Sheryl Crow: For The Record

Dean Budnick on March 29, 2024
Sheryl Crow: For The Record

photo: Dove Shore


“When I finished making Threads, I thought, ‘This is a good bookend to a really long career filled with the tradition of making full-length albums,’” Sheryl Crow says of her 2019 record, on which she teamed with a cavalcade of her musical influences and a number of younger artists whose work inspired her, including Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Maren Morris, James Taylor, Andra Day and Margo Price.

This valedictory sentiment was prompted by her belief that “the album as a story arc has been rendered archaic. I feel that as the producer on my records, as someone who tries to create a story with a beginning, middle and an end—in the tradition of music that I’ve always loved—that goal has become counterintuitive in an era in which people cherry-pick songs, so that they’ll wind up on a playlist with a bunch of other artists.”

With all that said, the renowned artist and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee will revisit the format with her 11th full-length studio album, Evolution. “That’s still how I feel,” she asserts. “But the way this album came about is I wound up with several songs that I sent to this really wonderful producer I’ve known for 20 years, Mike Elizondo. I said to him: ‘I don’t want to produce myself. I don’t want to hear what I would do. I want somebody to blow my mind.’ So I sent him what I had—some were guitar and vocals, some were piano and vocals—and he built tracks around them. They were just amazing. I could never have done it, and I loved it. By the end of the process, we had an EP. We had eight songs, and that’s when we were like, ‘Let’s write two more and we’ll call it an album.’”

Those 10 tracks are a laudable addition to Crow’s musical canon and will be embraced by her fans both present and future (even if some of them still might find selections such as the entrancing, ruminative title track on a playlist.)

Before we get to the new album, I’d like to take about your Hall of Fame induction speech. You namechecked Stan Kenton, which was quite awesome, and I have to believe is the first time anyone has ever done so in that setting. How did he find his way into your musical evolution?

I’ve said this a hundred times, but my kids say I was born in the 1870s. I grew up literally laying under the piano, listening to albums through the speaker of a giant Magnavox stereo system and poring over them. My mom and dad played records—everything from Buddy Rich to Stan Kenton to Duke Ellington to Burt Bacharach. It was endless. They loved music. They were both musicians. They played in a swing band.

Your earliest memories of the thing that you love the most don’t ever leave you, and they form such a strong imprint. For me, there are certain records where I can still see the cover, like Tapestry and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. When I hear the music, I can feel the brown shag carpeting. It’s what I grew up with and it’s my earliest experience with feeling transported.

In that speech, you also spoke about Stevie Nicks and the way you connected with her music and persona when you were younger. At this point in your career, given all you have done, you’re someone else’s Stevie Nicks. What has it been like to process that?

I have that imposter syndrome where if somebody says, “Oh, you were such a big influence,” I’m like, “Oh, no, I wasn’t.” You know what I mean? As the years have gone on, especially around the Rock Hall, meeting so many young people and having them actually know who I am is humbling because I know how much my influences meant to me.

I remember meeting Stevie Nicks for the first time, and I’d seen her a whole handful of times before I ever met her. I’d grown up singing her songs. I’d gotten my hair cut like her. It is powerful. So for anyone to come up and say that I’ve influenced them, that’s such a cool legacy to have. It means that you did something right.

Your music touches multiple generations and a variety of contexts. I can recall one of my kids discovering your catalog as a teenager through the recommendation of another artist, while another was belting out your song from the Cars soundtrack when he was a toddler.

It’s been interesting. I can remember my manager saying something about me being a legacy artist, and I was like, “Oh, that’s awful. That’s just somebody who’s just been around for so long.”

When I played at Bonnaroo, and also at Glastonbury a couple of summers ago, before I walked out, I thought, “What if nobody comes over to see me play at this giant festival?” Then, when we came out, it was filled with people way younger than me singing at the top of their lungs and knowing every word.

I think, for me, that’s where I feel not only blown away, but also extremely blessed by the fact that I have a catalog that people have not just grown up with but have raised their kids on.

Now, I’m certainly not The Beatles, but when my kid started getting into “Eleanor Rigby,” I was like, “Oh, I’m doing something right.” It was just sort of through osmosis that he discovered that song from my playing it in the house. So it’s an awesome thing when people discover you, whether it be from a Pixar film or a commercial on TV. You never know how people are going to discover you and then dig around for your old stuff.

