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Sheryl Crow Finds Musical Inspiration In Heartbreak And Uber

‘Be Myself’ is a “return to the spark”

by Eve Barlow

It was 1994 when Sheryl Crow burst onto the music scene, and she quickly became known for rewriting the rules of pop radio with her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club; now, 24 years later and at the age of 55, Crow's gearing up to do it all again by returning to those early pop/rock roots. Due for an April 21 release, Be Myself, her ninth LP, sees Crow reunite with producer Jeff Trott who was by her side during her '90s successes like "All I Wanna Do," "If It Makes You Happy," and "My Favorite Mistake," which are still stalking radio station set lists.

A lot has happened to Crow since those hit-making days. She's survived breast cancer, a brain tumor, and a very public separation from former fiancé, Lance Armstrong. On Be Myself, however, she sounds more comfortable in her skin than ever before. And nine Grammys, 35 million U.S. album sales, and five platinum records into her career, why wouldn't Crow be happy being herself? 

Recently, we talked with Crow over the phone from her home in Nashville, where she moved 11 years ago immediately after finding out she had cancer. Following her treatment, she decided to adopt two boys, Wyatt and Levi, who she's now raising alone. Though her lifestyle hasn't changed in the last couple of decades—“In the old days, I had the luxury of being creative whenever I wanted. I could be up really late at night; I could spend the morning in bed reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and jotting things down,” she laughs. “Now I'm making records during school hours between 9am and 5:30pm." This doesn't mean that the inspiration isn't still flowing. Crow explains, "Now that I'm a little older, I don't worry about who my audience is or getting on the radio. It's liberating.”

Read more about Crow's new album, where she finds inspiration, and how she prevents herself from falling into social media black holes in the interview, below.

You've mentioned that work doesn't take over your whole life anymore like it once did. So how do you get drawn back into writing mode?

This came about last summer because my old songwriting buddy [Jeff Trott] moved to town. He and I have written off and on through the years, but we haven't collaborated like we did on the second and third records [Sheryl Crow and The Globe Sessions]. We got back together and were writing really fast, so we said, "Let's make a record." It was really effortless because there was so much to write about.

What types of things have inspired your songwriting recently?

There were all types of things floating around in the ether: the chaos of the election season, people's hate dialogue, and the intrusion of technology. All these big issues have wound up appearing on a fun little pop/rock record.

Your last album Feels Like Home was your first country record. Was that just a one-off experiment?

In Nashville, I was approached to make a country record, and I loved the idea of it. I loved the experience of writing with Nashville writers. It was much more collaborative than I'm used to. But Be Myself was a return to the spark. I wanted to feel that urgency and innocence making music again, that feeling of being kids in a laboratory making concoctions.

How long had it been since you'd actually sat down and listened to your old records to reconnect with that sound?

never listen to my records. That would be like torture for me! The objective of listening to any of that stuff while making this album was to intrinsically remember what the spirit of making those records was.

You said this record is you at your most authentic again, not appeasing the radio or industry. Was that your approach in the '90s, too?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Even with Tuesday Night Music Club, I was surprised anybody liked it because it didn't sound like anything on the radio. By the time I got to record Sheryl Crow, I was fried. I was the most hated person on pop radio. People were sick of me. I went from being the darling to winning Grammys to being the person most targeted. All of that [emotion] is on the second record–that bratty style, [like,] "I don't give two shits about who hears this, it's my record, I'm gonna do what I wanna do." Then The Globe Sessions was steeped in heartbreak. I was going through a sad breakup. All three of those records were selfishly personal for me. With this record, I'm a lot older, but I still feel that wonder now. I feel it more now than ever because I have a different kind of life that's fully intact. Music is just something that's a fantastic venture for me, kind of like it was on those records where I went in and let it all hang out.

The track "Alone In The Dark" is about the virtues of solitude after a breakup. In the past, there's been media focus on your relationships. Does that ever make you reticent to be personal on your records?

I'm not like other artists, where every time I break up with somebody I write a song about it. I'm careful about protecting whoever I've been in a relationship with. But I do find that it's trickier now because media is everywhere, and [it's] not just paparazzi outside your door; there's this ability to broadcast somebody's secrets or laundry. You're much more vulnerable. I'm lucky that I'm from a different generation where that doesn't seem to be a part of my reality, but it must be difficult to be young and navigate life, trying to figure out who you are, while you also have the pressure to brand yourself in a certain way. I'd rather be in the dark. There's a huge part of me that enjoys not knowing what people say about me.

Speaking of that wider noise, "Roller Skate" and the title track both speak to the pitfalls of social media. Do you think there are virtues to social media also?

Oh, yeah. I dragged myself into the world of technology begrudgingly. It's necessary now. But I struggle with how people use their life as a brand. While all that stuff sells, it also undermines your artistry. I'm a mom raising two boys, trying to figure out how to tell them not to rely on what other people are projecting of you. "Roller Skate" is my kid saying, "Mom, put your phone down." I don't want my kids looking back, thinking of their mom as always having her head down looking at the phone.

Are there any particular Twitter or Instagram accounts that you enjoy?

There are a couple of people I follow, but I rarely check that stuff because I find that if I check it, then I look at my watch and 45 minutes has gone by—and I don't have the luxury of losing 45 minutes!

