The Songwriters Hall of Fame and the USC Thornton School of Music were proud to commemorate the one year anniversary of SHOF Master Session at USC Thornton on April 4th. What better way to mark the occasion than with Hall of Famer, Graham Nash. Presented to a capacity audience of USC Thornton student musicians, Vice Dean of Division of Contemporary Music, Founding Director of Popular Music Program, Chris Sampson, moderated the Master Session and co-hosted the event along with SHOF Board Member Mary Jo Mennella and West Coast Projects Committee Members Barbara Cane and Tom DeSavia.
With timeless songs such as “Our House,” “Teach Your Children” and “Immigration Man” among many others, the students were eager to hear Graham’s insights into the art and craft of songwriting.
“It’s funny,” said Graham jumping right into the deep-end of the conversation, “we’re here to talk about songwriting, but I don’t know how it happens.” Turning to the audience he asks, “Can you tell me? It’s nothing short of magic. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s this very natural thing that just happens.” It was this sense of humility, love of music and gratitude from Graham that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Graham would have never imagined that his upbringing in post-war northern England would have led to where he is now. “People didn’t leave there, you know,” he explained, “it was expected that you fall into the same miserable jobs as your parents.” Much later as an adult, Graham found out the truth about why his parents supported his music. “My mother explained that she had dreams of becoming a singer and performing around the world. But, once she got married and had children, that simply wasn’t going to happen. She told me she lived the life she wanted through me.” Graham continued with the touching story of how he spread a few of his mother’s ashes on the stage of Carnegie Hall during a performance not only as gesture to thank her for her support, but to also let her have a moment on one of the world’s greatest stages.
When asked about his early influences, Graham talked with reverence about the Everly Brothers. “I heard ‘Bye Bye Love’ and it stopped me in my tracks, ” he said. Phil and Don Everly’s influence went beyond their tight harmonies, but also how they interacted with fans made a lasting impression on Graham. “I’ll never forget how they talked to me and Allan Clarke when we were just their fans,” said Graham. “After that experience, I promised myself that I would always take the time to meet and talk with my fans.”
Graham and his childhood friend, Allan Clarke, took their mutual admiration for the Everly Brothers and went on to form their own group which eventually became The Hollies. The Hollies had over 30 songs to hit the charts. “We knew how to write a hit song,” said Graham. “And, Allan and I simply knew how to create harmonies together. We knew exactly where the other was going with the melody and how the harmony would work together.”
While the Hollies were enjoying success, Graham started to see even greater possibilities for his songwriting. “There’s just so much more that you could do instead of the usual moon and June rhymes and ‘the guy meets girl in the school yard’ lyrics,” said Graham. Helping to shape Graham’s new ideas about songwriting was the exciting Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene of the late 60’s in Los Angeles led by none other than Stephen Stills and David Crosby.
Not only was the songwriting from Crosby and Stills new, but the harmonies offered even greater possibilities. “There were plenty of groups with two-part harmonies, but when the three of us sang together, we instantly knew that this was something that people hadn’t heard before,” said Graham.
Graham further explained that Crosby, Stills & Nash didn’t generally collaborate on their songwriting. Rather, each of them brought in their own individual songs as part of the record. “We had a rule,” he explained. “That if you brought in a song and it didn’t move the other guys, it was out.” He went on say that you can usually tell who wrote the song by who is singing the melody.
With Stills recording much of the instrumental tracks, the debut Crosby, Stills & Nash was a landmark record. But, Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, thought the group needed something else and made the somewhat audacious suggestion to bring Neil Young into the band. “I didn’t want Neil Young in the band,” said Graham. “But after Ahmet insisted we meet, we had breakfast and knew in 5 minutes it was right.”
Graham gave insight into the challenges of being a super group like CSNY. That initial magic of their debut record was difficult to replicate in the follow-up, Déjà Vu. “We were all in very difficult times of our lives personally and that came through while creating that record,” said Graham.
When asked if music and songs have the power to change the world, without hesitation Graham gave a resounding “yes.” It’s clear that he lives by this ideal by writing song after song dealing with social justice, performing countless benefit concerts for important causes and even being present at the collapse of the Berlin wall.
Graham concluded the class, once again, with a sense of wonderment about songwriting. “Somewhere in the world right now, someone is writing the next #1 song. It could be you or me. In fact, it could be someone in the class right here.”
But, Graham’s remarkable generosity continued beyond the time allotted for the interview as he brought complimentary copies of his memoir, Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life for the entire class. Graham stayed almost a full hour after class to autograph each copy and take pictures with all the students staying true to his word that he would always make time for fans. Once again, the SHOF Master Sessions at USC Thornton was something the students won’t soon forget.