Christoper Cross is probably best-known to most music fans for the astonishing success of his self-titled 1979 debut album, which won him five Grammy awards and yielded three of his biggest hits in “Sailing,” “Ride Like the Wind” and “Never Be the Same.”
The singer/songwriter and guitarist has continued on with recording and touring over the last three decades, most recently releasing a new album entitled Doctor Faith in May. Currently on tour to promote the new album, Cross will perform a three-night stand at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center beginning Thursday, October 20.
In Part One of an exclusive interview with knotmove.com, Cross gives a preview of what fans can expect in concert at the Schermerhorn and talks about his return to recording after an absence of a dozen years, the changes in the music business, his work process, playing rock music with an orchestra and much more.
Thanks to Christopher Cross, and special thanks to Carol Kaye for arranging this interview.
Your last Nashville date got re-scheduled because of the floods in May 2010, is that right?
Yeah, there were supposed to be three dates at the new venue, and then of course with the floods that wasn’t possible. So they ended up asking me if I would do a free show in front of the courthouse, just to help with morale, which I did. I performed in front of the courthouse with the symphony, I think on the Friday that everything happened.
So that was a very nice event, and then they re-scheduled me for the first opportunity they had after the venue’s been refurbished. Because I very much wanted to play there. I mean, they had some shows before in other venues, but I was very much wanting to play the hall, so they waited until it was ready.
So this is actually going to be your first time playing the Schermerhorn.
Right. It’s very exciting. We do a lot of symphony dates, obviously, but it’s always rewarding when you’re playing a really acoustically fine hall. And with those players – I mean, clearly the NSO is one of the best symphonies in the country.
And getting better all the time.
Well, one of the great things about this orchestra is that some of the members, they do a lot of pop stuff in their session work, so when you have that kind of combination of their classical training with some of the players having that pop sensibility, they sort of get it. I mean, they all would obviously rather play Mahler, but they get it a lot better than some symphonies that just play classical content.
They understand that everything doesn’t have to be classical music to be valid artistically.
Well, the snobbery element, you can’t control that. And that’s understandable; they’ve spent their whole lives becoming virtuosos, and I understand that. It’s more that they do understand how to play the music. It’s the feel, and the whole approach to pop or jazz or contemporary music, whereas classical is different. So it’s nice when you play with an orchestra like this, where a lot of the players are out in the field doing sessions.
You perform quite a number of dates every year. What is it that drives you to want to continue?
Well, it’s funny, the tragic coincidence that Steve Jobs died yesterday. When you see a pioneer like that who died at 56, and I’m 60, it’s very sobering. I think the older I’ve gotten, the more appreciative I am of everything, but certainly the opportunity to play and be out there. Particularly doing something with symphonies, because I think at this particular point in my career playing with symphonies is one of the most exciting things I do as far as being rewarding.
I just enjoy it more all the time. The traveling is tough, but I enjoy the playing more all the time, because I realize there’s a finite calendar there as you become older.
So you actually enjoy touring, rather than it being something that you have to live with because it’s what you do?
Right. I think right now in our business playing live is the only place to monetize music, and make money. So I certainly go out there partly for that reason, because I’ve got kids in expensive private schools. (Laughs). But I’ve got nine records out now, with the release of Doctor Faith in May, so I’ve got a pretty good discography of a hundred songs that I can play. So we do “An Evening With” for two or two-and-a-half hours or so, and it’s very nice to play a wide selection. I always play the early songs that people know well, but it’s an opportunity to play songs from those middle years that people may not be as familiar with. And if they’re so inclined, you can go on iTunes or wherever and get those records.
So it’s very rewarding. I’m playing with a great group of musicians now, and it’s a great time.
Is that what we can expect from the Nashville date, is a mix of the entire career?
It is. We’re limited to about 70 minutes with the orchestra, because they play their program, and then as you’re probably aware, there’s union rules, and they can only play so long. There’s a curfew. So we’re playing about a 67-minute program, and we’ll squeeze as much as we can in.
We’ll be doing songs from the earlier years, obviously, the ones they know. We’ll be doing things from the inside years that we’ve chosen. Of the 46 songs in my live book, we have about 26 of them that we have orchestral arrangements for, so we’ll play about 14 songs. Some of the hits, some of the things from the in-between years, and then a few things from Doctor Faith.
Great! I’m glad to see you’re showcasing songs from the new album.
The album features nine songs with real strings, as most of my albums have. So we could play more, but we tried to think, in converting those strings into full orchestral arrangements, we tried to think of a few . . . like I said, I have 26 songs that I can play with an orchestra, which is more than we can usually play in a program, so I don’t just run out and convert new ones over every day, because it’s an expense.
