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Sheryl Crow on Threading the Music Biz Needle: ‘The Fact That the Album Exists is My Reward’

The singer discusses why Stevie Nicks and Mavis Staples are her ideal duet partners and why "Threads" will be her final album.

Sheryl Crow is a survivor. Not only of breast cancer, a brain tumor, debilitating depression and a toxic relationship (don’t even ask about Lance Armstrong) but also the music industry. The controversy surrounding songwriting credit — not to mention two related deaths, including her ex-boyfriend and collaborator, Kevin Gilbert — linked to her Grammy-winning debut album, “Tuesday Night Music Club,” would’ve killed the career of a lesser artist.

Twenty-six years later, the former elementary school teacher is still making music and touring the country as well as raising two sons as a single mom. She hasn’t slowed down one bit; this week alone in L.A. she played three days in a row, starting on Tuesday with performances of songs from her new duets album, “Threads,” with longtime galpal Stevie Nicks on “Ellen,” a Wednesday night show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Thursday. Next year she’ll play her adopted hometown of Nashville in January, then join Brandi Carlile as co-headliner of the Girls Just Wanna Weekend 2020, a five-day Lilith-like festival south of the border.

And while Crow has famously claimed that this will be her final album, she has no plans to retire. “The reason for my longevity is I just haven’t stopped,” says Crow. “I’ve been propelled by a sense of urgency to keep writing about what’s happening out there. And I have great women to look at who are symbols of keeping going and staying relevant: Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples, who’s 80. She’s out there playing every night and doing some of her best work. So I’ve got some really good templates.”

Back in 1996, you produced your second album yourself, which is remarkable because even today there are very few female producers.

I did it at the suggestion of my manager, who said, “You know how to record yourself. What’s the difference in the way you make your demos and the way you make your records?” It seemed like common sense to me, but at the time there weren’t any women producing themselves. Record labels would not have even encouraged that. Now that we’re in this movement where we’re actually talking about inequality of female presence in the music industry, I look back twenty-something years ago, and it’s kind of unbelievable. I feel extremely proud to have done it. And blessed there was a man in my corner saying, “Go produce your own records.”

You’re talking about longtime manager Scooter Weintraub but now that Scooter Braun purchased your record label, did you ever imagine you’d have two Scooters in your life? What are the odds?

I know, right? Very slim.

Did you get any pushback from the label on your decision to produce your second album?

I don’t remember there being a big discussion about it. I was already set up in a studio in New Orleans. We’d been down there for one day and the producer [Bill Bottrell from “Tuesday Night Music Club”] went back home. He just wasn’t feeling it. I called my manager and he said, “Well, just do it yourself.” Nobody ever came down and checked on me but my experience was probably quite different than a lot of other artists. Because generally you have a lot of record label people checking in on you. But we were left to our own devices in New Orleans, which led to the spirit of that record.

There were female singer-songwriters all over the charts at that time, but you’re the only one who been a consistent presence since then. Why do you think many of your peers stopped making music?

Sometimes the reason they move in a different direction is that women are typically the caretakers and they have families. And that’s part of the disadvantage that leads to shorter longevity for women in music: Family comes first. I would also say that even though a lot of those women are not around, I hear amazing female musicians on radio stations like Lightning 100 in Nashville that are geared towards Americana. I feel really optimistic about the kind of musicianship that’s happening in music made by women.

Were there any dream duet partners for “Threads” you couldn’t get?

There were really only two: One was a male and one was a female. And both of them for scheduling reasons. So there are people I have collaborated with in the past and will continue to — we didn’t capture it [all] on this record.

Stevie Nicks was no surprise. Why did you choose one of your longtime collaborators as opposed to someone new?

Stevie Nicks was my ticket out of my small hometown [Kennett] in Southern Missouri. I was a kid that spent countless hours listening to records and looking at album covers. Everything that I thought about being a musician and having that lifestyle came from the music that I heard and the photos that I saw in Rolling Stone and Creem magazines. Stevie was mythical to me: Her voice and her writing and the images of her ballet slippers and scarves and shawls. Many years later I met her at a Grammy party and we were like kindred souls. She’s been a north star for me. So she was the second person I called after working with Kris Kristofferson and starting this process on a course.

Speaking of Kris, what did you think of Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star is Born?”

I feel terrible about saying this but I did not see the movie. Eventually I’ll probably sit down and watch it but I’m a little squeamish about music movies to begin with. I did love the one [from 1976]. I loved Barbra Streisand. I loved Kris. He’s such a beautiful man and he put his entire self into that role.

