Christopher Cross: Still ‘Sailing’ (Interview)

Christopher Cross: Still ‘Sailing’ (Interview)

Photo: Alex Solca
Photo: Alex Solca

In 1981, you couldn’t turn your radio dial without landing on one of Christopher Cross’ innumerable hits. Consummately crafted, melodically intricate pop jewels marked by virtuoso musicianship and the artist’s unique voice, whether it was SailingArthur’s ThemeRide Like the Wind or All Right, this was Christopher Cross’ moment in time.

Decades since he first broke through, the five-time Grammy winner is still doing what he does best, this time on the concert stage at Theatre Le Trianon in Paris, France. A new 2-CD/DVD set, A Night in Paris, is packed with all his beloved hits and a passel of strong new material including November and Leave it to Me and finds Cross’s prodigious musical gifts still firmly intact.

RCM caught up with Cross about the new release and his career in a new interview – enjoy it below.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Performing in 2013 as opposed when you first hit it big, how are things different, is it more fun for you today?

Christopher Cross:  Well I think it’s a lot more fun. There are two reasons why. Early on in my career I was playing four sets a night and banging out the hits.

There’s a certain chemistry there but it’s exhausting and you’re not playing your own music so it’s not as rewarding.

Christopher Cross CD cover

Then when my career took off in the early ‘80s and things became so meteoric, it felt like I was on a different planet. It was hard to grasp what was happening. Now after all these years I’m really in the best place ever because I’m playing my own music. I’m confident and feel really good about what I’m doing and the musicians I’m playing with. And now I have a big catalog whereas when I toured behind my first record I only had nine songs to play and I was playing 20,000 seaters. (laughs) So it’s really come together.

The only downside now is the traveling because I’m older and that’s hard for all of us.

It’s a wonderful time to play and I really relish it more than ever now because I know it won’t last forever.

RCM: Backed by your wonderful current band, how does the manner in which you’re interpreting the songs in more of a jazz-rock setting impact on your performance?

Christopher Cross: With all respect to the musicians I’ve played with in the past I’ve been fortunate enough to grow into a situation where I’m able to work with some pretty high level, jazz trained musicians, much like Sting does and how he brings that sensibility to pop music.

So the songs are harmonically interesting enough and in the manner that Steely Dan uses all these great session players, I’m using cats at that level. They bring a real jazz sensibility to the music and it’s really enjoyable for me because their interpretations mean we can really stretch things out. This is really the pinnacle for me as far as this time in my music and what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with.

It’s pretty amazing. I’m also doing orchestral dates which are incredibly rewarding. So it’s a great time for me. For a while in the early years I used backing tracks trying to emulate every note on the records and I’ve abandoned that now. We just play completely live and I have musicians capable of doing it.

RCM: Today in 2013, with years and years of experience under your belt, have your goals changed from say thirty years ago?

Christopher Cross: Well, I don’t know if my goals have changed a great deal. I just write songs ‘cause I love to write them and I’ve never expected much. Everything happened so quickly for me.I think my career arc has always been styled after Joni Mitchell’s, even though what happened in her career was in a lot of ways unintentional.

Joan did her early records, which were so lauded, and as she went on the material to me got better and better and people had less and less interest in it, which was tragic. For me, it’s a similar arc (laughs). I didn’t design it that way as far as a career arc, but as far as trying to grow and get more sophisticated with what I do, especially lyrically, was all based on Joan. So to me it’s sort of a natural progression that you have this start and there’s a lot of excitement and then you settle back into a place in the business but that doesn’t affect the drive and the reason you do it.

You do it because you love it. While I’m not on her level, I think the arc of my career has been similar to Joni’s. To me her later work has been pretty much overlooked.

RCM: With major changes in the business, record labels folding and artists regaining control over their career, how has the new paradigm impacted the manner in which you approach your career as recording and touring artist?

