Rock star Sheryl Crow's dream of a family fell apart when her wedding to Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, was called off – and then she learnt she had cancer. But it all helped her focus on what she really wanted
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When Sheryl Crow was younger – an optimistic twentysomething and then stoically hopeful in her 30s – her outlook on romance was suggestive of somebody fond of the cheesier end of country music.
"I was clinging to a picture, I guess, of how everything was supposed to look," she admits. "I liked the idea of a nice order to things: you meet somebody wonderful, you get married, you buy a house, you have kids. But there is little point in holding on to that picture when it turns out not to happen to you. It makes life limiting. So I decided to be open to whatever came my way."
As a consequence, the Sheryl Crow who walks into this London hotel suite today is, like the best country tunes, far more in touch with reality. At 48, she is a survivor in more ways than one: a singer now a quarter of a century into a career no longer as glittering as it once was, and someone who has fought breast cancer and won. She also got so impatient about waiting for the right prospective father to come along that she resolved to do without one and take the adoption route instead. She is now mother to two boys: Wyatt, aged three, and Levi, five months.
In London to promote her latest album, 100 Miles from Memphis, she looks compact and shiny, dressed in a combination of leather and denim that suggests she arrived by horse. She nibbles on a biscuit with queenly deportment and says: "Touring is a very different thing for me now. I'm much calmer, much less ... debauched would be the wrong word. I was never debauched, but I did like a smoke and a drink. These days, I'm lucky if I end the evening with a glass of wine. But then I travel with my children now. My priorities have changed."
She no longer spends days sleeping off hangovers, but Googling each city on the itinerary ahead of arrival, to plan the family's day. "So it's parks, aquariums, museums in the morning. Then lunch, a nap for them, soundcheck for me, dinner all together, and then I tuck them into their bunks before going on stage. As soon as the show is over, I'm back on the bus, and to sleep – hopefully."
It is, she admits, exhausting. "In Nashville [where she lives], singers with kids only play live on Saturdays and Sundays. They call themselves the weekend warriors. I think I might do the same thing myself soon enough."
A former schoolteacher from St Louis, Crow got her first big break singing in a McDonald's commercial, and by 1986 was providing backing vocals on Michael Jackson's Bad World tour. It would take a further eight years before she broke through as a solo artist, the album Tuesday Night Music Club firmly establishing her as, ostensibly, radio-friendly, middle-of-the-road and easy on the ear. But her songs always had lyrical bite. Not many singers would refer to the death of Aldous Huxley.
She went on to massive mainstream success, selling millions of records and winning multiple Grammys, singing with the Rolling Stones and Sting, and, if conjecture is to be believed, falling for Eric Clapton. Throughout her career, she had emitted an intriguing air of perpetual jadedness. She recently said she was just another innocuous artist whose only plus point was that she happened to be productive.
"What I meant by that was that I was chiefly known by hits on the radio," she explains, "and those were never my more interesting compositions. I got famous through my pop songs, which were pretty harmless."
Her reinvention – with 2008's deeply personal Detours, and the soul revue that is 100 Miles from Memphis – follows events in her private life. In 2003, she started dating Lance Armstrong, the celebrated cyclist and cancer survivor, and three years ago announced imminent wedding plans. But their relationship foundered shortly after, Armstrong later citing Crow's yearning for children as a possible reason (he already had three from a previous marriage). Just six days after their engagement was called off, Crow was diagnosed during a routine mammogram with stage-one breast cancer.
"The irony of that was almost unbearable," she says. "To be diagnosed with cancer having just broken up with the most famous cancer survivor was tough. But it redefined who I was, my attitude towards myself and my work, and it redirected me in ways I wouldn't have discovered if I hadn't gone through the experience."
It also made her more proactive in her desire for children. Fourteen months after beating her illness, she adopted Wyatt. "I would have loved to have gone through the whole experience [of pregnancy] myself – and it's not impossible that that couldn't happen still – but I didn't feel like I needed to bring another kid into the world just to satisfy my own needs to become a mom when there were already so many kids in the world that needed one."
Unlike some high-profile figures, Crow elected to adopt within the US rather than in another country. There was just as much demand for adoptive parents in America as elsewhere, she says, and it was easier. "If you adopt from Guatemala, Russia, Haiti, or China, you have to live there for a while, and the process can be lengthy."
She signed up to a local adoption agency, her criteria minimal: she simply wanted a baby, of whatever colour, sex or religious background. "I said I would take whichever baby I was supposed to have. My philosophy was that souls find each other; you don't end up with the wrong child."
The process was convoluted. In addition to background checks, prospective adoptive parents in the US must know cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which, Crow says, "makes me good in an emergency". It took more than a year. Several adoptions fell through, but she remained sanguine: "It is difficult, putting your child up for adoption. People decide not to raise their kids for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes, in America at least, that reason is drugs. There is a real problem with crystal meth here. If you happen to be addicted, and you find yourself pregnant, it can be very difficult to fathom out how you would ever be a mom."
She remained patient throughout, her only stipulation being that it would remain a closed adoption. For people in her position, she says, this is common: "It would be extremely hard for a mother to watch the child she gave away then grow up in the magazines."
When she was finally successfully matched, with Wyatt, Crow took to motherhood right away – "It felt right." Two years later, she adopted Levi.
Would she like more children? She smiles. "Yes. But I'm not sure my energy levels would manage it."
By design or otherwise, Crow has followed a rather satisfying chronology in life. She didn't get too famous too soon, and she did not have children too late. The fact that recent albums have sold far fewer than their predecessors doesn't appear to concern her much, and she insists she is perfectly happy on her farm in Nashville, thousands of miles from the glare and trappings of showbiz.
Before she leaves for today's soundcheck, she lets slip that she is currently dating somebody. She looks pleasantly surprised, as if she had convinced herself this was unlikely – a 48-year-old single mother of two representing a lot of baggage. "But, hey, at my age, everybody comes with baggage. It's the baggage that keeps things interesting."
100 Miles from Memphis is out now