Sunday, September 25, 2016

Persistence is Crucial: The Extraordinary Journey of Shane Fontayne

Coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on October 7th, Graham Nash is bringing the songs of an extraordinary career, sung in a still-extraordinary voice, and will be accompanied by an extraordinarily creative collaborator. Nash is effusive in his praise toward this individual—Shane Fontayne— to whom he refers as “like looking in a mirror”. No wonder, that:  The musical journey that Fontayne has traveled during the past five decades includes a host of artistic achievements that demand unquestioned acknowledgement of a quiet, yet intense musical force. Nash’s new solo album, This Path Tonight, was co-written and produced by Fontayne, and its international success—combined with an equally-successful ongoing tour—has cast the quiet, unassuming guitarist into the spotlight.  

Shane Fontayne
Image by Amy Grantham

This past May, I had the opportunity to have a brief chat with Shane Fontayne backstage at The Town Hall in NYC after he had just appeared together with Nash. While the performance was billed as “An Evening with Graham Nash”, it was apparent from the moment the two men took the stage that the shared level of respect resulted in a form of total collaborative trust. In any event, at some point during our conversation, I asked Shane if he would be interested in a doing a “proper” interview at some point in the future. He replied in the affirmative and as time and circumstance ultimately proved, our August 24th phone conversation allowed enough time for what follows:  an in-depth look at the life, career, and perspectives of an extraordinary musical artist.


Roy Abrams: We’ve seen you and Graham live a few times already (August 2015 at the Paramount in Huntington; May 2016 at The Town Hall in NYC, and back in July at the closing night of the Great South Bay Music Festival). Each of the shows was so different, as far as the guitar solos and the musical interplay between you and Graham. Last year at the Paramount show, your lead break for “Military Madness” just floored Graham to a degree where he actually missed his (vocal) cue for the third verse.  When I spoke with Graham about your musical partnership, he said, “It’s like writing in a mirror.” What is it like for you on the other side?

Shane Fontayne and Graham Nash 

Shane Fontayne: It’s been an incredible gift for me, because you have to realize, I saw The Hollies in 1964, and his music and the music of CSN is so much a part of my DNA, and to end up writing with him is a major kind of “pinch me” situation, as we started getting into it. As we began to write, it was all very natural. And I think the first time, we were just playing through a song that he was beginning, and then he said, “You’re here. Just kind of go with it.” And that was kind of how we approached things. It was all very easy and—organic is a much-used term—but inasmuch as (we would be) sitting on the bus and playing after a show, and we would just bounce stuff off each other and had fun playing. I’d been writing since I was a kid; the first song I ever wrote, I actually took to the Yardbirds, and was like pounding on their door for several months, and ended up going back to see them another time, and being backstage playing Jeff Beck ‘s guitar … when I was a kid!


RA: That is a classic story! You were 11 or 12 at the time … which speaks a lot to being persistent!


SF: Well … which I am! Writing with Graham came naturally. He just kind of put his faith in me and when it got to the time where we were actually writing for what would become the album—although at that time, we didn’t realize that we were going to record quite as soon as we did—he first sent a lyric to me, and maybe the next morning, I sent him back a song. That started this conveyor belt that we developed, over a few weeks, where this would just be the M.O.; he would send me another lyric, and maybe an hour later, I sent him back a song. We just got on this binge, which was very productive, which sometimes happens. I know you’re a writer and player as well, aren’t you? So you know how it is; you tap into that scene where, every now and then, it’s a creative spurt, and I know Graham  often talks onstage about how there’s nobody he knows that can really tell you when that’s going to come. But I know for myself, if I sit down and pick up the guitar, something will happen. It’s always in that first flush of picking up the instrument. Something immediately will come; now, whether or not the idea gets fleshed out any or more over the next few minutes or the next hour—however long you’re inspired to continue following that thing through, in that moment … it’s that first moment, for me, just picking it up. You just do something, or the guitar’s tuned a certain way. There’s just a moment of something taking you by surprise and just going with that! And then, hours of questioning afterward! [laughs]


RA: If I understand correctly, for the songs on This Path Tonight, the lyrics are Graham’s, and the music is yours?


SF: Most of the music on the album—


RA: --That’s amazing!