Moving to your new stuff, “Evolution” addresses your anxiety with A.I. Can you talk about what that represents to you as an artist?

I think of it in the broader picture, at a time when I wonder if humans are able to discern what the truth is anymore. If the place that you get your news sends you back information based on your algorithm—that basically tells you that whatever you believe is right—then the truth, which didn’t used to be interpretive, is now up for grabs.

Then when you throw A.I. into the mix, which is basically algorithms on steroids, are we not only going to lose our ability to discern what the truth is but are we even going to desire to know what the truth is? Are we going to be OK hearing, “No, you’re wrong, that conspiracy theory is actually bullshit?” Or are we going to just be happier having our algorithms tell us we’re right and the people who are wrong are our enemies?

That’s what worries me the most about A.I. That and the fact you can do a whole hour-long special writing jokes for George Carlin, even though he’s been dead since 2008, and then put that out and sell it as George Carlin, which just happened recently. I find that to be terrifying and very dangerous.

I was in the studio when a young artist played me her song. She had paid $5 to have John Mayer sing it, and you would not have been able to tell the difference. It’s impossible, and the toothpaste is out of the tube.

Tom Morello contributes a spot-on guitar solo, which encapsulates the spirit of a song that probably embodies his own ethos as well.

Oh, my gosh, he was perfect! I told him: “You are from outer space!” I don’t know who else could have pulled that off, and he slipped right into what the song is about.

I think the whole song is hopeful. The one thing that A.I. does not have is a human spirit or a conscience. It does not have the ability to be empathetic or compassionate. I don’t think that can be programmed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that will be what saves us.

Since you weren’t writing these songs with an album in mind, how did they originate?

All these songs were the product of waving to my kids as they left for school, meditating, and then going out to the screened[1]in porch or the piano room and being like, “Ugh, what do I do with this heaviness?”

Actually, what’s ironic about it is that in the heaviness, a lot of what came out was some fun stuff. “Broken Record” is a good illustration of that. I was getting frustrated trying to get anybody motivated to meet in the middle about gun legislation and that wound up spawning the song.

For me, the challenge was trying to make something out of these songs when they felt more like journal entries. So it was kind of a luxury to be able to call Mike and say, “If you like this, will you be Martin Scorsese and make a great movie out of it?”

It’s one thing to go into the studio and craft something. I think anybody can learn how to craft a song. I mean, it might not be the most amazing thing on the planet, but there are formulas for writing songs, and you can take classes in it. But for me, it’s about the discovery. Sometimes I have to do that through music while I’m figuring out how to grapple with what I feel. That’s where the good stuff is.

With “Broken Record,” which is somewhat didactic, did you have that idea going in or did you discover it along the way?

That song started off with, “It’s not that hard to be nice.” My irritation was not only with people on social media, but with people in general. I don’t want to blame the former president for pitting us against each other. I think it’s part and parcel of the fact that we communicate via text or we leave nasty comments on people’s social media. It’s really about that. My mom always used to say, “It’s just as easy to be nice as it is to be a jerk.” I’ve always said that to my kids, “It’s just as easy to be nice.” So that’s kind of where the song started.

When you released your second single from Evolution, “Do It Again,” you said, “I feel like I’ve been writing this song for 30 years. To me, life is one long exploration in how to live joyfully. Work in progress.” Taking that idea slightly sideways, is there a specific song idea you’ve been trying to crack over the course of your career that you haven’t quite figured out yet?

That’s an interesting question. To be perfectly honest, I think I have ADD or maybe even ADHD, but I don’t have anything I can look at and say, “OK, I want to go back and readdress that.” I’m sort of like “Squirrel!” [Laughs.] I look at what’s in front of me and I tend to be in the moment to the second of what I’m doing. So if I haven’t finished it, the reality of my finishing it is slim and nil.

Before you began your recording career, you had a publishing deal. During that time, were you writing for specific artists or were you just writing the best songs you could and then offering those songs to others?

I was trying to write for other artists. In fact, I got set up with several people to write. They’d say, “Heart is looking for a song” or “Chrissie Hynde is looking for a song.” And I never had a lot of luck with that.

