. In 1993, he made an appearance in the cult TV show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete and one year later published a book, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies.
Jaggedland, released in June on 429 Records, is Crenshaw’s tenth studio album and his first in six years. Although it’s his most introspective to date, his typical sense of humor pervades, as does his songwriting prowess. Unlike his usual one-man-band gig, Crenshaw added to the mix legendary drummer Jim Keltner (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Clapton, etc.), bassist Sebastian Steinberg, guitarists Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant) and MC5’s Wayne Kramer, as well as renowned vibraphonist/percussionist Emil Richards (Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra). Working with two seasoned producers, Stewart Lerman (The Roches, Dar Williams) and Jerry Boys (R.E.M, Buena Vista Social Club, The Beatles) gave Crenshaw the opportunity to record on both the east coast (upstate NY) and west (Los Angeles). The outcome is an eclectic mix of songs summarizing the human condition, world affairs and love through his multi-colored glasses.
Despite extreme critical acclaim and longevity in the music business, Crenshaw has remained somewhat under the radar. He recently landed back on the big screen – only this time it’s his music making a debut - penning the title track from the 2007 film Walk Hard and again in the motion picture, God is Dad (set for release next year). Marshall gave Glide a glimpse into his life -- past, present and future.
I love your new album…
I really appreciate that.
You seem to have recaptured a traditional rock sound that you hear less and less of these days.
Actually, my intention wasn’t to go back to that sort of feeling. I wanted to go forward, if anything. I just feel like I’m in an evolving state all the time. I’m trying to always learn, always sharpening my skills.
What inspired you to go back to the studio after 6 years?
It’s simply that I really love record making. I guess it’s my life’s work, which started when I decided to go in the direction of a recording artist as opposed to something else.
Would that ‘something else’ be acting?
Well, yeah I guess I took these little side trips. But those things are really a sidebar to the real deal -- record making, songwriting and guitar playing.
Jaggedland is definitely a more reflective album than those of the past. Is it indicative of your life?
Yeah, this time around it is pretty personal most of the way through. There’s not too much storytelling involved…just personal observation and experience.
Is there a method to your madness when you’re creating songs?
The way I write it’s like two separate stages. I always start with a piece of music and sometimes it’s months or years after the fact that I write lyrics for that piece. I think I have a greater facility with music and composing than with rhetoric and poetry. One song on the CD, “Long Hard Road” is probably the oldest piece of music on the record. I woke up one morning with the whole thing complete in my mind, which is really unusual...I just kinda dreamt it. I thought before I forget this I better spring it into action, so I ran out to the studio and made this little demo of the song. But I didn’t actually put lyrics to it until about two years ago. That’s an extreme example, but that’s sort of how it works. You just have to pound away when you can and wait when you have to.
You’ve mentioned that the title Jaggedland is a description of your brain. How so?
You know, my consciousness being a ‘jagged land’. But since I said that I’ve also decided that it’s a good word for the world, because it’s getting kind of jagged or tough out there, if you know what I mean. There are lots of references to forces in nature, as well. Plus, where I live there’s a lot of lushness. I’m in the mountains in upstate New York, so I have these images of nature all around me.
That’s a far cry from where you grew up in Detroit. Were you influenced by Motown music as a kid?
Yeah, definitely. The whole local scene in Detroit was influential. It was pretty diverse but very distinctive. There was a lot of transplanted southern culture and southern people in Detroit, such as those from the Rust Belt, which included my grandparents. As a kid, I was really proud of the local music and enthralled with it all…especially Motown. There was a local guy named Jack Scott that people don’t really think of anymore, but back then he was pretty huge for a while. He had a bunch of hit records in the late 50’s and he wrote his own stuff. He was a big local hero and I thought he was very cool as a kid.
Detroit has such spirit. It’s in great need of a resurrection, but you can feel the energy of the Motown era still hanging around…
I agree. There’s definitely a spirit there you can catch. Unfortunately, the place just has awful political leadership. It’s sad. If they can ever figure that one, out they’ll have something. Detroit has potential, for sure.
Why did you switch producers midway?
