:: Around the Globe with Sheryl Crow ::
Musician Magazine, April 1999
|The multi-talented artist reflects on writing, recording and producing The Globe Sessions, and considers new avenues of creative expression.
By Jason Zasky
Is there anything Sheryl Crow can't do? Ever since she burst on the popular music scene with "All I Wanna Do" and Tuesday Night Music Club, she has been solidifying her reputation as an exceptionally talented musician. After the magnitude of her contribution to her debut was questioned in the wake of its massive success, she began taking responsibility for an ever-increasing share of the creative process. The release of her self-produced follow-up, Sheryl Crow, left no doubt about her abilities as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performer. The album was a departure from its predecessor not only in its harder-edged, guitar-oriented sound, but in that it featured far fewer collaborative songwriting efforts.
Gearing up for her third CD she altered her creative method even more dramatically. After moving to New York City -- a major environmental change in itself -- she assembled a home studio (dubbed Globe Studios) in Manhattan's meat-packing district, which allowed her, for the most part, to avoid using expensive public studios. Lyrically, she deviated from her usual narrative technique, instead writing in the first person, a switch that not only gave the songs a more intimate, personal feel, but meshed well with the soulful, R&B-influenced music she was writing at the time. Named after her new studio, The Globe Sessions (A&M) was released last fall and greeted with the usual glowing response from both critics and hoi polloi.
After the album's completion she began exploring several new areas of interest. Most notably, she produced two Stevie Nicks tracks for the Practical Magic (Warner Sunset/Reprise) soundtrack, and ventured into the world of film herself, making her acting debut with Dwight Yoakam in The Minus Man. Along the way, she added to her growing resume of soundtrack credits with songs on both The Faculty (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax), and Message in a Bottle (Atlantic) soundtracks, and graced the small screen on her own VH1 Storytellers. Currently in the midst of producing Stevie Nicks' solo album, and with a world tour scheduled to last most of this year, it's no wonder she had difficulty finding time to talk. After we had to postpone our discussion almost a half-dozen times -- including a potential noontime get-together on a Tuesday in L.A. (I imagined us having a beer together) -- she finally was at home in New York long enough for us to have an exchange about making music.
Did you have any trepidation about changing your creative process for The Globe Sessions when what you were doing was working so well both in critical and commercial terms?
I really didn't think that much about it. In this particular instance, because I put in a new studio the environment was obviously different . . . [sound of wailing sirens intrudes] . . . There's something that happens when you move. I think moving is really emotional and particularly being in New York where's it's a totally different environment, a lot of that tends to show up in your art.
How did you go about assembling your studio?
I had put a studio together to take out on the road [for the Sheryl Crow tour], thinking that I actually would record most of my next album on the road, and I did do some recording on days off. I found that we had put together a state-of-the-art studio and the only thing I was missing was a 24-track machine and a board. So I decided when I got home that instead of spending more money in a corporate studio that I would just go ahead and bite the bullet and buy the rest of the equipment, so that in the future I'll be able to make my albums in my home studio without having to worry about the big bill.
Did you save money this time around or did the start-up costs offset the savings you would have realized?
I didn't really save money. I made The Globe Sessions for about what it cost to do my last album in a public studio, but from here on out it will be paid for.
What recording gear do you have in there?
I have a Neve broadcast console and a Neve Sidecar, as well as a couple of API Lunchboxes. I have four 1176's, a Fairchild, and four LA2A's [compressors]. I have a 24-track digital capabilities as well as a Studer 24-track machine. I have various tube mics, condenser mics, and compressor mics; a lot of vintage ones as well as newer ones. I have a Mac computer, although I don't have [Digidesign] Pro Tools. That's basically standard stuff, and then I have other gadgetry. I have a lot of old, vintage amps, and a couple of old guitar modules that are out of production.
How much did you write in the studio prior to getting your own?
I wrote most of my first two records in the studio. There's just a great freedom when you're in your own studio though. You don't feel the pressure of having to accomplish something every day, like you do when you have $1,800 hanging over your head. I still feel that pressure to accomplish something, but it's a little bit different. It's pressure I put on myself, not the pressure of feeling like I'm racing with the bills.
