Singer-songwriter A.J. Croce's music pulls from a number of influences (blues, jazz, soul, folk) and experiences. Like how he was introduced to the songs of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder as a child after he lost his sight to a tumor (he's since regained vision in one eye). Like how his vocal style and sense of melody is uniquely his own and yet also recalls the distinctive post-folk of another Croce: Jim. A.J. is Jim's son, though the elder Croce died when the younger was just two years old.
While there are some similarities between A.J.'s songs and his dad's, A.J.'s trajectory has been different. He was performing regularly by age 16 and has, to date, released eight albums. In 2003, A.J. launched independent label Seedling Records. He's currently at work on a next project — a collaborative album with a different producer for each song. To record, A.J. plans to travel to various points around the U.S. to meet with these producers, and he'll go on brief regional tours near each recording local.
In advance of his Saturday, Nov. 17, performance at The Altamont Theatre (8 p.m., $15), A.J. spoke to Xpress about his 2013 album-in-the-works, the art of collaboration, the importance of place in the recording process and what to expect from his live show.
Mountain Xpress: Why do this tour of the Southeast?
A.J. Croce: People want to see me, is the easy answer, so I have to go to them. The real situation at the moment is that, besides touring, I'm also recording. I'm recording with different producers in different cities, wherever they work and wherever they're comfortable working. We'll release one song a month on iTunes and at the end of the year, we'll release a whole album.
So far I've worked with Jack Clement [aka "Cowboy"] in Nashville and we did two songs together. Next is Allen Toussaint in New Orleans. I'm not sure who after that. There's a lot of amazing people on the list: Todd Rundgren, I'm going to be writing with Jason Falkner — that may turn into something interesting. I may be working with Joe Henry. We'll see. There are a lot of people who are interested.
Is this an idea that you came up with and then put out to your musical universe?
Yeah, it's my idea. I produced my last three records and there's something great to be able to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted within the budget I had. Still, putting myself a little outside of my comfort zone, working with people I've never worked with, people who have all different kinds of talents and abilities — some are great arrangers, some are great engineers, some are have a knack for picking the right songs to do, some are able at all different aspects of producing.
By giving each one of these people as little as possible as far as material, it doesn't tint any of the songs one way or another. If someone does want to hear what one of the songs sounds like, I play it on piano or guitar, just solo, on my iPhone, and send it to them. I don't want anything to encourage their idea of what it can be one way or another. [I want them to] take it somewhere I hadn't thought of.
Do you hope that, when the project is finished, each song sounds really different? Or will you interject a continuity throughout?
I'm hoping that they will be very different. We will have one engineer who mixes the whole thing. So, there will be consistancy with the overall mix of it, and, of course, my voice. But what they might ask of me or want me to play could be completely different.
I love the idea of going to each of these people and saying, "Here's this piece, do with it what you will." Having an idea that this song will fit with this person, and then playing them 10 or 11 other songs and saying, "Is there one in here that you gravitate towards?" I'm hoping, in the process, that there will be a few that are overlapping and we'll have really, really different unique versions of a few songs that a few people wanted to produce. So we'll have these special things that are examples of the whole artistic process of it.
As an artist, especially someone who's had career longevity and a lot of freedom, is it hard to relinquish control?
It's exciting. Sometimes I think it's going to be challenging. Some of it's going to be nerve wracking. The first four records, when I worked with other producers, that was how it was done. You went in and worked with the producer who you agreed to work with for the label, or that [the label was] encouraging you to work with. It wasn't until I started my own label that I could have that sort of freedom. And I really loved the freedom and will fully take advantage of it in the future. But I really felt like it would be great to throw myself into a place that was out of my comfort zone and to try to take some chances.
You've talked in other interviews about feeling like your eclectic musical tastes were hard on your career, but in light of this project, it seems like that sense of hearing and appreciating and relating to all different sounds could really serve you well.
That's very true. I think this will, in some ways, help to define what kind of music I do. It really is eclectic and it really is somewhere between Ray Charles and Ray Davies. Between Elvis Costello and Elvis Presley. I'm not embarrassed of it. I'm proud to play different kinds of music. I'd be bored just playing one thing. The idea of having all of these really gifted people to work with and that all of these people are saying they want to work with me is really an honor and a thrill. I feel invigorated and like anything is possible, creatively. The idea of purposefully doing something very eclectic could also be something very defining. I'm a developing artist. I hope I'm still developing. The point is to continue to try new things and not just settle on one sound.
