Sheryl Crow Tells Katie Couric, “This is My Year of Getting Out of My Comfort Zone”
Eco activist, breast cancer survivor and, oh yeah, music industry pioneer, the amazing Sheryl Crow opens up to Glamour columnist Katie Couric about the special man in her life (her son) and how she’s “getting her rocks off ” with her sexy new album.
To see Katie’s latest celebrity interviews, go to @Katiecouric.
Editor’s note: A shorter version of this edited conversation appears in the July issue of Glamour.
KATIE COURIC: Give me a quick update on your life.
SHERYL CROW: Yesterday was my four-year anniversary of being done with cancer. I had my last treatment four years ago.
KATIE COURIC: Congratulations!
SHERYL CROW: Yes. I’m totally healthy. I have a three-year-old son who is just so much fun. And he’s at that age now where I can visibly see him learning. And it’s fun to introduce him to things for the first time.
KATIE COURIC: Yeah.
SHERYL CROW: I’m an older mom, so now I’m able to take stock every minute of the day without being like, Where am I going next? What am I doing? I think it’s because I’m an older mom, but it’s been really fun. Just did my first bit of acting. I think I was pretty fabulous. And I’m hoping to be nominated for an Emmy [laughs].
KATIE COURIC: Oh, that’s right—you were in Cougar Town. Was that fun?
SHERYL CROW: It was a blast. I mean, it didn’t hurt that I was doing it with one of my best friends.
KATIE COURIC: Courteney [Cox].
SHERYL CROW: That does make it easier, yeah. It was really, really fun to do. I declared that this year is my year of getting out of my comfort zone and doing things I haven’t done before. So that was the first thing.
KATIE COURIC: Would you like to do more acting?
SHERYL CROW: I don’t know. Literally it was, Hey, I’ve never done this before, I’m totally scared to do it so I’m going to do it. I’m going to jump off the cliff.
KATIE COURIC: You say this is your year to get out of your comfort zone. What other things do you envision when you say that?
SHERYL CROW: When I turned 40, I got my old dirt bike out and I started going to dirt bike tracks and doing jumps. I learned how to surf.
KATIE COURIC: Really?
SHERYL CROW: Yes. So now that I’m 48, what to me is getting out of my comfort zone is doing stuff that makes me feel squeamish. One of those things actually that I’m doing now: I’m making a record where I’m letting a couple of guys produce it. I am simply singing. I’m singing the way that I love to sing, which is like old soul, like old Al Green. I grew up about an hour from Memphis. So all that music that I grew up with—the Stax music and early rhythm ‘n’ blues—I’m doing that. I’m actually getting out from behind my guitar and I’m singing.
KATIE COURIC: It sounds like you had a ball.
SHERYL CROW: I had the most fun. And I’ve been with my same band for, you know, some of them for 13, 14 years. I’m going out this summer with a completely different group.
KATIE COURIC: Fun. So is this the totally different band, the one you did the album with?
SHERYL CROW: Totally different band. Yeah.
KATIE COURIC: Fun.
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. And they’re all really like—I mean, my other musicians are great musicians, but these guys are like—they’re from that genre. They can play groove music and R&B till the cows come home. And it’s really a sexy record—my records are always so political or socially conscious. And there’s none of that. This is all about sex, sex, sex. From somebody who hasn’t had a date in like three years.
KATIE COURIC: Oh, that’s funny. You recently won an award from the Matrix, [New York] Women in Communications, for your work. And you talked about kind of the conflict between producing records that are commercially viable and those that really reflect kind of your core.
SHERYL CROW: Right.
KATIE COURIC: I know you probably have struggled with that. Where does this record fall in line in terms of those two worlds that you have to navigate?
SHERYL CROW: There are a couple of songs on there that are sort of Marvin Gaye-ish, in that they touch on what’s going on socio-politically. But for the most part, this record was about how I felt. It was definitely more liberating for me to sit down and write about the emotion of sensuality and of sexuality and how that, too, is as important probably as being smart and intellectual. There’s nothing dumb about the record, and it definitely doesn’t cater to sex like what we see now in all the magazines and what we see in the videos and what we hear in music. It’s definitely not current sex. That’s funny ‘cause I was listening to a song by an artist who’s out right now whom I absolutely love. The song is about how large the guy is, talking in terms of sex and anatomy. And it’s such a porn thing to me at my age to—
KATIE COURIC: To be so overt?
