In the past several weeks, in the midst of the onset of isolation in the wake of the coronavirus – musicians have been forced to cancel or postpone their live performances in the months of March and April. With a future of uncertainty lingering over the horizon, with no indication of when everything is going to slip back into normalcy, many artists have had to confine themselves to a single solitary space where they must wait for the devasting pandemic to pass. In the current situation, artists are having to find new ways to connect with their audiences in a landscape where they are not allowed to perform live in a shared space, hindering many who love that connection. I had the privilege of talking to Nashville based touring musician Jeff Crosby, who has isolated himself in a log cabin in the mountains of his home state of Idaho – a space that he often frequents to write. We discussed his career beginnings, having songs featured in the television series Sons of Anarchy, his upcoming album, and how he is handling the global pandemic that has grounded him.
AH: You are originally from Idaho. Talk a little bit about growing up there and the kinds of music you were exposed to early on.
JC: I was exposed to a lot of folk music and country music up here. My mom was always into the Laurel Canyon stuff, like Crosby Stills, and Nash, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles. She would strap us in our car seats and listen to the Eagles on repeat over and over, which could be torturous to some, but we survived it. I had this neighbor that was an influential person – he used to be a truck driving Alaskan bush pilot and musician – he was the one that kind of set me on the path of Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and all that stuff. That was kind of what I gravitated towards growing up here. He was always playing Guy Clark songs, stuff like that, all those great storytellers.
AH: I read that some of the artists that have inspired you the most are people like Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Tom Petty, and Ryan Adams. What was it about them that caught your attention?
JC: I love songs that are a little unconventional. I feel like those guys have really written their own rules and that’s why they are such great songwriters. I like stuff that’s overly personal and stuff that really cuts. I love overly honest songwriting. I always gravitate to that kind of subject matter.
AH: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar and started writing your own original songs?
JC: I was probably around fifteen years old. My dad bought be a $150 cheapo guitar that would practically make your fingers bleed just trying to play a G-chord, but I figured it out. I started writing shortly after that. I always had a journal. I was always writing kind of weird poems and short stories and stuff, so I had started writing songs pretty much as soon as I got a guitar. As soon as I figured out G and C, I started writing tunes. I took to it pretty quick but I had always been into writing – short stories and stuff.
AH: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? Is it something you still play out?
JC: I can’t think. One of the ones that we still play now actually is a song called “Idaho”, about where I’m from. It’s an ode to Idaho. I wrote it when I was like sixteen or seventeen It’s the only one that’s stuck around. It survived a decade. That’s one we still play anytime we’re back home in Idaho. It’s kind of become our anthem around here. Most of the other songs I wrote at that age – I mostly can’t stand to hear at this point. But, that one has somehow survived.
AH: I read that you dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen. I have talked to musicians who have said that it was hard to make the decision to pursue music because of societal standards in their small-town communities. What was it like for you to make that decision that propelled you down the path that you are now?
JC: It’s kind of a crazy thing. I was in a position where I was playing guitar for this band of guys who were older than me. I was seventeen and I was just really starting to hang around them – they were this band that was touring all over the Pacific Northwest and I just really looked up to them. I was kind of the kid in the corner just trying to keep up with the older guys. They started asking me to come up to their gigs on the weekends and play the guitar. It was always in these bars, but as long as I was playing I could go. I just couldn’t be out near the bar. I had to stay near the stage. So, I started playing shows with them and they let me open for them. As I started doing that, school kind of became not the priority. Once I realized I could go out and make a few bucks doing the music thing, I talked to my parents about it and they were supportive. They said that if this is what you want to do then that’s up to you. I was determined and very dedicated. I dropped out of school and immediately went to booking gigs. I was determined to make it my job.
AH: Tell me about your move to Los Angeles.