Christopher Cross: Well, it hasn’t really affected me too much because I had a lot of success. The paradigm shift has helped democratize music which is cool because there are all these young people who can make music in their houses and they don’t have to have labels but the field is very crowded…trying to get noticed on YouTube and that sort of thing.

So I think the real challenge is how do you monetize the music? How do you still make a living at it? In my case I have an audience and I can go out and play. The challenge for young artists is “How do I get my music heard enough to create a buzz where 500 people will show up in Cleveland to hear me?”

The only way to really make any money in the business now is live shows because everything else is diluted and it’s all over the internet for free.

So for artists today with record sales on a big level like Taylor Swift, when you look at her numbers compared to Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, they’re quite different or look at U2’s album sales compared to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and there’s a big difference in sales.

I’m producing my own records now, which is nice. I learned a great deal from Michael Omartian, my producer, but it got to the point with Michael where I couldn’t really afford him; it wasn’t practical for him to do the records. But I loved working with him and learned a lot from him so I now produce myself because there’s no one else to do it. (laughs) It’s an interesting time.

I’m really glad I had my fifteen minutes of fame when I did.

It was an amazing time to be in the music business with people like Carl (Wilson) and Mike McDonald. It was really an amazing musical time but also a real cool cycle of life where you made vinyl, it went to the retail outlets, it went to radio, and you promoted it and toured and then came back and did it again. I kind of enjoyed that cycle to tell you the truth even thought the record companies made the lion’s share of the money, it was a good time. I feel like a fish out of water with this new model with Twitter and all this stuff. I’m trying but it’s pretty hard. (laughs)

RCM: Sailing is one of your biggest hits and one of the songs featured on your A Night in Paris CD/DVD set. A few years back I did a book called Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. In that book, one of the engineer’s  told me that during the recording of Double Fantasy John was talking about how much he loved your song, Sailing, were you aware of that?

Christopher Cross: Yeah, I did know that. What’s funny about this is I’m looking at my bookshelf and I have the book on my shelf. (laughs) It’s a great, great book. I had heard this from someone prior to your book but it’s really nice to have it in print. To hear John’s engineer, Lee DeCarlo, saying that made me feel really good. It’s been a huge honor for me and it’s something that I treasure. I never got to meet John but it’s still incredibly wonderful that he would even know about me.

RCM: From what I’ve read through the years, John always felt very alive on the water and that’s something you connected with too and wrote about in Sailing.

Christopher Cross: Sailing is real escapism for me. There’s a transition that happens when you’re on the water and the endless discovery that’s possible out there. In the old days explorers went out into the ocean to see what they could find, not knowing that the earth didn’t drop off. These were guys who really had balls because they went out there without knowing what would happen. But the ocean has always been the road to discovery.

The transition I talk about in the song, (recites lyrics)…”the canvas can do miracles” is certainly a liquid metaphor but it’s also about transition through art. For me the canvas is a painter’s canvas, so the transition through art would be dance, music, poetry; the transition you experience when you interact with it. So there’s kind of a double meaning with that song and certainly the sailing part.

But it’s also about the transition you experience when you hear a song or read a book. It’s both of those things. I did a lot of sailing when I was younger and a lot of people have taken me on their boats. In fact, I think the last time I went sailing was on (David) Crosby’s boat. Sailing is a wonderful pastime. I like the escapism of it and the fact that you’re being driven by the wind and there’s this sense of discovery to be on the edge of the earth.

It’s a wonderful experience. I did a lot of sailing when I was younger with this guy named Al who was an older mentor of mine so there’s also some connection in that song to Al taking me out sailing. Al was an older guy and a guitarist so there was some kind of big brother stuff attached to that as well, which was meaningful for me.

I’ll probably have these words on my epitaph, (recites lyrics)…” Just a dream and the wind to carry me and soon I will be free…” because that’s kind of what the creative process is about.

