Interview: Marshall Crenshaw

brent johnson chats with music-critic darling Marshall Crenshaw …

Marshall Crenshaw

Ask a group of music critics to draft a list of the most underrated artists of the last 30 years, and Marshall Crenshaw’s name is bound to be on it.

The Detroit-born singer-songwriter made an immediate impression when he released his self-titled debut album in 1982. Crenshaw came off like a glossier version of Elvis Costello, sporting sharp suits, big eyeglasses, and a sound that mixed new wave with ’50s and ’60s pop. Writers gushed over his well-crafted tunes, and one of the tracks — the glistening ‘Someday, Someway’ — cracked the Top 40.

Crenshaw released a few more critically lauded records over the next few years and even appeared as Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba. But he sadly never became a chart staple, even though his catalogue was soaked in catchiness.

He’s carved out a solid career, though, releasing albums independently and penning songs for soundtracks (Walk Hard) and other artists (The Gin Blossoms’ 1995 hit ‘Till I Hear It From You’). Crenshaw has also toured relentlessly. You can catch him tonight at the Elks Lodge in Springfield, N.J.

Plus, he’s launched an intriguing new way to hear his music. Crenshaw created a subscription service to release a series of three-song vinyl EPs — consisting of one new track, a cover song, and a re-working of one of his old tunes. Two of the EPs are already available on his website.

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Crenshaw about his new music, the first records he ever bought, and why critics were lukewarm on his sophomore album.

Pop-Break: Is it true the first original song you released in this EP series — ‘I Don’t See You Laughing Now’ — started with you using the same drum beat as ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson?

Marshall Crenshaw: Yeah, I had a drum machine, and I started fooling around on my guitar along with it.

PB: It seems like an unusual way to start writing a song.

MC: I don’t know why, it just kind of hit me. It doesn’t really matter how you start. The important thing is just to start.

Then, I also had this riff. I was trying to think of a riff that was reminiscent of The Steve Miller Band from the ’70s, because I really like a lot of their records. [laughs] Especially the really poppy commercial sounding ones. That was how the song started. But it really kind of veered off.

PB: But that may be the only time in music history both Michael Jackson and Steve Miller inspired a song.

MC: Maybe. I don’t know.

But eventually, it turned into this magnum opus, with a really long bridge and a big, long two-minute guitar jam at the end. It’s a big deal now. I really like it.

PB: With the proliferation of music on the Internet, do you feel it’s necessary now for most musicians to think outside the box in how they release their music?

MC: Yeah, it is necessary. I think it’s cool. I like that things have taken this particular turn. Just the fact that you can get an idea that is maybe peculiar or unorthodox and actually find a way to execute it, and people are willing to come on board with this stuff. That’s gratifying.

The idea of doing a CD in a plastic jewel box is to me the most boring, unappealing thing I can think of right now. On the other hand, it’s really important to me to be creating new music and to keep the forward motion happening in my life. So, here we are doing it in a really unique way.

PB: Is that why you released these on vinyl and not CD?

MC: It’s been ages since any of my records came out on vinyl. It’s been way too long. I just happen to love the sound of it and prefer it at this point. If it’s a well-made record, (vinyl) beats anything else sonically.

PB: Do you remember the first vinyl 45 or LP you bought?

MC: The first records I bought with my own money? Yeah, I do. I went to the dime store in my town and bought a little group of 45s. Prior to that, I had some that were bought for my by my parents. The first ones I bought myself, there were three that I remember. One was ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys, one was ‘The Great Airplane Strike’ by Paul Revere & The Raiders, and the third was ‘(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet’ by The Blues Magoos. I don’t have any of those records anymore. They all got worn out and thrown away. ‘Tin Soldier’ by The Small Faces was another one among the very first ones I bought.

PB: Do you have a specific songwriting process?

MC: It’s always music first. The next thing after that is to think of some kind of title. Titles are really important. Then, once you think of a good title, you have to kind of scratch your head and say, ‘Okay, what does this mean?’ I find that the songs of mine that survive over time tend to be the ones that do have some kind of personal significance for me. If it’s a song where I just kind of pasted the lyrics together, slapped them together, those are usually the songs I don’t deal with after a while.