SHERYL CROW: I guess we’re at a place now in our consciousness where we talk about everything—there are no taboos. So it’s hard for me to get that part out of myself. But the last record was about George Bush; it was about the heartache of losing a relationship. It was about the environment; it was about the distrust that we have in our leaders. It was about all those things, and when I delivered it to the record label, they said this was a brilliant record and nobody wants to hear it. I think people are so unable to hold the amount of chaotic energy that we deal with every day.
KATIE COURIC: They want to escape.
SHERYL CROW: Our propensity is to really want to escape. And I understand it. So that’s a reflection too of where we are in our consciousness—that we don’t want Bob Dylan right now, we don’t want somebody reflecting back to us what it is we’re trying to get away from.
KATIE COURIC: Is that inhibiting creatively for you, though? It must be. I can’t imagine that—it must be disappointing in a way.
SHERYL CROW: It’s disappointing for me in that it’s just not a good time for us as people to check out. It’s one of those things where I look at it, and go OK—in the sixties, if what was happening on Wall Street was happening, people were losing their homes, and what was happening on Main Street as a reflection of what’s going on with Wall Street, people would be in the street. We’re so comfortable now, and we don’t go out into the streets, we don’t leave our homes. We get mad at home and then we turn the TV off and it’s on to the next thing. I think that is our sleep posture, where we just can’t take ourselves out and cause a riot or a revolution because there isn’t that momentum coming from everybody as a collective movement.
KATIE COURIC: What do you think of the Tea Party movement? Because that is the specific sort of group of people who would say we’re out there, we’re getting involved in the process and—
SHERYL CROW: I think our system is broken in ways that can’t be fixed at this moment until we get some kind of campaign finance reform and we get people in office who—I think perhaps everybody starts off in office being altruistic and thinking they’re going to make big changes, and then they see the big dollars coming in. I don’t know what it is at the most fundamental level that…you know, what’s first, the chicken or the egg? But I appreciate the fact that those people are out there and that they are fired up.
My main concern is that it’s really fear-based. What’s coming out of the Tea Party most often, especially if you go onto YouTube, and you see some of the interviews with these people who really don’t even know what the issues are, they’re just swept up in the fear of it and the anger of it. They’re not sure what they’re angry at; they don’t understand what’s happening on Wall Street. They haven’t educated themselves, but they’re just pissed off. And I understand that, I’m pissed off too. But knowledge is power, and anything less than that when it comes to anger can be dangerous.
KATIE COURIC: So tell me about how you deal with being a breast cancer survivor. And how do you put it in its proper place and have the right combination of gratitude for your health but also keep your fear at bay?
SHERYL CROW: With my breast cancer experience, I treat it like every other really challenging experience in that I’ve let it inform the rest of my life. I don’t think anybody can help having it be a game changer and be a reflection on the rest of your life insofar as the decisions you make and how you treat situations. For me, I used to sweat the tiniest things. I felt like I was a raw wire because I was working all the time, I didn’t know how to say no, I was constantly trying to please everybody around me.
KATIE COURIC: Prove yourself to you.
SHERYL CROW: Prove myself to the world, to myself. I was constantly chasing the perfect scenario. Any diagnosis—whether it’s breast cancer or whatever it is that makes you stop and reflect and take stock and reevaluate and redefine and then ultimately refine—will do that. And it will continue to inform your life. And in my situation it informed my art, it’s informed my decision-making. It had everything to do with the fact that I adopted my son. As soon as I was done with breast cancer, I was like, You know what? If you want to be a mom, it’s not that you’re taking the man out of the equation, it’s that you’re giving a child somebody who wants to be their mom. You’re locked into this picture of what that’s supposed to look like. It’s supposed to look like falling in love and a marriage and a house and all that. Maybe that picture is what’s limiting your opportunity.
Nobody thinks that OK, when I turn 44, I’m going to get breast cancer and then I’m going to start living my life differently. You can never know what’s right around the corner for you. I seemingly should not have gotten breast cancer and I did. And I don’t live with the fear that it’s coming back. But in my situation, there was something beautifully timely about when I got my diagnosis—it was at a point in my life where I needed to learn some lessons about who I was and how I was living and who I was living my life for.