I've seen you quoted as saying you've only had a few songs that have written themselves, like "Riverwide." What other songs came to you quickly?
Well, the experiences I've had . . . [pauses]. I think [simply] trying to write another song was the impetus for "Riverwide," as well as "Home" and "Redemption Day" [the latter two from Sheryl Crow.] Those are the three that come to mind as having basically written themselves in a complete sense. And they stem from my struggling to write another song and not getting anywhere with it. And I think at the moment when I threw in the towel with the other ideas, those songs were free to surface.
How often does poetry play a role -- either directly or indirectly -- in the creation of your lyrics?
I like to write lyrics first, so in that way the music is always inspired by the lyrics. But on a couple different occasions I've been inspired by other people's poetry. In the case of "Riverwide," that was from a poem from [Walt Whitman's] Leaves of Grass. But I probably don't get inspiration moreso from poetry than from other places.
Which is more important: the music or the lyrics?
[Laughs]. I think they're both the same. I'd like to think that when people listen to music they care as much about the lyric, but I think if you interviewed people that just listen to music [as opposed to those who create it] that's probably not true. For me I'd like to think that the lyric is as important the groove and the music.
As a songwriter, it's my feeling that it's the lyric that really brings a song to another level.
But I think initially it's the music that draws people in.
How did the opportunity to record "Mississippi" come about?
I was sitting in my studio in New York with my engineer after having mixed and mastered the entire album, and Bob Dylan's manager called and said Bob had this song. At the time I was really on the fence about whether I felt like the album was done or not. And he brought over the song to play for me, and I just thought it was serendipitous that in that moment of real insecurity about what I'd produced and created this song filled in the void.
Did recording "Mississippi" inspire you to write and record additional material?
Yeah, there were a couple of other things that I hadn't finished, and when I got in with this group of musicians [to record "Mississippi"] it was different than the early process of making this record because then I was doing most of the work myself. When I got in with these musicians it was so effortless that I just threw out a couple of other ideas that I had and we recorded them in a couple of days.
On VH1's Storytellers you said you initially viewed most of your hits as throwaway tracks. Is it hard to tell when you've written a hit?
I honestly have no idea. I would absolutely not have had any hits if I'd completed my records without people arguing and telling me which songs should go on.
Then how much input do you have regarding what songs will be released as singles?
I have a lot, but I try not to be too emotional about it, because songs mean different things to me than whether they're going to be commercially successful and whether they're going to sell records. Initially, they ask me my opinions about it and all I can do is argue my emotional opinion about each song, and then I leave it in the hands of the business folks.
Did you view "My Favorite Mistake" as a hit when it was finished?
I don't know about a hit, but I definitely thought it was a good song to come out with for a number of reasons. It speaks for the tone of the album right off the bat. This album is a lot more soulful and a lot more based on soul and rhythm & blues than my other albums. So hearing that song you wonder if that's what the rest of the album is really like. And not only that, I think it has a really singable chorus, and that's a good argument for putting a song out. Not all my choruses have been like that. When I think back on songs that I've loved and I've initially loved right off the bat, they've had pretty simple choruses.
Was there a clear choice for the second single as well?
I think they're going to put out "Anything But Down." In Europe they released "There Goes The Neighborhood," and there was a lot of debate about that, but I think here it's going to be "Anything But Down."
Was "There Goes The Neighborhood" well-received in Europe?
It was. I think mainly the reason they're steering away rom that is that I felt uneasy about releasing that as the second single, mainly because that song is kind of a conscious stream of thought and I'm not really sure how much I care about that. Sometimes you have to fight for how you feel about songs, as opposed to putting out songs that you think will do well.
Apparently, you had the sense that something wasn't quite right about the album you recorded prior to Tuesday Night Music Club. Are you worried about those tapes getting formally released at some point?
Oh no. You can buy it right now if you pay $150 and order it through the mail. I'm not worried about it at all. The songs are definitely valid and the album is valid. I just didn't want it to come out as the first impression of what I do, because it was such a mature-sounding record. It basically sounded like a Sting album, and it obviously was produced by Sting's producer, so that's not too far of a stretch when you hear it. People who are real avid fans who have that record probably didn't have to work too hard to get it.
