It’s a different world from the time Marshall Crenshaw burst onto the music scene in the early 80’s with his classic “Someday, Someway.” The sound is different, the way people buy and listen to music is different, and the business end is different. Major record labels offering multi-album contracts are virtually non-existent. In order to get your music out, artists are now forced to use their creative thinking not only for the songs, but to also find ways of inspiring their fans to purchase it.
Last year Marshall Crenshaw successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign where he will produce six EP’s over a two year period. They are available as a subscription series where a 10” vinyl record as well as downloads are offered. Crenshaw has come up with an intriguing format for the EP’s. Each will include one new original song, one cover song, and one of his older works re-imagined. His second EP in the series, Stranger and Stranger, contains the new original title song, a re-working of his well-known “Mary Anne,” and a cover of the Carpenter’s “Close To You.”
The singer-songwriter, originally from Detroit has been playing guitar since the age of ten. In the early 80’s, his career officially took off when “Someday, Someway” climbed the charts, first when Robert Gordon covered it and later with his own release. From “Something’s Gonna Happen” to “Cynical Girl,” to “Stranger and Stranger,” Marshall Crenshaw has written songs both lyrically stunning and melodically entrancing.
Aside from writing and recording, Crenshaw is still very active on the touring scene. He also hosts a weekly radio program out of WFUV in New York City called The Bottomless Pit.
I recently spoke with Marshall about his new EP, his inspirations, and his enjoyment of talking music on the radio.
Kath Galasso (KG): Last year you created a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign for your new EP series. While using Kickstarter is not a new idea, I think what you’ve done with it is interesting. A vinyl EP with a new song, a cover song and a reworked version of one of your songs, as well as downloads. How did that idea come about?
Marshall Crenshaw (MC): I’ve been making records for a really, really long time and one of these days it’s going to be time to stop, but it’s not that time yet. So I had to ask myself a few basic questions like how to go forward. Does it have to be an album, should it be an album, and if it’s not going to be an album, then what is it? The answer I came up with to all of those questions was this subscription series with vinyl records and downloads.
People describe it as a business model, I don’t use terms like business model. I just want to do what I do as an artist, and think of an interesting and cool way to do that. But what manner, what format, what medium, what approach. Those were the questions I asked myself and this is what I came up with because I like records. I like the way they look and feel and sound. I just try to be productive and be inspired and I thought it would be a good way to do it.
KG: And they have artwork and liner notes…
MC: Yeah and sure enough. There are two of them now and it’s a series of three that we’re committed to, and they’re really beautiful looking. The people who did the artwork are really talented and I love the music too. I think it’s really nice music all the way around.
Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday, Someway”
KG: I’ve been listening to the second EP and I absolutely love “Stranger and Stranger.” It’s just beautifully written. How did that song come about?
MC: Well my mother wrote back to be after she listened to it and she said “sad love songs can really be beautiful.” And I said “mom it’s not exactly that” although you could hear it that way. I don’t get real specific, I kind of imply more than I specify, but I try to put myself in the headspace of somebody who’s just experienced some kind of loss. It’s not really spelled out in the lyrics what kind of loss it was, what really happened to the person who went away. But it’s a little darker than just a regular love song. It’s just somebody contemplating looking at the world and maybe not feeling as stable and safe in the world as they once did.
MC: I have had vibraphones on my records lately. I just love the instrument. I did an album back in 2002 called What’s In The Bag. And there’s a guy on a lot of those tracks called Bill Ware of the Jazz Passengers. And my last album in 2009 was called Jaggedland and there’s a fellow on the record named Emil Richards, he was with George Shearing back in the 50’s and he’s done a lot of rock sessions over the years. He played with Frank Sinatra at one time. So I’ve had the vibraphone, it’s been part of the sound for the last decade. On one of the tracks on What’s In The Bag I had a vibraphone and pedal steel and that was really cool. Those are two of my favorite instruments right there. If I could change anything about my life, it would be that I could play the vibraphone, play the pedal steel and surf. If I could do those three things, I’d be all set.
KG: Normally do you write from life experiences or take it from the outside world?
MC: A little of both, but yeah there has to be some personal thing in it for me. I also want to have stuff that’s universal, that people can make of it what they wish to. When I first started writing lyrics that I thought were really good, really solid, I found that if you just said something simple, in a particular way, you left it open-ended. I really respect the power of words, and really give careful thought to all the different nuances in the words that I write. But it’s mostly personal experiences. I’ve had some songs over the years that I just kind of pasted lyrics onto the melody and those are the ones I don’t like anymore.
KG: Do you normally start with lyrics, melody or depends on the song?
MC: It’s always the music first. I never have a lyric idea when I write the music, never. Because then I would get distracted. I like to really focus on the music, make that really solid. Cause that’s what it’s about, I’m trying to create a piece of music that I want to go out and play; that I want to record. And I just like to have my mind on that part of it. The words are like another separate exercise.
