A lot of has happened since Sheryl Crow’s fifth studio album, “Wildflower,” hit stores in September 2005. Her very public relationship and engagement with champion cyclist Lance Armstrong came to an end in early 2006, and soon thereafter Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer.
And just weeks before “Wildflower” was released — to mixed reviews and sales well below those of her past efforts — Hurricane Katrina wrought its lasting damage upon New Orleans and the surrounding area. Crow’s thoughts on the aftermath of that tragedy as well as the ongoing war in Iraq, politics and the environment are all addressed on “Detours,” her new A&M album due Feb. 5. First single “Love Is Free” is at radio now –it’s No. 17 on Billboard’s Triple A chart.
But the new set is not just about the past. Indeed, it also represents new beginnings and the return of an old friend. In the spring of 2007, Crow became a single mother when she adopted a 2-week-old baby boy, Wyatt Steven. Just months earlier, in October 2006, she had moved to a 150-acre farm 45 minutes outside of Nashville, in the rolling hills of Williamson County.
Occasionally cradling a cup of coffee as she sits with Billboard, Crow shared her candid thoughts about her music, her life and the world around us.
Why did you move to Nashville?
Sheryl Crow: I wanted to live here for a long time. I moved to L.A. in ‘87 and always felt like there was a purpose in my being in L.A. even though I was really there because I was always on the road. As I got older and wanted to slow down a little bit [I wanted to move here]. My family is all within three hours of here, my sister actually lives here. And I like this part of the world — it’s very reminiscent of where I grew up. I like lots of farmland and I like the people here and the music that comes out of here. Actually my last three records I finished in Nashville. I’d come here and hang out with my sister and work at Ocean Way [Studios].
You’ve appeared on a Brooks & Dunn record, recorded with Vince Gill and Willie Nelson. Are you becoming part of the Nashville music community?
Sheryl Crow: I guess. It’s a weird time now. Way back when I wanted to move here, pop wasn’t moving into the country scene. I see why it’s happening now. [It’s] because there is no room for people who are just singer/songwriters or who are in between rap, dance and straight-up country. I have great friends who live down here like Emmylou [Harris] and Steve Earle’s always been so great, and Vince [Gill] and Willie [Nelson], even though he doesn’t live here. I feel like I am beginning to be a part of a musical community, but I wouldn’t say I’m a country artist because I wouldn’t want to invalidate anybody else or to even begin to be so preposterous as to think I can just skate into town and get some fans.
Would you ever record a country record?
Sheryl Crow: I feel like my music kind of stems from this part of the world. I feel like there’s a very strong tie to Americana and lyrically to troubadour/country kinds of music, but in the tradition of old country. I couldn’t begin to understand how to make a new country record. I don’t even know what that is now. But, yeah, I would love to make a straight up old country record, which would probably never get played [laughs].
What music are you listening to?
Sheryl Crow: There’s great stuff out there, it’s just a little harder to find. I love Feist. I love this band Margerie Fair that opened up for me two summers ago. I love the Feeling, they have some good stuff. There are so many obscure bands who are doing cool stuff. I have a nephew who’s on MySpace and he’s always sending me stuff that’s not signed. There’s good stuff out there, it’s just not the commercial stuff.
With piracy and lagging sales, are there other models that the record industry should be trying?
Sheryl Crow: Absolutely. We are where we are for a lot of karmic reasons. The CD came out
and they slapped $18.99 on a piece of material that cost no more to manufacture than a cassette. They made all the money and there’s a karmic retribution that goes along with that kind of greed. The consumer’s not stupid.
We have to get to a business model where it’s fair to the artist; it’s 50/50. We share in the profits and then it escalates where once you’re paid off then you make even more of a percentage. The prices need to be lowered to something that’s consumer based. We’ve got to do away with CDs completely because until we do that people are just going to bootleg. I say let the system completely bottom out so we can get on with solving the problem.
Would you ever consider doing something like Radiohead did?
Sheryl Crow: I really appreciate the fact that they tried to do that and I understand what they were going for. I was disappointed with what the answer to their experiment was. Ten or 15 percent paid $6 or something like that. On the other end of the spectrum, though, they can do that because they have a big fan base. They go out and tour and make a lot of money. Young artists can’t do that and it sets a weird, wacky precedent. You shouldn’t have to do that. The message isn’t clear. For you to tell me what my art is worth to me is missing the mark. To artists who are starting out who don’t have a fanbase, who are touring and don’t draw people because people don’t know their music, I don’t think that’s the way to go. I don’t think giving away the music is the answer to people thinking that they shouldn’t have to pay for art when art is really what is going to get us through the worst of our times. Music, art, writing – it gives us a sense of who we are, a sense of our history, a sense of our future and it should provide some kind of comfort. It’s not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake, it’s an investment. So while I appreciate what they did I don’t think the message was clear cut.