SF: There were a couple of instances where he started something; for instance, “Another Broken Heart” (on the album) is a song where he had sent me an idea that he had, and in me hearing him singing and playing into whatever little device he was using just to log whatever idea it was he was doing; it sounded quintessentially like Graham Nash to me. I thought, “Wow—this is great!” Particularly, because some of the other stuff was more melodically-driven from me; that was something that I jumped on in terms of, this sounds so much like Graham Nash to me [chuckles] and was an idea that I could hear that potential, (and said), “We’ve got to work on this!” For the most part … I heard Graham say that 95% of the lyrics on the album are his, and 95% of the music is probably generated from me. That was essentially how most of this came about. And I’ve also seen where Graham has talked about how he’s not always felt comfortable writing with other people but, fortunately, what he and I have done has been comfortable for him, otherwise it couldn’t work.


RA: Your ability to write for his voice floors me. The vocal line “And I’m rolling down …, “ from “Myself At Last” … it’s tailor-made for him.


SF: It’s funny, because I actually have the original iterations of each of these songs, where I have made up my demo on my phone, put it on my computer, and then sent it to Graham. So, I’ve got those original moments, and yet that was a particularly good one. That was the first song that kicked off what became the album, even though we had written a couple of things before that which also went on the album. “Back Home” and “Golden Days” preceded most of the main body of work, but “Myself At Last” (came) at what was the beginning of what Graham was going through at the time. That lyric … and I sent it to him. Obviously, I want him to love it! He wrote back that, having listened to the song several times, he was so taken with how married the music and the lyrics were. That really kicked us into a direction. He was particularly taken – and I agreed with him! [chuckles] He really felt strongly that this was a real marriage of music and lyrics.


When I was a kid, I didn’t discern (what was) a great song from (what was) a great record. For me, it was about the record. The record, and the sound of it, was everything, really. And if it was a great-sounding, great-feeling record, then I equated that with, “Well, it must be a great song.” It was only later that I realized that in the craft of songwriting, (because I was always much more driven by sound overall and the sound of the words rather than the content of the actual lyric), the reason why the words sound so good is that they’ve conveying something beyond the sound; that the meaning of what they’re saying is all cohesive, and it all actually fits together. In that regard, something like that line in “Myself At Last” is a moment where I felt like in a song craft kind of a way, it felt like success. I’m 62 now, and still in many ways trying to shake off what it was growing up with the Beatles and the Hollies and the Kinks and the Who, and the Byrds, and all the great English and American bands of that time, and the influence that that has ingrained upon me.


RA: Generations of people; it’s astounding.


SF: There was one song I co-wrote with David on his last solo album, Croz, “Set That Baggage Down”. That was a song which I felt like I kind of had tapped into a Byrds-ish kind of thing without really trying to as such; it was more just that that was where I was coming from. Obviously, it felt great to be able to do that.


RA: Moving on to the harmony tracks … two songs in particular I want to ask you about: “Back Home” and “Beneath the Waves” … how did those arrangements unfold?


SF: [Laughs] The harmonies, it’s interesting: as much as Graham is one of the preeminent harmony singers, obviously when he’s making his own records, even on some of his early records, he’s done some classic harmony work as well. I am cut from that same cloth. The harmonies on “Beneath the Waves”, the ones at the end of the song, were a stack which I had essentially put together with my son. He’s an amazing singer in his own right, and he’s singing on quite a lot of the record, in different places. And then Graham, when he put his voice onto that stack, then it became like one of those great Crosby/Nash interwoven kind of things. So, he was laying his voice, just one line—we may have double-tracked it, maybe not—onto a stack that I had compiled. The same (process took place) with “Back Home” as well. It was just, in lieu of a bridge as such; the bridge is, in fact, this big kind of vocal stack. It was the same kind of thing; to me, it’s kind of overtly Beatle-y in its influence. It’s that thing of trying to create sonic beauty. Part of the thing of having vocal harmonies, or I think, even for vocal harmony bands, is maybe that the harmony often supersedes the emotional component, maybe, of one voice with regard to that particular entity; that band, that singer. So, if you have somebody like Otis Redding singing; maybe you’ve got some harmonies, or maybe it’s just the horns playing the harmonies. But in that kind of context, then you’ve got this one soulful voice. Obviously, David, Graham, and Stephen have all done that as well, but the thing about having that type (of) harmony singing is that you’re not going to have great variation in phrasing. It’s going to be less of that old Sixties kind of soul, Aretha kind of thing, or even with someone like Nat King Cole or Billie Holliday, where somebody is going to stretch the time on the melody, or interpret it … even Sinatra. When you’ve got harmonies, then it tends to be obviously more of a block thing, sung in a certain way, which will probably tend to be sung that way all the time. The origin (of the harmony stacks on “Beneath the Waves”) was something where I was feeling a kind of Sting inspiration. I played with him in 2005 for a little while. It was something in the lyric that Graham gave me the idea for “Beneath the Waves” and then coming up with that guitar phrase that just kind of carries on through the song. I don’t know if I was thinking about a particular song of Sting’s or just a certain kind of stylistic thing.