It’s so strange that there’s this connection now with that song to John Lennon. I was playing at the Café Carlyle in New York for a month and the sound man was doing a lot of archiving of the Double Fantasy sessions. He told me one day, “I was archiving all this Double Fantasy stuff and there was this one moment where John was talking about you in the studio.” I told him, “I’ll give you everything I have if you can find that!” (laughs) he said, “I had to listen to hours of tape and I have no idea of where it was but he started talking about you in the session and how he liked your song Sailing.” I think about the fact if John had survived, I probably would have known him. That would have been so cool.

I just saw (Paul) McCartney. I live in Austin and he came here recently to play concert. I went backstage and visited for quite a while with him and I remember saying to him, “It was so bizarre to think about them hearing my record.” And Paul was like, “Well, why? Your record was like the record, I mean, everybody had it.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but it’s one thing for everybody to have it and it’s another thing for a Beatle to have it.” (laughs)

RCM: Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys was a good friend of yours. How did you and Carl wind up laying down background vocals on David Lee Roth’s cover of California Girls?

I’d sung with him before that. I met Carl after my first record. Carl sang on a couple of tracks on my second record, Another Page. I have some pictures of us in the studio and it was an unreal experience. Then after that we became very good friends and we would do things together. I’ll tell you the truth, I think people wanted Brian and Carl to sing on their records but Brian wasn’t really doing much then. We sang on this Olivia Newton John song called It Was Good For Me, How Was It For You?

Carl did a duet with her. I love Olivia, but it wasn’t a very good song. Carl and I did a sixteen track tape of background vocals for that. The backgrounds are bitchin’ but the song’s not very good. Ted Templeman, who produced David Lee Roth, wanted to do a cover of California Girls, and he called me and said, “Hey, we’d like to get you to do the backgrounds on this song.” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” I knew Ted from working with The Doobies. Then he suddenly said, “Hey, what do you think about getting Carl Wilson to sing with you?” Of course, I’m like, “Obviously you’re calling me because you wanted to get Carl.” (laughs)

They wanted validation; I think they wanted the stamp of approval from a Beach Boy. Carl was cool about it. David (Lee Roth) wasn’t at the sessions but we just went in and did all the vocals, which was fabulous because Carl knew all the parts so it was a lot of fun. But in all the situations where I sang with Carl—we got called to sing on a Clint Black record—whenever someone would call me to sing, it was strange how they’d always go, “Oh, is Carl around?” (laughs) So I was really nothing more than a sub for Brian (Wilson) to tell you the truth, which is not a bad gig. But they always wanted to get Carl.

RCM: Speaking of Brian Wilson, you sang background vocals on Nighttime, a track on his debut solo album.

Yeah, that’s obviously a strange song. Brian was just getting back into music. Carl said, “Can you come down and sing on a song for Brian?” And it was just such a weird little high stabbing vocal part; it’s kind of a strange vocal thinking about it now. But it was thrilling to get to do it. Brian was in the studio and he sat at the piano and showed me what he wanted to do. It was pretty surreal.

When I moved to L.A. from Texas I lived on a street and my neighbors were Randy Newman and Brian and his therapist, Gene Landy—that’s when Brian lived with Gene. I’ve been very involved with the Beach Boys family saga all this time and now I see Brian a lot because I’m very good friends with Jeff Foskett, a member of his band.

I get along with all the guys in The Beach Boys, I toured with Mike (Love) for about a month in Australia and New Zealand and I’d always come out and sing I Can Hear Music, which Carl produced for the Beach Boys back in the day. One of the things that happened, which was so touching for me–I was just in tears about it—I was opening for them at a show in France. They brought me out to sing I Can Hear Music and after the show I was saying goodbye to Mike and he said to me, “Man, I could’ve sworn Carl was standing right next to me.” And that was incredibly powerful for me. I teared up and told him, “Man, I cannot tell you what that means to me.”

RCM: I agree with you about Carl, he is one of my favorite singers as well. Do you think Carl was aware of how good he was?

