“To thine own self be true” wasn’t just good advice in Shakespeare’s era. It’s also worked out well creatively for Sheryl Crow, whose ninth album, “Be Myself,” finds her returning to the power-rocking roots that come most naturally, on top of it being the self that audiences over the years have just happened to love most. After spending most of this century veering into musical detours that included not just an album called “Detours” but stylistic outliers like a recent country album, she’s back with a familiar but revitalized collection of hooky electric-guitar anthems that may be the earwigs album of the year for music fans of a certain classic-rock persuasion.
Crow sat down with Variety to discussing the joys of returning to form, how she and the country format parted ways, her feelings about being a blue woman in a red state and nation, smartphone-less parenting, refusing to act her mid-50s age… and why she’s reluctantly giving up her favorite TV show, “House of Cards.”
What happened with your one-and-done country record [2013’s “Feels Like Home”]? At the time, you were expressing a real commitment to the format. But you’ve lately mentioned how country radio has a set of personal demands that no other format does, and it didn’t turn out to be a seamless transition for you.
I’ve lived in Nashville now for 11 years. I moved here after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt like I wanted to be home. I’d been in L.A. for a really long time and didn’t feel like I had any roots anywhere, and my sister lives here. Shortly after I moved, I adopted my two boys. I felt like my music throughout all the years has been influenced by country music, albeit country music that I liked, like the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram [Parsons] and Emmylou [Harris] and the Rolling Stones doing “Exile” and “Let It Bleed.” So when it got time to make a record, and I was no longer on a record label, because I’d gotten a lot of encouragement here in Nashville, I thought, I’m going to write with some of these great songwriters and make a record that shows my country influences. It was a good, stretching experience for me to write with people that I don’t even know. I loved the record I made. But after I spent quite a lot of time going radio station to radio station, I started feeling like, man, there’s nothing worse spending two or three nights in a row away from my kids, [currying favor] at a format that basically I didn’t belong at.
You’ve had moments of being a celebrity punching bag for people on the far right, from your pro-gun-control statements in the 1990s on forward. When you were courting the country radio audience, did you think much about the fact that a lot of that audience doesn’t share your politics, and that could be a problem in this day and age?
[Long pause.] As an artist, I’m a lot less calculating about it. Part of the thing about this record is that it’s liberating being my age. I’m gonna write what I’m gonna write, and the idea that I would get played at pop radio, or even radio in general anymore, is perhaps a little far-fetched, because everything is geared towards young people. So to be able to go in and write a record without any sort of parameters is so liberating. With the country thing, I think I also approached it that way, but I knew there would be people that wouldn’t buy my record because I supported Barack Obama. I knew that that was part of it. When I started entertaining the idea of making a country record, I felt like the country market was much more geared toward songs and the craftsmanship of songwriting — and that, perhaps, because I write songs, that that would be more of a suitable fit. But it is hard to negate the structure of that format and just look at it as songs, because it’s deeper than that.
The new album is being described as a return-to-form record, and you haven’t discouraged that interpretation. Even the title “Be Myself” seems to advertise the idea that maybe you’ve returned to the self that audiences most know and love.
Jeff Trott [her primary collaborator on her late 1990s albums] had just moved to Nashville, and we were going to just write a couple of songs. I said to him, “I want to feel like I felt when I made my second record [Sheryl Crow] and third record [“The Globe Sessions”]. Definitely with the second record, there was a certain amount of tantrumming that went into that, like me against all the backlash of the first record [“Tuesday Night Music Club”]….
A certain amount of what, again?
I felt like I had a lot of tantrums on that second record that came out as songs. It was my answer to people doubting whether I was a real artist or if a bunch of guys had written my record. There was something about that record that felt urgent but at the same time really fun. And the way Jeff and I made that record was him on guitar, me on bass and [a drummer], and then for “The Globe Sessions,” same thing. So the first song we wrote this time was “Alone in the Dark” [using the same trio format]… and we got together about four times for about a day at a time and wound up with 17 songs, and then we called [1990s-era co-producer] Tchad Blake and said “You’re the thing that’s missing from this—would you come in?” Within a month we had a record made. It felt like a throwback to those early records, where we set a mic up in the room, get a groove going, and start creating… [except that it’s after] we’ve taken our kids to school. And there was a lot in the ether to talk about last year, and there still is. I love my job more than ever, in that we’re all feeling these deep, conflicted emotions, and music is such a great place to land them.
In the song “Be Myself,” you have the line “hanging with the hipsters is a lot of hard work.” It made me think of how, as you mentioned, between the first and second albums especially for you, there were a lot of authenticity questions: Does she write her own songs? Is she trying to be grunge? Is she alt-rock or is she pop? And then in these lyrics you use the term “terminally normal.” Is that a self-description you had to come to terms with?
Oh my gosh, yes. I mean, early days, before social media, the press department was always try to conjure up stories that would make me seem more interesting. And you know, hey, I had a pretty normal upbringing — a nice, middle-class family, hard working parents who are still married, small town in Missouri. I actually think that’s pretty interesting now, but it wasn’t that interesting back then. The song actually is more immediate even now to me. Because I’m raising two little boys who are actually going to become people. And the pressures of social media—wow. I mean, if I were to start now in the music business, I don’t think I could have withstood the scrutiny. And not scrutiny of your art, but scrutiny of you the person.
You seem pretty anti-social media in general… which is not always what someone marketing an artist wants to hear. The song “Roller Skate,” you’ve said, was inspired by your kids telling you you spent too much time looking at your phone. But you must be texting friends or something when they say that, because we know you’re definitely not tweeting. Your social media accounts seem to be run by somebody else and you appear disdainful about it.
