Graham Nash: A Better Life
photo: Amy Grantham
Graham Nash has a very good reason for calling his new album Now. “I’m 81 now, and I want people to know that it doesn’t matter how old you are,” he says from his home in New York City’s East Village, where he’s lived for the past several years. “If you still have the passion and you still have your faculties, you can still make meaningful music that will help people smile and help them shake their ass and make them think.”
Now does all of those things and more. It’s got several unabashed love songs inspired by and directed to Nash’s third wife, photographer Amy Grantham. It also includes a few nothing-held-back political anthems, a tune that takes an unguarded look back at the excesses of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and another that celebrates one of Nash’s lifelong musical heroes. The LP, which runs the gamut from lushly orchestrated ballads to churning rock, is an optimistic record— and an honest one. Nash has called it one of his most personal albums (it is) and one of his best (it’s that too).
At its most basic, it’s a naked portrait of where he finds himself at this stage of his life, still creating inviting, thoughtprovoking songs and singing them in a voice that is virtually untarnished—his trademark high-register leads and noteperfect harmonies are as pristine as ever. He’s not shy about congratulating himself.
“It’s insane to me because I don’t have a vocal coach,” he says. “I don’t have lessons. Every voice on this album is me. Every single voice; there is nobody else.”
The 13-song Now was recorded, as so many recordings have been in the pandemic era, remotely. Nash would routinely lay down an acoustic guitar part and a rough vocal, send the files to his steady collaborators—longtime guitar accompanist Shane Fontayne and keyboardist/co-producer Todd Caldwell— and then to the other musicians who added their touches to the project. A string quartet sweetened some tracks and eventually—after Nash finalized his vocals—it all went to Kevin Killen, the mixing engineer. “The secret is that you must make it sound as if all those people were in the same room at the same time,” Nash says. And it does.
“Right Now,” the opening track, serves as a statement of purpose, Nash acclaiming his still-new relationship to Amy—they married in 2019—before getting to the larger point: “Now that I realize just who I am,” he sings. “When all is said and done/ What a life I’ve led.” The second track, “A Better Life,” begs us to leave “a lovely place/ A welcome home for the human race” to future generations, and then it’s on to “Golden Idols,” wherein Nash makes no secret of where he stands politically (in case anyone has somehow missed it over the past half-century). “I know they’re lying ‘cause their lips are moving,” the song begins. Before long the singer is taking aim at “MAGA tourists/ Bought and paid for.”
“I don’t get it,” Nash says of rightleaning Americans who still proudly back former President Trump. “Obviously, Republicans are smart. They have a brain. And there are some Republicans that are stable. But there are some Republicans that are just out to lunch. Support somebody like Trump? How can you do that?”
“Stars and Stripes,” the next track, continues along similar lines. “Sometimes I wonder why the world is like it is/ Frozen by the fear of change,” Nash writes. “If we keep believing all the lies meant to divide us/ There’s no one else that we can blame.”
“That’s about the distortion of the truth,” he says. “It started with alternative facts, as if there are alternative facts. There’s not. There’s the truth and then there are lies. There are no alternative facts in my world.”
The vast majority of songs on Now take a more reflective—and amiable—position though. A brief instrumental interlude, “Theme From Pastoral,” is credited to Alan Price, the former keyboardist for The Animals, who wrote it for the 1973 film O Lucky Man! It segues into “In a Dream,” a truly exquisite love song that began as another Price composition, to which Nash added lyrics. “It Feels Like Home,” co-written with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joe Vitale—a former member of CSN’s band—takes a bit of a country detour that proves ideal for the celebration of domesticity the composers have fashioned, a theme that returns during the frank, album-closing “When It Comes to You.” Written with Todd Caldwell, the tune can be perceived as a love note or, in a broader sense, a simple, abundantly joyous accounting of where its narrator finds himself: “When it comes to you/ I have to tell the truth,” the opening line says. “You’re the very best thing that’s happened to me/ And at this point in my life, that’s something to say.”
