Creating His Own Legacy: Exclusive Interview with Musician A.J. Croce
Photo by Karan Simpson
Not many artists have the opportunity to begin their career at the age of 18, specifically as the opening act for the brilliant blues singer, B.B. King. That was just the beginning for singer-songwriter A.J. Croce.
Although subjected to a lifetime of comparison to his late father, guitarist and singer-songwriter Jim Croce, A.J. has taken his story and created his own legacy throughout his musical career. His last eight albums have charted 17 Top 20 singles including Top 40, Americana, Independent, and Blues and Jazz.
As a virtuoso piano player, A.J. puts on a high-energy performance, clearly demonstrating not only his passion, but also his commitment to his audience. Over his 20-year career, he’s shared the stage with countless musicians from Lyle Lovett to Ray Charles, Lenny Kravitz to Morphine, and Rod Stewart to Dave Matthews.
“The thing that’s most surprising, is that it’s so high energy, I think what people come away with every time is that they are really amazed at the piano playing and always surprised at how much energy I put into a concert … I’ve spent my life performing and so if I didn’t do it well, I’d be doing the wrong thing.” – A.J. Croce
Releasing his ninth album, A.J. takes to the set list and gives a soul enticing album filled with his experiences and lifes challenges through the years in Just Like Medicine. The album, co-written by Dan Penn, includes the track, “The Name of the Game,” which is an unreleased song by his father.
Don’t miss the opportunity to hear an album solely recorded on tape as Just Like Medicine releases on Friday, August 11th.
Catch A.J. Croce with alternative country singer-songwriter, Robbie Fulks, on Friday, August 18th, 8 p.m. at Rams Head On Stage. Tickets are $22.50 and the event is 21 and over.
At what age did you decide that music was something you wanted to pursue? Was your dad a big influencer in the decision to play music?
I think it was pretty clear. There was this one moment when I played at a party and got paid $20 at 12 years old. I thought if I kept practicing and playing that I was going to be able to do this for a living. I didn’t really think of it as being famous. I was actually thinking about it this morning, That the idea of releasing something solely so it could be successful has never crossed my mind. It was a matter of enjoying the work, loving what I do, and thinking of it as a serious career. I can’t imagine that I would ever do anything else.
Ray Charles was a bigger influence. I think my dad did to a certain element, but I’m a fifth-generation musician. It wasn’t until I got a few years older that I had this perspective and realized people wanted me to be a carbon copy of him and in some respect, at that point I really rejected any aspect of it.
I never really dedicated myself to the guitar until I was in my 30s and really had felt I had an identity of my own. I had success with songs in charts and had done my own thing. I didn’t feel the pressure any longer. I let it go and enjoyed grabbing a song from my dad and putting it into a show if it felt fun or if I wanted to. Early on, I never really talked about it in interviews. I lost opportunities and money by choosing to do it that way, but I don’t regret it.
What was the experience like to work with such big names in the music industry at such a young age? Who has been your favorite artist to work with?
First off, I couldn’t believe it was really happening. When I was 18, B.B. King called me up and asked if I would go out on tour with him, open up and sit in on a song or two, and that was only the beginning, before I was signed, before anything.
I’ve been able to work with so many different people and every record has had different people involved, who made an impact on me. Every project is kind of its own thing and they kind of have a life of their own. You live and breathe this kind of music and life all together for a period of time, then everyone goes out and does their own thing.
It’s kind of hard to say one person. Early on, the first person that came in and started to work with me was a guy named Greg Cohen. The two of us got together to record my 1st record. I had found this guy that was doing it because of music, not any other reason. The record ended up being a little too weird for the label so they put me with someone else, who had that same spirit. John Simon had the same contemporary view of music, so they put T Bone Burnett and Simon together to produce my first record.
Tell me a little more about your newest album, Just Like Medicine, and what type of songs fans can expect to hear from it? How would you say this album differs from any of your previous albums?