Will this be released on your own Seedling Records label?
I don't know. Right now there are a couple of labels that are interested in putting it out. It's pretty ambitious, a kind of expensive project. [In relation to] what I've been doing for the last 10 years with releasing records, it's five or six times more [expensive] than what I've spent on other records. I'm either going to have to raise money the way other people have been doing on line and see if fans and friends will help me make it happen, or sign with a label that's willing to help make it happen.
Recording is not as expensive as at used to be. You can record a really great record for 10 grand now, where it used to cost 100. Or at least 50. Even in the indie world it was expensive. Now it's so affordable and everyone has home studios and half the record can be done in your bedroom and it can sound amazing as long as you have a good mixer and a good engineer. Honestly, this becomes more expensive because I have to travel everywhere and work with different musicians. It's not like I can make it, like my last record, for 10 grand and record it all live in three days.
With the travel, do you feel like some essence of the places where you're going to record become part of the record as well?
I hope so. I don't think there's any way around it, especially because I'm working with local musicians. On the recording I did in Nashville, I worked with the guitar player Michael Bizar, who travels with me and who worked on the last four records. He came and sat in and played with us, with the band. The rhythm section was from Nashville. It was interesting because we did one song that I predicted Jack [Clement] would like. It sort of had a bit of a Tennessee feel to it. And then another one I would have brought to Allen Toussaint because it had a New Orleans feel to it, but because I did it with Cowboy, it ended up sounding more like a '60s Charlie Rich thing. There's no way around having the city affect it. I'm really hoping that happens. I'm hoping that by going to these place where I've never recorded, something interesting is bound to happen.
I'm fascinated by the way setting or locale can actually become a character or an instrument on an album.
It's really an amazing thing. A lot of times budget affects [a project] in such a way that you really just need to get to work on the album. You have something you've written over a year or 10 years or however long it took you, and you don't have the time people had years ago where they went in [to the studio] and didn't even have the whole thing written. They'd sit down and see how everyone felt and the studio became a part of the band in a sense. And six months later you ended up with a record. That worked for Exile on Main Street and a ton of David Bowie records, but I don't think anyone has that kind of budget anymore.
I think those days are passed.
Well, this may be a way to approach it. Letting the city in or letting the environment into it by working with players who are from those places. And while the travel is expensive, it's just me. I'm not traveling with an entourage or a band. And I'm on tour while I'm doing it.
The 10th anniversary of Seedling Records is coming right up. Considering all that's happened in the music industry in the past decade, are you still glad that you made the decision to go out on your own?
I do. In all honesty, I don't know what other option I had. I suppose I could have found an independent [label] that would have wanted to put my stuff out. I'd been there and I'd experienced that already. If it was going to be a low budget project, I wanted to decide where that budget went. I had been with indies before and seen where it went and didn't agree. I saw that money was wasted where it could have been effectively used. Now, with the world the way it is with music, there's all kinds of creative ways to do things affordably.
I felt lucky that I had the opportunity. It was just one of those things. Good timing. The first few Seedling records were distributed out of North Carolina.
I didn't know that.
Yeah. Tor Hansen [co-owner of Redeye music distributors] called me up. I thought I might be signed by Sony at the time. Tor called me up and said, "If you consider starting your own label, we might be able to help you." I called him back a week later and the ball started rolling. It was great to work with Redeye. They really care about music.
Have you toured in North Carolina?
You know, I've played there five or six times, but I don't remember ever playing in Asheville. I've wanted to come there just to visit for ages. I'm really excited to be coming. When I was living in Nashville, we'd go to the Smokies and hang out in the cabins. But as much as we wanted to get to Asheville, we never made it all the way there.
Will you be playing a couple of your dad's songs at the show?
Yes. There's a point in the show where I ask people what they want to hear, and if they want to hear one of his songs, I'm happy to play it. If they want to hear a Kinks song, I'm happy to play it. Whatever it may be. If it's a Jimmy Rogers song, I'll do it. I'm there to entertain the people who come to the show.