JC: There was a guy who owned a bar in McCall, just down the road from the town that I grew up and he moved up here from California. He had this apartment and I told him that I was wanting to move down to LA – to a music city – I was like twenty-two or twenty-three, and there was a lot of great music in LA – especially from my mom’s world. So, I had it in my head that that was where I had to move to have a career in music. I lived down there for almost four and a half years, but I was on tour so much that I probably wasn’t even there for half of that. I stayed on the road pretty much all throughout my twenty’s doing at least 250 shows a year so we were living on the road.
AH: You wrote the song “The Homeless and the Dreamers” about this period in your life. How did being displaced from familiarity and being away from home for the first time impact your creativity?
JC: That was the first song I wrote after I moved there. You know, your early twenties are such a pivotal time – especially for me. Just figuring out what I was doing and how I was going to make it. I wrote so much during that period of time because I don’t like being comfortable – I tend not to write when I am comfortable. I usually avoid being too comfortable. When I moved down to LA, I was a high school dropout and I was making my money playing music. I felt like I was riding on the edge of a cliff, but I loved it and I wrote a ton of songs during that period because it was so stressful. I didn’t have a backup plan – I just knew it was all or nothing.
AH: While living in LA, you got your songs featured in the television series Sons of Anarchy. What was the process like making that happen and then how did things change for you after that happened?
JC: It’s funny. One thing I’ve learned that I didn’t realize at first is that it really does matter who you know in this business. Your career really ends up being founded on your relationships. I had befriended a guy in Boise, Idaho who had seen that I had just moved to LA and knew that I was kind of struggling, trying to make ends meet. I did this Christmas show with him up in Boise and he said that I should give his friend Bob Thiele a call because he was doing the music for this show Sons of Anarchy. He gave me Bob’s number and told me to go buy him a cup of coffee. I got back to LA and I was completely broke, walking down Sunset Boulevard to get coffee and looking through my phone at all the numbers I had to try and see what kind of gigs I could drum up. I saw his number there and I just called him. We met up for coffee at Peet’s in Beverly Hills, and it was literally that. That’s how it happened. I met him for coffee the next day and we talked about touring. We really didn’t talk about the show. He called me the next day and told me that he had snuck one of my songs into the next episode of Sons of Anarchy. It’s so funny how something like that will legitimize you as an artist to so many people. When we got songs on that show, all of a sudden, we were legitimate. It was a turning point.
AH: Do you ever take inspiration in your songwriting from other creative outlets such as literature or film?
JC: Yes, totally. I try not to listen to too much music, especially when I’m writing or working on a record. I feel like there is no way to not be influenced by what you are listening to. Stuff just sticks whether you like it or not. So, when I’m in the mountains, I try not to listen to any other music. I try to just read and to make sure that I have a guitar sitting in every room. It’s all about trying to pull out the purest version of yourself that you can and not be too influenced by something. And being in Idaho is really nice because you can isolate yourself up here – be alone in the woods and it’s really great. I’m really lucky, actually. Idaho is a place I can go and not get distracted.
AH: Your 2013 EP Silent Conversations and your 2014 record All Nighter are both credited to Jeff Crosby and The Refugees. Can you pinpoint stylistic differences between those projects and ones that are credited solely to you?
JC: During that period of time we had a really solid band. It was all the same members and we were a little bit more band-oriented during those years. My brother played bass and we had a keyboard player and a drummer and we were all together. It was more of a band album and EP. With the last couple of records, I’ve kind of changed my formula for recording in a lot of ways. The last few records I’ve done with this guy named Gregg Williams out of Portland. We usually have our drummer come in or Gregg will play drums. He played with Sheryl Crow – he’s got this crazy resume. When I did Postcards From Magdalena, I really just held up with Gregg and I played bass, piano, and guitar. I kind of did everything and he played the drums or I would have my drummer come in. I stayed in Portland with him for a couple of weeks. I really loved working with him because we have this great chemistry. When I get going in the studio, I like to keep the momentum going. I really enjoyed doing that record because it was just me. This next record that is coming up is kind of the same thing.