RA: The blend between you two is as instantly identifiable as anything Graham has been a part of before, including CSN(Y), Crosby/Nash, and The Hollies. It’s something that works so well, and it’s so apparent how much fun you guys are having onstage. I’m really happy for you both!


SF: Thank you, Roy. There was in instance in Santa Fe a few weeks ago when the power went out. We just ended up doing the show (sitting) at the front of the stage, without any mics or amplification. It was great; the audience had a really good time.

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
May 14, 2016 at The Town Hall, NYC
Image by Roy Abrams

RA: How did you assemble the band for the This Path Tonight recording sessions? Also, it seems like so many of the sonic elements of Graham’s earlier works have been incorporated into the mix. There’s a Wurlitzer (electric piano) on there, isn’t there?


SF: Yeah.


RA: A lot of brushwork with the drums, which I love. How did you craft these song arrangements?


SF: [chuckles] Are you familiar with Jay Bellerose, the drummer? He and Jennifer Condos, the bass player; they’re a couple, and they both played on a solo record I made in 2003. Jay has done pretty much everything that T-Bone Burnett has produced, and also a lot of stuff that Joe Henry does. T-Bone has carved out this incredible niche for himself, to the point where Leon Russell, Elton John, and Gregg Allman are working with him as a producer who can bring something that they consider to be modern that is (also) so rooted in where they’re coming from, musically. Percussively, Jay is the architect of that, I would say, and his sensibility is so left of center. I doubt that he has any drum that may have been made in our lifetime. He doesn’t want his cymbals polished; none of that. He’s a great sonic crafter.

We’d written these songs, we’d just come off the road; it was October 2014. I thought, we may go into the studio over the winter, after the holidays, but it turned out that Graham wanted to record now. So we started talking about it, and initially he was saying that he wanted something that was kind of funky, bluesy, not overproduced. We hadn’t even talked about production at this point, really. We were just throwing out ideas about what the record should be. One day, he mentioned something about Raising Sand, the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album. I said that I knew the drummer that played on those records. He said, would you like him to play on the album? And I said—part of me would say yes; the part of me that was resisting was the fact that a lot of people seem to have adopted Jay’s approach to playing; there were a lot more people taking that approach, trying to find weird kinds of sounds, using mallets or brushes. I didn’t think that he would be available, but he was. We were kind of excited about that. The next component was talking about the bass and I said, well, Jay’s girlfriend, his wife, Jen, is a bass player. Graham said—and this is typical of Graham Nash—“Well, they’re husband and wife; they got to have the same heartbeat.” That’s how Graham rolls. There’s no agonizing. From that point, we knew that we wanted Todd Caldwell who plays B3 organ with CSN and with Stephen, and then we initially talked about having Benmont Tench as well, and even though Benmont is a B3 player too, it turned out he couldn’t do it. Jay recommended Patrick Warren, who’s playing Wurlitzer, and after Jay had heard some of the songs, he thought that Patrick would be perfect. I’d actually worked with Pat on a Marc Cohn record with Charlie Sexton, maybe ten years earlier. So that was the band, and we set up as that. Fortunately, Kevin Madigan, our house engineer who’s also a recording engineer, was able to set us all up in the studio with Graham, in the same room; acoustic guitar and vocal. Whatever the downside is (of that situation) becomes the upside; leakage and that kind of stuff. In terms of instrumentation and also Graham later on wanting to have (one of the female backup vocalists) who sang on “Chicago” from 1971’s Songs for Beginners to help tie in more of a connection to Songs for Beginners.

RA: I understand that the album version of “Myself At Last” is the first take. How many additional passes did you take on the song before you realized that you’d already nailed it?


