Overnight success? It took a decade for Sheryl Crow, who tells her friend Elisabeth Shue that she had to be her own Joan of Arc when the music business didn't want to know.
ELISABETH SHUE: Interviewing my friend Sheryl Crow is about the weirdest thing I've ever had to do. Anyway, I thought I'd start by asking you about your upbringing . . .
SHERYL CROW: I'd love to say I had romantic beginnings or a hugely sordid past, but I had a close-knit family and a really normal upbringing. I have two older sisters and a younger brother, and we're all really tight. Although we lived in a small town [Kennett, Mo.] without many cosmopolitan influences, my parents were pretty artsy people. They were [big band] musicians, so I grew up with lots of people coming in and out of our house, playing music live, and that's what I thought every kid was raised with. My father was really into books and was constantly reading aloud from Pudd'nhead Wilson or whatever. We were raised in a freewheeling artistic climate and we weren't limited as far as choosing the things we wanted to do.
ES: How old were you when you first got the itch to perform?
SC: My mom was a piano teacher and she started each of us kids in piano when we were about five or six. I really hated it, but I discovered I could play by ear. I can remember being about eight years old and learning "My Love" by Paul McCartney and Wings and the line "My love does it good," and my dad coming into the living room going, "Do you know what that means?" My first bit of censorship.
ES: So it wasn't like you were into performing - you were just singing naturally?
SC: No. My parents were the kind that showed you off and made you play in front of their friends. I hated performing from a very early age and I never loved it. How I wound up doing it for a living, I have no idea.
ES: I feel the same about acting. At school, I was terrified of performing or being asked about my opinions.
SC: Boy, I'll tell you, I couldn't even get through debating class. I hated that, too, and I still don't like public speaking. I can sing in front of a hundred thousand people, but public speaking for me is completely terrifying.
ES: It's interesting how we both took on a way of life that forces us to face what we are totally afraid of.
SC: I have been asked about it so much and, as you know, I have been through quite a bit of therapy -
ES: Me, too.
SC: - and I'm convinced there is some wacky preexisting condition with performers, that they're crying out for the attention or approval they didn't get when they were kids and that forces them to stand up in front of people and act out. The one great revelation I got was from sitting in the dark in the living room and playing my own little songs at the piano. As I've gotten older, I don't know if pursuing music is just a rebellious action to try to validate myself, or what. I guess if you look that far back with a predeterministic view, I was eventually going to wind up as a musician. I have this theory there is some order to all the chaos and that if you stay clear and focused and try to be a good person, you probably will wind up doing what you're supposed to be doing anyway.
ES: It's like why are you here? You're here to learn certain lessons, so you choose a path that's going to force you to learn those lessons.
SC: Yeah, I can imagine what I was last time I was here on earth - a librarian, probably.
ES: I think I was a stripper.
SC: That would've been great: Think what you'd've learned. I think I might have also been a housewife.
ES: For me, acting became a way to finally express myself as an Individual in a family in which I grew up with three brothers. Did you experience that?
SC: Absolutely. My whole young life I was trying to please my parents and I missed out on so much because I knew if I experimented I would disappoint them. So when I got to my twenties I was really mad - not at them, but because my whole life I'd tried to be a perfect kid, and when I got out into the world I didn't even know who I was anymore. I wound up gravitating toward music and started trying to write my own songs. That's where I landed after having taught school for two years.
ES: You taught school?
SC: Yeah. After I graduated [from the University of Missouri], I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was twenty years old and I got engaged to this boy, Mike, one of the guys in the band I was in at the time - I'd been in bands my whole life and my college band had been the hot-shit band on campus - and we moved to St. Louis. I took a job teaching music at an elementary school, don't ask me why, although I must say I was a good teacher. I had a couple of classrooms of autistic kids and I really liked it. I also formed a band. By then, I was getting more serious about writing my own material and discovering my own voice, out of self-preservation. One time, this young guy who had his own home studio came to see my band. He composed commercials for Budweiser and all these local big businesses, and he said he wanted me to come in and sing a McDonald's commercial. It was a regional spot, but it wound up going network and I made $42,000 for an hour's work, having made $17,000 a year as a teacher. I thought, God, if I can do this in St. Louis, I should try doing it in L.A. But that was part of my naivete.