I keep the [blue radiation] tattoos on my chest to remind myself that this experience was the epiphany in my life that changed the scope of how the rest of my life would look and feel.
KATIE COURIC: You are sort of a political activist in a lot of different areas. Which cause are you most committed to? Do you ever feel like you’re spreading yourself too thin? Do you worry about that?
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. I’m super careful about saying yes to only the things I’m very, very invested in, even though, let’s face it, an earthquake happens in Haiti and I am the first person who wants to just like jump in a plane and go there and stop everything else. But there are certain things that I feel like I’ve become a mouthpiece for, or a poster child for, and I don’t forsake that as an opportunity. One of them is the environment. That for me is the mother ship, because under the umbrella of the environment, everything else follows. If the planet dies, we die. It doesn’t matter what disease you have. When a planet starts ailing, which it is, there’s a trickle-down effect that we are still trying to wrestle with. Just the idea that malaria could become a problem in this country because of the environment—I want to find a cure for cancer, but for me right now, it’s let’s grab the tiger by the tail while the tiger is at least not going a million miles an hour. At least it’s in our grasp to turn the environment around, at least turn global warming around. We’re still busy arguing about whether it exists.
All of the information that has come out by the world’s most renowned scientists, I think in some ways, it falls on party lines. I think environmental issues to conservatives oftentimes intimate big government. My philosophy about it is even if you feel like arguing the science, you still have an obligation to leave this planet better than you found it, if you have kids or if you have people that you love that are younger than you. Why argue it? My mom always said, “Hey, you’ve got to leave the campground nicer than you found it.” That’s my philosophy.
If you’re going to live in a wasteful manner, if you’re going to drive a giant car, and you’re going to live not considering that you share the planet with everybody else, then shame on you.
KATIE COURIC: You have I guess gotten some negative publicity for speaking out and dressing down Karl Rove, for example, at the [White House] Correspondents Dinner a few years ago, about the Bush administration’s environmental policy. Do you have any regrets about doing that?
SHERYL CROW: Oh gosh, no. Not at all. It was an interesting thing that happened. I’m sure you knew about the whole toilet tissue thing. That was interesting for me, a really eye-opening illustration of how the government can work and how TV can work. The night after what was seemingly a humiliating moment for Karl Rove, there was the biggest campaign about Sheryl Crow wanting to legislate how much toilet tissue we could use. It was a spin like I’ve never seen. Watching these panels of people discuss me and my environmental beliefs and how fascist it is that I would decide if people could use toilet tissue and whatever. Debating this like it was real news and people getting, you know, and my brother getting his yard TP’d and all kinds of crazy threats, like just craziness. And I still get—when people write about me, Sheryl Crow, environmentalist, toilet tissue, blah blah blah.
KATIE COURIC: So when you Google yourself, you see Sheryl Crow and toilet paper? How did the whole thing snowball?
SHERYL CROW: It was part of a skit that I was doing onstage with my guitar player during the Stop Global Warming [College] Tour. But it was almost like as soon as the Karl Rove thing came out, there had to be a deflection from that onto me, so how can we discredit her. So they go back and they find this quote on The Huffington Post about…’cause I’d also blogged from our skit. I was like, What about creating a sleeve that you can use to wash your mouth? You take it off and wash it and then you put it back on for dinner—all these ridiculous ideas, right? And they picked that out and they ran it.
KATIE COURIC: And they treated it seriously?
SHERYL CROW: Just to discredit me and to make me look silly.
KATIE COURIC: Did that make you feel less inclined to stick your head out, stick your neck out and to be outspoken about issues you care about deeply?
SHERYL CROW: It made me so sad. It made me sad because I know how many people out there actually sit there in front of the TV, and they watch and believe what they see these people arguing about. And it’s terrifying to me; that is not the kind of leadership that I’m looking for. And it’s not the kind of leadership that I want. And I hope you print that. It’s not the kind of leadership we deserve. And yet we just get sucked into it. So it really was saddening to me. Then I thought wow, you know, that’s how quick we can be drawn up into a campaign that’s not based on reality and get sucked in.
