Graham Nash will have played more than 40 concerts this year by the time he gets to Malibu on Friday, Oct. 14, and his excitement to be on the road is clear when he calls from his home in Manhattan’s East Village recently.
“I do love these small places,” he says of the venues such as the Smothers Theatre in the Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts at Pepperdine University where he’s playing this time out. “Obviously, I’ve gone from singing ‘Guinnevere’ to half a million people to playing in Malibu.”
The conversation began with talk of the tour and new album, “Graham Nash: Live – Songs for Beginners / Wild Tales,” a collection that presents live versions of his first two solo albums recorded in 2019.
It ended up with Nash’s thoughts on his former girlfriend Joni Mitchell’s return to live performance seven years in July after a devastating brain aneurysm, as well as an update on how things stand between Nash and his former bandmates in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Hollies today.
Q: After two years away from live shows, what was it like for you when this tour started? Were you concerned about how you would feel or how the audiences would react?
A: I actually at one point had to change the beginning of my show. Meaning that normally you would come out and you would play like a smaller hit, you know, so that people can take off their jackets and get in their seats and stuff.
Because of what’s been going on in Ukraine, I actually started with ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ acoustic, and then follow that with ‘Military Madness.’ So I did actually change my show. But then I realized that maybe I’m just bumming them out quick.
So I changed once again, the beginning of my show, and I do the anti-Putin rap about five songs in.
Q: Planning a set must be both fun and challenging given the many songs you have to choose from. There are some that fans obviously are going to demand to hear ‘Teach Your Children’ and ‘Our House.’ What’s it like to kind of fill out the set with songs that they’re not expecting?
A: I think one of the things that they like about the show, and always have done, is that you have no idea what’s coming next. I do love to throw songs in there that they’ve never heard. I’ve actually done shows where I’ve written a song that morning and played it that night. So my audience loves the fact that they have no clue as to what really is coming next.
I realized that if (David) Crosby is not playing any more and Stephen (Stills) is not playing anymore – and who knows what Neil’s up to – if you want to hear any of those songs, probably my show is the only show that you’re going to see one of the originals playing those songs.
And I love Neil Young songs. I do ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart,’ which Neil wrote for me actually about me and Joni. And I’ve done ‘A Case of You,’ which is a Joni Mitchell song, of course, one of my favorites. Yeah, I go anywhere I want and I’m very pleased to be able to do that because as you said, I have written a lot of songs.
Q: Then there are always a handful of songs from ‘Songs For Beginners,’ like ‘Chicago,’ ‘Military Madness,’ and ‘Simple Man,’ but none from ‘Wild Tales,’ which is the other one on the live record. Why is that?
A: During that first album, ‘Songs For Beginners,’ I was in love with Joni and we were living together, and so I was very happy. When we came to do (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s) ‘Deja Vu,’ Joni and I were no longer together.
So the difference in the attitude of both albums, one of them, the first one is very sunny and full of love and open-endedness. And ‘Deja Vu’ was sort of a depressing album, and so was ‘Wild Tales.’ And that’s why. It’s very hard to sing very depressing songs. I mean, some of those songs I’d never even done live.
But I enjoyed it. It was my wife, Amy Grantham, who gently forced me to do these shows, because she’s a fan of my music and she wanted to see them, and so I did. I did four shows and chose the best of each song, the best performance, and ended up with a pretty good live album.
Q: When you were recording those, especially the ‘Wild Tales’ album, how did it feel? Is there enough distance now you are able to sing them without getting too bummed out?
A: I still feel the emotions. I really do. I tell my audience, you know, I want to sing these songs that I sung a million times. I want to sing with the same energy I had when I wrote them. And I think my audience deserves that.
And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m gonna stand up there with a good guitar and two people are playing with me. Shane Fontaine, of course, my guitar player, and Todd Caldwell, my keyboard player. Yeah, I’m having a good time. I feel very creative. I feel full of energy and I can’t wait to get out there.
Q: You touched on the war in Ukraine earlier. It’s hard to miss the relevance of songs like ‘Military Madness’ and even a little bit of ‘Chicago.’
A: The truth is, it’s insane to me how songs I wrote 50 years ago are still relevant today. Military madness is still happening in Ukraine and Putin. Of course, you know, it’s still happening. We have never learned from history and that’s one of our mistakes.
Q: What is the crowd’s reaction to those songs? Your audiences have grown up with you – how do they respond?
A: They respond very well because they sing ‘no more war’ at the end. I sing a chorus of just ‘no more war,’ you know, ‘I’m sick and tired of war.’
And I’m sure we all are. And I think that humanity right now is tired. I think our hearts are tired, our souls are tired. We’ve had four years of Trump. We’ve had three years of pandemic; we’ve had the war in Ukraine. We’re tired.
I go up there, I think, for two or three hours a night you can be enjoying yourself.
Q: Are you telling stories between songs still as part of the show?
A: Yeah, sometimes. I don’t talk about every song. I understand that the art of songwriting to somebody who doesn’t write songs is quite magical. It is. You know, I take it for granted because I’ve been doing it for over 60 years myself.
Q: You mentioned you mentioned Joni Mitchell a few minutes ago. Did you see her performance at the Newport Folk Festival? What did you think?
A: I sure did. And I can tell you that there is no one happier than me that Joni is finally out there singing and getting in front of people. Her journey has been amazing. I mean, she got polio when she was nine and had to spend weeks in hospital. She had to give up her daughter, you know.
She’s had an incredible journey. And then the brain aneurysm and the fact that first of all, she’s alive. She’s alive, still. And that’s fantastic. There’s nobody happier than me to see her singing
Q: You mentioned how you’re the one person that people can come and see, at least this year, performing some of these songs. I was curious if you still talk to Steven or Neil or, or maybe even David? What’s your status of talking to the other three guys from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
A: I talk to Stephen every week. I talk to Neil every couple of weeks. Um, and I haven’t spoken to David in nearly three years.
Q: Fans always are going to wonder when they read a story about one of you guys if there’s any chance that you might get back together even with one of the other guys and do something.
A: Who knows what’s going on in the life of a musician, you know? I despised everything (at a point in the past) and Neil has come and said, ‘Hey have you heard these three Stephen songs? Man, we should make an album.’
And he plays me three songs, and they break my heart and then I’m back into the madness. So you never know what’s gonna go on. I don’t think that CSN will ever appear together and I don’t think CSNY will ever appear together.
Q: I saw an article from when the most recent record came out in 2016 that said there were additional songs that were written and maybe even recorded then. Is there a chance we might get another new album from you at some point in the future?
A: I’ve got one ready to go. It’s already mastered, already mixed, already got the cover. It’s all ready to go. It’ll be out in six months in the spring. The album is called ‘Now,’ and it’s my most personal album.
I’ve also been singing remotely with Allan Clarke. Allan and I started the Hollies in December of 1962. And he’s the great voice behind ‘The Air That I Breathe,’ and ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother,’ and ‘Long Tall Woman.’ I’ve been singing on his album, so I think I’m on every single track.
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