‘I was ready to have my life changed’: Sheryl Crow's journey from pop-rock princess to soulful survivor
By Louette Harding
Four years after her world came crashing down following a broken engagement and a battle with breast cancer, Sheryl Crow reveals how she has successfully rebuilt her life
The view from Sheryl Crow’s mansion-farm in Tennessee is of a neat swimming pool framed by pergolas and beyond it undulating fields and woods. High above, three huge birds are riding the thermals. ‘Vultures,’ Sheryl tells me after she winds up a telephone call and joins me on the verandah.
Birds of ill omen? Hardly. She bought the 154-acre property in 2006, escaping genuine bad luck. That February, in a brutal double whammy, her three-year relationship with cyclist Lance Armstrong capsized before their planned wedding and shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, at 48, in a lacy white dress and with long, blonde hair, she gives a simultaneous impression of rock-star girlishness and strength. She is lithe and muscular but the vigour comes from her directness rather than her frame. ‘We underestimate how short our walk on this planet is,’ she says. ‘We walk through our lives looking for people who value us. We start creating our shell and we thicken and polish it. That’s what we learn, that’s what we teach and that’s how we navigate through life.’
From the house comes an infant wail, a reminder of her purposeful reaction to her crisis. As she was recuperating, she decided to adopt a son – Wyatt, now three – and has just adopted a second, Levi James. She brought him home from a neighbouring state three days after his birth. Still only a few weeks old, with skin like a crumpled petal, he is being fed by his nanny in the kitchen among a muddle of Wyatt’s toys.
‘I don’t usually read what people blog about me but I’ve read some beautiful things about me and adoption and some hateful things. I think people don’t understand: it’s not like you can go to some outlet and pick up a baby because you’ve got a record to promote. An adoptive mother goes through more hoops than those people who thoughtlessly become pregnant. I had about ten adoptions fall through last year so there was a real sense of relief when he was mine. It’s a long process and it’s fraught with uncertainty. Another person is carrying a baby and when that baby finally arrives their feelings may have changed.’
Sheryl manages single motherhood within the emotional framework provided by her family who all live in the southern States, within a four-hour drive. ‘A main reason for staying here is that the children have their cousins around and their [two] aunts and uncle and their grandparents.’ 100 Miles From Memphis, the title of her latest record, is a nostalgic reference to her childhood, the evenings in Kennett, Missouri, when she tuned her big sister’s radio to the soul sounds coming out of Memphis. ‘It was the big city, a trip there was an adventure, and its music was the soundtrack to small-town life where so much revolved around hooking up with friends and driving round in your cars.’
She didn’t escape until she was 26, having first accommodated her lawyer father and piano-teacher mother by training as a teacher herself.
‘Something to fall back on – that old line which ends up being the great motivator! I remember coming home on a Tuesday and telling my parents I wanted to move to LA [to kick-start her musical career]. They were so adamantly opposed. I said, “I’m going.” They said, “When are you going?” I said, “On Sunday.” That was the extent of the conversation.’ It was perhaps her first act of rebellion. As the third of four, ‘I was the people pleaser, the good kid. I drove out by myself to the house I was going to stay at in Redondo Beach. The girls and guys were doing blow [cocaine] upstairs. It was a big party house and offered a real schooling in LA life, you know? But I think my naiveté worked in my favour because I simply assumed that if I worked hard my career would work out.’
That was the pattern for the next two decades. She worked industriously, sandwiching in unsatisfactory relationships with men. (Eric Clapton and Owen Wilson are past partners.) She started as a backing singer on a Michael Jackson tour, duetting with him nightly, and eventually broke through with her light-rock album Tuesday Night Music Club in 1993, and single ‘All I Wanna Do’ in 1994.
She has since won nine Grammys, sold 35 million records and collaborated with the Rolling Stones, Clapton and Sting. But when she met Lance Armstrong in 2003 she was jaded, ready to throttle back while supporting the cancer survivor – he’d had testicular cancer that spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain – in his record seven consecutive Tour de France wins. She moved to his home in Texas and grew fond of his three children by his first marriage. She was nurturing ‘a relationship that did not revolve around squeezing it into my career’.
I ask her about her achievements before this and she says baldly, ‘I would say I was proud I had perambulated through a career that was relatively unscathed by scandal or negativity,’ which is astonishingly modest. ‘I think I was an innocuous artist who was consistently productive,’ she insists. ‘I defined myself by being productive. I stayed in a perpetual routine of playing and creating, trying to be a good role model, blah, blah. In 2006, when everything came crashing, I realised there was a lot of artifice in that to do with my mythology as a child.’
Not only did she question herself as an artist but also as a woman. ‘To be liked and appreciated, to be always good is not realistic, nor does it make you lovable, nor does it make you heard or seen.’ Her tone is matter-of-fact rather than bitter.
Armstrong has since claimed their relationship foundered on her wish for children, though she has said the problems ran deeper. All the same, she was giving a chirpy interview about the wedding only weeks before their breakup was announced. On 11 February 2006, a few days after the news was made public, a routine mammogram highlighted abnormalities in her left breast and she underwent a lumpectomy and radiotherapy for stage one cancer. Armstrong immediately offered his support but she was too raw to want to see him so soon after their split.
