Growing up in Kennett, Mo., Sheryl Crow spent hours with her transistor radio, listening to the music coming out of nearby Memphis, Tenn., and at night to stations as far away as Chicago. That R&B sound, that funky soul so prevalent in the 1960s and early 70s, has influenced Crow throughout her career, but never more so than on her new record, 100 Miles from Memphis. This mixture of covers and original tracks comes out on Tuesday, just a few weeks after Crow adopted a second son, Levi. She’s also the single mother to three-year-old Wyatt. And now she’s on the road promoting her new album.
How are you managing it all: new baby, a toddler, new record, touring?
I’m like the queen of multitasking at all times. [Levi’s] the perfect age to take out on the road because basically he eats, sleeps and poops, and Wyatt is a fantastic big brother. So it’s all hands on deck while we’re [touring].
How has being a mother changed you as a musician?
It changes your life and then your life informs your art so I can safely say that my point of view has changed. I have a sense of urgency about writing thoughtful material that’s based in truth and that has some meaningful merit to it. Wyatt was three months old when I made [Detours] and we’d just gone to war and the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports were coming out about how sick our planet was becoming and also George Bush was in office. It had a huge impact on how I felt about raising a child in that climate and what I wanted to write about.
This album seems like a bit of a departure for you. What was behind your decision to go with the soul sound?
It feels more like an extension than a departure. A lot of my singing style comes from having grown up so close to Memphis with those influences. But the timing of it for me was kind of emancipating in that I’d just finished promoting Detours, which was very socio-political and very personal, very heavy, very lyric-driven, and this is much more about vulnerability and sensuality. It’s a sexier record.
How did you find the writing experience?
I don’t generally write lyrics after the music’s already written, so it was definitely a challenge for me. It was a little bit like having a whole stack of homework. We’d record three or four songs a day. That’s a lot more than what I’m used to doing, so I had to be playing catch-up quite a bit because the lyrics wouldn’t be done. After a while it became a little bit daunting. But right in the middle of that process, I saw the documentary about the making of Exile on Main St. and Mick [Jagger] talking about having all these tracks and no lyrics, so it made me feel a little bit better.
This is the first recording you’ve made since Michael Jackson’s death. Was that in your head? Was that an influence?
He was definitely part of the influence. The reason we wound up doing [The Jackson 5’s] I Want You Back was we were recording a song by Marvin Gaye, an unreleased track called Desperate Situation. We got to the end of it and I just started singing [I Want You Back] and everybody said: ‘Gosh, you’ve got to do that; you sound just like him.’ And it seemed fitting because he was the first person who gave me a job and I learned so much from him.
What did you learn when you were singing backup for him?
I learned a lot about performing. I got to watch him every night for almost two years and he was very masterful.
Off the top of your head, can you name a song from that formative era that really blew you away?
Lay Down Sally. I was in driver’s ed when I heard it. I was 15 years old, learning how to drive, and that was on the radio.
They let you listen to the radio during the lesson?
I know. Very irresponsible.
100 Miles from Memphis is released July 20. Sheryl Crow plays Casino Rama north of Toronto on Aug, 11.
This interview has been condensed and edited