I will admit that I don’t live in social media. And one of my big things has been that the few times my kids have said, “Mom, get off your phone,” it just feels so bad. You know, I’m an older mom. I don’t want to look back on my life and think, “God, I wish I would have spent more time being present than communicating with people that weren’t in the room.” I also don’t want to model that for them — model being on my phone while we’re sitting at the dinner table having a conversation. There’s nobody that’s more important than my kids, so why wouldn’t I want to be with them? It’s a real struggle, and I realize that now 85 percent of everyone’s career is social media — likes and dislikes and followers and all that stuff. I didn’t grow up with it, and I refuse to live in it.
The new album feels generally optimistic, but in “Long Way Back,” you sing “I’ve seen more of this life than most have seen, and it’s taken a mighty big toll on me,” and you even reference seeing a man have a heart attack as a wake-up call. Is there a side of you that’s a little worn down?
I don’t feel so beat up. I definitely feel like this is part 2 of “Everyday is a Winding Road.” Where “Everyday is a Winding Road” felt like the road was in front of me, and I was looking at it with kind of wonder of what might be out in front of me, this song is much more of the road behind me, and how that road has taken me far, far away from who I am, in order to bring me back to right now. And I could not feel more in line with who I am than I do right now. I mean, I feel like I’m so soberly awake. And I don’t know if it’s because of what’s happening and how personal it feels for me, with regard to what’s happening in the country and the environment, and the fact that I have these two boys who I’m going to be handing off a big hot mess to, like we all are. I don’t want to be buried in my cell phone and not doing something about it. You know, I have seen people become deathly ill and then pass away, and it has made me redefine my life. I’ve been diagnosed with what could have been a life-threatening illness, and that made me redefine my life. I feel like all those detours that I took – as far back as the “Detours” record – have led me to this moment, and it’s a moment I don’t want to be distracted from. So for me, it feels much more optimistic than maybe the song sounds. You can’t just sit back and go, “Okay, I’ve been so beat up that I’m checking out.” You don’t really get that option.
“Halfway There,” the first single off the album, is a “can’t we all just get along”-type song about bridging the political divide in America, smoking the peace pipe, and extending hands across the aisle. But you wrote this song last year when you were probably expecting, as an outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter, to be more the victor than the vanquished in what was about to happen. Do you think you’d still write that magnanimous song in 2017, the way things have gone?
Well, I think time is kind of elastic. Right now what’s happening is that it’s forcing people to wake up, and hopefully this movement that people are creating that’s being galvanized by what has actually been the source of our demise for a long time — that being money in our political system — isn’t going to die out due to waning interest. There is a huge population of young people and millennials who are becoming united. You know, it’s past time, but better late than never. I had a really interesting morning after, after the election, with a meditation teacher. I was very emotional about the outcome. And I’d been emotional all the way through the campaign, so much so that I went to Change.org and tried to get a petition going to at least try to limit how long a campaign of hate rhetoric could go on. [She even appeared on Fox News to promote her “Make It Short” petition, which sought to put a time limit on political campaigns.] This meditation teacher said, “This is the way forward. We were born to come here in order to get past this moment.” And that for me is hopeful. Because I think when you elect a president, you’re electing someone who represents all aspects of us as a people. And we’re seeing it in every other country, just starting with France and Brexit. I just got off the phone with someone in Brazil who said, “We’re going through this same process where our dialogue is becoming hate-filled, and there’s a movement rising up to want to undo all that has been before.” Really what the song is about is me, Miss Liberal, living in Nashville, a very red/small-oasis-of-blue city. We have to figure out a way to get along. At the end of the day, we will care whether the planet can sustain our grandchildren, and we need to figure out a way to have a dialogue that at least has a modicum of decorum.
When I saw you play your pre-release gig at the Troubadour, you were basically pogoing on stage, and said, “Okay, I’m 55 f—ing years old; start jumping!” Not a lot of people would choose that moment to announce their age. Were you thinking there was an incongruity between how you’re expected to behave beyond a certain point and… your energy level?
[Laughs.] Yeah. I guess I can say I’m 55 because I feel like I’m about 27. The age thing is irrelevant to me, but at the same time, I don’t want to be limited to how a 55-year-old is supposed to act. That would be really a bummer for me. It would be sort of untruthful for me to start acting my age, and unfortunately probably is what most people like to see a 55-year-old woman on stage do is act your age. But you know, man, I love my work. It’s very energizing to me. The age thing, when everyone’s so conscious of trying to look younger, I come back to saying how liberating it is to just embrace feeling young and being healthy and being my age. I love my age. I wouldn’t trade it. I don’t love the fact that I’m getting older and my face looks like it belongs on a 55-year-old. But am I gonna do anything about it? No. I just feel like there is a certain youthfulness in having a little bit of grace about embracing all things life and living. So, yeah, I’m probably gonna jump around on stage.
When you’re not jumping up and down on stage, what do you watch on TV at home to unwind?
Oh my gosh, I cannot wait for the next season of “Stranger Things.” You’ve probably heard that 9,000 times. I love Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon’s show, “Better Things,” as well, and I relate to it. I’m a single mom, I’m a working mom, and I’m raising two people who are fully aware of growing up with a single parent. It’s funny; it makes me laugh. I was a huge fan of “House of Cards.” I do want to see it [going forward], but I’m not sure I can stomach it, because I feel like the news is as bad if not worse, and that’s real. So to actually watch “House of Cards” and feel stressed out, I’m not sure I’m up for it. But I did love that show.