One of the things I’ve been told is that we have nice ink. Michael Walden is a brilliant arranger, and we have very, very fine charts. He’ll be conducting in Nashville, which he does whenever possible. So the charts are beautifully done, and we really feature the orchestra a lot. A lot of artists use them as wallpaper, which is a not-very-affectionate term they don’t like. You know, they just have them in the background playing long notes. We take a different tack. The arrangements are written with the orchestra in mind, and we have songs like “Never Be the Same,” where on the record there may have been a guitar solo, and now it’s the orchestra. So in those places the orchestra lifts and basically does a solo. The whole point is to feature the orchestra, because why do this if you’re not going to feature them?
They’re featured quite a bit in the show, more than they would be, I think, with just about any other pop artist, from what I’ve heard from orchestras that we’ve worked with. I think it makes it more interesting for the players, even though as I said, this isn’t Brahms. There’s some challenging moments, and I think they like it and find the music interesting harmonically. I’ve heard that from a few players that have come up and said something. So that’s our goal, is to turn the volume down on stage so the orchestra can be heard, and it’s a rewarding experience.
Do you find that draw a different kind of audience to an orchestral show than you would if it was just you performing with your band, and do you get a different kind of reception?
Orchestras have subscription audiences, obviously, or a lot of them do. Those are built in, so you’re gonna have a certain amount of that. Some of those may not be your typical fan that would come to a show, but I think they do enjoy the music. I think demographically we’re right in there with them. They’ve certainly grown up with some of the music. But there’s a lot of people who will come out because it’s kind of a special thing. I know there’s some fans traveling from other states to come hear the show. Because with philanthropy being what it is right now, a lot of these orchestras are struggling. Not in Nashville, but a lot of them are, and so this is a little bit of a rarity. It’s a special thing, so a lot of my fans want to try to catch it if they can.
Doctor Faith is your first new studio record in a dozen years. Why so long between albums, and what made it the right time now?
I did do some stuff in between. But I went through a divorce after 18 years, and that always takes some personal time in terms of getting your life re-settled, making sure the kids are okay and that sort of thing. And I moved to Austin, Texas from Los Angeles, sort of back home. So a lot of those things took time.
My early four records were produced by Michael Omartian, who’s a really brilliant producer, and I think I learned a lot from Michael. And then some of the albums I did in between, Rob Meurer and I produced together. So with Doctor Faith, this is my first time taking the helm by myself, and with my being a guitarist, it was a new kind of palette, because I did it all with guitars for the most part.
And it was really wonderful, but like I said, it was kind of a new thing to be left completely to my own devices most of the time. Not only as the producer, but as the guitarist, it was kind of a true solo effort in terms of, most of the time it was just the engineer and myself in the studio. So it took a little while, but I think I was looking for the right sort of muse, and I think the guitar gave me that in terms of a new soundscape to play with.
I don’t know, it wasn’t writer’s block. I was just busy with other stuff.
Have you ever experienced a true writer’s block, where you wanted to write but couldn’t?
I haven’t, thankfully. I’ve made nine records, and when you’ve had some big success in the beginning, and then later records don’t get the recognition or exposure those do, you get frustrated. With Walking in Avalon, the last record in 1998, I thought it was a very good record, but you know, it didn’t really make any noise, per se, or get exposed, which is typical, because radio tends to cater to younger artists, so it’s hard to get on the radio. So you can get frustrated, and kinda say, “What’s the point?” But of course, as Rob and I say, that’s what we do, so we do it.
But Doctor Faith, I have to say this album’s been more well-received than any other record I’ve ever made except the first record, which is very refreshing. The press has been very embracing of the album, maybe because it’s been so long. But I think it’s a quality record. They’re a little surprised. I had a guy write me yesterday and send me his article saying he thought I would just stamp out another typical record, which this isn’t.
Read knotmove.com’s review of Doctor Faith
So we’ve been very rewarded by the response, but I have to say I have to say that commercially, the business is just compromised across the board for everyone, with downloading and radio and stuff. So it’s hard to express the album’s success in the old terms. People say, “How’s the record doing?” In the old days you’d say, “We’re at 600,000, it’s doing great.” You don’t say those things anymore. Those numbers are gone. Things are compromised to a great degree, and certainly for older artists.
It’s just a different model, and you just have to acclimate your ego and your pocketbook to that. But it’s always been about the work, and we’re very rewarded by the work.
Read Part Two of this interview