Sheryl Crow hopes to ‘inspire a new generation of girls to pick up guitars’ with her new album
|National Post 23 Aug 2019 at 08:19|
A small-town girl” is how Sheryl Crow still sees herself. Sure, she’s sold more than 50 million albums over the past two decades. And sure, the list of collaborators on her new album, Threads, includes such rock’n’roll legends as Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt and (her ex-boyfriend) Eric Clapton. But that’s how Crow keeps describing herself to me. The appeal of her songs, such as All I Wanna Do and Every Day Is a Winding Road, has always lain in a raw, conversational ability to put a little heat under her tales of weary commuters, daytime drinkers and vending machine repairmen.
Striding forward to greet me, 57-year-old Crow is styled for the stadium in ripped skinny jeans and black lace, her outstretched arm A-list yoga-toned. But her sleepy smile and easy-going handshake are those of a regular single mum, in need of caffeine while her adopted sons (Wyatt, 12, and Levi, nine) get their hair cut across the road.
“The boys are really starting to enjoy being on the road now,” she tells me. “Two nights ago I opened for Phil Collins in Cologne and I had them helping out, bringing guitars on stage. But my youngest is such a negotiator. I offered to pay him $5 [pounds 4.14] a gig and he tried to bargain for a flat fee of $100 for the summer. I had to get my calculator to see if that squared up. He’s going to be my accountant one day!”
Her sons’ casual proximity to the stars is a far cry from Crow’s own childhood relationship with her musical heroes. Born in Kennett, Missouri, the third of four children of Bernice, a piano teacher, and Wendell, a lawyer, Crow would sit alone in her bedroom, poring over the sleeves of her favourite records, daydreaming about the stories behind the songs.
Sheryl Crow plays Casino Rama after just releasing her new studio album 100 Miles From Memphis. SEANNA KREAGER PHOTO Seanna Kreager / SunMedia
“I loved Carole King’s Tapestry, James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. I remember the poster that came with the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. To a small-town girl” — that phrase again — “they all seemed to come from another planet. Now I have had the good fortune to get to know them all, but I have never lost the thrill of that first connection to the music.”
Preppy and popular as a girl, Crow excelled academically and athletically before winning the local “Paperdoll” beauty pageant in her senior year. Yet she always felt like a girl “on the edge of things”. Even these days, as a bona fide star, she feels a degree of trepidation approaching her musical idols. “The working title for Threads was actually People I Love. I tried very hard to write songs they would approve of.”
Musical ambition brewed slowly as Crow went to college, joined a covers band and began working as a music teacher. She started recording advertising jingles in her spare time and, when the vocals for a McDonald’s commercial brought in more than a year’s teaching salary, she quit the day job. Next up came a “life-changing” gig as a backing singer on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour in the late Eighties.
Sheryl Crow performs with her son Wyatt on the main stage during Lilith Fair at McMahon Stadium on June 27, 2010. Laura Pedersen / Special to QMI Agency
“It was a crazy experience,” she says. “I mean, he was the biggest star of a generation and I got to sing a duet [I Just Can’t Stop Loving You] with him every night for 18 months. He was very exacting and the shows were very rote — the polar opposite of the kind of spontaneous gigs I do now. But I had never been out of the US before and suddenly I was on stage in Japan, then we were all running around Disneyland Tokyo in the middle of the night like a bunch of 12-year-olds…”
She winces. I ask if she has seen Leaving Neverland, the 2019 documentary exploring allegations that Jackson sexually abused two boys, one of whom was on that tour with Crow. “I haven’t seen the documentary,” she shakes her head. “And I don’t want to see it. I was around for some things that I thought were really strange and I had a lot of questions about.” She clams up, but has since spoken out at her anger at the “huge network of people” who enabled Jackson’s behaviour.
When Crow’s solo career took off, after the release of her double-platinum-selling Tuesday Night Music Club album in 1993, she ended up seeing Jackson again at the Grammy Awards. But although her photo had once been splashed across the tabloids as his rumoured lover, Jackson showed no sign of recognizing his former duet partner. She thinks it is possible he never even knew her name.
