Tragedy at an early age can do one of two things: It can either cripple a child and ruin their life or it can cause them to rise above the pain and excel.
A.J. Croce has done the latter. The son of legendary songwriter Jim Croce survived losing his dad at an early age and being abused (and temporarily blinded) by his mom’s ex-boyfriend as a child to go on to become one of the most respected and accomplished multi-instrumentalists in the music business. Mr. Croce has spent the last three decades — beginning in his teens — playing music for audiences and releasing consistently solid records again and again.
His latest album, “Just Like Medicine,” serves as further proof of his talents. Mr. Croce phoned from his home in Nashville in advance of stopping at The Hamilton in the District Tuesday and Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, Friday. He discussed overcoming great adversity, why he loves the piano and what you can expect at the upcoming co-headlining shows with Robbie Fulks.
Question: With touring, is it daunting to leave the house knowing you’ll be away or months on end?
Answer: It is a little daunting. Fortunately, my kids are grown and my wife travels with me, so life is pretty good in that regard. It was a lot harder when I had little kids and would be leaving for two months at a time.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the shows?
A: There is going to be a lot of great music, and I get to play in all different kinds of configurations on this tour. Sometimes I play with my band. Sometimes there are singers with me. Sometimes there are horns. Some shows are solo.
Q: What can fans expect for the D.C.-area shows?
A: All of the East Coast shows before I go to Europe are going to be a co-bill with Robbie Fulks. I’m playing solo; I think Robbie might have an accompanist.
I think the audience is going to dig it because it’s intimate and you really get to see what I’m playing and doing. You get a sense of what the songs are really about.
Q: Did all the tragedy you faced in your youth make you a better songwriter?
A: I don’t know because I don’t know life without the life that I’ve lived. It would be hard to say what would be different if life was different.
I could say that my life has been what it’s been. I’ve done the best I could with what I was given. I’ve said yes to many things that made me feel good and no to as many things that didn’t feel right. In that regard, I don’t have regrets.
Q: Did you ever consider doing anything but music?
A: There have been a lot of times in my career when I’ve thought about doing something else. When I was a kid, I thought about studying cultural anthropology and archeology. Those were always interests of mine.
There have been a lot of times I’ve thought, “This is really hard. And by the time I get to the gig and play it, all the work that went into making it happen, it’s hardly worth it.” There were times when I cut back and spent more time on my writing and working as a session sideman.
Every time I slowed down to take an assessment of my career, I picked up a new instrument. Each time I picked up a new instrument, it gave me inspiration to continue and go in different directions.
Q: Did you really start your career off as a 16-year-old sideman playing in bars and clubs?
A: It’s absolutely true. There was a rule device that would allow kids of any age really to perform. But as soon as you were finished you had to either A) go outside; or B) go backstage. You weren’t allowed to be in a venue that served alcohol in California.
Q: Why did you choose the piano as your main instrument?
A: I was just drawn to it as a kid. There are photographs of me before I could walk that show me holding on to the keys and standing up. When I got a little bit older, I was given a guitar lesson. I was left-handed and the teacher tried to get me to play right-handed. That didn’t work in my head.
On top of that, I wanted to be different from my dad. I was a little bit older when I recognized that. I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be an individual and really master this instrument.
Q: Was the new album recorded in Nashville?
A: It was. We did it in an old style [by] recording it to tape. We recorded it in mono like an old record. I wasn’t doing that for the vintage feeling of it at all, I was doing it because we listened to the equivalent of transistor radios most the whole time.
We listen to our phone, listen to our laptop, earbuds that are kind of so so and don’t have that same sound quality with the [compressed] MP3. I said, “That’s what we have. That’s what people are listening to.”
Nothing sounds better than mono through those little speakers. That was my concept for the record. I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounds like a Stax record or something recorded at Motown or Muscle Shoals. But I was trying to make the best record I could and wanted it to be as real as possible.
A.J. Croce plays The Hamilton in the District Tuesday and Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, Friday.