KATIE COURIC: I think we live in a culture where it is easy and desirable almost to tear things down and to rip people apart, rather than sort of stretch ourselves to come up with solutions.
SHERYL CROW: And reason. I feel like reason has gone out the window. I feel like in the last 12 years, we’ve lost our ability to approach almost anything that challenges us with reason. It’s easier to throw reason out the door and become fist-throwing and reload and get caught up in some kind of fray of fear—momentum based on fear.
KATIE COURIC: But I do feel like September 11 did—there were legitimate reasons to be afraid, and I think that that colored everybody’s reaction in terms of what we as a nation could do to maintain our security and keep the people safe. So I think when there is a background of fear, sometimes people make decisions that they normally wouldn’t. Because I think it’s a very, very powerful emotion.
SHERYL CROW: Love and fear—those are the only two emotions, so they say. I think for me, I just want us to start wanting better for ourselves. In some ways I feel like we’ve lost that sense of ourselves, that we can want better for ourselves and that we do deserve it, instead of staying in the norm. Especially right now.
KATIE COURIC: I think the economy too, though, also. When people are struggling economically and there’s a crisis in their own homes and they don’t know if they’re going to be able to support their families or feed their kids or send them to college…sometimes that elicits a lot of reactions that good economic times don’t. Don’t you think?
SHERYL CROW: I agree. And I think sometimes with that, you need someplace to place blame. Just to give yourself a break from the fear of what can possibly be happening. It’s all a reflection of what’s all around us.
KATIE COURIC: But you still feel hopeful and you feel that people—
SHERYL CROW: Are innately good.
KATIE COURIC: And that you can have an impact by talking about things you care deeply about?
SHERYL CROW: I do. Oh, absolutely I do. One of the things I talk about frequently, whether it falls on deaf ears or doesn’t, is the idea of meditation as a practice of quieting ourselves and actually listening to what the truth is, to help us navigate through our days and have some place to go that isn’t a knee-jerk, fear-based reaction. Sometimes it’s hard to find a way to do that. For most people, meditation is really difficult. I find it to be hard when I’m really tired; I go to sleep. But just even 15 minutes in the morning, just to start your day off listening to the truth that is in all of us—the truth that defines us, that keeps us bound together.
But yeah, I look around me and I think, God, there are so many great things to concentrate on. I mean, every day I wake up with a thee-year-old, so that does definitely inform how I look at the rest of the world. When I speak to people, I try not to take that cynical take. Because I’ve noticed that with public speakers a lot, that sort of snarky thing is becoming the norm.
KATIE COURIC: I agree. And I think sometimes people worry that uplifting and positive is…
SHERYL CROW: Corny.
KATIE COURIC: Unsophisticated and corny, yeah. You did a mentor program with Michelle Obama. Are you still involved with that? What was that experience like for you?
SHERYL CROW: I loved it. I’m such a big fan of hers. She’s a true rock star to me. She invited young girls to the White House and had a big dinner and had female leaders from lots of areas. During the day we’d actually gone out into the field, the different schools, and spoke with young kids, high school kid-age. When you get out and you talk to these young people, you forget just how unbelievably in tune and savvy they are. They ask the big questions and they want to know the real truth about things. That’s why it’s such an amazing experience to go out and actually be able to have an effect, a good and positive effect. I always come away from it feeling more edified probably than they do.
That day in the White House, only being able to look at it from the standpoint of what it would be like if I were 17 again and getting to have some of my heroes in the room—Lisa Leslie and Susan Rice. Even that for me was huge. And obviously Michelle Obama. And Alicia Keys. So many women are at the forefront of their fields. It was very empowering and inspiring and uplifting for all of us. And also the great thing, too, was that Mrs. Obama brought us all in and she said, this is the people’s house and my goal is to start bringing the people in—if they’re young girls that don’t have as much opportunity and bringing them into the people’s house, being a motivator. That message alone for me was empowering.
KATIE COURIC: Did it make you envious? Because sometimes I speak to high school or college students and I think, Gee, they have so much ahead of them. Sometimes I’m envious of being where they are.