I think style wise it’s pretty diverse. I touch on a lot of different things. The basic idea is it’s a soul inspired album. I was not aiming to copy or cover Motown classics, I was aiming to write the best songs I could and put them together. I realized I had this common thing about them, each song had a soulfulness about it. Dan Penn and I co–wrote, “The Other Side of Love,” and after that, I brought in another song. “Just Like Medicine,” which is the last song on the album.
Everything in the session was mono and recorded on tape. We did it not for it to sound like a vintage record, but because the old gear and mono stuff sound so good on modern devices. Every record has a unique story behind it and there are a lot of different stories on this record. Life changes, you get older, and you experience new things. Hopefully you grow and each time you go to express yourself, you find a slightly different way of doing it. With this one, I felt like I had gone through a bunch of different, challenging experiences in the last few years and I really felt like the album showed all of those life experiences.
Although all songs on the album are written with personal experience, which track would you say hits home the most and why?
For me it’s, “Just Like Medicine.” It’s really lyrically what the record is about in one song. It defines it for me. I don’t know what defines it for you or for someone else. I think that’s as simply as I can say it. It’s so clear and so concise. I’m not using a metaphor to explain anything, I’m speaking literally.
Where did the interest in the piano develop and can you tell me what the songwriting process is like for you?
We had an upright piano in our house and a grand piano later on. When I was a little kid, my grandmother had one and I would always play it before I could even walk. I was attracted to it and it made sense, so I studied it in my own way.
I couldn’t see when I was younger, so I learned to play by ear and recording and listening to my transistor radio. I would play along to the Top 40 radio and I really dug that. I had lessons from different kinds of people. Some were about theory, some were about soloing, and some were about chord construction.
Song writing to be most effective needs to be simple and about one simple topic. When you start to complicit the story, or put more facets to it, you really lose the strength and potency of it.
Whether its finding a line that resonates, a hook, or chorus that sings well, simplicity is really the most important facet in constructing a modern piece of music. It’s very different than my approach to the piano where I tackle really complicated pieces of music and then deconstruct them. I find ways to incorporate all kinds of scales and ideas when I’m putting things together, drawing from a lot of inspirations.
Being a part of the music industry for such a long time, how would you say you’ve developed not only as an artist, but as a person? Looking back, did you ever picture yourself in the position you are now?
It’s kind of ironic because with music there’s one facet that hasn’t changed. You write songs, you record songs, and you go on tour. That’s kind of been the same pattern through my whole career. Although right now, what I’m finding also changed a lot because there was a facet in my career that totally altered everything. I started as a major label act, label got folded into another, I left the label, and the same day got a call from another label, but from that moment on I saw the difference between a major label, marketing, PR, radio, and Indi.
And now-a-days, even major labels are working with that kind of budget. Back then, it was so different. Through my career I’ve seen that change where it’s the people deciding what they like and in a week, someone they never heard of could fill as many records as The Beatles through YouTube. Anything is possible. I can post it from my studio room or wherever and it has the potential to be heard by any number of people. That wasn’t the case even a few years ago. The dynamics have changed so greatly.
I feel with this record, I felt old for the first time. I felt like there’s a lot of content required to be a musician now when before my job was to write songs and perform them. Whether in a studio or on stage. Now, my job is that, but it’s also that I need to be creating regular content all the time, aware of social media, and that’s not second nature to me.
I didn’t grow up with that. I really am lucky that I have a lot of people around me that are younger and good at it and some older that have adapted to it.
What can fans expect when they come to one of your performances?
The thing that’s most surprising, is that it’s so high energy, I think what people come away with every time is that they are really amazed at the piano playing and always surprised at how much energy I put into a concert.
There’s a small percentage of audience that comes out of curiosity because of my father, but that’s slowed down over the years. They leave going “Wow this is something I didn’t expect, I had no idea.” I’ve spent my life performing and so if I didn’t do it well, I’d be doing the wrong thing.