Christopher Cross: Yeah, I think Carl knew how good he was. The Wilson brothers, Carl, Dennis and Brian, were all very humble boys. They were all so sweet. They had to have gotten that from their mother, Audree, because certainly their father, Murry, was pretty nuts. I think it’s just sort of genetic thing with them. They’re all just so kind. Brian is still so lovely. He doesn’t like when people tell him over and over that he’s a genius.

I was fawning all over him one time and he said, “Look man, I just produced some records, okay, it’s no big deal.” I think Carl probably knew he had something special. I mean, who else can go out and sing Darlin’ onstage and not know they’re great? He was such a humble cat.

The two people in the music business who I’ve met who are the most genuine people and totally not full of shit are Carl and Mike McDonald.

RCM: For Ride like the Wind, how did you come to get Michael McDonald involved on that track?

Christopher Cross: Well, Michael Omartian produced my first four records. He was sort of in Steely Dan as much as anybody’s in Steely Dan and so was McDonald.

So when I came to L.A. to make the record Omartian invited McDonald to come down and hear this kid from Texas that he was working with, which is so funny because Mike is actually a year younger than me. So Mike came down and listened to what we were doing, liked it and said, “If you need to throw some backgrounds on it let me know.”

So we immediately had him sing on I Really Don’t Know Anymore, which is another track on the record. Subsequently when we were working on the album Ride like the Wind, we thought, “Wow, Ride like the Wind has a great part for Mike to sing on” and he graciously did it. It really helped me at radio tremendously to have him on the record; it was a huge coup. He did that and we became friends and our kids became friends too.

Mike turned sixty and I went to Hawaii for a week for his birthday so we remain real close. He’s such an incredible artist and a loving, genuine person. He reminds me so much of Carl. Mike is an R&B kind of cat but I remember he picked me up one night to go to dinner and I got into the car and he had Surf’s Up on. He keeps telling me I should do a record like his Motown thing but do all Beach Boys songs. I do want to do a Carl (Wilson) tribute record at some point but I said, “Brian’s still touring, he’s still around. I don’t think it’s the right time to do that.”

RCM: Songs have healing properties, what songs do you lean on that have helped raise your spirits?

Christopher Cross: I do have my heroes, people like Joni (Mitchell) and Randy Newman. It’s funny, I don’t look for songs to lift me up in that way but will listen to songs like Randy’s Real Emotional Girl or I Think It’s Gonna Rain and Joni’s Song for Sharon or Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow. They’re actually pretty heavy songs but I tend to listen to stuff like that. Also, a song like Jackson Browne’s Fountain of Sorrow. I’ll listen to things like that, maybe because they’re so depressing that they make me feel better. (laughs) It’s like watching The Jerry Springer Show, I mean, God, I thought my life was bad. (laughs)

I’ll also listen to something like Surf’s Up or God Only Knows by the Beach Boys because of Carl’s voice. He was my biggest vocal influence. Carl’s voice always puts me in a great place; a song like Heaven does it for me. Brian’s (Wilson) influence on me is huge as far as writing.

RCM: In the early ’80s you experienced a huge wave of success, a multitude of Grammy, multi-platinum albums and hit singles. Once you achieved that level of success, how were you able to handle?

Christopher Cross: You know, it was really hard. I was overwhelmed by everything and certainly didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I didn’t get into the drug thing; it was just too much. I wish I could go back and sort of do it again. It was fantastic, I’m glad it happened but it’s all a big blur. As far as performing, I certainly wasn’t ready to be up on those stages and play for those large audiences. Coming straight from clubs and suddenly I’m performing in 20,000 seaters with only nine songs to play from my first album. I wish I’d had been a little better prepared for that. But it was an amazing start to my career.