You collaborated with Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples on the same song, “Live Wire.”

I had Mavis in mind when I wrote this song with Jeff Trott. Having grown up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I remember that she and her family were the soundtrack to all the social unrest in my hometown — and in all small hometowns across America. We recorded it while she was in Chicago and I was in on the road, so we FaceTimed and worked on it together. Then once I got it back I was like, “What would really make this thing incredible would be to have Bonnie on it.” She is kind of the thread between Mavis and I. She’s first female I ever saw holding an electric guitar when I was 17 and that was monumental for me. She’s connected not only to Mavis’ music, but also to Mavis herself, so we asked her to be a part of it.

So this album is like a tapestry that weaves together not only significant moments in American music but also your personal ties to iconic artists.

There are so many stories that are threads throughout my life and those threads connect me to all the people on this album. I was a young school teacher in the audience when Keith Richards was producing [the concert documentary] “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.” In the band was Steve Jordan, who was the producer of this record. And that was 30 years ago. You can’t write this stuff. I am in awe of how unpredictable and kind of wonderful life is.

Speaking of Keith: Why do male musicians get revered as legends with age but female artists are often dismissed as old and irrelevant?

There is definitely a double standard and it’s glaring. It’s not a good message about what beauty is to send to our young girls or our young boys. I’ve had some really dark moments where I’ve felt like quitting out of exhaustion over the topic, and over the practice, and over the fact that women are put out to pasture but men aren’t. We put men in the category of the great legacy artists whereas women are just old. I intend to keep doing what I’m doing with a sense of joy and gratitude but I’ll do it while embracing my age — and I’m going to force them to look at me. It’s not uncool to be older and wiser. And it’s not unsexy to not have a perfect nubile face and body — that’s beautiful. We need to encourage young women who are already getting their faces worked on to embrace the flaws and imperfections. The thing that concerns me is not just about the inequality in my business. You don’t see women agents or women heads at record labels or women engineers or women producers. You don’t see a lot of women musicians on the big TV shows. We need to correct that, but more importantly, we need to correct what we think is beautiful about a woman. And we have to do it in the plain light of day.

Have you noticed that male music writers often comment on, and sometimes criticize, the looks of a female artist, which they would never do to a male artist?

Definitely. In the first paragraph, they would talk about what I look like, what I was wearing. It’s just a go-to, you know? It’s not only laziness, it’s stupidity. Not to bash my critics, or critics in general; it’s the way throughout time we’ve seen each other. I don’t know if it’s changing yet, but the conversation is being had. And that is at least a step in the right direction.

Regarding your duet with the ghost of Johnny Cash, what did it mean to you when he covered “Redemption Day” from your self-produced sophomore album? And what inspired you to re-record it for “Threads?”

The whole thing came about when his son-in-law called me. I had just seen him weeks before at June Carter’s funeral, and he said, “My father-in-would like to cut ‘Redemption Day’ and he wants to talk to you.” [Johnny] asked me a lot of questions about different lyrics. He wanted to make sure he could put himself into every line in the song — which of course is why we loved him. I wrote it specifically about our involvement in Bosnia. But at the time he did it, there was a lot of talk about presidents in the Middle East. He felt like it was a moment of reckoning and that this song needed to be heard. He recorded it and passed away shortly thereafter. So with all that is happening in our country, and with the blessing of his family, I rewrote the music and played it to his vocal. For the longest time, it was just his vocal. I didn’t want to put my vocal on it, but my producer kept saying, “It’s not a Johnny Cash record. You have to put your voice on it.” And it was in the quiet hours of recording my voice with his that I realized this would be my last album. That felt so final and so profound to me and his presence was so tangible while recording it, I couldn’t see how I could follow it up. And that is the real reason I made the decision that this would be my last album. It’s difficult for me to even listen to that song knowing who he was and feeling the gravity of him singing these lyrics at this moment. I feel like he would be proud. And we really need him right now.

You have nine Grammys but didn’t receive any nominations for “Threads.” Does that really matter to you?

Listen, winning those Grammys on my first album changed the trajectory of my career. That was a monumental turning point in my life. I’m proud of the Grammys that I’ve won. But this album for me is so personal. Everyone who has meant something to me is on it. And the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because of those people. If it were nominated, that would’ve been icing on the cake. But just the fact that the album exists? That’s my award and my reward.

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