I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing A.J. Croce, son of the legendary singer-songwriter, Jim Croce, who passed away in 1973, at 30 years old. It was in the last 18 months of his life that he was a full-time musician and recorded three albums that remain as iconic now as they were half a century ago. With this year marking the 50th Anniversary of the release of Jim Croce’s album, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, A.J. will be touring throughout the year and performing his tribute to his father and the music that connects them with Croce Plays Croce.
Interview and photographs by Rebecca Wolf. See review of A.J. Croce performance and more photographs here.
RW: With kicking off the 50th Anniversary celebration this month of You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, are you glad to be back on the road more in 2022?
AJ: I am. You know I started back last year and everything opened very slowly. Every city was different. The rules were different. It was a little challenging. Now it seems like in the last month or so things have opened up considerably. It’s been a lot more like it was before. I’m loving it and with the 50th Anniversary it’s just been amazing how many people are into it and are excited about the new release. It’s also interesting because with this particular thing I’ve been involved with the business side of it and the creative side and then performing the show in the fall. It’s been really exciting.
RW: How long ago did you start performing the Croce Plays Croce shows?
AJ: It was a few years ago. I sort of needed to get to a place as an artist in my own right where I felt really comfortable with it, and also as a guitar player because I’m a piano player first and foremost. The real thing about the show is about the connection I found between my father, myself and the music we have in common, which is what the Croce Plays Croce show is really based on. I was in my early 30s, 20 years ago or so, and I was transferring all of these home tapes of my father. He had a very short career and before he could make a living playing music he was recording songs that he would play on Friday or Saturday nights in a local club outside of Philly. There was one particular tape I listened to and there were all these songs that I had performed since I was probably 12, 13, 15 years old. One of the songs on there was a song I played on the first demo I did for Columbia Records when I was 18, and it was eerie. It was these really obscure artists and then some of their more obscure songs. So, it wasn’t as if it was an obvious choice of covers by any means, not for me, not for him. So, I realized that we had this connection that was so much deeper than I’d ever thought. That was sort of the beginning of how the Croce Plays Croce concerts came about.
RW: Does it feel differently for you performing shows that include his music as compared to those that are just your own?
AJ: Oh yeah, of course. You know, the audiences are different and their expectations are different. But, it is really fun and it’s surprisingly a really energetic, uptempo concert. Some people might think it’s mostly ballads but it’s really not. It’s all kinds of stuff. While he only recorded 3 albums, and we draw from those and the big songs on them, we have 30 years of my catalog to work from, and of course thousands of songs that influenced both of us, hundreds of artists and all kinds of music, from jazz to blues to country to rock and roll. There’s all kinds of things to draw from. So, it’s really fun.
RW: How comfortable do you now feel on guitar?
AJ: I feel good. It’s really fun. It’s really interesting. When I first started playing, it was really just for the sake of songwriting. I knew so many options when I was looking at the keyboard, but it was the opposite on the fretboard. I knew 5 or 6 chords but I wrote a song and it went to the Top 40. I kept things really simple and had success with it and then I thought, “Well, I shouldn’t really push myself to learn any more on this instrument. It’s done me right.” But of course, as soon as I really got into playing the instrument….I’m still waiting for the fretboard to look like the keyboard. It’s getting closer all the time and I practice everyday, of course, but I’m behind a few decades! I do my best but I love playing the show and I feel very confident playing all this material.
RW: When you first started playing your dad’s songs did you feel any external or internal pressure to sound like him?
AJ: I suppose on one level. I wasn’t really looking to sound like him. I wasn’t trying to do an impersonation. I was going to be myself doing his material. Plus, I’m 20 years older than him at this point. I was looking to be able to pay tribute to his legacy. That was the pressure that I felt, to do a good job representing his legacy.
RW: And you have! Now that you’ve earned a lot of accolades for your own music and built a strong fan base over the years, do you feel a sense of confidence in your own music that’s apart from your father?
AJ: Absolutely. I wouldn’t have taken this on if I hadn’t felt that in the first place and it took having both some critical and commercial success with things that allowed me to feel like I’m doing this with integrity. I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing it because I love what he did and we have this connection that’s a part of me.
RW: Your most recent album, By Request, did you finish recording it prior to the pandemic?
AJ: Yes, right before lockdown it was finished being mixed. It was supposed to come out in 2020 in the spring but there was no way to tour it so we waited until last year. Surprisingly, it did really well. I was especially surprised because it was hard to promote in a more traditional fashion and also because I had never done an album of covers before. The songs that I chose were based on evenings that I had spent at my place entertaining with friends and I wanted to invite the audience into my home and to be a part of me in a sense. Little did I know when I was recording it that it would resonate because people hadn’t been able to hang out and to do that kind of socializing in a year at that point. So, it was just good timing. I think I was lucky.
RW: You’re right. None of us had any opportunity for getting out and listening to music during that time.
AJ: Yeah, it was tough. The pandemic was terrible but lockdown was wonderful in a lot of ways creatively for me.
RW: So what did you do during that time?
AJ: I was able to practice things and write and experiment in ways I never had time for. Since I was 19 years old, and signed, and recording, it was sort of a cycle of writing, recording and touring. And, it was really wonderful…it was the first time since I was really 15, that I had a chance to work on things that I wasn’t trying to learn or practice for a show or an album. It was purely for the sake of experimentation and learning and well, it was the most expensive vacation of probably everyone’s life. It was really wonderful.
