At 12, he got his first paying gig. By 16, he was a regular in San Diego nightclubs. At 19, he was a recording artist. He's written songs with some of the best around, people like Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie. He's shared the stage with Dave Matthews, Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz, Ray Charles, James Brown and Lyle Lovett. These days he owns his own record company, Seedling Records. We are talking of course about Mr. A. J. Croce.
Q - When I turn on the award shows on TV, whether it's the American Music Awards, or Billboard, or MTV, it seems like you have to be either Taylor Swift or some kind of a Rap artist. With that in mind, where does A. J. Croce fit in today's music business?
A - Well, (laughs), that's a really good question. It's hard to say. It's a bigger business than it might seem in some ways and smaller in others. I think there's still a lot of really good music that's being made that pays tribute to old Folk, old Rock 'n' Roll, old Blues, old Jazz, Classic R&B and Soul. It's all out there. There's a lot of great, new stuff as well. I probably fit in there somewhere between Fabolous and Ludacris.
Q - I don't understand.
A - I'm just kidding. The first time I had a Top 40 single, I ended up between two Rap artists. One was Fabolous and one was Ludacris. (laughs) When you ask where I fit in, that's where. But I have a single on the charts right now and it's a pretty Classic Rock 'n' Roll kind of song. It's all 'live'. What you're hearing is a real performance. I'm playing Fender Rhodes on it. Usually I'm playing piano or organ or guitar. So, it was to play a different instrument. It's sort of reminiscent of a lot Classic Rock 'n' Roll. So, the people who are listening to the new Clapton album are listening to it. I think people who are listening to Alabama Shakes are listening to it. I think people who are listening to all kinds of new, organic music, Iron And Wine, would listen to it. I think people who are fans of classic music are gonna gravitate towards what I'm doing. I really feel honestly like I've tried to find a balance between all of the music that I love and still try to create something original It's somewhere between Ray Charles and Ray Davies. It's somewhere between Van Morrison and Van Dyke Parks, Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello. I mix up a lot of different kinds of music 'cause I love music so much.
Q - You've got your own record company.
A - I do.
Q - Isn't that an additional headache for you to run a record company?
A - Yes.
Q - Well, why'd you do it?
A - The last two companies I was with; I sort of found with the first company I was with where the money was going, how the money was spent, why it was being spent, what the return was from it, what the benefit was from spending here or the downside of investing in that. I had a pretty good sense of the business side of it and ended up on the last two labels that I was signed to in a situation where I recognized the value of certain songs they didn't see the value of, put my own money behind the singles and in both cases got on the charts with those singles. They were different charts. One was more of a Triple-A thing and the other thing was a college music thing, but regardless of the charts, I just had a sense that there was an audience somewhere for the music. I was sort of being courted by one of the majors around 2003 and I was in the process of recording my first record I was producing. It was the first time I had a real say in the outcome of it. While I was being courted by this major, it sounded great on paper. In theory it would've been great. I got a call from the guys over at Redeye and they had just started up and said, "We'll help you set up your label. We'll give you distribution and help you on the marketing side of things and let's see if it works." It sounded perfect because I knew where I wanted to go with it, knew what I wanted to do and I really had a say in where the budget was spent. And so, from then on that's how it was. With the projects I'm doing right now, it's a little different. I would definitely like to get someone to help out 'cause I'm so busy with different kinds of things. I've been working a lot with Leon Russell and writing a book. I'm in the process of doing this record "Twelve Tales", which is really complicated to orchestrate. I'm recording twelve songs, twelve tales with different producers all over the country and then I am releasing one single a month. It started in January (2013) and so each producer is doing two songs so it's like a 45. So, the first producer was "Cowboy" Jack Clement, and that was in Nashville. And so that was really cool. The next one was Kevin Killen and Kevin works with all kinds of musicians. He's an Irish producer, but his band is in New York. So, I went from Nashville to New York, actually recorded in Connecticut, in Stamford. Then I worked with one of my heroes, Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, and so that accounts for the six releases that are out. It's been a real sort of odyssey. It's been a logistical challenge to put all this stuff together. So in this particular case, I would love to have a label help out because once this sort of grass roots campaign is over that I've done, and it will have been over a year of doing that in December (2013), then I'll be on to the next project and I'll be touring for "Twelve Tales" and I'll be promoting it and it'll come out in the beginning of the year, maybe even December, depending on how things go. It's one of those times when I could really use the hand of a team of good people that could help out and Seedling is my label. It's sort of a one man operation. People bring people in as needed, but in most cases I do most of the work.
Q - What difference does it make if you use a famous producer like Jack Clement with all his credits or if you use an unknown producer? Are you hoping that Jack Clement will do for you what he did for Elvis or Johnny Cash?
A - I'm not looking at raising some sort of celebrity status from it. Quite the contrary. What I'm looking for is to capture some of the sound that is natural to them, something that they create naturally and would be able to create for me. I'm giving them twenty songs that they can choose from to be able to produce. Now, if I went to a different producer, it would sound totally different.
Q - Jack Clement can't make you sound like Elvis. So, when you get right down to it, what can Jack Clement do for you?
A - He can do a lot. The selection of the song. It would be something that he would produce, the sound that's on the vocals, the sound that's on the guitars or the rhythm on the band or the way the song is approached, whether it goes to a bridge or not, all those different aspects of the way it sounds define a producer. That stuff on Sun (Records) sounded really similar. It didn't matter whether it was Jerry Lee (Lewis) or Elvis or Carl Perkins or Roy Orbison, and they're really uniquely different in their own way, as is Johnny Cash. They're all unique artists. When you listen to the records, they have something in common. That thing they have in common is what I was going for, not too Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley. That would be impossible, but I could go to the source to try and capture a certain sound. And that's really where it's coming from. Same thing with Allen Toussaint. He's such a gifted musician and arranger that you might get I suppose a more clear picture of a producer in some cases than an engineer.
