Graham Nash is a true songwriter’s songwriter. Finding fame with The Hollies he went close to besting the Beatles at their own game, supplying the UK charts with a defining run of 60s golden cuts. Yet as he evolved, he found himself chafing against expectations, unable to truly express himself. Relocating to the West Coast of America, he found himself amid a coterie of talents – David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell – who compelled him to embrace his art in its truest form, and to up his game.
Finding global success with three of those friends, he became the glue that held together CSN&Y. His own solo material, too, found critical acclaim – 1971’s fantastic ‘Songs For Beginners’ is often the starting point, but in truth his catalogue contains so much to explore.
Take new album ‘NOW’. An urgent politicised statement, it finds Graham Nash – now 81 years old – facing down the key issues of the day, tumbling autocrats and pleading for climate crisis intervention. An invigorating listen, it also has moments of outright beauty, constructed alongside co-conspirator Todd Caldwell.
Out now, Graham Nash plays the UK in August and September, including a date in Blackpool – the city where he was born. Chatting to Clash over Zoom, he discussed his new work, his hope that Joni Mitchell realises how dearly loved she is, and a few emotional words on his late friend, David Crosby.
The new album is your first in seven years – what makes this the right time in your life for a fresh project?
I wanted people to know that even at 81 years old you can still rock! You can still love. You can still critique the political shit that’s going on here in America. You can still deal with climate change issues. It’s life, and life gets crazier by the second.
You’ve been a politicised artist for decades now, it’s a huge part of your work. Is the world getting better, do you think? Or worse?
I think it’s getting worse. I think the rise of the autocrats, and the rise of the extreme version of Republicans here in America… I do believe it’s getting worse. I don’t think that we’ve really realised how drastic climate change is. I’ve lived here in New York for nine years, and in my first winter here there was at least a foot and a half of snow. This year? Nothing.
What role does music play in that? Is it spreading a message, or more internal?
It’s about what I always write about – something I think will interest you. I can speak my mind here in America, and nobody has to listen at all. But I do get to speak my mind and I love that about this country.
The album has a fantastic ‘live’ sound…
Well, it was quite the opposite. It was done almost remotely. I would put a song down on acoustic guitar with a rough vocal, I’d send it to Shane Fontaines in Los Angeles, and he would put on a guitar, then he’d send it to Todd in Brooklyn. He’d put on the keyboards and a vocal. Then I would get all the tracks and mix them. It was done mainly remotely. Particularly ‘Buddy’s Back’ which is a song I wrote previously with someone in London. So, a 3000 mile recording! And the secret is that you must make it feel as though those guys are all in the same room at the same time. So, we must have done our jobs really well!
What’s the trick to that? Getting the right people for the right song?
Yes! I work with musicians that I don’t have to talk to. I mean, I talk to them – totally normally – but I don’t have to tell them what to do. They want the song to live. They’re not busy waiting for their solo. They want the song to live. That’s why I love working with Shane and Todd – that’s what they do. They want the song to live… and I love that.
Working in service of the song is so important, isn’t it?
That’s exactly right. It’s all bigger than one person.
How was this record written? Was it done in bursts, or do you allocate specific time to songwriting?
I think it usually starts with a title. I see something that I’ve heard, or I’ve seen, or I’ve watched, or I’ve experienced and I turn it into music. So if I’m thinking about something and I have a title, that pushes me on. What will I say in the first verse? That’s how I go about writing. I have to feel something – deeply – I research my information and then I start writing about it. I’ve been doing that for 60 odd years. It’s like a muscle – you have to keep it pumped, you have to keep it full of blood, you have to keep it moving. And that’s what I do when I write. I try and not waste your time. I don’t ever want to play you a song that is… nothing. I mean, why? Why would I ever play you a song like that? I don’t ever play you a song that I think you would want to hear.
Talking about muscle, ‘Stand Up’ is an absolute shit-kicking rocker!
That started out as a song about what the Native America people are going through in North Dakota. What’s going on with them. I started to write that, and I thought it would be too specific… but what I want people to do, is to WAKE THE FUCK UP. There’s a lot of shit happening in this world that we need to deal with. Wake up. Rise up. Stand up. Stand up for what you believe. That’s what ‘Stand Up’ is about. Get the fuck awake and start dealing with problems. The Republicans are still trying to find out what’s in Hunter Biden’s laptop. Nobody gives a shit about that! I give a shit about New York sinking an eighth of an inch a year… the ocean has risen nine inches! I worry about big stuff.
You’ve made your home in America for a long time now, what keeps you there? I suppose the British right are just as bad!
I know! It’s all over. Look at what’s happening all over. Look at this insane war that Putin is embarking on in Ukraine. It’s madness to be killing all these people because you have an idea to reform the Russian Empire of a hundred and odd years ago… there’s only one man thinking that way. I don’t think his Generals are thinking that way. I think his Generals are terrified of losing thousands and thousands of Russian soldiers in this war. They said it would be over in hours, maybe a couple of days – it’s been over a year! People are still dying and it’s out of the headlines… as tragedies always do.
‘Star & Stripes’ feels very urgent.
It came from four years of Trump completely lying about what’s going on and completely destroying the truth. They have ‘alternative facts’ – I say, there are no alternative facts! This happened. That happened. There are no alternative facts! What a crazy time to be alive.