ES: My big break was being a Burger King girl. We're like the hamburger women. [both laugh] What actually prompted you to move to L.A.?
SC: Mike had said, "If you stand up in front of the Lord and say you are going to be my wife and then you sing in bands every weekend, we're not going to make it."
ES: He said that?
SC: He did. Actually, it was a blessing, because if we'd got married one of us would've wound up dead, I'm certain. We split up. I went home on a Tuesday and told my folks I was leaving, and I headed straight out to California the Sunday after that. Drove out to L.A. in a beat up old convertible by myself and landed on the 405 [freeway] about five thirty in the afternoon right in the middle of rush hour and just cried my eyes out. Like, what am I doing here, what have I done?
ES: How did you go about getting into the music business?
SC: I had these tapes of me singing and I took them to every studio in L.A., which is exactly the wrong thing to do. My first experience with record labels was playing songs on piano by myself, which is very degrading because most people don't really know what's good. This was the mid '80s and pop was happening for women - Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. And here I was sitting at a piano playing these songs I'd written and no one could figure out where to fit me in. So for years I kicked around L.A. playing small places by myself. Eventually this producer [Hugh Padgham] saw me play, heard a tape, and took me to A&M. They quietly signed me. There was no feeding frenzy because I had been around for a long time and people were skeptical. Then, when the record [Tuesday Night Music Club, Crow's 1993 debut album] took off, every label scrambled to sign female artists. People say to me all the time, "Isn't it great what's happening for women in music?" Part of me says yes to that, but Joan Osborne and myself had been doing this for so long, it would have been nice if people had been open-minded to us fifteen years ago.
ES: Going back to what you were saying about driving around with your tapes, isn't it incredible how naive and innocent we all were, imagining how we'd make things happen for ourselves?
SC: My naivete is the thing that saves me, I swear. I had no preconceived notions about what was going to happen, but I knew the possibilities were wide open and that something great could happen. It never occurred to me it wouldn't.
ES: I find that the older you get, the real struggle is how to reclaim your Innocence.
SC: You know, after I toured Tuesday Night Music Club for two and a half years I felt like so much of my innocence was gone and that so much of my life was about being defensive. Now, with my latest record [Sheryl Crow, 1996], it feels so different because I've not been bombarded by the press. You can turn your mind around if you really focus on the things you love. It took me so long to learn that.
ES: Each of us, besides growing up wanting to please our families, came into a profession where there's so much Judgment and criticism, which can make us forget to connect to what we want, what's important to us, as opposed to what's important to them out there.
SC: Do you think therapy can help you get rid of that need to always be right with others?
ES: It shifts. I always try to acknowledge to myself that I still feel those feelings, but I try not to surrender to them. It's worse when you deny you care what people think, because then you get really crazy. What are the moments when you feel the most joy?
SC: I'm still learning as I go. John Lennon said that life is what happens when you are making plans, and that is really how I've always lived my life. I've always been working toward something or I've always been scrutinizing something I have already done, and now I find the easiest moments in my life are when I am sitting quietly. On stage, I used to be aware of trying to make the music sound great and in line with the integrity of the recordings. Now, the best moments are when I have a really rotten day and I take that out onstage with me and put all that emotion into the performance. Some of the best shows I've given this year have been when I've been tired or my personal life has been getting me down. You bring it all out and people connect with whatever that energy is, whether it's freedom or sadness, or whatever. That's been an enlightening experience for me in the last couple of years.
ES: That's because you're sharing it. When I'm acting I'm sharing, but I'm sharing my own little world - and when, months later, the audience sits in the dark and watches, you just hope they'll have some feelings about what you shared with them. It must be electrifying to share your feelings with an audience immediately, as you do when you perform.
SC: It depends. Sometimes I'll decide the entire audience is bored and then I want to get offstage. When I was a kid, I remember reading this interview with Eric Clapton, who was talking about performing in Cream and how it was just these three guys up onstage jamming free-form, just playing to each other. Their perception of the audience was that it was there to look in on a happening, a scene. It makes me think my job is not to go out there and be like a circus act.