It’s all a big blur to a degree. So much happened, the Grammys and all that’s stuff and all the touring and then I got involved with Burt (Bacharach) and Carole (Bayer-Sager) and did the Arthur thing (Arthur’s Theme) and the Academy Awards. Those few years were like an out of body thing. I remember a lot of it and I’m certainly very honored and humbled that it all happened but it was pretty surreal.

RCM: You’re in a happier place now.

Christopher Cross: Well, I think I’ve got a handle on it better. In a small way I can sort of imagine what it must have been like for The Beatles or The Beach Boys having this huge success and being really young. That must have been hard. Like I said, I experienced a little bit of that that in a very tiny way.

I’m in a place where I’ve got a lot better handle on it and I really have a lot of confidence in what I’m doing, whether it’s records or performing.

It’s nice when you meet people in the business who you’ve revered and you get to be around them as people and watch how they handle some of this stuff and you learn from that too. You learn to be a nice person and you learn to be humble. You learn a lot of that from people like Don Henley and Carl (Wilson).

RCM: True or false, you subbed for an ailing Ritchie Blackmore for a gig at the JAM Factory in San Antonio with Deep Purple in 1970?

Christopher Cross: That’s true. Growing up in Austin with the guitarists here like Billy Gibbons and Steve Ray (Vaughan) and Eric Johnson, that was part of my thing but the songwriter thing kind of took over. I was working for this guy named Joe Miller who had this company called JAM Productions. He was a promoter in San Antonio and was bringing a lot of big tours through. He had a thousand seat venue called the JAM Factory and he brought Deep Purple in for their first show ever in the U.S.

The band had been advised to get flu shots and Ritchie (Blackmore) had a bad reaction to the flu shot and got quite ill and couldn’t play the show. The show was sold out and Joe didn’t want to cancel it so he talked to Jon Lord and said, “I’ve got this kid who works for me doing production stuff. He’s a guitarist with a band and he’s a big fan of Ritchie’s. He could sub for Ritchie so you guys could play and not have to cancel the show.” The band discussed it—singer Ian Gillan was not in favor of it–everyone else in the band was all for it, thinking it’s better to play than cancel their very first show.

So basically they announced to the audience that Ritchie was sick but they were still gonna play and me, Chris Geppert, which is my real name, was gonna substitute for Ritchie. I was a local guy, people knew me and I had some respect. I mean, the crowd was clearly disappointed, especially those that were Blackmore fans. But I got up and played with them. I had a Flying V, long hair and a big Marshall stack. I knew a lot of the tunes from the record so we got up and played the tunes that I knew and then we jammed some blues.

Photo: Denis Purcher
Photo: Denis Purcher

It was incredible for me. It was an iconic moment. When they left, I went to the airport and I met Ritchie. He was very gracious and gave me a guitar pick. He said, “I hear you did a real good job covering for me.” I said, “Well, it was an honor.” It was brief but it was nice. What’s really interesting is Eagle Rock Records in Europe who released my last studio album, Doctor Faith, also have Deep Purple on their label.

So I asked the head of the label to ask Jon Lord about this. So he asked Jon about it—he recently passed away—and Jon said, “That never happened.” So the label head said, “Well Christopher said it did.” And he said, “Never happened.” So I started getting freaked out like, “Wow, did I just imagine this whole thing?”

Eric Johnson lives in Austin too and he’s a good friend of mine. His band Mariani opened the show for Deep Purple. I called up Eric and said, “Hey man, did that actually happen?” And he said, “Yeah it happened, I was there, I saw it. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” I told the head of the label, “This is something they want to forget and that I want to remember.”

RCM: You also opened for Led Zeppelin early in their career.

Christopher Cross: I had a band called Flash. We were like Brian Wilson meets Frank Zappa. It was an attempt at complicated pop. I’m a big fan of Frank’s as well as Brian Wilson. Frank covered Ride like the Wind at one of his shows and asked me to sing but I couldn’t make it. I do have a tape of it.