Marshall Crenshaw’s “Passing Through”
KG: About a month ago, a friend and I were having an early morning phone conversation and she said she woke up with a song in her head. She was going to youtube to find it and post it on her facebook page because it just put her in such a good mood. The song was “Someday, Someway.” So thirty years are so later, it’s still in people’s heads… first thing in the morning. What do you think about that?
MC: I just absolutely love it for one thing and what else can I say. It’s fantastic.
KG: What it was like for a young guy dealing with a hit record?
MC: It was fun, but I wanted people to love it, that’s what I was hoping would happen. I just was glad, I thought… well great, this is what’s supposed to happen. That’s really what I thought. There was a lot of excitement, it made me really happy. But there were also other layers to it, I had to wrap my mind around a lot of things that I wasn’t really ready for. Just in terms of, ok what now? It was a big question. It was like a real explosion, cause I went from interacting with the same few people all the time to all of a sudden being out in the vast world with new people every minute. And new situations. I loved it, it scared me; part of me was terrified really. It was jarring a bit, but I just did the best I could and had fun. I had a lot of fun.
KG: The re-worked song on the new EP is “Mary Anne,” now acoustic and much less pop than the original version. I think it works really well as it now feels like a real story that has been lived. Tell me about this version?
MC: Well I did that version for a movie project that never got to first base really. I mean the film did get finished; it got made by this guy named Abraham Lim who used to work with Robert Altman.. And he made this movie about these runaway kids. But there was a plot element in the film where one of the kids was obsessed with my first album. I think he asked me to record “Mary Anne,” and it came out that way. I just heard it in my head that way. I started playing the bongos, I think that was the first thing I did was put the bongos on. And then just built it up from there. It was all done by feel and instinct.
KG: Your choice of The Carpenters’ “Close to You,” is kind of out there. You’ve stayed very true to the original arrangement with the horns and big wall of sound.
MC: We really got into the fine points and I did that for people who know that record. So they could go yep, they got that. I just wanted it to be fun for people who loved that record as much as I did.
MC: I started doing the radio show back in 2005-2006 and it was just this kind of urge I had that wouldn’t go away. I had been on the Steve Earle show on Air America, and it was one of those shows where you came on with records that you like and you talk about why you like those records; how they influenced you. I brought six or seven records and I just had such a great time doing it. And it hit me then, that I always loved doing that particular thing. I really have a lot of enthusiasm for the music that I love and I have a lot of knowledge about it. For some reason my brain just retains information about music. So I got on the Steve Earle show and it was really fun. And around the same time I ran into Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators, who was an old acquaintance and pal, and he was telling me about his new gig on the Underground Garage channel. And I found myself feeling envious of him, and I didn’t even know why. So I thought it would be a good outlet for me because I like to talk about music. I knew somebody in my area who had bought a radio station and I just said “Let me go on the air.” So I did, and just sort of got the bug for it. I did it for thirteen months then I stopped. Then in 2010, the guy at the radio station asked me to start doing it again; so I did. Then after a little while my ego started to say I needed a bigger platform so I now it’s on WFUV. I’m working this year on trying to expand it even more. It’s just something that I do now. It’s good therapy and people seem to really love it too.
KG: I saw a webcast on WFUV’s website in which you mentioned when your recording of “Someday, Someway” came out, New York’s WNEW-FM would play both your version and Robert Gordon’s, and it really got things going for you. Now you’re doing a radio show at a station where a bunch of the DJ’s from that radio station can still be heard. A simple twist of fate as Mr. Dylan would say?
MC: Yeah, it was nice, that station really made it all happen for me. I mean I created the stuff but the fact that we got support from them, that just blew the doors open. You can’t plan these things, you just hope something like that will happen, but a bunch of stuff converged all at once and I was able to get out in the world and get some name recognition. WNEW was on one hand what you would call a mainstream FM rock station, but there also was some flexibility where people like Vin (Scelsa) and Meg Griffin, who were really talented and determined to express themselves as well as play the hits. That’s why I was able to benefit from that. Meg really loved Robert Gordon’s version of “Someday, Someway,” and just jumped on it. Then when I got my single out on Shake Records, what do you know, she picked up on that too, and started talking about me on the radio. Then the rest of the station followed suit; they were really great to us, always.
KG: After 30+ years in the business, when you’re on the road, what’s the thing that brings peace of mind as you shut off the light?
MC: Sometimes I don’t have peace of mind when I shut off the light. What I do sometimes if I’m stirred up about something and I can’t settle down, to calm myself, I will start thinking about the next Bottomless Pit episode. I’ll start running it through my mind. And I find that if I can’t hold that train of thought, I figure that maybe I am going to fall asleep now. And I’ll keep fighting to hold onto that train of thought, and then eventually I’ll fall asleep. I do that to calm myself sometimes.
While so many things in the industry have changed, with the release of the second EP in the series, Marshall Crenshaw is proving that creating good music is not any different from when he first began his career. You live it, you write it, you play it. In his case, he just keeps doing it really well.
Written by Kath Galasso
OurVinyl | Contributor