Success didn’t make Crow cool. She was embraced by an older generation of heritage rockers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, but not by her grungier peers. Yet Tuesday Night Music Club, like Alanis Morissette’s 1995 Jagged Little Pill, gave vent to an era-defining mood for women in the Nineties, both angry and blase: a simultaneous snarl and a shrug, a toss of the hair and a flick of the plectrum.
I wanted to collect experiences with all these amazing musicians while I still can. Because there are going to be less moments for all of us
Crow has always written protest songs. “I write about what I’m thinking about… gun control, climate change… all the challenges facing our kids, robbing them of their innocence.” The centrepiece of Threads is Redemption Day: an intense, anti-war song Crow wrote after a 1996 visit to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. It first appeared on that Wal-Mart-banned album but gained a wider following after Johnny Cash covered it on his posthumously released 2010 album American VI: Ain’t No Grave. Ever deferential, Crow describes Cash’s version as “the high point of my career” and has woven their vocals together for Threads.
“This record,” she says, “actually began with some recording I did with Kris Kristofferson a while back. He has been diagnosed with Lyme disease. He can’t make new memories. He can still remember song lyrics, he can tell great stories about his marriage to Rita Coolidge and landing his helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn. But he can’t remember what he just did. I just looked at him, this incredible guy who was like a musical Jack Kerouac to me in my college years: a romantic, rebel, poet. I realized all we have is now. All we have are these moments. I wanted to collect experiences with all these amazing musicians while I still can. Because there are going to be less moments for all of us.”
Crow says all this lightly. But her sense of her own mortality has been sharpened by “terrible experiences” with breast cancer (2006) and the discovery of a benign brain tumour in 2012. After a series of romances stalled on the brink of marriage (including her 2003-2006 relationship with cycling cheat Lance Armstrong), she decided to adopt children without waiting for a man to show up first.
I don t want to stay young to remain valid. I shouldn t need to. Older women have a lot to say
She won’t discuss her personal life in interviews, but tells me she has had a long and happy “musical marriage” with her songwriting partner Jeff Trott since 1996. “That works,” she says “because I have a lot of masculine energy and he has a lot of feminine energy. All our songs grow from conversations: him on guitar, me on bass, just talking until we find the groove.”
She still draws inspiration from the older women who appear on Threads. Stevie Nicks remains her “quintessential rock queen. Her voice is a manifestation of all the stories in her body. The problem is that anybody who sings with her winds up sounding like her. She’s a current you get swept up in. It can be quite a challenge to get the vocals separated in the mix!
“Emmylou Harris has followed a similar path to me, starting out as a collaborator and mining down deeper into herself as she’s gotten older. When she made Wrecking Ball (1995) on the brink of her 50s, she set the bar on how a woman could get more beautiful, more sexy, more meaningful with age.
“It bummed me out that Sia [the Australian singer who obscures her face with a giant wig] had to cover up so people wouldn’t know she was older. It should be cool to be older. I don’t want to stay young to remain valid. I shouldn’t need to. Older women have a lot to say.”
I remember reading that Crow was once asked not to play her guitar in videos because it blocked the view of her figure and she tells me this is true. “Even worse,” she says, “the guy who shot the video for If It Makes You Happy (1996), did it so you could see up my skirt. You could see my underwear.
“When I saw it I was shocked, I said: did it not behove you to ask my permission before you shot those frames? We don’t zoom in on the bulge in male artists’ pants, do we? When I complained, you would think I had gone to the record label with three heads. Or three boobs. They couldn’t see what the problem was. I said: it’s up to me who sees my undergarments, thank you. That’s my decision to make, not yours.”
Telling me that Threads will be her “final album, although there might be more singles”, she gives a like-ably humble assessment of her career. “Unlike some of the people who sing on my album, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so original it changed the world. But I hope I’ve helped inspire a new generation of girls to pick up guitars. I hope I’ve inspired men in a way that’s not just about my body. I hope I can help men find their truths as well as women. Because music has been too visual lately. There have been too many dance routines. I’d really love us all to turn our phones and our TV screens off and start listening again.”
Threads is out on Big Machine Records on Aug 30
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