Tell me about the song, “Love Is Free.”
Sheryl Crow: I think [it] actually came about after I was reading in the New York Times about Brad Pitt and what he’s doing [in New Orleans] and reflecting on my time down there. I spent three or four months working on the self-titled record there. It was such a great time because it was one of those moments in my career when I felt everyone was against me. My first record had done really well. Then [there was] all this backlash about how I didn’t write it, a bunch of men wrote it and they’re all mad and I can’t even play or sing. To be down in New Orleans, where there’s already that spirit of grit and voodoo and black magic, and just being able to kind of slink around the city and [be] like a kid, like a bratty teenager trying to prove myself, was such an exciting time. The inspiration for that song was thinking about that and seeing what it looks like now. It just breaks my heart.
“Gasoline” has a futuristic revolutionary theme to it. What is the story behind it?
Sheryl Crow: It’s like a science fiction song about looking back and proposing what it would have been like if people were really, really awake and took it to the streets. [It’s saying] we will not be oppressed by these oil prices dictating how we’re going to live our lives. It’s fantastical but at the same time hopefully it’s thought-provoking.
“Does Anybody Want You” has an ELO/George Harrison vibe to it. How did that happen? I know Bill Bottrell worked with ELO at one point.
Sheryl Crow: I kind of err on the side of George Harrison, I always have. He’s my favorite artist of all time and I just can’t help myself. I’m a sucker for it.
It’s interesting that on “Now That You’re Gone” you talk about being able to finally breath, and then “Drunk On the Thought of You” you say you can’t stand the freedom. Is that a paradox of love?
Sheryl Crow: What can I say, I’m a mixed up chick. [laughs] Everyone can attest to the fact that when you are newly out of a relationship, you just feel so immobilized by the pain of it. When you finally start waking up and you don’t feel sickened by all that pain, you feel like “I’m finally breathing deep again.” That’s what it’s about; it’s not so much even about the person. It’s about finally being through the worst of the sorrow and the grief and that deep, deep pain.
“Drunk On the Thought of You” is that propensity that we all have to jump right in with believing in love, which is the motivating factor in life. You believe in the purity of love and the possibility. That song is just all about possibility, to really love somebody again.
How did “Peace Be Upon Us” come about and how did Mike Elizondo come to play on it?
Sheryl Crow: I play bass and so does Bill, but I don’t play like Mike. On the song “Now That You’re Gone,” both Bill and I were like “we need a real bass player on this.” We called [Mike] and he brought down two pieces of, like little germs, of music and one of them was this little figure for “Peace Be Upon Us.” I started working on melody for it and lyrics and kept getting hung up.
In the morning when [my son] Wyatt’s up really early, that’s when I found I could kind of be clear. I started singing a bunch of syllables that just sounded great and I told Bill I wish I could just sing these syllables and he said “well, why don’t you? I said I don’t want to waste it and then it occurred to me that maybe it should be a different language. It became “what if the song’s about peace,” because it already had a Middle Eastern feel.
Will you tour this year?
Sheryl Crow: We’ll do a package in the summer, but we don’t know what that is yet. Hopefully we’ll be able to go to some [places] we haven’t been to in a long time, like Australia, Asia and South America. We’re getting ready to go to Europe to do some promotion in February. It’s a new frontier out there, it’s the wild west. We’ll continue to investigate new ways to get our music in front of people like all this
YouTube stuff—that’s new to me. We’ll just keep trying to stay current and stay little bit ahead of the game and get it all out there.
Fifteen years is a long time in this business. To what do you credit your longevity?
Sheryl Crow: Stubbornness [Laughs], that pathos that I will not be driven away. I laugh about that, but that is part of it. Part of it is I love what I do and I feel compelled to go out and play because there’s a lot of freedom in that for me and in that communication. I find a lot of joy just going out and playing for people.
But also I would say I’m really lucky. I would not be doing what I’m doing if I had to come up through the ranks the way you do now. I wouldn’t be able to do it. In fact, I wouldn’t even make the audition for “American Idol.” So I was lucky I got in at a time [I did]. I was at the tail end of the idea of being a troubadour, of being able to go out and hone your craft. I got to grow as an artist. There’s no denying that looking back to the first record to now, I’ve grown as a songwriter and as a musician and as a producer and as a performer. It’s wonderful I’ve gotten to do that. Today’s artists go out and you’re perfect and you’re choreographed and you can lip-synch with the best of them. I had the luxury of falling down a few times and picking myself up as a stronger version of myself.