SF: I think we had probably done about half a dozen, and it was Jen who was adamant about going back to the first take. We were scheduled to start recording on a Monday and we set up on (the previous) Sunday afternoon/evening, to the point where a couple of hours after we’d set up, we were at a point where we said, hey let’s get some sounds. So, we played through the song and there was that first run-through that was the record, including the vocal, for the most part. We did another half a dozen takes, which is kind of remarkable, because with vocals, you need to catch him quickly. He’ll do anything you want him to do, but he’ll prefer if you’ve gotten it within the first two or three takes.


RA: Graham has gone on record saying that 20 songs were cut in 8 days …


SF: Yes. We cut all those tracks and essentially his vocals (a lot of them) over that time. At the end of the 8th day, he had to go up to San Francisco, and Jay had to go to New York for a recording project. We knew that we had this period of time that we were going to get lucky or not. We cut all those tracks in that time. I was the only one really doing the overdubbing and apart from backing vocals. I spent a fair amount of time trying out some stuff subsequent to that at home. But everything that I did after that was at home, on ProTools, which would include things like the vocal stacks and those kinds of things, and other guitar stuff, and pedal steel.


RA: Listening to the album with headphones is a very immersive experience!


SF: That’s great. Wow! I’m guessing that we maybe grew up around the same kind of era?


RA: Yeah, you’ve got a few years on me but …


SF: If you can, for want of a better word, craft a journey like that, that’s like the kind of records we grew up on. I feel kind of cynical about recording today, more so, but that’s like ideally what I’d want to listen to. And also that we decided pretty early on that this is going to be a vinyl project, and that there wasn’t going to be any differentiation, sequence-wise,  for the vinyl; there might be some bonus stuff but we knew that we were going to be mastering for about 20 minutes a side.

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
July 17, 2016
Great South Bay Music Festival
Image by Roy Abrams

RA: An interesting connection to the present appears on your website: Shane’s creative process is fueled by the need to address life’s path … and now we have This Path Tonight.


SF: Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it? I’m pretty much a creature of creative habit, where my days take on a similar arc, and I know what works best for me in trying to stay healthy and focused. Each day is like a new piece of work, which you have to kind of start again, but after a certain amount of time, you realize that your life has become its own kind of body of work [chuckles]. It’s like looking back at old photographs. I look back at photographs of myself from 2005 and think, “God!” I see so much change in the last ten years. Obviously, day to day, when you look in the mirror, you don’t. It’s that same kind of accumulation, I think, of knowing that if one establishes a path in one’s life, and hopefully, we do something productive and positive, and you don’t realize just how quite productive it has been—or not!—until you can reflect on it later on.

Shane Fontayne
Image by Amy Grantham

RA: Looking through the list of people with whom you’ve worked in the last forty years is mind-boggling, and they are so very, very different from each other. Can we discuss some of those people, and what you took the experience of working with them?


SF: Absolutely! I don’t know that all of it’s printable! [laughs]


RA: OK, you tell me, then! How about Bruce (Springsteen)?


SF: Kind of a pinnacle. I mean, if you can imagine, I was the only guitar player that went in to audition for that gig, as much because he was aware of me. What is it exactly that you would like to know?


RA: What did you learn from working with him?


SF: He is one of the great band leaders. What makes him so, for me, was in the way that he allowed me and everybody else full self-expression. Now, I had heard stories about him, particularly in the studio, prior to working with him, where his realization of what it was that he was going to be putting out was every detail about it, he wanted it—the sequencing, there was a huge overview, apparently. Coming into his world, I’m grateful that I encountered him at the time that I did, when he was a young father, he had two young kids, and it seemed like maybe something had relaxed in him. I know that I never saw him agonize (like Graham); if we were at sound check, and someone was late, or if he got to the stage before everyone was there, he would just kind of sit there. There was never any vibing of anyone in a negative way. If he wanted us to learn a new song, we would learn it off of cassettes or whatever we used at the time. The band was incredibly proficient, and we would play through it one time. Something like “Badlands”, which we didn’t rehearse at first, maybe we rehearsed it when we were out on the road, and we would play it through and he went, “Yep, yeah, that’s pretty much how that one goes.” There was only one guitar part where he asked me to do something specific; that was the acoustic part in “My Hometown”, which was to play it not as up-and-down strokes, but to play it all as down strokes, to give it that insistence. The first time I played with him, after we took a break after half an hour, we were walking into the control room of the studio with (E Street pianist) Roy Bittan, which he owned in L.A., and Bruce said, “Man, some of that stuff you’re playing, I wish I had had you play on the records!” He had just put out Human Touch and Lucky Town, or they were just about to come out at that time. The man who was his handler, who is not with us any more, at that first rehearsal, he said (to me), “Don’t worry about a thing. He’s going to make you feel right at home,” and he did. And that was always how he was. I’ve gotten to play with him a couple of times subsequently. Once was when he was honored at MusiCares, and another time at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, when he was honoring Sting. But, with the MusiCares, maybe it was because he was working with a whole different group of players, because I found him then (and this is like 20 years later), he was way more insistent than I remember him being about nuance, of a certain feel, than I had remembered from back in ’92 and ’93.