“I vacillate between being totally in love and being totally pissed off,” Nash says with a chuckle. But, he then adds, “I’ve realized that I’m a halfway decent songwriter.”
The most fascinating song on Now just may be “Buddy’s Back,” a homage to Nash’s single greatest musical influence during his coming-of-age years in Manchester, England. He first heard Buddy Holly on the radio in the late ‘50s, long before co-founding The Hollies, the band that introduced the world to his talents, in 1962. Unimaginable success followed in the mid-to late ‘60s, with America embracing The Hollies, via hits like “Bus Stop,” “Stop Stop Stop” and “Carrie-Anne.” Nash left the group six years into their long run, when they were arguably at their peak, teaming up with a couple of Americans named Crosby and Stills. But even today, despite some initial tension, he remains friendly with The Hollies’ former lead singer, Allan Clarke.
Clarke himself stayed with the group for three more decades following Nash’s departure, finally leaving in 1999 due to an issue with his vocal cords that rendered him unable to sing. At the same time, Clarke’s wife was also ill with cancer. “Music went straight out of the room,” Clarke explains during a Zoom call from England. “I was not thinking about getting back into the business at all.”
Then, in 2010, Nash called Clarke to inform him that The Hollies were being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Clarke flew to the U.S. to accept the award and, the following year, made his first onstage appearance since retiring, singing “Bus Stop” at a London CrosbyNash concert. In 2019, Clarke released his first solo album in nearly three decades, Resurgence. When he was ready to make a follow-up LP, he contacted his old friend to see if he might be able to help. Nash was more than happy to. And he had a song he thought Clarke might like.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Nash says. “Allan called me and said, ‘I got my voice back after 20 years and I’m doing a solo record, and I have a couple of songs. Can I send you the tunes? And if you like them, would you sing on them?’ I liked the tunes, and I went over to Todd Caldwell’s studio in Brooklyn. I put my voice on the track and sent him a rough mix and he loved it. So what did he do? He sent me another couple of tunes. And that happened four times! I wrote ‘Buddy’s Back’ for Allan’s album because of The Hollies’ love for Buddy Holly. I mean, we’re The Hollies, for God’s sake!”
Nash ended up singing on most of Clarke’s album, I’ll Never Forget, which was released in early April. Nash liked the Holly tribute so much that he redid it for his own album as well. It tells the story of how Nash and Clarke, friends since childhood, heard the music of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and “copied the style—and then we started a band.”
The Texan, the song recounts, “was who we loved/ Right from the heart/ His music is still around, believe me, Buddy’s back.” That it sounds, well, like a Buddy Holly song, makes it even more of a charmer, and it’s great to hear those two voices in tandem again.
“‘Buddy’s Back’ had that Buddy Holly sound even before I heard him singing. The song was to say thank you,” Clarke continues, “because if Buddy hadn’t been there, then I don’t think that we would’ve gotten to where we did. Those influences drizzled down to us.”
For Clarke, the number triggers many memories of the years he spent in the band with Nash—mostly positive ones. “I met Graham when I was six years old so I’ve known him 76 years,” Clarke says. “Within 10 or 15 minutes, we became best friends. We were inseparable.”
Although the notion of forming a rock-and-roll band wouldn’t come for many years, the two boys exhibited talent in the musical arena when they were still very young. “One of the teachers heard us singing in an assembly, and they actually pulled us out and said, ‘Would you like to sing in front of the whole assembly?’ They stuck us on chairs, and if I remember correctly, we sang ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ Graham sang harmony, even then.”
Hit records, tours and the full range of rock-star perks were still to come. Then, when Nash announced his decision to leave The Hollies, Clarke felt “sad, angry and annoyed.”