In those days, they would have two acts and a local band playing thirty minutes before those bands went on. So the main acts on the bill were Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. Joe Miller was sort of managing us at the time and gave us the opportunity to open about seven shows for Tull and Zeppelin.  It was really cool. We weren’t very good. The second day we were on the tour Jimmy (Page) and Robert (Plant) came up to me and Jimmy said, “How do you kids follow us around? Do your parents have money or something?” They didn’t realize we were on the show. I said, “We have a band and we’re opening for you.”

And so the next night we’re playing and I look over and there’s Page and Plant standing in the wings watching us. They were only there for a short time; I almost shit my pants when I saw them watching us. As the next week or ten days went on, I spent a little time with the guys in Zeppelin; they were all very nice. I got to watch them play over that period and they were just unbelievable. I’d sit and watch them at sound check too.

(John) Bonham would show up and play for forty five minutes by himself and it was crazy. Jimmy would come up and be warming up and wailin’’ and it was pretty fantastic. Back when my band opened for Zeppelin, they were using these rare Hiwatt amplifiers; no one had them beside Page and (Pete) Townshend. I said to Jimmy, “These amplifiers are really cool and I’ve seen them in magazines but nobody really carries them over here.” He said, “Yeah, they’re made by this guy and right now he only makes them for Pete and I.” I told him, “It’s my dream to have one of those amps! He said, “Well, give some money to my roadie, Clive, and we’ll send you one.”

So I gave Clive seven hundred bucks, which was a lot of money back then. Everybody said that I’d never see my money again. A month or two later, I came home from school and there were these boxes in my living room; it was a 4 by 12 cabinet and a Hiwatt head and they shipped it to me.

So not only was I the coolest guy in town with a Hiwatt amp but I’d gotten it from Jimmy Page.

Years later I came up and played with the Beach Boys at a huge July 4th show in Philadelphia in 1985 and Jimmy Page was a special guest on that show; he also played with The Beach Boys that day. I grabbed him at the show and introduced myself and then he knew me as Christopher Cross. He was very nice. I said, “Let me tell you this story” and he had no recollection of the story but he said, “You know what I love about this story, man? It sounds like I was really nice to you and I haven’t always been the nicest guy.” And I said, “You were incredibly nice to me. You tolerated me. I was like a little puppy snapping at your heels and you were so nice.”

RCM: You also encountered Blind Faith.

Christopher Cross: I didn’t open for Blind Faith but I worked the show. I would go get drinks and pick them up at the airport. I watched Eric Clapton at soundcheck playing his Gibson 335 for thirty or forty minutes, which was great. I was a gopher. Joe (Miller) had me doing anything and everything because I wanted to learn about the business. In fact, I picked up Fleetwood Mac in a station wagon at the airport and drove them to the Holiday Inn; in the band at that time were Peter Green, Christine Perfect, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Jeremy Spencer.  I told Mick this story years later when I was on the road opening for Fleetwood Mac and he was like, “I don’t think so.” I reminded John McVie that the roof leaked in the San Antonio Auditorium on his amp and it blew it up and we had to get him another amp. John said, “You know man, I don’t remember anything about you but I remember that happening when my amp blew up, I remember this gig!” (laughs)

RCM: If you had to pawn every guitar of yours and only keep one, which would you save?

Christopher Cross: Sadly, at one point I had a ’59 Les Paul that I bought in a hock shop and I got to where I was so paranoid to do anything with it that I sold it and I wish I hadn’t. I sold it for thirty thousand dollars and I saw it the other day on eBay for a hundred and ten thousand dollars! (laughs) The one guitar I would never pawn is my Carl Wilson Rickenbacker 12-string. They made them in a limited run of 2500 but when I found out they were all sold, I called one of Carl’s sons, Jonah, and said, “Man, is there any way you can pull any strings and get me that guitar?” They made a call and I was able to buy a black one and it’s amazing. If it wasn’t for Carl’s sons I wouldn’t have it.

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