Noted pop songsmith Marshall Crenshaw explores Jaggedland with a new album

Marshall Crenshaw is an American pop craftsman of the highest order. And though he's best known for early-'80s hits such as "Someday, Someway" and "Whenever You're On My Mind," singles which distilled the song-about-a-girl formula to a purely tuneful essence, he's continued to make exquisite and varied music for more than two decades. This June he's set to release Jaggedland, his first studio album in six years, on the 429 label. He brought B-Sides up to date on his wide-ranging pop adventures.

B-Sides: Would this interview get off to a bad start if I said some people might have been wondering if you were still alive?

Marshall Crenshaw: Some people are wondering that, you think? Well, hey, I am.

Your last record was 2003, which, yeah, wasn't an eon ago.

It's true, I haven't been very prolific over the last ten years. The good news is I have another record finished and waiting to come out, finally.

The Jaggedland record?

That's it. Jaggedland is kind of like my brain, a word I came up with to describe my consciousness. I worked with some of my heroes on this record. Jim Keltner, a great drummer — and I'm a drummer myself, so he's someone I looked up to — Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Greg Leisz, who has played on every one of my records since 1991, but this is the first time we sat in a room together and played. We had a great bass player, Sebastian Steinberg, and Emil Richards on vibraphone and percussion. He played with Frank Sinatra and on the Pet Sounds album. We banged it out in three days. No major overdubs, except for some guitar solos. The music is really nice and the songs are off the dial, the best ones I've done.

Are you still writing as many songs about girls?

I wouldn't say so. There are some really good love songs on the record. They're songs about the human experience, my point of view, a couple of songs about mortality. It's mortality, the state of the world, love, the human experience.

So this is a quadruple album.

Just twelve songs, but there you go.

You're known as an aficionado of '50s and '60s rock, country and R&B singles, but I've never thought of you as a backward-looking artist.

I look forward, and I look backward. I'll say this: A lot of people might not know that much about what I do. It's a narrow impression. Over the first 30, 40 years of my life, I took in a lot of information about music, and about other art forms, movies and books. It's how you filter it. It's not a conscious thing anymore. I just write and try not to think too much about it. When I got really focused to create my own sound, I did draw a lot of inspiration from '50s and '60s rock & roll. I have a great love for that period, from '57 to '66. My heroes are from then. But what inspires me comes from all over the map.

Without putting yourself at legal risk, what's the worst thing that's happened to you in the music biz?

I felt ambivalence about show business from the start. I wasn't as pragmatic as I should have been. I remember being on the phone one time, singing "Happy Birthday" to a music director's wife. The idea being, if I sang "Happy Birthday" to this gal, then they'd play my record on the station. I thought, I got into this so I didn't have to kiss anybody's ass, and there I was.

What's the best thing?

It was really exciting to sing at the Apollo, seven or eight years ago. It was the premiere for this movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and I got to sing with the Funk Brothers. At that moment I just thought, This is a sign I've lived my life right.

And you've made a record with Jim Keltner and Wayne Kramer. Not everyone gets to do that.

I'm also lucky that I've had this strength, the physical well-being and sense of self-belief that's sustained me all this time. That's partly from my parents, and from my wife. I can't take any of that lightly.