RA: You spent time working with Sting. What is Mr. Sumner like?


SF: If there’s a Type A personality, I think that’s Sting. He’s someone who seemed to be mentally driven on a daily basis to challenge himself, whether it was by playing chess, by doing a crossword, or what he would do at sound check; he would change the arrangement of something every day. It was remarkable; it just blew my mind that he could fathom all these different ways … but it seemed like it was crucial to him to do so on a daily basis. And it was as much not just to challenge the musicians he was playing with but himself, too, to have to remember that (new arrangement) a couple of hours later (onstage).


RA: How about Paul Simon?


SF: Well, I just recorded with him once. Chris Botti was my conduit to both Sting and Paul Simon; he introduced me to both of them. I was playing a gig out on Long Island, in the Hamptons, with Chris. Was it at Billy Joel’s place? Paul was either on the bill or just to the side of the stage. I remember he came up to me afterward and asked if I would play on a recording he was going to be doing next week. Of course, I was floored. When I went into the studio with him, I sat at his feet, and he played me this song, and it was the song called “Ten Years” which he wrote for Oprah’s tenth anniversary. It’s just one of those out-of-body experiences where, it’s like, “Wow! This sounds just like a Paul Simon song!” I was literally sitting at his feet; he was sitting in a chair, and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor. It was an experience that went by all too quickly. I remember he asked me, “How do you like to record?” and I ended up playing on that song with him. That was a magical experience, to get to be with him and to hear that voice playing a song he had written. It was everything wrapped up into one; it could have been McCartney, you know what I’m saying? In the same way that you’d have chills in any of those situations. The first bus ride I took with Crosby and Nash, I’m hearing them talk back and forward about different stuff in their past, and I’m thinking, “Am I really supposed to be hearing this?” [laughs] And implicit in that was (the realization that) I guess they trust me! I found out that all of these icons, they enjoy telling stories, they enjoy those moments, they enjoy having them tapped and mined and then, there are things that you as a writer or me in whatever capacity I’m there, but also as a fan, but not in a way that’s scary for them. Sometimes, it’s like, “How did that happen? When you guys were recording “Look Through Any Window”, and Bobby Elliott does whatever …, you ask a question that maybe goes a little further into triggering a memory which maybe hasn’t been called upon in a long time.


RA: I witnessed that with David (Crosby) during a conversation he had with my stepson Eric. After a show at the City Winery in NYC, David spent nearly ten minutes with Eric, talking with him in the manner of an uncle…Musicians of that generation, when they see that their music has made a leap to yet another, younger generation, boy, does that mean something to them!


SF: Absolutely!


RA: You also worked with Rod Stewart. What was that like?


SF: Rod Stewart … that was brief. Rod was funny. I’ve been thinking about some of these times. One event that I did with him was at a New Year’s Eve show in Rio de Janeiro, and it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people at a live concert (3.5 million). Working with him … I’m not really sure that I worked with him, inasmuch as that I worked with the band. The first band that I was ever in was managed by his manager, in London, at the same time as the Faces. We used to open for them. But in working with Rod on that gig, there wasn’t a lot of interaction. He was very much “the star” and what impressed me from a slightly different point of view was that Ian McLagan, who was a member of the Faces—and the Small Faces—that Mac was very much also a part of the band, and nobody really got that close to Rod. It was an enjoyable experience. We did some rehearsals in L.A. before going to Rio, but it was pretty much like the artist being ushered in and out, and so it was a more impersonal experience; enjoyable, but impersonal. Something funny that happened (ha-ha, in retrospect) … nobody had told me that during the song “Have I Told You Lately?” which was one of his big ballads in the ‘80s … I turn around, we’re onstage during the show, and everybody’s sitting down, and I was like, “Oops! I didn’t get that memo.” Nobody had instructed me that when we play that song, we’re all just kind of sitting down, looking casual.