RW: One of the things I love is how eclectic you are with all of your music and that all of your albums have a very different sound. So, I was wondering, when you begin a new album, do you say to yourself, “This is going to be a blues album. This is going to be a rock album?” Or, do you see what songs come out?
AJ: It’s interesting that you ask because it’s usually a mix of a lot of things, but albums usually come in threes for me. There’s the first three albums that have a lot in common and they are living in the same world, even though the first one is a bit more jazz influenced, the second one has a bit of a Stonesy, Van Morrison feel to it, and the last one has a Memphis thing that takes it slightly in a different place. It was sort of like that in the 2000s with the three albums I did there. And, I just felt like that with the last three, with Twelve Tales, Just Like Medicine and By Request. They kind of fall into a similar world musically even though I touch on a lot of different genres. They’re kind of living in the same world. So, the next one is not going to be a great departure. I’m working on two projects at the moment and because I’ve had all this time I have a lot of material. So, I’m sort of picking and choosing and figuring out how the music I’ve been able to learn and write fits in. Obviously, I don’t want to alienate the audience but I hope they’ll join me on my musical expeditions.
RW: It seems like most of your fans have. You have a big fan base so it seems like most have been going along with you.
AJ: So far, so good. There’s been ups and downs….like everything.
RW: I think in that vein, what I’ve found listening to your music is when you change genres it sounds to me like your voice changes along with the different types of music you sing. You seem able to change the tone of your voice or the sound of your voice to go along with the different genre.
AJ: You know, my voice is the thing I’m least secure about as an artist. I’ve become more secure as I’ve gotten older but I had voice problems after my first three albums and had to learn how to sing again…really for the first time because I never took singing lessons. I’d been on tour for ten years and had nodes on my vocal cords and so starting on the forth or fifth album I felt kind of naked because I wasn’t really familiar with my range and what I was capable of singing. As I’ve gotten older, being 50, and feeling what’s right for the song, what sounds right, and what feels right, I just want it to be natural.
RW: I think it’s great that you sound different for everything. It’s like you pick a certain for voice for a certain type of song.
AJ: You know, the key makes a big difference and sometimes the song is supposed to be in a certain key and I have to sing in that key, which might not be as comfortable for me but putting that pressure on me is good. Something comes out of it. There’s a vulnerability that comes out of that.
RW: When you are writing do you typically write the music first or the lyrics?
AJ: It’s different all the time. Sometimes it’s a riff that starts it. Sometimes it’s a melody. Sometimes there will be or an expression or a phrase. Titles of songs or choruses of songs are generally a twist on an expression or an expression or a cliche that you know, and how you make it original. I remember being about 18 years old and I was playing a show, and I was walking down the hall with Sammy Cahn, a legendary American songwriter, and I said, “Do you ever feel like you are writing the same song again and again? And he said, “No, never.” And I said, “Really? Why?” And he said, “It’s because it’s the little things, the smallest details, it’s that minor chord or that passing chord that you play that makes it unique and special.” From that time on, whether I was recording my own music or writing my own music or playing with someone else I was always very aware of the thing that made that song unique.
RW: I know when you first started playing piano you didn’t have your vision. So, you must have taught yourself to play by ear. Do you still play by ear? Do you read music?
AJ: I can read but unfortunately the distance of the music stand on a piano is just out of the range of reading glasses, so it’s still a bit of a challenge. So, generally I read charts and I’ll write them if I’m playing for someone else. I’ll write out the charts. I have a good ear so I can hear what’s going on.
RW: Is there any genre of music you haven’t either tried yet or that you still want to delve into?
AJ: Always. Yeah, one of the projects I’m doing, and I don’t know if it’s the next or the one after, is a project I’ve been working on for about 8 years that’s based on origin stories. It deals with these musical and lyrical stories from different perspectives of the idea of the origin of humanity. So, it deals with mythology, history, science, religion and all of this folklore that goes along with it. In doing that, especially during lockdown, I was able to experiment with world music in a way that I just didn’t ever have the time before, to learn those Indian scales, African scales, Middle Eastern scales, Latin stuff that I hadn’t tried….whether it was from Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico or wherever. So, there’s a lot of world music I’d love to dive into and incorporate into what I already do. But then, I’ve also recreated loops for hip-hop records. I think that’s really fun and unique and something I’d like to pursue. I’ve done electronica music, eurodance stuff, and that was also really fun. You can’t really judge a genre until you try and play it and if you have a good producer that you’re working with, who knows what they want, you can play it and learn a great deal.
RW: So, are there any artists that you’d like to work with that you haven’t worked with?
AJ: Oh my goodness, there are so many. I couldn’t even begin to make a list. There’s so many different kinds of artists that I’m inspired by. Most of the music I listen to generally is old but there are plenty of contemporary artists that I love.
RW: Since you live in Nashville, there are a lot of shows that come through town. Are there people you go to see as a patron?
AJ: There’s actually a Monday night show with a lot of great musicians, most of them are studio players…it’s the Time Jumpers on Monday nights. I’ve been traveling so much lately that it’s been hard to go out and I’ve not felt super comfortable going to shows in the last 18 months or 2 years. But, I do love that because the musicianship is amazing. It’s a western swing group but great jazz players, great country players and they always have a second set where people come and sit in. It could be Joe Walsh; it could be Dolly Parton; it could be anyone and you never know who it is. Or, it could be me.