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Interview: Marshall Crenshaw

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Now I’m feeling guilty.

I’d asked Marshall Crenshaw to meet me at Greenwich Village’s Second Hand Rose record shop. Since he was in the city anyway — to play a set that night at downtown’s City Winery — we were going to talk about his upcoming project to release six vinyl singles over the next two years. The prospect of more new Marshall Crenshaw music, so soon after 2009’s critically acclaimed album Jaggedland, seemed noteworthy indeed.

Where better to speak than a vintage vinyl store?

Looking around the narrow, crowded storefront, jazz playing softly in the background, Marshall looks at home – a guy who has spent more than a few hours of his life in record stores. But he insists that he’s got a pile of about 20 new albums he hasn’t even listened to, and today he’s “just browsing” — like most people really do. “Whenever I go into a record store, I always look at the register to see if anybody’s actually paying for anything,” he notes with a grin.

But those floor-to-ceiling shelves, loaded with vintage LPs, are too tempting. Crenshaw’s eclectic tastes draw him to one section after another. He pulls out 101 Strings Play the Blues. He snags a Vladimir Horowitz classical piano sampler, The Sounds of Horowitz. He’s delighted to find a rare early 1970s radio-promo LP by Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band. Deftly sliding the disc out of the sleeve, he tilts it to the light, to inspect the grooves. “Dennis Coffey — he was like the effects guy, on the guitar, at Motown — you know on all those Norman Whitfield records, the fuzztone, wah-wah pedal? That’s him,” Marshall explains, riding a crest of music geek enthusiasm. (Anyone who’s listened to Marshall’s weekly radio show – streamed live Wednesday nights on upstate’s WKZE-FM — knows what a trove of pop music history he stores in his brain.) “I met him last summer for the first time – he and I have the same birthday, November 11.” Clearly he’s found a kindred spirit.
And in no time at all, Marshall’s heading up the narrow stairs – “Now you’re going into the inner sanctum,” quips Gene, the store’s owner – to hit a mother lode of hi-fi studio orchestra easy-listening albums, where he excavates Al Caiola’s 1958 LP Music for Space Squirrels. Another great studio guitarist, from another end of the pop spectrum – it’s all fodder for Crenshaw’s restless musical curiosity, which has so deeply informed his own guitar expertise over the years.

When he finally gets to the cash register (so much for “just browsing”), he realizes how expensive his taste is. Ouch. These happen to be rare collectibles, not just secondhand LPs, and I’m feeling guilty that I dragged him in here.

Luckily, Gene is willing to knock a few dollars off in exchange for Marshall’s autograph on his 1982 debut album, Marshall Crenshaw. “When this record came out,” Gene raves, “we were in our old store on Fourteenth Street, and we played ‘Some Day, Some Way’ and ‘Soldier of Love’ all the time. The customers just loved it.”

Tucking his bag under his arm and scooting out the door, heading for sound check at the Winery, Marshall insists he’s not a vinyl collector – he classifies his own record collection as “modest,” “only about 2,000 LPs.” (“Modest” is a relative term.) He’ll even admit that he doesn’t listen to his records as much as he used to. “I think it has to do with protecting my hearing – sometimes I just embrace the silence.”

But he’s heartened by the trend that sees vinyl coming back into its own. “What I’ve read is that more people buy vinyl every year, while drastically fewer people every year buy CDs,” he notes. “There is the tactile thing of records, something about handling a record. But the sound is just good, you know, it’s different. It sort of hits your ears and your nervous system. Anything recorded nowadays is going to be at least partly digitally recorded, but the vinyl sort of smooths it all out.”