SHERYL CROW: But the thing about it is, I look at it and I go, I want to be where they are, but I want to have learned all the things I’ve already learned and start back there, you know, with what I know.
KATIE COURIC: In fact, a Glamour reader, Melissa Bacchus, asks, “From music teacher to Grammy Award-winning artist, is there any part of your journey that you’d like to do over?”
SHERYL CROW: I have to say no, because where I am right now—I wouldn’t trade it for—OK, I’d trade it to be 21 again. [laughs.] But other than that, I really feel like how I got here, all the factors that lined up the journey, if you took one out, it might be different.
KATIE COURIC: One thing, though?
SHERYL CROW: Certainly early on I would have approached things in my career differently. I would have taken better care of myself, and I would have learned how to say no earlier on. But you just don’t get your lessons until the second you get ‘em. That’s one of the things my journey has taught me, is that you have to go through the full experience before you actually really get the lesson. The other thing that would have been great was if I could have gone, if I could have started my career earlier. I mean, basically my first record came out when I was 30. And by the time you’re 30 in rock star years, you’re done. So I’ve had a great career, but it would have been great to have gotten in that extra 10 years. But who’s to say if I’d gone out 10 years earlier, I would have had this career.
KATIE COURIC: Alright, I’ve got more Glamour questions. What inspires you to write great songs? That’s from Cynthia Waders.
SHERYL CROW: Well, you never know a song’s going to be great. But the thing that keeps me writing songs is that I always feel like my best work is in front of me. I always feel like my best work is ahead of me, and I still listen to songs that I’ve known my whole life, like “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. I listen to stuff like that and I think, Can I write that? And that’s what keeps me going. And I also know the feeling of having written something that really moved me and how good that feels.
KATIE COURIC: Which of your songs has most moved you?
SHERYL CROW: Years ago I wrote a song called “Redemption Day,” and I listen to it now and I still get the same emotion that I did when I was recording it. And then Johnny Cash recorded it three months before he died. So it’s—
KATIE COURIC: That’s a pretty high honor, isn’t it?
SHERYL CROW: It really—actually, that’s the highest honor I’ve ever had of anything in my whole life. Him calling me and asking me, “What were you thinking when you wrote this?” And him telling me about what it meant to him…that was a true testament to him as an artist, wanting to be able to deliver a song and understand what it meant.
KATIE COURIC: That’s unusual, right?
SHERYL CROW: I’ve never had anybody do that, ever—particularly a hero or an icon. But that song and the song “Home,” because of what I was going through, and “My Favorite Mistake.” And still, when I hear “My Favorite Mistake,” it’s the only song of mine that when I hear it on the radio, I don’t turn it off.
KATIE COURIC: Really?
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. I can listen to it, and I still feel the satisfaction of having told a story about somebody I really loved but couldn’t have.
KATIE COURIC: Do you write better songs when you’re in pain or when you’re happy?
SHERYL CROW: Not when I’m happy. I don’t want to sit down and write when I’m happy. When I’m happy, I want to be doing something joyful. Writing for me is not necessarily a joyful experience, it’s more of a…I hate to use the word cathartic ‘cause it’s so… But yeah, generally I like to go through the pain and then have a little distance so I can have an overview. That’s why when I went through the whole cancer thing and the breakup, I didn’t write at all. I didn’t write for a year because I made a vow to myself I was going to go and bury myself in my work, which is what we do.
KATIE COURIC: I can’t imagine, though, being a songwriter. Because to me, being busy when you’re hurting would be all about writing about the hurt. So you can’t really escape it.
SHERYL CROW: No. But if you’re like me, there’s the tie-in of being productive being tied to my self-worth. I would sit down and write it, and then I would decide if it was good enough and I would edit. Writing songs for me is a wonderfully inspired experience, but it is my work, so…
KATIE COURIC: Could you see saying goodbye to it all? Could you see changing your life and saying, “This was great. But now I’m going to retreat from the public eye?”
SHERYL CROW: Many times.
KATIE COURIC: I don’t know. I don’t think you could.
SHERYL CROW: Have you ever thought about it?
KATIE COURIC: I have.