PB: I’ve often had arguments with friends about lyric writing. Sometimes, it seems like a fun idea to simply write lyrics in a stream-of-conscience way. But you think songs have a better impact when you craft lyrics to be meaningful?

MC: I just never do that. I really resent sometimes when I am first attracted to a song but then I start to get to know it better and it strikes me as lazily written or just kind of content-free as far as the lyrics go. There are a lot of songs by this group called The Move that I really like, where I initially thought, ‘It’s just kind of rocking.’ I would get to know the words, and I’d realize they were just nothing — wallpaper. That bothered me as a listener. So I have never gone down that road.

If somebody is a good writer, they can make things work that maybe I can’t make work. When I have been lazy, I usually find that songs just don’t have any staying power with me.

PB: The great Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim has said that writing music is hard, but writing lyrics is painful. Is that true?

MC: Yeah, I agree with that. I also have tremendous admiration for him. I got his book a couple years ago — really loved it.

But it is. Sometimes, I really agonize over it. I’m not complaining, but it’s true. I just take it really seriously. Maybe too seriously. But I am really have with the results of the process even though the process is sometimes not fun.

PB: Has songwriting gotten any easier with time?

MC: No, it hasn’t gotten any easier. But now, I just realize it’s not supposed to be easy or it doesn’t matter if it is easy. What matters is just that you do it and you don’t stop until you know you did something worthy or you feel like you did something worthy.

PB: Like many people, the first place I heard your music was on your widely praised debut album. Did you feel pressure to follow up the reaction to that record, or were you just on top of the world?

MC: When I created that stuff, I felt really empowered in a way I never had in my whole life. I just really knew I had something, I had done something that meant something. It was an amazing feeling. It’s that physiological feeling that people get when they create something they thing is powerful. I really got that buzz you get when you create something.

PB: Your second record, 1983’s Field Day, wasn’t as successful. Critics blasted Steve Lillywhite’s production, it didn’t have the same impact on the charts, and even you have said the album cover was goofy. But it still has some incredible songs on it. Do you feel it’s better than the reputation it has?

MC: Time has been pretty kind to that record. There were people who said stupid things about it back in the day. On the other hand, a lot of people just absolutely love it — loved it then and love it still. So I don’t worry about it.

PB: What do you think about it?

MC: I look back on it now, and I realize it was really dumb to just go ahead and do a second album so quickly after the first. It was foolish. But I was kind of talked into it. I was willing to be talked into it.

It was flawed. Certain aspects of it were rushed. But people love it. People still talk about it and ask me about it. So that record is a keeper for a lot of people.

PB: I actually like it more than the first record. It sounds more complex and full. It sounds more robust.

MC: There was this one guy who reviewed the album for a magazine called The Record, that was sort of short-lived. The first sentence in this guy’s review was, “Marshall Crenshaw is a rock ‘n’ roll conservative.” That was the first thing he said. And then he explained why my record was wrong, why the record I made was not the record I should have made. And I just thought, “That’s complete bullshit.” Anybody that calls me something like that is a fool.

So, whatever. It’s a long time ago. I’m just glad people still talk about it and think about it. That’s a good thing.

PB: And I always end interviews with this question: Is there an album that you’ve listened to more than any other?

MC: Probably the record I’ve listened to most in my life is this album called Bo Diddley’s 16 All-Time Greatest Hits. That music still makes me happy whenever I hear it. ‘Road Runner’ and ‘I’m Looking For A Woman’ — all the tracks on that album delight me time and time again.

I got that record when I was about 14. It was the late ’60s. A lot of kids my age were investing in stuff on the Chess Records label — Chicago blues. I remember hearing Bo Diddley on jukeboxes when I was in places in Detroit. I knew of him. But then somebody lent me that album when I was 14, and I just fell in love with it immediately.

Marshall Crenshaw will play tonight at the Elks Lodge in Springfield, N.J., at 8. Buy tickets here.