February 2006

Turning Inward
An Exclusive Interview with Sheryl Crow
By Sean Nelson, MSN Music Editor

Feb. 10, 2006

For the last couple of years, Sheryl Crow has been more famous for her romantic companion than for her music. Such is life for the fiancée of one of the world's best-loved athletes -- no matter what she does for a living.

However, given the recent gossip-page revelation that Crow and Lance Armstrong are no longer a couple, it's worth remembering that it was not always thus. Beginning with 1993's "Tuesday Night Music Club," Crow has cut a consistent swath through the airwaves and up the charts, regardless of whatever pop flavor prevailed in any given month.

Initially dismissed as a lightweight for early middle-of-the-road hits such as "All I Wanna Do" (as in "is have some fun"), the former backup singer has become a legitimate career artist whose signature style is founded on surprising changes of direction. From the fluff of "All I Wanna Do" and "Leaving Las Vegas" to the torchlit "If It Makes You Happy" to the clever word-pop of "My Favorite Mistake" and "Anything But Down," and onward to bubblegum paeans such as "Soak Up the Sun," Crow's trademark is an ability to shift musical direction year after year the way other female veterans change images. Her latest departure is "Wildflower," an introspective collection that stands apart from its predecessor, the sun-soaked "C'mon, C'mon," every bit as much as that album stood apart from "The Globe Sessions" and so on, back to "Tuesday Night."

Crow spoke to MSN Music on the strict condition that we not ask any questions "about Lance." This was about two weeks before news of their breakup was announced. It'd be easy to read a lot of media strategizing into this demand, knowing what we now know. It's worth considering, however, that with the world demanding to know how it felt to be the paramour of an American hero, she just wanted to talk about her new record and her plans to head back out on the road with a string section.

MSN:"Wildflower" is considerably more midtempo and reflective than your past records, particularly "C'mon, C'mon." Were you worried about structuring a show around material that was both unfamiliar and subdued?

Crow: It's a funny thing, you know? I went and saw Neil Young play acoustically and he was just rolling with it, just kind of off-the-cuff. And you hope the audience goes along with you. For me, on this record, I feel like I've spent so many years on the road giving people the big hits ... I was just asking people to be open to being taken on a ride. We'd tell people at the beginning of the show, "Don't feel compelled to stand up and dance. It's OK if you just sit and listen." It's that kind of show. You have to give your audience the benefit of the doubt. They don't have to be entertained 25 hours a day.

MSN: Do you feel they stayed with you, even without the hits and the 25-hours-a-day of entertainment?

Crow: Yeah, I do! We were really careful to put the show together so that we didn't lose people. We had great production that kept people involved. But to be honest, I don't read my reviews, so I have no idea.

MSN: So, with that tour behind you, and life going on, do you feel that the record's introspective qualities communicate what you want to communicate? Are you still happy with it?

Crow:I don't listen to it. I really haven't listened to any of my records once I've made them. They're in the can, you know? I definitely made the record I hoped I was going to make. I had the intention of not thinking about it too much. It served me well: I took some time off and just wrote songs when I felt like it. And then by the time I got in the studio, I felt like I had a body of work that was cohesive and on point, and I like the record. I don't know what the reviews said, but people tell me that reviewers felt like it was too much of a departure, and some kind of even had a hostile tone about it. But I feel like, for where I am in my life, it's a pretty accurate depiction of who I am. That was really my objective: to share more of myself, and to have it feel like in the tradition of a Neil Young "Harvest," that the communication was just between the narrator and the listener. That's really what I wanted to achieve.

MSN: Does that mean you've been less comfortable with personal revelation in the past?

Crow:The records are basically a travelogue through my life. I think that most people who paint or who write poetry or who write songs or whatever would probably vouch that if you're really present, that you're at least documenting who you are. You're taking a snapshot of who you are. I think each record has definitely done that. This record, I just happened to be 40, and I just happened to not be interested in being commercially competitive. While that would be really nice -- it'd be great to have stuff on the radio -- radio's such a different thing to me now that to have that be one of the tenets while making a record would be very confusing.

MSN: Do you worry that you may not have the opportunity to make decisions like that forever, given the notoriously unforgiving nature of the record business, even for artists like you with strong track records?

Crow:I'm at a point now where the exercise is in not editing myself, not putting too much structure on myself. I definitely know I'll have other raucous records in me. But for what was going on around me, particularly in the world, with the crazy amount of chaos and deception, I felt like going inward, because I think that's the only place you can find peace. I don't know what the other records will be like, but I doubt they'll ever be exactly like the last one.

Is it my imagination, or are you singing from a different place than you usually do on this record? Particularly on songs such as "Good Is Good" and "Wildflower," it seems like you're in some whole new part of your register.

I'll tell you what's happened: I really wanted to make a record that was strong melodically, and I haven't been that conscious of that in the past. I'll play a show and invariably I have people coming up and telling me I'm a much better singer than I am on my records. I really wanted to have songs that were melodically driven.

I don't even mean the melodies, per se. I mean a gentler, more intimate vocal sound, not unlike the more intimate lyrics -- particularly in contrast to an old song such as "If It Makes You Happy," where you really belt it out.

I just didn't feel like doing that this time. I was writing at home and it just felt more ... it was kind of like when Springsteen made "The River."

MSN: Is that an indication of your evolution as a songwriter: from extroverted to introspective?

Crow:Gosh, there are a lot of different ways to look at songwriting. I mean, you can learn how to craft a pop song [but] I think when you learn it, you really work all your life to sort of not do it. For me, in the early days, I was really interested in writing narratives, both because of where I was in my life and because I'd been listening to a lot of Dylan and I felt it was more credible than first person songs. As I've gotten older, and as I realize that a lot of the material I loved growing up was country music, I just started writing from the heart and being less conscious of that stuff. But I still enjoy writing the odd story now and then.

I keep reading about the George Harrison influence on the record, though it seems to be less a melodic influence than a lyrical, or even a spiritual, one.

Yeah. I think actually around the time of "Light in Your Eyes," which was on the greatest hits record -- he passed right before then. I've always had "All Things Must Pass" in my top five records of all time, and I do listen to it a lot. I think what struck me most particularly, because of the times we're going through, was that he really endorsed the idea of going within to manifest goodness throughout. I think even in the way he passed, he conducted his life with the knowingness that life was short and that death is imminent, but that life goes on. I think that mindset was present when I was writing.

MSN: You keep referring to "the times" and "what's going on in the world" around you. What are you talking about specifically?

Crow:I think particularly in the United States, there's a lot of chaos and a tendency for people not to be able to absorb what's going on around them, so they go to sleep. I think that's why we've allowed ourselves to go to war without really demanding the truth. Also, we've watched, in our past elections, that a person's spirituality is key in whether they're going to be a good leader or not. I don't know that I disagree or agree with that; I just know that when you get into religion dictating policy and "whose god is the right god?" running the campaign, we've worked ourselves into a dangerous spot.

MSN: Given all that, what do you think your role is as a popular musician during times like these?

Crow:I guess throughout time, we've looked to artists to give some pulse to what's happening and also to give some voice to what we're experiencing. I do think there's a lot of music out there that's not founded in lyrical content, but I think that's a reflection of the times, too. People are in a bit of an escapist attitude, and [pop music] is an escape, just like reality TV is. But we're always going to have a need and a desire and a demand for singer-songwriters, by virtue of the fact that we're all experiencing the same questions, and it gives us some kind of solace to know we're not the only ones feeling that way.

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