I made note of the lyric: “Took an Uber to hear a new indie band play/ They got 99 million followers in only one day.” Has Uber arrived in Nashville?

Oh my gosh, Uber totally exists in Nashville—and Lyft. After I wrote this song, I thought, Oh my, I wonder should I do a version that mentions Lyft? My kids have Uber'd all over the world with me. My friends went to SXSW and said there's no Uber there. I can't imagine; how do people get around?!

"A Heartbeat Away" contains references to hackers, leaks, vast fortunes, and a “man with the red face/ With his finger on the button as he hums ‘Amazing Grace.'” You wrote it before Trump's election. Was it weird watching events unfold, knowing you had this one in the back pocket?

It felt very eerie. It's slightly life-affirming that while you know you're growing as a songwriter, you're also able to get out of your own way and just be inspired. This was pure inspiration. The first and third verses, I wrote on the mic. It seemed like a very outlandish, espionage kinda lyric, and so that second verse we were like, "Okay, what's the most outlandish thing you can think of?" Okay, Russia, hacking… and then we turned around and there it was.

You've been in the music industry for decades. Do you think there's a parallel between ageism and sexism whereby older women are discriminated against more than their male counterparts?

Well, there are far more male "legends" or "rock heroes" than there are women. I'm not exactly sure why. Motherhood tends to get in the way of longevity. I remember having a conversation with Chrissie Hynde, and she he'd taken eight years off to raise her daughters. She said that coming back was like starting all over again. There is something different about men being able to go on the road then come home to something intact. Women don't have the luxury of that. I don't know many male husbands who would stay at home while their rockstar wife is out traveling around.

Do you feel any differentiation in treatment?

I don't know that I get treated differently. I will say that the younger rock and pop stuff is very sexual and in some ways, it's being used to illustrate having power. For older women, it feels ageist when everything is geared toward 15- to 25-year-olds. But I'll be honest, in some ways, it's liberating. I wanna make sure that the young female artists like Lorde, who are creating beautiful artistry, know that there's power in that. There's power in what Adele does when she just stands there and sings. There's as much power in that if not more than there is in projecting sexual images which are fine and all, but not to be misconstrued as being about beauty or power. Women are powerful for many reasons, not just their bodies.

Your music's endured for so many years. I was talking to British punk band Slaves and they play "All I Wanna Do" before they go on stage every night. Do you listen to younger contemporary artists now?

Oh my god, that's amazing. Tell them I'm flattered! There's a radio station here in Nashville who play so much great alternative stuff and we Shazam everything. I've been turned onto so many great artists. And, of course, my kids listen to pop music so I know Twenty One Pilots and all the cool groups.

You follow Katy Perry on Twitter. What do you think of her moves to channel her politics into her mainstream pop music right now?

She's great. I was glad to see someone of her stature put herself out there for a political candidate.

You've always used your platform to talk about environmentalism, you took an anti-Iraq War stance in the 2000s. Do you feel it's more accepted by the industry and necessary now to speak out as a musician?

The day and age of a band like Dixie Chicks speaking out and being blacklisted and having their CDs bulldozed are behind us. As somebody who is high profile, every time you open your mouth, you're setting yourself up to have arrows slung at you. But I don't know of anybody who that's ever stopped. I've always been interested in politics, and I've always been outspoken, but I try to arm myself with as much truth as possible. Now, truth is strangely up for definition, and that's where I feel we're getting into a serious danger zone. There are some things I cannot not say.

Do you think there's a creeping erosion of women's rights in America? Are you worried about that?

Yeah, absolutely. I'm worried about everything. I have two kids that are gonna inherit a planet that's in serious peril, we have a president who appointed somebody to head up the EPA who doesn't even believe in climate change. That's just the tip of the iceberg. So I'm very concerned. But I'm more concerned over the fact that the people who are so hurting in this country, who put their faith into this man, are still believing this lie that he cares. That's what's devastating. He's putting us in grave danger as regards our status in the world with other countries. The man is clearly a disturbed, unbalanced human being.

You're working on a new collaborations record featuring Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Keith Richards, and more. Which of your guests blows your mind most?

There's no possibility I could choose just one person, but the one song that is very difficult for me to listen to without becoming emotional is a recording I did with Johnny Cash. His family gave me the blessing to use his demo vocal for a song of mine that he recorded ["Redemption Day"]. I recorded a new track and sang with him. It's really powerful, especially considering what's going on in the world today. To hear the weight of his voice singing about redemption.

Would you ever do Carpool Karaoke with James Corden? You'd kill it…

Oh my gosh, I think I'm getting ready to! Yes, hopefully.

What's the best aspect of your friendship with Stevie Nicks?

Every time I'm around her, she's completely and totally authentic. She never veers away from who she is. She's a fully realized artist: She paints, she writes, she draws, she's constantly looking at the world through those eyes, and I just adore her.

Finally, the song "Grow Up" was inspired by Prince's death. When was the last time you spoke to him?

I hadn't spoken to him in 10 years. I'd had a little bit of a falling out, and when he passed I was really sad that I hadn't reached out to him. But I loved him, and he was so masterful. When he passed we were in the studio, and we went and listened to "Sign O' The Times." You can hear his joy and abandon and then he puts the most incredible lyric on top of it, and it's so deep.