The sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard without Sheryl Crow these days. After a successful second album, she's moving on--in several ways.
At 35, Sheryl Crow has two hit albums under her belt, five Grammy Awards and looks that most younger women would kill for. So you probably wouldn't peg her as someone who spends too much time worrying what people think about her. Guess again.
Since releasing her second A&M album last fall, the singer, who headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday, has given only a handful of interviews and refused to read all but three or four articles that have been written about her. It's been three years since "All I Wanna Do," a breezy single from her hugely successful debut album, "Tuesday Night Music Club," made Crow, a former backup vocalist for such artists as Michael Jackson and Don Henley, a pop star in her own right. But the Missouri native is clearly still a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of being fodder for journalists. "I find that not reading my press provides a more peaceful existence," Crow says, while picking at a slice of asparagus quiche in a downtown cafe. She moved here recently after living in Los Angeles for more than a decade.
"I realize that you have to approach the artifice of fame with a grand sense of humor. There was a period where I lost mine, and though I think I've gotten it back for the most part, I'm undeniably a person who is affected by other people's perceptions of me. I always wanna fix things, you know?"
If Crow seems a little thin-skinned, it should be noted that the media haven't given her an entirely easy ride. For example, because she co-wrote the songs on "Music Club" with a number of other musicians, there was some initial skepticism about how much of her creative vision the 1993 album truly represented.
It was later reported that there were bad feelings among a few of the collaborators themselves, who felt that in the wake of her success Crow was assuming too much credit for some of the material. Among these artists was Kevin Gilbert, who died in May 1996 of autoerotic asphyxiation. Though it was obviously an accident, reports of Gilbert's demise did little to elicit sympathy for Crow--particularly when it was revealed that the two had once been lovers.
Crow's vindication came last fall, when her second album, simply titled "Sheryl Crow," garnered better reviews than its predecessor, even though she was working with different musicians and doing more of the writing herself.
"Sheryl Crow" also avoided the sophomore slump commercially: The album has sold 2 million copies so far and spawned three popular singles.
When asked if she ever felt stifled by all the external pressure to meet fans' expectations and dispel critics' doubts, Crow smiles.
"You know what? I took it 20 steps beyond that," she says. "I always put so much pressure on myself to be great, to be the best that I can be, that I'll just kill myself--or beat myself up, at least. It's something I'm trying not to do. Early on, I felt like there were a lot of misconceptions about my first album that I needed to address. But in the end, it didn't matter, because I knew the truth and the people involved knew the truth.
"I went straight into [recording "Sheryl Crow"] after having toured for two and a half years, and what I really wanted was a snapshot of all that I'd been through. I didn't want it to be beautiful or embracing; I wanted to catch all that rawness and raggedness on tape."
With their vivid heartland imagery, the songs on the second album, which was recorded in New Orleans, also tap more deeply into Crow's roots.
"I think living in L.A. heavily influenced my first album," she says. "For 'Sheryl Crow,' I wanted to go back [home]. I wanted all the music that came out of there--country and Appalachian and blues--to seep in. I grew up 12 miles from the Mississippi, and all the women in my family grew up in that area."
In fact, although Crow's cross-country move was spurred by her love of New York City's energy, she plans to eventually settle--with her faithful mutt, Scout, in tow--in a place more like her original home. "I'm looking for some land," she says, grinning. "I wanna have some horses again. But I'm here on the East Coast--lock, stock and dog."
Growing up in the middle of the country had a big impact on Crow's artistic sensibility, she says, in that "the punk scene wasn't reaching my area. I was more inspired by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, and by writers like John Steinbeck and Dylan Thomas. . . . And I'll admit that my music is derivative. You can pick out the influences as soon as you hear it."
As an aspiring singer-songwriter in her 20s, Crow found that those influences weren't a strong selling point. Before A&M Records signed her in 1991, Crow had to struggle to be accepted on her own terms, even though she had already established herself as a top session singer and had written songs that were recorded by Eric Clapton and Wynonna Judd.
"In the mid-'80s, when I started trying to get a record deal, I wasn't taken seriously as a folk-oriented songwriter because of my looks," she recalls. "There's more of a community of women artists now, and being sexual or sensual is not only more acceptable but a big draw. Now I find that I can be whatever I want to be, and that's emancipating."
Crow stresses, however, that she doesn't consider herself a hard-line feminist. In fact, she hesitated for a moment before agreeing to perform on several dates of the Lilith Fair tour, this summer's hugely successful celebration of girl power in pop music.
"At first, I thought Lilith was about separatism, and about showing that we could rock as hard as men," the singer says. "But Lilith proved something by becoming the summer's hottest-selling ticket. . . . I think there's a tangible shift toward the power of women now, and not only in the United States or in the music business. Men are even trying to approach things in a more feminine, emotional way. It's really shaking things up."
Several of the catchy, blues-kissed songs on "Sheryl Crow" focus on unsettled women who aren't always lucky in their relationships with men. Although Crow is more of a storyteller than a straightforward confessional writer, she can plainly empathize with these characters.
"I'm not sure at this point that an everlasting relationship is one that I'd thrive in," she admits. "I mean, in a perfect world, I'd love to be in a situation like my parents, who have been together for 43 years. But I don't know how inspired I am by that kind of conventionality or commitment.
"I'm not seeing anyone right now. I went through a period, after coming out of a relationship, where I was really turned around, and I'm just starting to feel like myself again.
"[My former boyfriend] is a really incredible, evolved person. We did a great job of keeping our relationship alive, but that meant he had to come out on the road a lot, which can be a threatening and confusing place for someone. . . . I think three-fourths of a relationship revolves around timing, anyway."
The old flame that she is referring to is not a public figure like Eric Clapton, with whom she was linked in print earlier this year.
Regarding Clapton, Crow is evasive, stating simply, "Eric and I have known each other for seven or eight years. We're really close, and I'm his biggest fan, as a musician and a person."
She is plainly more bothered, though, by gossip that has paired her with married men. "My name has been linked with a couple of married people," Crow says. "And that has really disturbed me. Because it's not like [the man's] wife doesn't read those things. I think it's insensitive when writers are careless in that way. I know it's all supposed to be in fun, but at a certain point, it becomes hurtful, and dangerous."
For all her concern about such matters, Crow seems to be doing her best not to take any sort of gossip or naysaying to heart.
"Sheryl is learning to be more confident," says Scooter Weintraub, her longtime manager. "She is, I think, one of those stand-apart artists that has been given a difficult time in being asked to prove it. But this new album and tour are a huge chunk of proof."
Though she'll continue touring this fall, including six U.S. dates with the Rolling Stones, the singer is, true to form, busy assessing what challenges the future will hold.
"I'm entering a different period in my life," says Crow. "I'm really looking forward to making my next record, 'cause I feel like now I have the freedom to do something a little different. I think the more material you put out, the better picture people get of you. And I wanna answer all the questions--by myself."
* * Sheryl Crow appears Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. $27.50 and $35.50. (818) 622-4440.
By: Elysa Gardner
(Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York)