Stewart (Lerman) and I were kinda doing this out of our back pocket in our home studios. I had already done a couple of those projects and I really wanted to work in a professional studio. I did a session – some guitar work for Dar Williams’ last record and she was doing it at Electric Lady Studios in NY and I really dug being there…in a real, functioning professional studio where everybody’s concerned with the pursuit of excellence. Everything is at your fingertips - it’s a great creative environment. I thought I’d rather be doing it this way than at home. Also, Stewart and I weren’t able to get a good flow. We would get a song going over the course of a month or two and then nothing for a few months. After a while I started to ask myself, “In the best case scenario, who would I want to work with?” Things fell into place where I was able to entertain this idea and I ended up working with someone I admired for years - Jim Keltner, a legendary drummer and a real unique stylist.
…and how did Jerry Boyscome into the picture?
Jerry Boys was the engineer on a record I fell in love with a few years ago called Mambo Sinuendo. It was a rock ‘n roll record made in Havana. I thought sonically it was a perfect. He was also on some Beatles sessions and this other record I love called Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. I got in touch with him and he was really into it and that was invaluable – having someone there to take care of the sonic picture.
You’ve mentioned guitarist Greg Leisz as being instrumental on this album…
The thing about Greg is that’s he’s basically on every record that’s ever been made – literally. It’s incredible. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He plays amazing steel guitar and I figured out that it’s the perfect fourth instrument for my band. I love the atmosphere that it creates. He also plays baritone guitars and six string basses. He fills in the spaces in a really artistic way.
I hear a very dominant guitar on “Stormy River”. Is that him?
No, he’s sort of doing atmospheric stuff in the background on that. The main guitarists are myself and Wayne Kramer. He’s also a legendary rock guitarist. He was in a group in the 60’s called The MC5. We’re old friends – we know each other for about 25 years. Back in 2004, Wayne asked me to fill in as a second guitarist and I toured with these guys. It was a real left-field, memorable experience. So we’ve played live together before, but this is our first time doing a record. He really brought something to the party that no one else could.
You’ve had quite an acting career…
I guess I have. It was completely unplanned.
When did the press peg you as the ‘latter day Buddy Holly’?
It started before we were on a record label or anything. We were just a local band in Manhattan. As soon as we showed our faces, doors started to open. This was like 1981. We were getting all this high profile press right away before we made any records. I remember this writer I really liked back then named Robert Palmer – not the singer. He did a little thing in the NY Times and the headline was “A Buddy Holly Reborn?” with a picture of me. At first it kinda threw me; I’m not sure why. Maybe I was intimidated. People picked up on something…physical resemblance or the music. I was without a doubt strongly influenced by Buddy Holly. I didn’t try to resist that influence, so it was really cool.
When people hear your name, there’s that instant connection to “Someday, Someway”. How do you feel about that?
That was one of the first ones I wrote when I had a vision together…when I felt confident enough to define my taste and express myself. To this day, I still love that song. The riff is nice, it’s real hypnotic. As far as that being the song people know, it boils down to the fact that it was promoted heavily. I have a lot of other songs that I think are as good as that one. But that one was pounded into people’s brains because of radio promotion. I know for a fact, it’s not the best song I ever wrote. That’s ridiculous. But it’s a nice one. I really like it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the movie God is Dad?
Actually ‘Dad’ is really ‘dead’ but the ‘e’ is blanked out. It’s made by this Korean-American fellow named Abraham Lim. He just finished it and is on his way to Seoul for an international film festival. My music is used extensively in the film. It’s a road movie set in the early ‘80’s about these kids – they’re sort of going on a journey. One of the characters is obsessed with me as a fan. I just saw the cut he’s taking to the festival and I thought it was great.
Wow, how cool that you’re the basis of this movie…
Yeah, so it seems (laughs). I really am glad that I’ve gotten to know this guy. It’s definitely flattering.
Will you continue in the direction of film?
Well, I’ve got a couple of little things I’m working on, but mainly I’m concerned with the record. I’ve put a lot of time and emotional commitment into it. I toured the west coast in June and I’m back out in September. I wanted to wait a little bit and let this CD sink in. In the fall, I’ll get out on the road as much as possible. I really feel a commitment to it and I think these songs are good enough to go the distance.
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and AOL Music (Spinner.com) She can be reached at email@example.com.