Counting Crows and Their Skeletons of Songwriting

Since they broke on the music scene like a rocket with 1993’s August and Everything After, the band has accumulated nine albums, but hasn’t released any new material since 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.

Even with their recent release, the peculiarly titled Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), Crows fans are going to have to wait a little longer for any new songs from the Bay Area boys, because the 15-track offering is a covers album.

“I don’t know, didn’t think about doing it, really. I was working on songs; it’s hard to write for two different things at once,” Frontman Adam Duritz said when asked about why the band didn’t put out an album of new Counting Crows songs. “We really wanted to make this record. And you’ve just got to do what you want to do and not waste time trying to fulfill other people’s expectations. I just didn’t really want to write songs for Counting Crows that I was going to have to sing.”

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Underwater Sunshine is a brand new Counting Crows album with only a few popular covers thrown in. The songs they cover – Pure Prairie League’s “Amie,” Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel,” and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” just to name a few – fall right into the wheelhouse of Counting Crows’ writing style.

“I come in with some skeletons of songs, just some chords and some words, and that’s a long way from what you guys listen to on a record, “ Duritz said. “The only difference is we didn’t limit ourselves to one writer.”

While in the studio making the covers record, Duritz came to the stark realization the songs they were recording were open to different interpretations, much like records were made in the past.

“When we were making this record, it was occurring to me how much sense it made all those years when people made records with lots of songs recorded by lots of different people, and they made great records for years, and they don’t sound the same. I think that Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra sound completely different doing the same songs, as do the Beatles. I mean, all three of them recorded Beatles songs, and they all sound really different. It was such a great liberating thing to get to work with so many other songwriters, in a way. It was like collaborating with people without them being there; although, sometimes they were there.”

The liberating experience was not only felt by the other band members, but it also carried over to the Crows’ live shows, making them a better band as a whole.

“I noticed afterwards how much better I thought we played on this album, how the guitars were so much more aggressive and expansive and expressive, but when we got on the road on this last tour, it was like we were a different band. I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to run around; I felt like I could just stand there and barely move a muscle if I wanted to, and there was so much music that less was more. I didn’t have to overdo anything or over emote or even gesture if I didn’t want to, because the band had made a huge leap forward playing on this record, and I can only assume it had something to do with working with songs that weren’t mine. I don’t know why that should be better, but it was.”

With the new and improved Counting Crows, so to speak, they have obviously learned a lot, and it opens up a lot of different opportunities for the band when it comes to recording their next original album. Does this mean there will be more collaborations with the band to ease the songwriting burden off Duritz’s shoulders? Only time will tell.

“I don’t imagine I’ll start letting other people write the lyrics. I honestly don’t know why it was different, but there was something really great about it, really easy, really low pressure about the attitude we took into it, not about the way we played, because I still beat everybody up around the studio. I get asked a lot of questions about what I think this or that means about the future, and I have no idea what’s going on later today. I never know what songs are playing until sometime after sound check that evening, so the future is generally not something I think a lot about. That’s a crappy answer to your question, sorry”

As fans of all genres of music of all decades, The Counting Crows know a good song when they hear one. Hell, they’ve even written quite a few themselves in their two-decade career. But when it comes to songwriting, there is no manual on how to write a great song.

“It’s a big, largely unquantifiable thing, because I have no idea what makes a song powerful,” Duritz confessed. “I don’t even know what makes a song something I like, because I like lots of different songs. I got in a big argument with our fans at one point because I pointed out that I thought that Justin Timberlake’s first album was genius and that the production was brilliant, the songs were great, and our fans, of course, that was all just wrong in that mindset. So, for whatever reason I got off on it and they didn’t. There’s a lot of good songs out there, and these are just ones we like. If it was easy to break it down, I think more people would probably write them.”

Great songwriting and great songs have endured for decades, and when Counting Crows got their break 20 years ago they were lucky when it came to their songs.

“We’ve always had creative control over our records. There was a huge bidding war for our band in the beginning. Pretty much every label offered us a contract. We were able to pick and choose, and we gave up a lot of the money early on. The advance was very small, but we gave all that up for better royalties and for complete creative control. So, we had creative control recording before August and Everything After, and we had it when we made that record, which I think was really good for us. It always has been. It allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do from day one.”

When the explosion of digital downloads and social networking happened, that’s when the band saw the changes, not only with the music industry but the Counting Crows.

“Where it did change was what we did afterwards and what we did during recording. Like what we’re able to do as far as giving downloads, doing the same with Bit Torrent, all the social media stuff. I knew that we weren’t going to be confined to marketing this record by bribing radio stations or record stores to put it in front. I think that it probably did affect everything else because they are more excited about making it in that sense, because it wasn’t going to be the same grind that we were all sick of to promote it. There’s no record cycle anymore, there’s none of that stuff. It never has to end.”

Not many bands from the 1990s have lasted as long as the Counting Crows. They haven’t even broken up and reunited like a lot of acts from the decade have done. There isn’t one specific thing which has led to this longevity, it’s their love for all kinds of music, it’s the side projects, and the longevity can even be linked back to that first recording contract.

“I think it still feels very fresh to us. I think that getting that creative control right at the beginning and taking that attitude into everything we did made all the difference in the world,” Duritz said. “We made the records we wanted to make, exactly how we wanted to make them. I think they’re really different from each other, and they always felt like we were never forcing ourselves to do anything we didn’t want to do. We just recorded, just followed our muse wherever it took us, wherever that was, and it seemed very different to me. It may seem the same to somebody else, but whatever it was, it still feels fresh to do it.”

To read a CD review of Counting Crows latest release Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation,) please click HERE: http://www.innocentwords.com/Magazine/Archives/2012/Issue65/tabid/1006/Default.aspx