Interview: A.J. Croce Delivers The Warmth of Live Music At Home ‘By Request’

Interviews

This February 5th, A.J. Croce is bringing his new album, By Request, to music lovers at home via Compass Records, inviting them into the experience of live music played at his house among friends. No, it’s not a recording of a quarantine session, but a reflection of many years of playing songs in gatherings at his home, and the album is arriving to bring us a live feel in a very timely manner. The songs themselves are chosen “by request” of friends, tunes that came up during his home playing sessions, and so include a wide mix of genres but also, for the most part, they are well-known. Some of the songs being covered include “Nothing from Nothing” by Billy Preston, “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps, and work by artists like The Beach Boys, Neil Young, and Sam Cooke and they are performed by Croce and his full touring band.

Some of the songs are recognizably very close to their original versions, while some take on new genre directions or reflect specific past cover versions of those same songs. The result is a warm and energetic mosaic of musical influences and allusions, and also a tribute to the energy behind these songs throughout the various forms they’ve assumed over time. Fans of live music will also be delighted to hear that the album By Request has largely been recorded to preserve a live feel, making sure to leave imperfections in place. A.J. Croce spoke with me about his decision to record By Request within the context of his other albums, and also about the role of musical influences in his life, and in all our lives.

Americana Highways: When I listened to the album, the first thing I noticed was that these cover versions are not stripped down, the way that covers often are, but are instead very full. There’s a lot of arrangement there. Was that a goal?

A.J. Croce: The project really came about because each song was a request from a different friend. These were all songs that I played at home at gatherings, during those late-night gatherings with friends. So when it came to arrangement, there were a number of songs that I chose to interpret differently than the originals. Then there were certain songs which, if you’re playing with someone else, they know a certain version by a certain artist, and they play it like that. So I was faithful to those two ideas. When it came to arranging everything, it depended on the particular song.

With the Billy Preston song, it’s very similar, but the main difference was that I wanted to change the horn arrangement. So instead of having the circus vibe that the original had, it has a more period Soul and R&B, Stevie Wonder-influenced horn-line. But with other songs, like the Neil Young song, for example, I wanted to treat it like it was a Gospel song. With the Randy Newman song, I wanted to treat it as if it was Little Richard sitting in with The Flaming Groovies. This stuff came from different places, and even though that’s not my favorite Randy Newman song, that’s what was requested by a particular friend who had heard The Flaming Groovies version. All the arrangements came about in that unique way, with the framing relating to the friends who requested it.

AH: So, the amount of instrumentation on each song would partly depend on the genres you were bringing into it, as well as the traditions there, to create a new combination?

AJC: Yes, there was recognition of the original, and in certain cases, it might have been a cover version of the song, which was the reference point for a friend. So I took all that into consideration.

AH: Out of curiosity, when you were informally playing these songs at home with friends in the past, were there often other instrumentalists joining you? I understand that many of your friends play instruments.

AJC: It would depend on who was over. We used to have these gatherings several times a week. It was a regular thing. There were thousands of songs that I played. I started off playing standards and doing the American Songbook. I loved all different genres of music, but I needed to know all that Tin Pan Alley stuff to fall back on so that I could play gigs and make a living. This was fun, there was nothing complicated in here. I wasn’t playing Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff. I was playing songs that were, for the most part, popular music, whether Blues, R&B, Soul-influenced, or Rock ‘n Roll-influenced. There are a couple of serious songs, but for the most part this was about bringing the folks out there to my place.

AH: Out of all these thousands of songs, how did you decide what you wanted to record for the album?

AJC: I guess a lot of that depends on what you’re interested in playing in the moment. I did reflect on a lot of things that I had played before. We recorded this last year, a year ago. We had been playing some of this on stage, and most of this is my touring band, and we recorded this live. Had I been able to, I would have recorded it in my house, but that wasn’t practical since it’s not really set up to that. As it stood, we went to a place that could accommodate that.

There were some overdubs. I played a number of instruments on this. I would sing the vocals, then go and play the organ, or play the guitar, or harmonium. It was a bunch of fun. The guys knew the songs, though there were a couple that were new to them when they went into the studio. We’d been touring so much that year that we were really feeling good. We didn’t do more than a few takes with anything. I just wanted it to feel fresh and feel natural. While it was rare to have that many musicians at my house, it wasn’t that unusual to have three or four people playing together.

AH: I saw in some of the notes regarding these songs that you allowed imperfections to stay in these recordings. Is that a specific philosophy of yours?

AJC: Absolutely. If it felt good, if it had energy and that came across, then that was necessary. We didn’t record this to a grid. We recorded to a tape. What you hear is the playing. What you hear is what I’m singing. It’s a live concert in a controlled environment.

I’ve always felt that way about my albums and the recordings that I’ve produced. It’s really important to have that human aspect to it. While there’s all kinds of great music that gets “perfected”, I think everyone in the world will be able to identify with the music, whether it’s Woody Guthrie or The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, or Elvis, it’s not perfect. Motown is not perfect. Stax is not perfect. Muscle Shoals is not perfect. It’s human, and it’s beautiful because of that. If you try to make it better than human, then you’ve lost the most important aspect of music.

