Lessons Learned: Craig Chaquico

Craig Chaquico has been in music since his teens, notably with Jefferson Starship; he has played guitar on all of its albums – something no other member can claim.

And he can tout the band’s hits “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back” as his own. But when bands like that break up, many of their musicians find other careers, be it in management, producing or even teaching. Chaquico instead found a second career as a highly successful jazz artist. He’s reinventing himself again, incorporating his Starship hits into his performances, and reintroducing himself to new audiences. So Pollstar revived the Lessons Learned column, and asked him:

How do you maintain longevity?

I wish I knew because I feel like having a career at the top of charts for five decades is as much a surprise to me as it is to anybody.

I can tell you when I left Starship it was frightening. My first idea was to do a band along the lines of the stuff I wrote for Starship, like “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back” – similar to what Def Leppard or some of those bands at the time were doing. But it was falling out of favor because grunge was really coming on strong. So for me to go and do a rock band with three-part harmonies and lots of guitars was sort of the antithesis of what was coming up.

My timing wasn’t great. Too little, too late. Meanwhile, my wife became pregnant and the acoustic guitar became a lot more welcome around the house. Little did I know that would lead to a Grammy nomination and million-selling albums and No. 1 records. I didn’t even know there was a format for it. I was just playing music that I liked. It was really different; there were no vocals. I thought maybe I would send it to a few labels and see what they say.

What would I recommend to people about their careers? I would tell people, “You have to be different enough that you’re not just a clone of Santana or Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page or Wes Montgomery.” So I took my new music, which was very New Age, to a new label that was actually in the same town I lived in. They said, “If you sounded more like Ottmar Liebert (a New Age musician), we would sign you.” A rock label heard a lot of New Age and jazz. “If you sounded more like Joe Satriani we’d sign you. Why don’t you go to a blues label?” Jazz label, same thing.

Finally, Higher Octave puts out our album and it’s the No. 1 album of the year as an independent record. Now all the labels are telling others, “If you sounded more like Craig Chaquico we’d sign you.”

But at the time you don’t know that. You’re thinking you suck. But what I would tell people is just don’t let the first couple of noes get to you. Good writers have been turned down a lot and then they get their break and the rest is history.

Was there a time when you weighed other options?

That was a time when I was starting a family, I was supporting a wife and a child, and I had been in this band since I was a teenager. It was well established, and there was a certain security with that, and now I was out on my own. It was really scary.

I think there was an adrenaline phase to my career to have me recording night and day which is why I did so many albums on my own. And I think I was lucky enough to have a good team around me. Lucky enough to have good management, to have a good label that believed in me. The public might just look at you as the artist because you’re the face on the cover but they don’t always realize, like we do, that it’s a whole network.

If you’re fortunate enough to have the right people at the right time, the synergy builds. While that’s developing, it’s a little dicey. But looking back, the reason it worked out so well for me was I did have a good manager, good people around me, and the timing was right.

Do you have to establish yourself in new markets anymore?

Yes, you do. And you’re not only establishing yourself in a new market, you’re establishing yourself in a new genre, where you’re bottom of the totem pole. You just have to say it’s fair and someday maybe you’ll start headlining. And sure enough, I did.