Q - So many people I've interviewed know what they want before they enter the recording studio. That's why I ask.
A - I didn't want that. I produced my last three records. I wanted to go in there and give them free reign. You pick the song, tell me what you want me to do. I want to put myself in your hands and I want to see what I end up with. I want to take a chance here. I want to experiment musically. I want to try something that's outside of my comfort zone maybe. And so, it created that opportunity.
Q - Now, when I think of a record company, I think of a building with a name on the front of the building. You walk in the door and there's a secretary sitting behind a desk and there's studios in back. Do you have such a thing or is Seedling Records in name only?
A - Well, it is in name only. I do have a studio, but like a lot of independent companies, a lot of independent labels, they're run from the laptop of the person who owns the company. That's the way it's done now. People go in and record a song in New Orleans, have it mixed and then mastered in Los Angeles and then uploaded onto i-Tunes in a matter of two days. That wasn't a feasible thing. I can do it from any location I'm at. So, the technology has allowed that to happen. In the past, that would never have been possible. But people buy records, I think, as an impulse buy. They're at the counter at Starbucks or if they're at Bed, Bath And Beyond. There has to be some catch to it nowadays for people to buy records. People buy vinyl still because they realize it is great and there's some value to holding this item.
Q - Do you like vinyl?
A - I've always loved vinyl. I've always bought vinyl. I've been a 78 collector since I was 15.
Q - You've opened for people like Rod Stewart and James Brown.
A - Yeah.
Q - How did the audiences of those people treat you?
A - Really well. Really, really well. But my music falls in between the cracks, so there's a lot of stuff that I do that an R&B audience is gonna dig. I opened for Ray Charles and Aretha and all kinds of R&B artists. My first break came with B.B. King and so I started off playing Blues music and Jazz and R&B stuff when I was a kid. I feel at home with that audience. When I was a kid, that was the music that I loved, Soul music.
Q - When you're performing, is it just you? Do you have your own band?
A - It just depends on the show. Sometimes I'm playing piano and guitar. Just me. Sometimes it's a duo with another person that plays guitar and bass. We'll do whatever we can. All kinds of different stuff. Sometimes it's a full band. So, the next thing I'm doing is I'm playing with Willie Nelson and Leon Russell and Joe Ely in Texas. I'm just playing solo and fitting in. In that case it's just playing on a grand piano and that was it. Now playing on the Rod Stewart show, it wasn't just Rod Stewart, it was also Santana and Jeff Beck on the bill. So, we did a West Coast run like that. I'll be honest, that was a little scary at certain places because there were so many people. On those, I was playing solo. There's something about being onstage alone in front of 20,000 some odd people. With Ray Charles I was on with the full band, a seven piece. One of the guys in my band had played with Ray for eight or nine years and so there was a good camaraderie backstage and on the shows we did together.
Q - Are you ever nervous or intimidated when you sit down with Willie Nelson or Leon Russell to write a song?
A - Not at all. I don't say it out of arrogance, but it's just a song and no one needs to hear it. If it turns out to be terrible, so be it. It's like a song. It's an exercise. If what we create ends up being cool, great! That would be great. And if what we create isn't, then it doesn't need to go beyond those four walls. When I was 18 I met Jack Clement for the first time and "Cowboy (Jack Clement) gave this list of songwriter's tips. He's written so many great songs. One of the things on there was write the worst song you can followed by the best song you can. I really took it to heart, because it's more about the exercise of writing than it is about concerning yourself with whether you're writing a masterpiece. I just try and make it an exercise that I do as often as possible.
Q - You say, "I'm always trying to write a supremely simple song that can be soulful, thoughtful and melodic."
A - That's right.
Q - You know, I think I know somebody that wrote just like that. That somebody was your father.
A - (Laughs)
Q - "Operator", "Time In A Bottle". What more can I say?
A - Right. Definitely. If you follow that quote, finding balance is really challenging because one becomes dominant. In "Time In A Bottle", the melody becomes dominant. As it does in "Operator". It becomes melodically dominant, whereas with another song of his like "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", the groove of it becomes more dominant. That sort of Lieber and Stoller feel, that R&B feel.
Q - Don't forget, the words were always great. He told a story with his words.
A - The words were always great. His ability to tell a story at such a young age still amazes me. And I'll be honest, I was listening to a bunch of his stuff about ten years ago, maybe a little bit more now, and I was transferring those home tapes from tape to digital, to preserve it another five years. (Laughs). I heard in his music, his older stuff, the stuff he did with my mom, it was really directly derivative of his influences. He really wore his influences on his sleeve on those recordings. You can hear the Folk music and you can hear where it's coming from. It's not super original. A lot of the tapes that we had of him at the house were, and there's 200 of 'em, are of him playing other people's songs or writing stuff. This one tape I came to was just him performing a common Folk song that you've heard before and all of a sudden he starts writing "Time In A Bottle". It's like overnight there's this identity. It was like out of the blue this is the song that really not only did it define him, even though it didn't become popular until after he died, it really defined him in another way as a truly great writer. It was a song that really cemented one facet of his identity and you hear it in the writing of this song. Whether it's so much better than the song before it or whether it's so much better than anything else is hard to say. But I would say confidently that it was the tune that defined his identity as a great writer.