There are a lot of beautiful moments on the record, is that something as an artist you strive to see?
I am. I often find myself somewhere between being totally in love and totally pissed off. And I’m always somewhere in-between.
The album ends on a love song – ‘When It All Comes To You’.
Todd and I co-produced the record. We had almost finished it, and I was over in the corner having a couple of tea when Todd started playing these changes on the piano. I went, wait a second – what’s that? He goes, oh it’s just some changes. No words, just a set of changes. I said, no you can’t have such a beautiful set of changes and not have anyone set words to it! And so in an hour and a half that song was finished and recorded and it became something we felt was good enough to close the album.
Are the best songs the ones that just flow out?
Yeah. Usually the simplest songs are the ones that mean the most. It’s not easy to write simple songs. It’s easy to do all this wordy stuff – songs where you don’t find out what someone is talking about until the seventh verse! I want you NOW. That’s what I opened the album with that statement “I used to think I would never love again…” That’s a brave line to open an album. And it’s working.
Does that directness come from your pop sensibility? With the Hollies, if you couldn’t get people’s attention your competitors would…
I always say what’s on my mind. Always. What else can I say? I can’t say what’s on your mind. I can only say what’s on my mind. I learned with the Hollies to write melodies you couldn’t forget even if you only heard them twice. We were good at that. When I was with the Hollies we had like 15 Top 10 records. I learned to write melodies you couldn’t forget. When I came to America to live and work with David and Stephen and Neil – and Joni, of course – I began to realise that if I wrote better words, instead of the whole ‘moon in June’ kind of words… which we did in the Hollies. ‘Carousel’ is a made-up song, you know what I mean? When I came to America I realised that I had to up my game. And that’s what I tried to do.
It was being inspired by your peers, then?
Obviously! Especially when you live with Joni Mitchell.
I have to say, I adored seeing her recent performances.
She did Newport, and then the Gershwin awards. I was there, I sang her song ‘A Case Of You’. And that was very emotional for me. There was a point at the end of this incredible concert, with all these people singing Joni’s songs, I think she really began to understand that she is truly loved worldwide. For many years I didn’t think that she felt appreciated enough or understood enough but I think at the end of that show in Washington DC I really believe that Joni finally realised she was loved worldwide.
I was lucky enough to interview David Crosby shortly before he passed, and he insisted she was the better talent to Bob Dylan. Quite a claim, but I see his point.
I’d agree with his sentiment. I wouldn’t put her above Bob, but only because Bob spoke in messages that were absolutely fantastic and understandable. For me, personally, Bob Dylan is the best singer and the best writer that we have in America.
Todd plays a key role in this, but you’ve worked with so many people over the years. What’s a good collaborator with you?
That I don’t have to tell them what to do! I love to hear what their ideas are. They’re great players, you know that they’re great at playing their instruments… you just have to make the best of what’s going on. I wake up in the morning, I realise I’m alive, I get a cup of coffee and I think about what I’m going to do with my day. I live in New York City and there’s magic out there, horror out there… I can hear half a dozen languages before I get my coffee! And I love that. I love this city – it’s chaotic, it’s energetic, it’s lovely.
And you’re coming back to the UK soon…
I’m really looking forward to it! I’m a musician, I have new songs… I want to come and play for people. And that’s what I want my audiences to love. They should know, from me, that I want to be there singing for them. I don’t want to phone it in, I don’t want to do it half-assed, I want to do it with the same passion I had when I wrote those songs. And I have an incredible amount of songs to chose from. In my tour, I do everything from early Hollies all the way through to today.
Seven years since the last Graham Nash record – will we have to wait as long for your next one?
I’m half-way through it! Shane and I wrote a lot of songs for the last studio record, we had a lot of songs… we wrote 22 but only used 10. Or a couple more on the extended version. We had a lot of songs, and a lot left over from ‘Now’. So we’re half-way through… I’ve got the title already, and I’m ready to go.
We did touch on Croz earlier, someone you had such an intimate friendship with. What do you think he would make of your current work? Would he be quietly proud, do you think?
I hope so. It is a very decent piece of work. I don’t want to waste people’s time, I only want to play songs that people might want to hear. I spoke to somebody yesterday who was working with David on his last three albums, and he says that David has an album in the can that is already done and finished. He said it’s really beautiful. I will miss David for the rest of my life. He was my best friend for 50 years. I chose to only remember the good stuff. I chose to remember only the great music we made together. I don’t want to deal with the bad stuff of my experiences with David. I just want to remember the good stuff.
People like Croz, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and yourself are marked by this continued energy – you rage against the dying of the light! Where does that energy come from?
It’s part of the problem. The problem, briefly, is this. In my ordinary shows there are usually about 25 shows in there. A combination of stuff that I know my audience wants to hear, and new stuff that I want to put in. My problem is, now that I’ve written 10, 12 new songs… what do I take out? Do I not sing ‘Teach Your Children’ or ‘Chicago’? And that’s a problem, but I’m working it out. I know the audience wants to hear new songs. They’re just like me! They know I’m an ordinary person just like them. I did something different with my time, but I’m an ordinary person. My audience know that. I want them to know I’m going to be there, I’m going to be singing for them, and I’ll have the same passion I had when I wrote them.
‘NOW’ is out on streaming services now. For all Graham Nash tour dates visit his website.
Words: Robin Murray