AH: Do you think that’s why people still feel such an emotional connection to earlier music and sometimes find that lacking in more modern music?

AJC: I think that they find it lacking in modern recording. But I also think that they find it in live music. I think all musicians are fortunate for that, particularly folks like myself who have played and toured their whole lives. It’s one of the those things where you have the ability to make things as perfect as you can in the studio, but really people are going to get a chance to be involved with it and connect with it in a live setting. I think that’s still one of the most important ways for both the musician and the audience to connect to the music.

AH: I’m hearing that a lot right now from musicians and from music-lovers, that the real impact of not having live music right now is an emotional one, looking for the kind of connection that you’re talking about.

A strange thing has happened here, to say the least, since you recorded this album in 2019, and it’s essentially an album about people playing together at home. Now, staying at home is the experience that people are having more directly, and the album seems so appropriate. Do you have any thoughts about that?

AJC: I can’t say that I predicted it. [Laughs] I really do think that the fun aspect of this record and the very live, organic aspect of it is something that people dig most of the time. It doesn’t matter what year it is, or whether there’s a pandemic, or whether things are falling apart or coming together. Like most music, people find a connection to it. I think people like to find things for themselves. I think there will be a few songs that people will hear on this album which they’ve never heard the original of. I wasn’t trying to include obscure song, quite the opposite, but was thinking of popular songs that people have requested. And that is unusual for me, because I’m a record collector and I love the B-sides and the deep cuts. But this was really fun.

At the time, I’d been touring pretty consistently for a couple of years all over the world, and my wife had passed away, which was, obviously, really difficult. We’d been together since I was 19. All of that led me to want to do something that really felt good.

AH: I wanted to ask about your relationship to other peoples’ music versus your own. It seems like it’s a lot more common in Blues music, in Roots music, in Americana, to show your heart on your sleeve in terms of influences and loves, than it is in Rock ‘n Roll, though of course, some people there do. Could you comment on why engaging with other peoples’ music is important and enriching to you?

AJC: It’s incredibly important to me. I can’t think of one artist, whether it’s Hip-Hop, Rock ‘n Roll, Folk, or any genre, where I can’t hear the artist’s influences. If you listen to Art Tatum, you hear Fats Waller. If you listen to Led Zeppelin, you hear Willie Dixon. If you listen to artists, you’re going to hear other artists in their music. We stand on the shoulders of giants. There’s no one that I can think of who is in a vacuum and is creating without other influences. We hear music from the time that we are little and it inspires us. For some, it inspires them to become fans of music and to look for everything that they can in the genres that inspire them, and for others, it inspires them to want to do that same thing.

As a kid, I listened to all kinds of music. I didn’t put anything on this record by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, or Otis Redding, and artists of many genres who are so close to me in a way that it’s a different kind of expression. But that also comes down to “by request” idea, which is that it wasn’t my request. Then it might have been Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, or a Stones song, or a Kinks song.

AH: Is there a danger, when working on your own music, of facing creative burnout if you don’t change things up with different kinds of projects from time to time?

AJC: I’ve done it for long enough that I’ve recognized certain patterns. There have been periods of time where I did more studio work and composition for other artists and for film and Television. One of the things I’ve recognized is that I kind of work in threes. The first three albums have a lot in common. The fourth album was kind of an outlier. The fifth, sixth, and seventh album really were also in a certain place, emotionally, and stylistically, but they are consistent. The eighth, ninth, and tenth album also live in their own kind of world. They aren’t completely different. I’m the unifying factor, with my voice and piano, or whatever instrument I’m playing.

I write every day, and on thing I recognized a long time ago was that if I’m writing a lot, I find that regardless of inspiration or diligence, there are about six different concepts at work, musically and lyrically, that are trying to find their way. Those then sort of morph into other things. I’ve found that, while I could write ten songs in a week and put out a record, the styles may be different, the changes may be different, but lyrically, I’ll still be trying to figure out which idea I can use to complete the song, as far as the story goes. The story of it seems to have been slowly evolving. It might take a couple of tries before I might say, “I got this. I figured out what I was trying to say.”

After a couple of months, those six basic ideas start to grow. But the more time I have to choose songs the better, since it can be more diverse. Then I can look at all of those songs, maybe twenty-five songs and I can see it. I can say, “Here’s the thread that ties the whole project together.” I can see the big picture over the last year, in two-month increments, and see what I was thinking about.

AH: Does that mean that some songs may wait, if they don’t quite fit with an overall arc, and they might come back later on a different album?

AJC: Yes, though that’s less common. It does happen every once in a while. There were a bunch of unfinished ideas a few years back. Usually, I’m very good at finishing a song. Sometimes that requires a compromise. Every once in a while, it happens that I have a few songs that are very close, and I need to figure out how to make them right. That happened with the album, Cage of Muses, from 2009. The idea was that it was all of these different ideas, these different muses that I had, and they were unfinished. The cage is a reference to the Library of Alexandria [“the Muses’ bird-cage”], but also to any song, and to any idea.

Find the music and more here: https://www.ajcrocemusic.com

“Ooh Child” from ‘By Request’:

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