Your first instrument is piano. Is that a good foundation instrument for learning others later on?
I think so. It gave me a really good harmonic base, and I went on to study classical piano, and I took a lot of theory and a lot of syntax and a lot of composition, and having a foundation in piano gave me a pretty sound education in voicings and harmony and melodic structure.
The credits on The Globe Sessions indicate that you play about eight different instruments on the album. How do you find the time to keep your chops up on so many instruments?
I'm a person that kind of obsesses so that when I get into one instrument that's all I'll play for a while. On this record playing bass was a really inspiring challenge. So every time I wrote a song I either wrote it or tracked it on bass. That just was the instrument I gravitated to. I've been playing acoustic gigs and been playing bass and I'm getting better and better at that and then it will probably be something else.
You weren't writing previous records on bass though?
I wrote most of my last record on guitar, but I think writing on bass actually frees you up to think about writing a good melody.
Which guitars and basses are you playing these days?
I typically play Telecasters and Gibson acoustics. I have a 1964 Country and Western that I prefer to play and write on. For bass it's my Kay bass or a Fender P-bass.
And piano and keyboards?
I don't play piano much because I don't own one. I play quite a bit of Hammond and Wurlitzer. I try to keep the keyboard sounds as analog as possible.
Do you have a hard time keeping your voice in shape with all the demands placed upon it?
I've never had trouble with my voice, like losing it or being hoarse. I've really been lucky, even when I've been not so great to my body and have been devoid of sleep.
Do you have any system for taking care of it, particularly on the road, or is it just naturally healthy?
I think sleep is the best healer of your body. I remember having a conversation with Gregg Allman about that, because he sounds amazing after singing every night for three hours for the last thirty years, and he still pretty much parties and he says that the only thing that can really keep you going and keep your voice in good form is sleep. I think that's true.
You produced your last two albums yourself. How do you stay objective about your own songs and performances?
I've come to learn that producing me is a lot different than producing somebody else. For me producing is basically the process of facilitating getting the song recorded, and I generally know when I start recording something in what direction I'm headed. Whether I see that through or veer off from that depends on how the tracking goes, and I call decisions as I go, basically trying to keep the energy and the creative process moving and trying to keep everybody in sync. I think when you're producing somebody else, a lot of it can be determined when you hear that person's voice over the track you're creating. And it's hard work. I found it's really tiring. Although there's nothing greater than the satisfaction of hearing a song you really like in a great version.
Are you working with Stevie Nicks on an ongoing basis?
It's going to be ongoing because I'm on and off the road. We did two songs for a soundtrack [Practical Magic], but we're also working on her upcoming [solo] album, which I think will be out in early fall.
How did the offer to begin working with her come about?
She called me when we were getting ready to do Storytellers, and she asked if there was any way I would be available to record two songs. I had two days right between my Storytellers and going to Europe. I said, This is all I have and we'll just really push the envelope and try to pull it off." So that's what we did.
Are you contributing songs to the album?
The work we've done so far has been on stuff that she has already written. We've done four songs and we're getting ready to do the fifth one. Then we're going to start writing.
Are you learning anything new working strictly from a producer's perspective?
The big difference for me is that I pretty much know as I'm creating a track how it's going to fit with my voice because I'm recording as I go. I've learned with Stevie that I can create a really great mood, but when she comes in and starts singing over it, that is going to be the determining factor -- how it works with her voice.
So you have to make more adjustments on the fly?
How much do you get into the engineering aspect of being a producer?
I'm there playing and calling the shots and trying to create a direction. Part of your role as a producer is to define what the environment is going to be . . . what the direction and tone of the album is going to be. We're still discovering that.
You've placed a lot of songs on soundtracks in the last few years. Is writing for a soundtrack or scoring for a film an entirely different approach than writing for yourself?
