For his eighth studio album, Twelve Tales, A.J. Croce (son of legendary songwriter Jim Croce) took on a recording approach that was ambitious, if not downright challenging.
Recorded with a multitude of legendary producers across a variety of American cities, the songs represent a patchwork of styles and influences, making Twelve Tails a sharply written and effortlessly performed blend of Americana and folk rock.
Among the A-list team of producers is "Cowboy" Jack Clement (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash), Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel), Allen Toussaint (Dr. John, Paul McCartney), Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Los Lobos), Tony Berg (Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan), and Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, John Zorn).
Croce also collaborated with Leon Russell for the song “Rollin’ On.”
The album-making process took Croce across the far reaches of the US; from New York to Nashville, and from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The result is “like a cohesive collection of six 45's,” suggests Croce.
Below, we sit down with A.J. Croce to discuss Twelve Tails, his songwriting process, gear and more.
To record Twelve Tales, you traveled across the country and worked with six separate producers – a pretty nontraditional approach for today's standards. How did this process help to shape the record?
Each producer brought a different talent and approach. The common thread between them all (beside me) was that all of them pursue new and creative ways to recording and always remain open minded. There is almost always an unexpected aspect in a session and all of these producers embrace the happy accident, be it a change of arrangement, key change or tempo change. Sometimes I'd switch instruments and that would turn a song upside down.
Check out the music video for “Right on Time” from Twelve Tails below:
How did you determine the songs each producer would work on?
I didn't choose the songs for Twelve Tales, the producers did. I sent between 15 and 20 raw iPhone demos to each producer and they chose their favorite. As two songs got recorded, I'd write two more so that everyone had a lot to choose from.
Tell us about the tune “Rollin’ On” which you wrote with Leon Russell. How did that collaboration come about?
I've opened for Leon over the years and we sort of bonded over old rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and gospel music about 10 years back on Willie's bus. I got a call that Leon wanted to write, so I wrote the music and chorus to “Rollin' On” in a sort of carny-inspired style and emailed it to Leon.
About an hour later I got five or six verses to choose from. The next day we did it again with a new song. I honestly didn't think it would end up on this album, but Allen Toussaint chose it and I couldn't argue with recording a song that two of my musical heroes were involved in. I work hard everyday on music but few things beat good luck.
Can you describe your typical songwriting process?
It's usually a simple process; I pick up an instrument and play. I think about what story the music is telling and write the lyrics. There is an editing process, if I like the song, I try it out live, and if the audience likes it then it gets recorded.
A small percentage of the songs I write ever get heard, and fewer get recorded. Even fewer make it on an album. I find that there are certain stories that I try to tell in a song and it may take many variations before I'm really satisfied. On the other hand, a fully formed song can appear from the ether in 20 minutes without the need for a single change.
We'd love to hear about your acoustic guitar. It originally belonged to your father, right?
"The Acoustic" is a 1933 Gibson LO that my father acquired in a trade for a banjo in the early ‘60s. It's a 14 fret model. He changed the tuners to Grovers but otherwise it's all original. It has a V neck that feels perfect and is completely even both volume and tuning-wise up the neck.
I have a couple friends (Joe Henry and Val McCallum in particular) who, like myself are freaks for this year and model. I have many beautiful instruments but this is without a doubt my favorite guitar in the world. My dad gave it to my mom around 1967, though he continued to write on it and record all his songs on it. Most of the first two albums were written on this guitar, including the songs “Time In A Bottle,” “Operator,” “Leroy Brown” and “Don't Mess Around with Jim.”
This guitar is light and incredibly balanced. My friend Bill Lloyd was helping to curate the instruments at the Country Music Hall Of Fame when I lived in Nashville. He came by one day, picked it up and said it was the most balanced instrument he'd ever held, that it felt like it was floating.
I've played it on my last few albums, and you can hear it well on "What Is Love" from Twelve Tales.
What’s in store for your for the rest of 2014?
With the release of Twelve Tales, I'll be touring though most of the year. That said I'm looking forward to a lot of new creative adventures, writing songs, recording for other people's projects and producing music. I can't wait for whatever comes next.
Keep up with A.J. Croce at AJCroceMusic.com.