RA: I understand that your musical relationship with Marc Cohn has been a longstanding one.


SF: Yes. Marc has become a dear friend. Working with Marc has enabled me to do what I’m doing right now with Graham. The majority of shows that Marc and I did over 12 or 13 years were probably as a duo. It was in doing that I really learned how to feel comfortable. As a songwriter and singer … have you seen him live?


RA: Not yet, I’m sorry to say.


SF: The live experience is incredibly heartwarming. I don’t know that I’ve worked with anyone who’s better with an audience than Marc. He is incredibly funny, self-effacing, and he’s also very fast. So, anything that might happen with the audience, he’ll be able to pick up on and send something right back out there. Also, he and I went through the experience of him being shot together. I was with him in Colorado when that happened. There’s a lot that we’ve been through together, and we continue to be friends. Marc actually did open for Graham recently in Rome, and I sat in with him.


RA: You were part of the house band at the Kennedy Center Honors for six consecutive years. How did that gig materialize?

SF: In 2001, I think it was, MusiCares honored Bono. Rob Mathes was the musical director. Playing with Lone Justice, we’d opened up for U2 on the Joshua Tree tour. I guess Rob had some knowledge of my playing, and there was a certain Edge-like quality (to it). It was kind of concurrent with them. So when Rob was putting a band together for this event for Bono, he called me to be involved. Cut to however many years later—2008—my son was a fan of Panic! At the Disco, and he said (the record) was produced by this man called Rob Mathes. I said, “I know Rob Mathes!” So I wrote to Rob and told him how much my son loved the record. Rob wrote back and said, you know, I might have something for you coming up, (which was) the first Kennedy Center gig back in 2008, which was honoring Townsend and Daltrey. That year, there was a pretty great version of “Love, Reign O’er Me” by Bettye LaVette, that is definitely worth checking out. As the years went on, there was never any presumption about this. But the Kennedy Center honors had Rob Mathes, who was the musical director. He and Michael Stevens, who passed away a year ago … Michael was the producer, along with his father, George Jr., the great movie director. And it was George Jr. who started the honors 38 or 39 years ago. Michael had produced it, but it was Rob who brought me into the fold. For the next 6-7 years, I’ve been kind of on tenterhooks each year, hoping to get a call, and each year I did. A couple of the pinnacles for me were performing for McCartney and also the Led Zeppelin tribute. The thing about the Honors; in general, I don’t get nervous before going onstage but obviously, for something like this, it’s not going out live, but it’s being recorded and it’s as close to a one-shot deal as you can get, other than Saturday Night Live. The thing is, there are five different performances throughout the evening. So, the musical stage for each act – that stage is going to be hydraulically whisked into place about five minutes before you play. So when the movie screen would come down and they would play a retrospective on whoever is being honored.  At that point the stage is being moved into place by all the stagehands, then the stage is plugged in, and you just hope that everything is going to come off the way that you want it to! [laughs] There’s kind of an emergency retuning of instruments, and then you’re just there for that last minute or so as the movie is winding down, and then the screen goes up, and you’re going to be looking up into the balcony and you’ll see the President and his wife, and the Vice-President, and McCartney, and whoever it is … Yo-Yo Ma .. It was an incredible experience. That adrenaline as you’re concentrating on playing that first song … you can’t help looking up there. You’re that close where you can see everybody clearly. I saw the Beatles in ’63 … actually, January 2nd of ’64 … and then in ’65 again.


RA: Lucky man!


SF: Yes! [laughs} To be able to play some of those songs with people like James Taylor, Mavis Staples and Steven Tyler, for McCartney … that whole weekend became such a precious event. You could travel with your spouse and spend a whole weekend in D.C.; it was a magical thing.


RA: How did you get involved with President Obama’s 2009 inauguration?


SF: It was the same group of people. That was after the first honors that I did. The (Kennedy Center) Honors happens on the first Sunday in December, so it was the following January. That event was put together by Michael Stevens, who was the producer of the Honors and did Christmas in Washington and all those events. That was another instance … I got to perform with Stevie Wonder. It was the coldest that I think I’ve ever been. There were a couple of days there where we had to rehearse before the event. I mean, this is January in D.C., outside! We would be rushing back into a tent that was kept warm, but we had to go out and do some camera blocking or something for whatever song it was, or rehearse with the artist, and you had maybe 10 or 15 minutes; then, you were looking at frostbite! [laughs] Fortunately, the day of the show was a balmy 28 degrees, which felt a lot warmer than what it had been in rehearsal.