I scored a small independent film recently and that was a completely different adventure because it was all instrumental and we were doing it to [SMPTE] code. It's a different muscle to flex, but it was a really enjoyable experience in that I wasn't concerning myself with lyrics. It was just melodic content, thematic material, and also trying to keep in mind that the cues were to enhance the picture, not to be the main thing in the picture. For the most part, when songs go into movies they approach you about what they think is applicable to the movie, so I just basically approve whether I think the movie is something that I feel good about having a song in.
But when you wrote the title song for Tomorrow Never Dies, were you writing specifically for the film?
That was written for the movie, and I loved doing that. It was an interesting experience in that it was a James Bond movie, so you not only have the luxury of getting to step outside your genre, but you have the legacy of these great songs that have come before and the great tradition of James Bond the spy. So the direction we headed in was to create something that was reminiscent of early James Bond.
Since we're on the subject of movies, how do you feel about your [debut acting] performance in The Minus Man?
It was definitely something new for me. It was a challenge. I'm not too terribly extroverted when it comes to being in front of a camera so in that way it was a really good experience.
Did your experience making music videos come in handy? In the video for "My Favorite Mistake," for instance, it's just you playing to the camera.
The bottom line is you have to be unaware of your actions and be so instinctual when you're in front of a camera and you're acting like someone else. For me to stand up and sing "My Favorite Mistake" is me singing what I feel. I write those words from my own standpoint, so it's quite a bit different.
I was not completely unaware of how it all works at least. I had some knowledge of cameras, directing, the slow pace of it, and so I wasn't completely out of my element. It's different though when you speak and you hear your voice come out of your body. It's something to really get used to. It's different than when you're singing.
For most people hearing their singing voice is much more difficult to get used to, but I suppose in your case . . .
. . . the speaking voice can be much more alarming [laughs].
A lot of musicians assume that when you reach the level of success you've achieved in music that everything is gravy. What's the downside?
For me personally there's only a couple [of problems]. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be successful and to have the notoriety and respect that I have. I feel lucky that I have a job that I really, really love. But you have to get very tough-skinned about what's written about you, and the other thing is that for somebody who enjoys being on the road I think you miss out sometimes on your own life. I find that I'm gone so much that sometimes I let my relationships go and then I kind of step back and go, "What's happened here?" [Laughs.] It's a real absence from your own life.
How do you handle negative reviews or people saying horrible things about you?
I don't read my own reviews, so I guess I'm a bit of an isolationist about stuff like that. I don't read articles about myself. I remove myself from that because my philosophy is that you've made the record you've made, you've done the best that you can, you let go of it, so what's the point of reading the reviews when you're not going to go back and change it anyway? With regard to The Globe Sessions, I felt really good about it when I finished it, and I still think it's the best record I could make. People's opinions are just people's opinions.
Did you feel the same way when you made your first album, before you'd established a reputation, or were you more concerned what people were saying back then?
I was probably more concerned back then, but I was new. I didn't realize you don't have to read everything, and that you don't have to take everything to heart, and that there are people out there who simply will not like your music because they don't like you. And that's a part that goes along with the package.
How important is it to you to be respected -- particularly by your peers -- for your playing, performing, and songwriting ability?
I guess I have respect issues, and that's probably the thing that in some ways has motivated me. I've always wanted to be a really great songwriter. I've always wanted to be a really good musician. It's probably because the people I respect are those things. As I've gotten older and as I've met some of these people, it's a really sweet thing to have the respect of people that I've grown up loving and idolizing.
As a high-profile musician, do you feel you have a responsibility to raise awareness about issues you feel strongly about, like the world's landmine problem?
I've fought with myself over this issue before. I would be involved in the things that I care about whether I was a celebrity or not, but it certainly helps with some of these issues, particularly with an issue like the landmine cause, which doesn't really affect everyone in the world -- it affects people who are exposed to landmines. Being a celebrity certainly draws attention to that and I can use my celebrity, and I do use it for things that I care about, but as far as feeling a responsibility I think I feel a responsibility because I'm a citizen of the world and I get to see the world a lot and it makes the world a lot harder to play.
Do you worry that branching out into producing and acting, and getting involved with various causes will take away from your own records?
At this stage in my career I'm more interested in exploring my alternatives -- like producing and doing some film scoring. And time off sounds interesting. That's an avenue I might pursue.