As he rolls out an anticipated string of 90s reissues and hits the road with The Smithereens, the post-New Wave pop auteur speaks exclusively to the Rock & Roll Globe
“I’m at the age now where I forget things,” says Marshall Crenshaw, calling from his home in upstate New York.
“I don’t just pretend to have forgotten, I actually have forgotten. Sometimes you say, ‘Oh, I don’t remember that,’ but you do. But I mean, now when I say I don’t remember something, it means I don’t remember it. And it could be something that I did an hour ago.” Then he laughs, making it clear that he’s not too bothered.
Crenshaw is talking about remembering things because he’s begun the process of reissuing five of his albums, starting with Miracle of Science (originally released in 1996, and re-released on January 15), so he’s been revisiting a good chunk of his older material.
“When I re-listened to Miracle of Science, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time, and a lot of it I’d forgotten,” he says. “I thought that it was pretty cool. Maybe I’m less self-critical now than I was back then, who knows.”
He admits that the songs “Only an Hour Ago” and “There and Back Again” were a bit problematic to his ears now, though. “On those two tracks, listening again after all these years, I thought the drum machine sound was maybe a little too abrasive, and maybe didn’t quite fit the songs. So, instead of just leaving it alone and saying, ‘Well, that’s how I did it, so I can’t redo it,’ I said, ‘It’s my stuff, I can do what I want.’ So I put some live drums on both of them but I kept the drum machine in. When I remixed it, I put the programmed drums on one side of the stereo and the live drums on the other, and it just sounds really badass, I think. I like it better, anyway.”
Everything else on the album, Crenshaw left alone, though he says it’s been interesting to see how his songwriting style has changed since then. It is, he says, a natural progression. “I’ve been doing this for a really long time. And if I did it the same way that I did when I was 25 years old, now that I’m 66, that would be kind of warped,” he says with a laugh.
Regardless of how his songwriting has evolved across his career, Crenshaw’s work has always been praised for being exceptionally well-crafted. His talent was evident right from the start: “Someday, Someway,” the catchy, uptempo lead single (from his 1982 self-titled debut album) hit the U.S. Top 40 chart and still remains one of his most beloved songs. His success continued with Field Day (1983), which featured another flawless single, the gorgeous, sincere “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” which has also proven to be a career-defining hit for him.
For someone renowned for writing perfect power pop songs, Crenshaw says his songwriting process has always been relatively spontaneous. “I always write music first, so I have to craft lyrics so that they complement the music. I never write down lyric ideas, I never think, ‘Oh, I should write a song about that.’ It all comes to mind in the moment when I’m trying to finish the song by writing the words. I don’t give it any thought on a day-to-day basis.”
Unfortunately, when the 1990s rolled around, Crenshaw found that his classic, straightforward songwriting style and crisp production sensibilities were no longer given proper consideration, thanks to the era-defining grunge movement, which effectively steamrolled all other popular music styles for several years. “It was a hell of a different era back in the mid ‘90s. I never understood narrow-mindedness about genres. I’ve always been really open-minded and [had] a wide range of tastes due to the radio that I grew up on in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Top 40 radio was always completely eclectic, completely without any limits. I still like it that way.”
With people once again more open to a wider variety of musical styles, Crenshaw is glad to get a second chance to show people some of his work that they may have overlooked. He says that the response to Miracle of Science has been enthusiastic so far. “Some people are saying, ‘Oh, I missed this one the first time around,’ or, ‘I heard it differently than the first time around.’ That’s great.”
Now that Miracle of Science has been successfully relaunched, four more of Crenshaw’s albums will also get the re-release treatment: My Truck Is My Home (1994), The 9 Volt Years (1998), #447 (1999), and What’s in the Bag? (2003). All were originally released on the Razor & Tie label, but will now come out on Crenshaw’s own Shiny-Tone imprint, and distributed by Megaforce. But, Crenshaw says, “There’s no actual timetable as to when they’ll come out.”
Although their release dates are still undecided, Crenshaw is certain that each album reissue will contain two brand-new “bonus” songs, so that by the end of the series, fans will have 10 new tracks from him – essentially, a whole new Marshall Crenshaw album, but in installments. Some of this bonus material will be newly-written songs, though the extra tracks on Miracle of Science are both cover songs: “Misty Dreamer,” by Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Daniel Wylie, and “What the Hell I Got” by Michel Pagliaro, who Crenshaw describes as “like the Bruce Springsteen of Quebec.” The latter song has sentimental value for Crenshaw, because he remembers often hearing it on the radio when he was growing up in Detroit. The radio station, CKLW-AM, was “just over the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. They played a lot of Canadian content because that’s the law in Canada. Anyway, I loved this record back then and I did it because it’s stayed in my mind all this time.”
After that music-obsessed childhood, Crenshaw says there was never any question about what he was going to do with his life. “It just was always this imperative,” he says of becoming a professional musician. “I heard rock and roll music when I was a little kid, and fell in love with it. Then, as I got older, I was always really suspicious of the adult world and the adults around me. Music was like a haven. I just have lived my whole life from that perspective.
“The only job I ever had was playing in a rock and roll band. So, it was always my destiny. I never had any second thoughts about it. Fortunately, I’ve managed to stumble my way through it up until now!” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been able to live my life following my own agenda.” It also has led to personal happiness, as when it helped him meet his future wife: “I met her when my band auditioned to play a dance at our high school.”
AUDIO: Marshall Crenshaw Miracle of Science (full album)
Crenshaw’s devotion to his musical career has never wavered, which he has proven by touring consistently over the years, either as a solo act or, sometimes, bringing along musicians to play as a trio. He plans to hit the road again this spring to support the Miracle of Science reissue, sharing the bill with the St. Louis-based indie band the Bottle Rockets.
In addition to his own shows, Crenshaw also frequently steps in as a guest vocalist for The Smithereens (alternating in that role with Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson), an arrangement that began after that band’s original frontman, Pat DiNizio, passed away in 2017. Crenshaw brightens at the mention of The Smithereens; he obviously has much affection for them. “I have a couple of shows with them this spring,” he says. “That’s an ongoing thing. I did about 20 shows with them last year. I still love doing it. They’re really cool guys and fun to hang around with. There’s always a good friendly vibe at their shows.”
Crenshaw clearly looks forward to his upcoming reissues and shows, but he also takes a moment to take a frank assessment of his career ups and downs so far. “I’m happy about the way things have turned out. I only hate some of the work that I’ve done.” He pauses, reconsidering. “I don’t really hate it, it just hasn’t stood the test of time for me, not all of it. But plenty of it has. I’m okay with how it’s gone. I’m grateful to the universe that the songs have had crazy longevity.”
Upcoming tour dates:
March 6 – SOPAC/South Orange Performing Arts Center, South Orange, NJ (with The Smithereens) – TICKETS
March 7 -Monmouth University, Pollack Theater, West Long Branch, NJ (with The Smithereens) – TICKETS
April 17 – Rams Head On Stage, Annapolis, MD (with the Bottle Rockets) – TICKETS
April 18 – City Winery DC, Washington, DC (with the Bottle Rockets) – TICKETS
April 19 – Sellersville Theater, Sellersville, PA (with the Bottle Rockets) – TICKETS
May 9 – College of Staten Island, Springer Hall, Staten Island, NY (with The Smithereens) – TICKETS
June 5 – The Acorn, Three Oaks, MI (with The Smithereens) – TICKETS
June 6 – The Acorn, Three Oaks, MI (with The Smithereens) – TICKETS
VIDEO: The Smithereens with Marshall Crenshaw perform “Blood and Roses” at the 2019 NJ Hall of Fame ceremony