He says, “I didn’t think I would have anything after that. I thought my career was over. But then we [The Hollies] had three hits, and I said, ‘OK, we’re on par now.’ I felt comfortable meeting up with him again. I’ve always been proud to have him as a friend.”
Now, whenever they are in the vicinity of one another, the old mates get together and reminisce. “It’s not like we talk about music all the time or anything like that,” Clarke says. “It’s just sitting together and remembering what happened. I respect the guy. I really do.”
Nash certainly doesn’t dwell on nostalgia, or he wouldn’t be releasing an album titled Now. But he does have a healthy regard for his own considerable legacy. In 2019, at the urging of his wife, he performed his two earliest solo albums, 1971’s Songs for Beginners and ‘74’s Wild Tales, live, in their entirety, backed by a seven-piece band led by Fontayne and Caldwell. Nash took the best versions of each song from the four shows and issued them last year as an album simply called Live. It’s Nash who made it his task to sift through the tapes of one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s most celebrated tours and assemble the 2014 box set CSNY 1974. An accomplished photographer, Nash also recently published a book, A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash, which chronicles more than 50 years of life.
Along with all of the happy reflections and celebrations, of course, there also comes loss, and this year alone Nash has mourned two of his closest musical associates, David Lindley and David Crosby. Nash says that his most prominent recollection of multi-instrumentalist Lindley is “not telling him what to do” when he served as Nash’s accompanist.
“David Lindley wants to express the song,” Nash says. “He wants to stay out of the way of the vocal and there’s nobody who plays any instrument as good as David Lindley. He came on tour with me and David [Crosby] for several years, and we got to know him really well. He was a strange man; he did look strange. He always stayed to his own dress code, but what a musician.”
The passing of Crosby is more complicated. It’s well known that the two were estranged for years. Few could ever have imagined a reconciliation, considering some of the words that they both uttered quite publicly. But, Nash says, they were working on patching their relationship when Croz died suddenly on Jan. 18.
“Toward the end of his life—and we didn’t know he was gonna die, of course—we were in contact, through email and voicemail and FaceTime,” he says. “In one of his emails, he wanted to say sorry for shooting his mouth off, particularly about Neil [Young, whose marriage to actress Daryl Hannah prompted Crosby to make some unflattering comments]. But, you must understand, we expected his death like 20 years ago.
“It was an incredibly sad moment for me,” continues Nash, elaborating on his reaction to Crosby’s passing. “It was almost like an earthquake. When the first shock happens, you’re a little frazzled. Then aftershocks keep coming. That’s what I went through for a couple of months after he died. I lost one of my best friends, even though it was a little funky there toward the end. At the very end, before he died, we were in contact, and it made his death easier. That sounds a little strange, but I was happy that we were talking.”
When asked what qualities made the Crosby-Nash partnership so powerful, Nash is quick to offer an observation. “I think it was trust,” he says. “David trusted me to find the right harmony for him. And then vice versa. And [he added] a very interesting kind of music to this band because he was very jazzinfluenced. He was always tuning his guitar in God knows what kind of tuning. But it was also always thrilling for me because I recognized just how great he was as a musician and, particularly, as a rhythm guitar player.”
With the release of Now, Graham Nash has let it be known that he is very much still in the game. And he is not nearly finished. In fact, he has a very specific goal in mind for the future. He recently participated in a New York City tribute concert to Paul McCartney, singing The Beatles’ Revolver gem “For No One.” What he would really love to do next, Nash says, is “to sing ‘Yesterday’ with Paul, just his acoustic and two voices. I think that’s an incredible song and he does it incredibly well. I always sing along with it—singing the harmony, of course. But ‘Yesterday’—two-part harmony, the way I envision it—would be fabulous.”
The last time he sang with Paul, Nash remembers, was at a 1968 recording session by The Scaffold, a group featuring Mike McCartney, Paul’s brother. Nash and Paul are due for another meetup, it’s suggested.
“Yes,” he agrees with a laugh. “From your lips to God’s ears.”