The lights and candles and wreaths were out in Sheryl Crow's Los Angeles living room -- in mid-June. Christmas came early in Crow's world this year because of an as-yet-untitled holiday album she's re

The lights and candles and wreaths were out in Sheryl Crow's Los Angeles living room-in mid-June. Christmas came early in Crow's world this year because of an as-yet-untitled holiday album she's recorded with producer Bill Bottrell for Hallmark's annual series, following releases by James Taylor, Barry Manilow and George Strait.

It'll drop into Hallmark Gold Crown stores in September, and Crow gave Billboard an exclusive sneak peek before stashing it away until then. "We grew up singing Christmas carols [with] four-part harmonies," she says. "Christmas wasn't Christmas until the Christmas Eve service, and we all sang in the choir. It's still that way."

Crow is turning her attention back to her regular repertoire this summer, however. She's currently in Europe for festivals in Denmark, Switzerland and Italy, then returns to North America for a tour with James Blunt that starts on July 24 in Nashville. In November she heads to Australia with John Mellencamp.

She's also among the many musical artists lining up in support of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama and hopes to play some role in support of his campaign.

"I know my manager's been talking to them," Crow says. "We're just putting schedules together and figuring out where we can be useful and what they need us for. I think his message is strong and clear. It's a message we need to start to believe in, and we need to stop with the cynicism and really manifest ourselves as being a part of what's happening in this country. We let some bad things happen on our watch; hopefully we'll never repeat that again.





What sent you in a Christmas direction?

I had been wanting to do this for awhile, so when the opportunity came up I just kind of jumped at it. I love Christmas music; every year we have this ritual after the Christmas Eve service, 40 or 50 people come over the house and we play Christmas music. We pretty much rely on the same Christmas music every year, and every year I've said, "I'm gonna make some Christmas music of my own." There's been lots of amazing Christmas records that have come out, but where Christmas music is concerned there's always room for everyone.

Given your friends and associates, Christmas Eve at Sheryl Crow's sounds pretty intriguing. Does someone get taken to task if he or she hits a bad note?

No, no, no-that's to be expected. That's what we call art, interpretation. [laughs]

What kind of approach are you taking with the release?

The album is just gorgeous. It's kind of a humble record; it's very sweet and innocent and a little bit of a throwback to maybe the '60s or '70s in production. It's definitely a departure from any Christmas record I've ever heard.

And the repertoire?

There's just a beautifully lush, kind of soulful version of "Oh Holy Night." And "All Through the Night," which is a traditional carol, actually; [Bottrell] put together a beautiful suite arrangement, which is a little bit of a departure from the stoic hymn version. But the lyrics for it are fantastic. And then there are just a few songs that are fun and everybody loves them-"Merry Christmas, Baby" and "White Christmas" and stuff like that.

Do these selections reflect your own favorites for the season?

They do, but also a lot of them we picked for the appropriateness of the time we're going through. We've got a lot of young kids who are overseas and away from their families. So we're doing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Bells of St. Mary," because they're about somebody being away. And also Bill penned a song called "Hello, Friend," which is about people coming back together at Christmas, which I think is really poignant.

How odd is it to be recording these songs in June?

It's weird, but any Christmas season I've had out here has been very similar. It's never been chilly when I've been here, or rainy. It's mostly been sunny, the Christmas seasons that I've been here. That's just Christmas in L.A.