AH: When did you move to Nashville?
JC: About two and a half years ago. I was looking to get out of LA. I went and played a gig in Nashville and I met these friends while I was on tour that lived in Nashville. A couple in a band called Slings and Arrows. The next little bit of time I had off I flew out there and stayed with them for like ten days just checking out the town. I got this feeling that it’s a cool town and it was affordable. I figured it couldn’t be a bad place to hang my hat for a little bit. I fell in love with the town. I really enjoy my time there and I really like the communal aspect that Nashville has. Everyone is always seeking inspiration from other people.
AH: Let’s talk about your record Postcards from Magdalena. It was predominantly written in Columbia?
JC: Yeah, I took this month and a half long trip down there and wrote most of those songs while I was on that trip. There was this little town called Taganga – a little beach town that we found that was super cheap and I ended up writing over half the record there. Magdalena was the state that it was in. I liked the idea of postcards from Magdalena. All those songs came from that period of time. That album was what really got me working with Gregg Williams, he produced that. I loved the production of it and the way it came out. The whole formula and working in the studio – I just gravitated toward that again with Northstar, the new record. I did half of Northstar with Gregg in Portland, Oregon and the other half at Electric Thunder in Nashville. I used a similar formula to the last record.
AH: Talk a little bit about the new record Northstar. Are all the singles that you have released in 2019 and 2020 going to be on the new record?
JC: Yes, they are going to be on the record. Basically, we started leaking out a couple of songs. We had this idea in our head to put a few songs from the record out one at a time to kind of give them a little extra focus. Give those songs a little more airtime. We have put out three singles so far and the record drops April 24th. This record is my first time having co-writes on a record. So, I did a lot of writing with my friend Micky Braun, who is in the band Micky and the Motorcars. I went out to Boston for three or four days. I was in Nashville with a week off and Micky was like why don’t you come out to Boston to do some writing with me and I thought it sounded like a great idea. So, I flew up there and stayed three days at his place and we just wrote up a bunch of tunes and we ended up getting ‘Hold This Town Together’ and ‘My Mother’s God’ out of that session and I ended up putting both of those on my record. I’ve never been much of a co-writer, so it’s really cool.
AH: What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you as a performer?
JC: There’s a lot of unknowns. We don’t really have the option of getting sick or getting hurt. This thing we’re going through right now really shines a light on it. All of a sudden, we can’t go out and perform, sell our music, or play our shows. It’s going to be an interesting couple of months. I feel like we’ve been stripped of our livelihood a little bit with this one. I’m just kind of hunkered down up here in the mountains. I’m pretty lucky that I have somewhere that’s affordable and can just kind of hide. It’s pretty scary when something like this comes along, you realize pretty quick – I’m not going to be able to play my shows and that’s my only source of income. I think that’s probably the biggest obstacle. Even before this happened, it’s always kind of looming.
AH: How are you adapting to the current situation of COVID-19? Are you coming up with ways to still connect with your audience?
JC: I’ve never done a lot of the Facebook Live concerts but it seems to be a temporary thing that we can at least do and still bring music to people and promote our record, but it’s pretty terrifying. In a matter of a week, I’ve had two months of shows canceled. I haven’t had two months off in I can’t remember. It’s kind of a terrifying concept. I’m trying to see it from the bright side and I feel pretty lucky – I got a really awesome place up here in Idaho and my folks are up here. We’re not going to see each other actually because we are trying to quarantine ourselves from them until we know we’re not sick cause I’ve been out on the road. It’s a weird thing – within a matter of a week, it really does feel like my entire world is a little upside down. But, I’m hopeful. I feel lucky being from Idaho, I can come up here and hide and be productive. I’ll probably write a record. It’s about all I can do at this point. I’ll definitely be doing some writing and maybe I’ll learn how to cook or something. I feel like everyone is going through the same thing. Pretty interesting times.
Jeff Crosby’s newest record Northstar will be available everywhere on April 24, 2020.