That audiophile trend back to vinyl is what convinced Crenshaw to launch this new singles project. It’s not a nostalgia trip — despite the oft-mentioned echoes of early ’60s rock and roll (Buddy Holly, the Everlys, anyone?), the truth is that Crenshaw’s sound has always added a sweet shot of R&B and jazz as well, which makes those choices in the record store so telling. The term “power pop” has always seemed too simplistic for what Crenshaw does.
The plan is to release three singles a year, for two years, starting next spring – a manageable schedule that will keep him producing new music at a steady pace. Remembering the six-year lag before his last album, he admits, “It took a lot out of me to get Jaggedland together – it just took forever. I thought if I set myself some deadlines, at the end of it I’d have enough for an album.” Now that he’s on this path, however, “I’m getting interested in the singles themselves, in really making them nice.”

The A-sides will feature new songs, which are still to be written – a slightly scary commitment, but after thirty years in this business, he trusts he can pull it off. At first he planned to devote the B-sides to cover tunes (there’s the music geek again – intriguing re-interpretations of other artists’ songs, from Bob Dylan to Bobby Fuller, have popped up on his albums over the years). But now he’s considering doing a double-B side, so that he can also slip in re-recordings of some of his own material.

Having recently re-recorded several of his 1980s songs, Crenshaw is enthusiastic about how they’ve turned out. Like many veteran artists, he has realized that it makes business sense to copyright quality recordings of his own old hits, the original tracks still being the property of his old label. “But they’re not slavish remakes,” he makes it very clear; he digs being able to tweak the old songs and bring something new to them.

Later that evening at the Winery show, I’m reminded of his words as I listen to subtly updated arrangements of “There She Goes Again,” “What Do You Dream Of?,” and his very first hit single – 30 years ago! – “Something’s Gonna Happen.” Though he may describe these songs as being “from the oldies bag,” they seem to have found new life.

It’s an innovative scheme, this vinyl singles project, with no real models. There are still a few wrinkles to iron out – how to sell and distribute it, for one thing. “We’ve been considering doing it like a subscription package, where somebody can plunk down a certain amount and get all six,” Crenshaw explains, where extra assets like downloads can be added. Individual singles will also be available to order, perhaps on line from his website. He’s also optimistic about having a retail presence in stores – “a rack of good quality records, nice thick vinyl, a good package.” There’s that tactile appreciation of the physical object again.

Marshall Crenshaw’s enthusiasm is infectious, I have to say. Already I can feel those vinyl singles in my hand, feel the pleasure of setting them on a turntable, hearing the needle find the groove. I may have resisted temptation back at the record store, but I suspect I won’t be able to resist buying these new records. Who knows? Someday they may be collector’s items themselves.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Julie

    Terrific interview, Holly.

  • BAMAJOHN

    Thanks Holly for a well done interview! It’s great that you added context by doing the interview from an actual vinyl record shop; although you put a dent in Marshall’s wallet, it seems!!! It’s cool that he will be putting out a series of vinyl singles; 6 over a two year period. I remember Pearl Jam put out a large series of live albums with no real promotion and that worked well for them. Hopefully, Crenshaw can marshal some decent publicity for this project; maybe the novelty of it will create some buzz! I like his idea of a subscription where you can buy all of them (I suppose up front?).

    I’ve been eyeing a cd, mp3, cassette, turntable combo I’ve seen at a local department store which can also convert et al to cd. It’s about time I got a turntable and this Crenshaw project is like a sign from above that I need to follow through!

    I was thinking about how sad it is that someone with the awesome catalogue of Marshall Crenshaw only had one Top 40 (barely) hit in ‘Someday, Someway'; much like Nick Lowe and Costello actually ! In a just world, ‘You’re My Favorite Waste of Time’ would have been just the 2nd (after Someday) of a series of Top 10 smashes!

    The one thing I would like to ask him if I could is the influence of Buddy Holly on his music and what was it like portraying Holly in La Bamba.

    Thanks for gifting us with this interview Holly!

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly A Hughes

    Thanks, Julie and John! You know, the turntable is not a bad idea. I was on the fence for awhile, but I’m so glad I went that route.

    I’ve never understood why Marshall Crenshaw hasn’t gotten the ongoing plaudits he deserves. His later stuff isn’t just AS good, it’s even better than that delightful early stuff. Go buy some and you’ll see….