Interview by Scott Preston
The international music scene, like a menu of infinite pancake choices, can overwhelm you with its endless, dubious promises of fulfillment. Seedling Records recording artist A.J. Croce knows how you feel. He doesnt want you to fill up on empty carbs or predictable music. A.J.–considered one of our greatest young songwriters by David Wild of Rolling Stone–wants your ears satisfied, like they just ate the best pancakes ears ever ate, and with his tasty singing, songwriting, and musicianship, A.J. delivers.
AJ makes music he loves, grounded in his wide range of influences, and lets the chips hit the fan, confident, as he says, that an eclectic taste in music, is the foundation of versatility. This eclecticism has gained A.J. a reputation as a one man music festival, who’ll pull an old barrelhouse boogie woogie stride piano jam out of one sleeve, a psychedelic pop gem or New Orleans funk groove out of the other. Imagine an American roadhouse nightclub on a warm summer night, poised between city and country, where folks of all ages and backgrounds come to dance, listen, drink, and occasionally start a romance or fistfight; AJ would go over in there. You would buy him a beer. (1)
Cincy Groove: Tell me about your record label Seedling Records. When and why was it started?
A.J. Croce: I started it in 2003. I was starting to get my master recordings back one at a time. By 2003 I had 4 masters back in my possession and I was ready to start a new project and was looking for a label. I found a distributor who told me they would help me start my own label. They said I had enough of a catalog that they could distribute my music. I was kind of a guinea pig for the label at first. I had domestic distribution to start and then was able to get some good international distribution as well. That’s pretty much how it started.
Cincy Groove: I see that your last record was recorded in a live studio format. Did you prefer doing it that way opposed to the more traditional studio recording process?
A.J. Croce: I like recording in the studio regardless of the type of process. Of course it depends on the type of project and the budget. When I was getting ready to record my last record I was looking at the material and didn’t think the music was very commercial. So the best thing I decided was to record it live. I hadn’t done a live record since my first and I was really happy with the way it turned out. What you hear on the record is pretty much what I played in the studio.
Cincy Groove: Each of your records almost falls into a different category of music. Who do you consider some of your influences?
A.J. Croce: I have very eclectic interests, really all kinds of music. I have been influenced by piano players from Fats Waller to James B Johnson to blues players Memphis Slim to Mississippi John Hurt. Then folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Then there is all kinds of rock and roll, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and two of the biggest influences have to be Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
Cincy Groove: When was it that you decided that you wanted to be a musician for a living?
A.J. Croce: When I was 12 I was going to a Jewish school and one of the parents heard me messing around on the piano in the auditorium. I was going to their daughters bar mitzvah and they asked if I would play. They gave me $20 to play for about a half hour. At 12 years old $20 seemed like a fortune. I figured if I kept practicing, I could do it for a living.
Cincy Groove: Was your mom supportive of your decision to be a musician?
A.J. Croce: She was to a certain degree, I don’t think she liked the fact that I left school twice to do it. At the time I was starting to play out a whole lot more around San Diego. Then I started going to UCSD and within the first week I got a call to go out and play with B.B. King, so that was pretty much the end of my formal education.
Cincy Groove: Has there been anyone that you were just in awe of while you were playing on stage with them?
A.J. Croce: That would have to be Bela Fleck. I really admire artists who make music in different genres. I remember I opened for Bela Fleck and he then called me up on stage to jam with the band. It was really one of those terrifying moments because I had no idea what the song was, where it was starting or ending. The only thing I knew is that it was a blues tune in F, but it didn’t start anywhere near F, so I reverted to Monk (laughing) and just thought in those terms so I could hold on for dear life while the Wooten brothers just tore it up.
Cincy Groove: You have been on tv quite a few times, is there a moment or two that stand out in your mind?
A.J. Croce: I don’t think any of my tv appearances were particularly great but one of the more solid performances was on Austin City Limits. The band was good and we had been touring a lot. When you do tv performances, usually you wake up in the morning to do interviews, then you rush over to the tv studio for sound check and sometimes you are playing with a band that hasn’t played your music before. Then most times you are going to have a show to go do , later on after the tv appearance. So a lot of times I would get a little flustered and worn out by the whole process.
One of the most terrifying moments for me on tv was when I played guitar for the first time in front of anyone, on the Today Show. I performed a song of my dad’s (Jim Croce) because it was a cancer awareness show and we were giving away a Jim Croce model Martin guitar for auction. I really believed in the cause, but this was way before I felt comfortable even touching his material. Let alone playing his songs in front of a small club audience and there I was on The Today Show in front of millions of people.
Cincy Groove: When you first started playing out, did you feel any pressure to live up to certain expectations because of your last name?
A.J. Croce: Oh absolutely, although I thought I was going in a different direction than my dad did with more of a roots music feel to my work. But what I found out was that we had a lot more in common than I thought. I didn’t really discover this until about 10 years ago, when I started to go through all these old tapes he had recorded in our living room. In some instances he was playing the exact same songs I had chosen to play. We both have some very similar tastes in music. The R&B and soul music was a part of his thing but I think the difference was he was more influenced by folk music and I was more influenced by rock and roll and jazz.
Cincy Groove: Do you have any new projects in the works?
A.J. Croce: Yes, I’m going to go in and do some recording on a couple different projects of my own stuff later this year. I’m also going to be finishing up a record for Seedling Records called Anthology. It’s going to be made up of rare country music from the 1920’s and 30’s. I’m hoping it will be the first volume of several. I would also like to put one together for blues and folk music. I’m hoping it will be a real tribute to regional music which is starting to disappear.
1 – from ajcroce.com