‘Everything came to a screeching halt and it created an opportunity to rewrite my future, whether I wanted it or not,’ Sheryl says now. ‘It was a coming to terms with the way my life functioned by habit. I didn’t understand, until those events collided, how to live through an emotion. We in Western culture have perfected the idea of trying not to think about it, keeping busy, focusing on the good stuff. And you wind up having a stockpile of emotions you haven’t dealt with that ultimately bring you to bad health or a lot of failed relationships.’
She struggled with depression in her 20s and now sees it as a symptom of her busyness and her need to take care of everyone else.
‘For me, I think depression has been synonymous with trying to do so many things. I think about how deeply exhausted I was, feeling that sense of panic of “I’ve got to do everything that comes my way,” not understanding I could say no.’
‘It’s easy to write songs and share emotions; there’s no risk in that. There’s real risk in the one-on-one’
In a ‘frenetic and unbalanced’ state after the diagnosis, her first reaction was ‘kneejerk’: buying this property which offered a retreat, ‘so I could lick my wounds’. Also, ‘I had let my friendships in LA go and didn’t feel at home there any more.’
She made a pact with herself. ‘I had lost so much I believed was going to be mine – loss of dreams, everything. People think writing songs is cathartic but I decided I would not distract myself from feeling by going to an instrument and making a song out of it.’ And she moved quickly to adopt. ‘I was ready to have my life changed.’
I ask her if before adopting Wyatt she felt of prime importance to anyone else.
‘I never looked at it like that. There is a certain amount of wanting to be seen that goes along with standing in front of 10,000 people, playing songs. There’s a desire to feel a connection. Intimacy is a huge issue – the fear of revealing yourself, the fear of being abandoned. It’s easy to write songs and share common emotions; there’s not a high risk in that. There’s real high risk in the one-on-one. That’s one of the things about celebrity. I think people look at me and assume I don’t want to be asked out on a date because I must have flocks of men around me.’ She’s single? ‘I’m single now but I’ve had some great relationships even since I’ve lived here. But it’s different when you’re a mum. You choose carefully.’
There’s a contradiction in these statements that suggests she’s still a little defensive. As she says, ‘I have to practise vulnerability. That’s a life-long lesson.’ 100 Miles From Memphis is, she says, an exploration of vulnerability. ‘It’s about voicing desire and love, revealing yourself. It’s about not being afraid to be sexy. That for me is uncharted territory. And it’s an exploration of influences that have only been touched upon in past records.’ She means the echo of soul sounds from her childhood listening, which included Michael Jackson. Cutting a Marvin Gaye track, she found herself instinctively morphing into Jackson’s ‘I Want You Back’. ‘I sound like him in that range, and at the end everybody went, “Wow! We’re keeping that!” It’s made me introspective about my time with him. It was easy for the world to look at him as a freak, but man! When you look at how truly influential he was…’
Did she get to know him? ‘Very little. I got to know him as well as anybody on that tour. I got to hang out with him in private a few times but I think his trust was low and his desire to bring in new people, particularly adults, was less than it had been.’
She senses that the world judges her music differently since her forced transformation from pop-rock princess to intelligent survivor.
‘I chose one avenue, which was Larry King [the nightly CNN chat show], to talk about the diagnosis and what it meant to a controlling person to have my life crumble. And my having spoken changed my career overnight. People felt differently about me and my art. It wasn’t, “All I want to do is have some fun”. That moment was cataclysmic, though not intentionally. There was no fun talking about it.’
And yet she has always been more highly valued than she supposes, as her past collaborators indicate. On this record, Keith Richards turned up to play on a reggae track and Justin Timberlake to harmonise on Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘Sign Your Name’.
‘What can I say? It tickles me. I could not have asked for a more incredible line-up. To be in the Henson studios [in LA] and to be recording a totally dedicated Memphis sound and to have Justin Timberlake in the hallway insisting on doing the background vocals!’
Did it give the people pleaser a sense of validity?
‘I feel I shed that skin when I went through radiation. Every morning I would go in and lie on that aluminium table with my arm over my head and I would face this massive mothership – the irradiation machinery was like an alien spaceship – and I met myself on that table. I met somebody I had forgotten about. Sometimes I feel our lives are set up purposefully with events that reveal where we’ve gotten off track. I don’t have that sense of people pleasing any more.’
She is about to go on tour with her sons in tow; their lives, down to a portable swimming pool, are transported with them. The country artists in the central southern States tour at weekends. ‘It’s going to be like that for me in the future. I won’t demand my children’s lives revolve around mine when they start school.’ The nanny interrupts: Wyatt has a play-date. Sheryl says she has a ‘great little tribe of girlfriends’ in Tennessee and has reconnected with her friends in LA, who include Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox. ‘I talk to my girlfriends there very frequently.’ So you don’t feel you’re miles from where everything’s happening? ‘No. I love dipping my toe into it. I do miss my girlfriends but when I’m there, after two or three weeks, I get really itchy to come back here and be quiet. It’s just life,’ she adds with a smile.