Piano Man

Like Jen Chapin, who he’ll perform with on Friday, October 4, A.J. Croce knows what it’s like to grow up in the long shadow of a legend.

Like Jen Chapin, who he’ll perform with on Friday, October 4, A.J. Croce knows what it’s like to grow up in the long shadow of a legend. But rather than ride the name, Croce, 42, has carved out his own path and developed an incredible career since his musical start in his teens.

By the age of 22, Croce was touring with B.B. King and today he’s managed to fit some of the greatest producers on the planet on one album, Twelve Tales, due out February 2014.

In a gracious 9 a.m. interview with the Syracuse New Times, Croce gave up an hour of his busy day to talk in depth about the making of his ambitious new album, never playing a Jim Croce song until his 30s and remembering to have fun on stage.

Piano Man

Piano Man

JN: Tell me about Twelve Tales.
AC: It’s been a bit crazy. I started a little over a year ago with this idea that I would record 12 songs with 12 legendary producers. In reality, it was better to do two songs with each producer. So one single was released each month and the whole album comes out on vinyl and CD the first week in February.

Who did you work with?
I got to work with some of my heroes. In Nashville, “Cowboy” Jack Clemons, who was 81 when I worked with him. He was the house producer at Sun Records. He produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Elvis, of course. The main artist he worked with was Johnny Cash for 60 years until he passed away. He’s worked with all kinds of amazing artists. I met him when I was 17. I went to his house studio, where he’s recorded U2 to Johnny Cash and he just had me play. He gave me a lot of great advice I took with me from that experience. It was like seeing an old friend.

 And then?
From there, I went the completely opposite direction and worked with Kevin Killen, who’s been working with Elvis Costello for 28 years as co-producer and engineer. Regardless of which direction you take – Kevin’s been there. Then I got to work with my hero, a guy who I have really studied – Allen Tourssaint. We played a concert together four-handed piano. We performed together, but I wasn’t sure if he’d be willing to produce two songs. It was a huge thrill. I love the music he’s produced. I learned so much about being a piano player form his playing and his songwriting was so influential. I was kind of in awe.

 Why were you seeking these producers out?
After 12 years of producing my own music, I wanted to go back to having other people give their creative input.

Who else did you work with?
After that I worked in L.A. with Mitchell Froom. I love his Los Lobos stuff, and Elvis stuff. He really inspired me to think of finding new songs. I had always been a person, musician, who gravitated toward having really earthy, vintage instrument sounds. I’ve written in a lot of styles, but I think that’s one of the things that held everything together – old gear! I seek that out. Mitchell stayed with that theme. But he wanted to see what an instrument could do that it’s never done before. Sounds that haven’t existed before or that have, but you hear it in a way you never have before. I was really inspired by that.

How long did you spend on each song?
With all of these songs, everything recorded in one or two days. In a lot of cases they were mixed that day, too. We had the song, went to mastering, then the following week, it would come out on iTunes. There were a number of cases a song was done on Friday, mastered on Monday and up on Tuesday. It was really exhilarating always being under the gun to get it out. I said one song a month. The logistics were incredibly complicated, but it was really great.

Tell me about the last two producers.
Tony Berg is probably the most eccentric producer. He’s done everything from Fiona Apple to Johnny Rotten to Paul McCartney. He’ll work with Bette Midler and then do some punk rock thing. Really an interesting producer. Amazing ear. Like Mitchell, he really gravitates toward finding sounds that are really unique to go together. I had a blast working with him. And the last producer was Greg Cohen. We worked together 20 years ago. My music teacher in high school and Tom Waits were best friends. They had written plays and songs together, so I got in touch and asked if he {Waits} would be willing to consider producing my first album. He wrote a really nice letter back and said, you should really work with the guy that produces my stuff. So, Greg is a really virtuoso bass player: classical, jazz, arranges for every kind of music. He pushes music’s boundaries.

How was it working with all different studio players/bands?
I’ve done a fair amount of work as session player, but it’s different when it’s your song and you’re set in your ways about how it’ll be, the way the bridge comes in or something. It’s different when you come in free and clear and have no idea what you’re gonna play.

How did you pick which songs went with each producer?
With three or four producers, I flew to meet them in Nashville or New York or LA or New Orleans and I would go in and play two hours of material and ask them to pick. I also had a constantly updated compilation of demos and anyone in the running to produce got everything. As they were hearing them, it was not competitive among them, but each said, “I really dig what you’re doing, but I want to do this.”

This is a tremendous project. Do you feel a weight has been lifted now that it’s done?
{Laughs} Well, while this is going on, I was also touring and collaborating with Leon Russell on songwriting. And I have a family and stuff, so there’s that too. It’s been such a crazy, busy year, but really inspiring. Can’t remember a time where I felt more creatively inspired working with the people I have.

I asked Jen Chapin about having a famous father as well. Is it a burden or a blessing to follow in the footsteps of someone like Jim Croce?
I think it influences other people more than it influences me. Other people think about it more than I do. When I started off I was grateful for getting my first opportunities 22 years ago and having people at least willing to listen to what I was doing. But I didn’t ever perform his material until I was in my early 30s. I wasn’t a guitar player until seven or eight years ago. I didn’t feel like I could play the songs as they were meant to played as a pianist. I think it was a good thing. I love his music and I’m proud of what he did, but I was doing something different. It wasn’t until I was listening to an old tape of covers he was playing and realized, they were all songs I’d played. Nine out of ten were songs I’d performed and songs you wouldn’t expect: Bessie Smith, Pink Anderson. They were songs I’d been playing since I was like 12 years old. I got chills thinking, wow, we have all this music history and heritage in common. I saw for the first time the similarities between our music.  Once I recognized that, it was fun to embrace it. Once I did embrace and perform his music, people were moved by hearing me play his songs. It makes me really happy to be able to play his songs and keep that music alive.

What was it like growing up under that name?
As far as being the son of a well-known person – it’s a challenge. I’m sure Jen has dealt with it. I didn’t know anyone in my shoes growing up. You never had your own identity. It’s lonely. That’s what I fought to have. I wanted my own identity. I wanted integrity. I didn’t want to use his name to gain some sort of renown. Celebrity just didn’t mean anything to me. So I wanted to make it on my own merits.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Practice. Find new ways of doing it all the time. Cowboy told me when I was a kid, 17, he wrote me a list of songwriting tips. The two that stuck with me most were that you should write the worst song that you could and write the best song that you could. To me that just meant – it’s an exercise. Completing a song is more important than playing it for an audience. Just because you wrote one doesn’t mean anyone needs to hear it. Might be aspects of a tune that are great and others need to get worked on. Don’t labor over that – write another. The things that are comfortable or good are often the things that become your identity or signature. And so it’s important to just keep doing it. You know when you’ve got a good tune. If you feel good about a song, play it.

Anything else?
If you make a mistake – don’t worry about it. Have fun. If you make any deal out of it, it seems unprofessional. If you’re a good musician and you make a mistake, then take advantage of that mistake. Make that mistake again. Turn it into something that’s not a mistake. Make it something that’s interesting or smart. It’s all about having fun. If you at any point don’t have fun playing a concert than you need to assess why that is. I have a friend who I played with and his performances are incredibly loose. Sometimes it’s sloppy and there are mistakes, but he loves it. He relishes in the sincerity, the honesty of what he’s doing. Taking that approach really helped me. It reminded me that music is about having fun.


Event Details:

Who: Jen Chapin and A.J. Croce

Where: Landmark Theatre lobby, 362 S. Salina St.

When: Friday, October 4, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $28

Information: 475-7980
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