RA: In the past, you gave specific advice for aspiring players and writers: “Don’t hesitate to be bold.” What would you say to people wanting to enter the music industry now? These people know that they can’t “make it” by selling records alone; it’s not the way it used to be, so their question becomes: How am I going to be able to earn my keep?


SF: Wow. That may be a separate question because it’s so hard to … I don’t think maybe one can directly approach it from that point of view. I remember in the mid-‘70s, I just moved to America, uprooted from England, and hadn’t really found my feet yet. For a while, I’d really gotten into black American music.  Having grown up an all of what was, over here, the British Invasion in England; that was just part of my youth. Then I started getting into Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye and James Brown. I think I bought my first Telecaster after seeing a picture of Freddie Stone on a Sly Stone album. But as much as anyone wants to emulate, there’s that thing where you want to try on these different hats … can I play funk like that? No, it couldn’t! [laughs] It wasn’t what I could do, not with authenticity. I think authenticity may ultimately be the crux of it for me. But what I was getting to is that I remember when Elvis Costello came out and hearing “Watching the Detectives” and thinking, “This is soul music.” As much as I’m getting off on this incredible music that is inspiring me, if that’s going to come out of me, it’s got to come out of me as me, essentially. I’m still striving to get to that place. But if one can tap into authenticity, that can only stand you in an authentic place, and that is where success will emanate from. I watched a really good Herb Alpert documentary the other day, and this was very instructive for me, and very inspiring. He was huge with the Tijuana Brass and all that, at the same time as a lot of other stuff which we considered to be much cooler, but he was doing his thing and making a fortune doing it! He was saying that maybe once in a while, you can try and do something that isn’t yours, where you’re trying something on … you might get lucky once and have a hit record but you won’t be able to make a career out of that. Getting back to what you were talking about earlier, persistence is crucial; you just have to be bloody-mindedly dogged about just persisting, and then over time you realize that you improved your craft, hopefully. There are ways that I wrote songs, particularly when I was a teenager, that doesn’t come as naturally now; I wish it did. But in many other ways, I’ve just persevered. That is what has essentially gotten me to the place where I’ve been able to play with the people I’ve played with. I don’t know why. There are millions of guitar players out there. There are so many that could have done any of these gigs that I’ve done. My son is actually sitting here with me right now. If he hadn’t have mentioned about Panic! At the Disco, I wouldn’t have written Rob Mathes when I did. For him to get back to me about the Kennedy Center … then you start getting into a more metaphysical realm of “right place, right time”, those kinds of things. I’m not a networker. I’m not on social media. I don’t know how people have the time, frankly, to keep up with everything. I’m sorry if I’m not being more concise or succinct in offering any nuggets of wisdom. But I think that (it’s about) authenticity and just sticking with it and deciding if that’s what you have to do, then that’s what you have to do, and you find a way to do it. In that regard, the universe seems to help you out.


Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
Image by Amy Grantham

Roy Abrams, Shane Fontayne, Eric Gordon
May 14, 2016 at The Town Hall, NYC
Image by Yvonne Abrams
© Roy Abrams 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Graham Nash
Image by Amy Grantham
Currently on the road in Europe after completing the first leg of his U.S. tour in May, Graham Nash visits Long Island for a headline appearance on July 17 at the Great South Bay Music Festival. The legendary singer-songwriter is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee—with Crosby, Stills, and Nash and with the Hollies. He was also inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame twice, as a solo artist and with CSN, and he is a GRAMMY Award winner.

Image by Amy Grantham

This Path Tonight, Nash’s new solo release, his first since 2002’s Songs for Survivors, showcases an artist who sounds for all the world like a 20-something year-old singing songs containing wisdom that only time and experience can inspire. This collection of ten songs that deal with Nash’s personal journey through music, life, and love has captured the imagination of a multitude of listeners worldwide, as evidenced by the album’s respectable chart positions in America, the UK, Japan, Holland, Italy, France, and Germany. Its Billboard debut at Number 93 for the week ending April 21 was Nash’s highest charting solo album since 1974’s Wild Tales.