SHERYL CROW: My thing is, and I think you’re probably this way too, is that I’m a really curious person and I’m still really interested in things. The way I get understanding out of things is to write. That’s how I learn about what my experience is. It’s all self-teaching. I think being a songwriter is much more selfish than what people think. It’s not like you’re sitting down and you’re thinking I’m going to write a song for the world to, you know, the world needs to hear this. It’s much more selfish for me. A lot of times I’ve written songs and they’ve come back at me where I’ve thought well—in fact, “Redemption Day” is one of those songs where I had no idea what I was writing about. It flowed like a poem I’d done my whole life and then it was two years later, I was able to, as I was singing it, understand what it was and where it had come from. So writing for me, it’s part of my curiosity, it’s part of my wading through my experiences.
KATIE COURIC: It’s part of your coping, really. Right?
SHERYL CROW: It is part of my coping mechanism. Absolutely.
KATIE COURIC: In a good way. Because I think sometimes that has a negative connotation, but it’s sort of how you process life.
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. It is part of my processing mechanism. And I think even if I got out of the business or whatever, if I quit making records, I would still be writing.
KATIE COURIC: Has it been hard—actually, somebody asked this—is it hard to be a kick-ass woman in the music business? Do you still face a lot of—or do you face any—sexism in this day and age?
SHERYL CROW: Oh, I love answering this question ‘cause I feel like I’m so lucky and so blessed to have come in when I did and to be living through this moment. Because when I got my record deal, there were no women producing themselves. I was [one of] the first women to actually produce my own record and have it sell, have it be a commercial success. Having that experience and watching other girls, like Alanis [Morissette] and other women start to coproduce and then start to produce themselves—it’s made me really feel a sense of pride in that we can always do it. That and going from we can’t sign you to a record deal ‘cause we don’t know what to do with your kind of music to having a lot of females come out and actually be commercially viable, lyric-driven, credible musician women. It’s been really fun to watch. And then, of course, imaging-wise, watching it all shift over to being sex, sex, sex.
KATIE COURIC: Inevitably I feel like all these artists ultimately have to sex themselves up to have commercial viability. Maybe that’s just the way of the world and we’re visual organisms or something. But I always feel that that’s slightly disconcerting. Do you see that?
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. And you know what? The unfortunate thing in my situation is that the whole fame mechanism wasn’t really into place yet. So all of my mistakes along the way are catalogued, are documented.
KATIE COURIC: Remember you got so much grief when you did the video where you had a lot of makeup and your hair was so straight and—
SHERYL CROW: Oh my God, my second record, my artwork and stuff. You didn’t just have stylists and makeup and stuff. And plus, I wanted to be credible. I wanted to be a weird, intellectual musician girl, not sexy.
KATIE COURIC: Surfer girl.
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. When that kicked in, I was a fish out of water and the record label tried to make me into something sexy, and I did exactly what you’re talking about. I got sucked into that and none of it came naturally to me.
KATIE COURIC: OK, so I have one last question for you. Glamour reader Helena Galindo says—this is a nice question—“Do you realize what a strong woman you are? A cancer survivor, a single parent of a beautiful child, over 40 and still rockin’. How cool is that?”
SHERYL CROW: Oh my God, tell her I want to have coffee with her [laughs].
KATIE COURIC: Isn’t that nice? But you are—I have to say, Sheryl, listen, you’re 48, which is—
SHERYL CROW: Too old to date Justin Timberlake. Say it.
KATIE COURIC: OK. Too old to date Justin Timberlake. But I think our definition of aging has changed so much too. I think in some ways, people like you just kind of are out there as a symbol of the courage and talent and hard work and determination that other people have, but the world doesn’t know it.
SHERYL CROW: Yeah. That I love, I mean, I’m just trying to wrap my brain around it. But if those are the people whom I represent, the people next door who are single and who are working—I mean, I love that. I love that.
KATIE COURIC: I think you do, because I can’t tell you how many widows or people who have experienced loss in their life have said to me, you’ve really inspired me to keep going. And I think that’s really a gift—to be able to do that for people in even a small way, even if it’s a handful of people.
SHERYL CROW: Which you know you do.
KATIE COURIC: I just think people appreciate seeing someone who keeps on keepin’ on, to use a very ’70s expression. So that’s what I think she meant.
SHERYL CROW: I love that.