Speaking with Nash backstage after his May 14 performance at New York City’s Town Hall, I had a burning question for him: How can I be, I wondered, that his voice sounded—to borrow a phrase surely known to Byrds aficionados—younger than yesterday?  Nash had no direct explanation for me, but the light in his eyes, the smile on his face, and the energy that emanated from his very being all bore testament to a man who has discovered the truth behind the phrase “You are only as old as you feel.” For Graham Nash, these are truly golden days.

Image by Amy Grantham

I spent some additional time with Nash via transatlantic telephone to discuss the present and future plans of one of popular music’s most endearing figures.


Roy Abrams: Long Island has played a pivotal role in your musical path. What are some standout memories of that time?

Graham Nash: That’s where we rehearsed the very first Crosby, Stills and Nash record. Our friend John Sebastian had rented us a house on a lake in Sag Harbor, and, well … I thought we were going to rehearse the album acoustically, but when I got there, Stephen had assembled a band, with Harvey Brooks on bass, and other people—Dallas Taylor, our drummer, of course. Yeah, many fond memories!


RA: You’re no stranger to outdoor festivals, obviously, with Woodstock perhaps being the most notable of them. How did your path lead to Long Island’s Great South Bay Music Festival?

GN: To communicate. The first thing writers do when they have new songs (is to) communicate them to as many people as possible, and that festival is reputedly great!


RA: You are on the road with one other musician, guitarist Shane Fontayne, who also produced the new album. The chemistry between you is as umbilical and unique as any formed with your previous partners. Can you describe the collaborative process between you, and how you developed such a deep bond of trust in him?

GN: I can tell you exactly, Roy. I’m always a little uncomfortable writing with other people. Writing is such a personal thing to every musician and composer, but with Shane, I can only liken it to writing in a mirror. And that’s how close this musical relationship is. It’s based on great respect; he’s a brilliant musician. I realize that what his main job is, as a producer and as a musician, is make the song come alive. Don’t play too much, don’t try and be smart; let the song come alive. That’s what Shane is brilliant at doing. 

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
Image by Amy Grantham

RA: You have always been as much of a teacher as an artist, always reminding your audiences that “everyone can make a difference.”  Your work with MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), the Cousteau Society, UNICEF, the Bridge School, and countless other organizations, offers living proof of that. What are some of the most important lessons you would teach a classroom of today’s young people?

GN: Wow … [pause] … I’m just thinking. Okay, I think we have to realize one very important fact: although children are only 25% of our population, they’re actually 100% of our future. We must take great care in bringing them up and feeding them and stuffing their life with beauty. That’s one way we could change the world; a great way to do it.


RA: Prior to this year, you have spent several years undertaking vast archival projects for your former partners and yourself. The new album and tour is a continuation of a lifelong journey, yet it heralds a new beginning. In conversations with you during the past few years, your view of time and the aging process had more of a fatalistic air. This has been entirely replaced with an energy, an attitude and outlook, of one fifty years your junior, with fifty more years of creativity ahead.

GN: I can only credit that to my girlfriend, Amy Grantham. Even though I’ve done a lot of work with many, many CDs in the last ten or twelve years, (plus) 400 shows with David and Stephen, in every combination, I was kind of pretty flat, emotionally. Susan—my wife of 38 years—and I divorced, and I fell in love with Amy, and now I’m back on fire. I’m back with a purpose in life, and I’m looking forward to my future. I think it’s going to contain a lot of creativity and a lot of beauty.

Image by Amy Grantham

RA: Are there any drawing-board plans for you after this current tour ends?

GN: I’ve always got plans! [laughs] I’m in the process of several things. One of them is, my girlfriend Amy Grantham is a wonderful artist and she does a lot of collage work; we’re working on a book. I’m trying to help her get it to as many people as possible. We have a book of her portraits of me, of our self-portraits—it’s very, very interesting. And musically, of course, I’m still writing. I still have seven songs left over from this project, and it won’t be 14 years before another Graham Nash record!


RA: With Memorial Day just past, do you have any thoughts to share on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where does America stand, in your opinion?

GN: I vacillate between it being one of the greatest countries on the planet, and also the biggest purveyor of violence. The United States has promise to be an unbelievably great country. I know a lot of people who think it’s great, but we have done a lot of things (with our policies) that have been tragic and shameful. That’s the process of growth in any major empire. I’m still very proud to be an American citizen and I will continue to fight for what I believe in.

© Roy Abrams 2016