But the songs that I got placed were songs I had written for me, which is kind of funny. Tina Turner did one, Wynonna did one, Celine Dion did one. Then Don Henley, who I had been touring with, said, “You’ve got to quit giving your songs away. You need to start saving them.” He was really the first person that put any sort of faith in me actually being the artist of my own work.

Do you feel like you could have written the songs you write now at the outset of your career?

I don’t think so. I think there’s been a lot of living that’s gone into my getting to the point where I’m writing the way I’m writing now. I look at some of the early stuff and how much of it was narrative, how much of it was third person.

I find that when I write now, all of the characters are me. Even though the characters were me in the beginning, there’s a safety about writing in a way where you build a character and the story revolves around that character’s experience. For me now, I think I’ve lived a whole bunch of different lives, and what I bring to the writing process is much less judgmental and much more like downloading.

These days, so many people cover your songs. Is there a version that comes to mind that’s been particularly memorable or has led you to think about the song in a new way?

It’s funny, I heard a young girl doing “If It Makes You Happy” on TikTok and it made me cry. I think sometimes a song is impacted by somebody’s energy. I’ve heard a lot of people do that song. I’ve heard it on American Idol; I’ve heard it in lots of different amalgamations. But I just happened to catch this young girl doing it and she brought a whole world of hurt to it. It was really beautiful. There have been others over the years that I’ve really enjoyed as well, like HAIM’s version of “Strong Enough.”

In your Rock Hall speech, you described the first live show you attended when you were 14— Peter Frampton at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Then you referenced “understanding what Carlos Santana says about music changing the molecules, how music can connect a whole room full of strangers through a cosmic journey that cannot be without the collective experience.” You have a stellar band of your own. Can you talk about what they bring to bear in that context?

The band that I have now, they’re special and they take everything to new heights. From the last record, I have a song called “Cross Creek Road” and where the two guitar players go with it is so beautiful. There are so many things that they’re able to cover that are other parts on that record— they’re just so great.

“Home” is another one where I am transported. By the end of it, I want to just fall down on my couch and go into dreamland. “I Shall Believe” is yet another one. We do it every night, and every night it’s different and they really take it somewhere special. So for me, it’s such a gratifying thing to have players around me that are always present.

Did you have the live setting in mind in any way when you were writing the songs on Evolution?

I don’t really write for the live setting. I generally just try to write the song that I feel like I’m writing in that moment— try to finish it, try to find my way through it, try to make it the best it can be.

Sometimes when you produce records, you think, “Oh, this would be really cool live.” I did not produce this latest record, but I still think it’s going to be amazing live.

You mentioned performing at Bonnaroo and Glastonbury, which were slightly different contexts for you. Do you ever look out and get distracted for one reason or another?

I’m not kidding you about my ADD; I had to get a teleprompter. Sometimes I get distracted and I’ll be like, “Where am I in this song now?” It’s interesting though—and I say this a lot—but I wish I felt the liberation I feel now back when I started.

Back when I started, there was no social media and things didn’t just appear on YouTube. Nobody had cellphones to post things while you’re still trying to figure out how to keep people with you in a live setting, while you’re still working things out. God forbid I would have had to do that in this climate with social media.

I’m 40 years in, and I love playing live, and I feel like I really get it, but I am on the back nine. If I could just go back and feel the way I feel now at the very beginning, I think things would be different.

I also think gratitude goes a really long way when it comes to being present onstage and connecting with people. After having had breast cancer, I wanted to have eye contact with the audience. I wanted the lights up. I wanted to see people. I wanted to feel a connection to them.

Can you talk about “You Can’t Change the Weather” off the new record? What set that one in motion?

I think we’ve seen more and more people commit suicide. Maybe we hear about it more, but I feel like we’re seeing more people do it. The idea behind the song, and it is something that I’m super conscious of, is making sure that I check in with the people I love in my life to see how they’re doing—to make sure they’re doing OK, to make sure they know that they aren’t alone. That’s really what the song is about.

Social media is becoming the barometer for whether we’re loved or not loved, and we’re seeing people’s mental health really take a toll. I think it’s more important now than ever to check in with the people around you. You don’t really ever know what’s going on with them, but it is still important to remind them that you’re here. It’s been on my heart and on my mind, so it wound up on a song.

How about “Where,” which sets a lighter, contemplative tone in the middle of the album, just after the title track?

The thing with making this record and not being the producer on it, is we talked about the order. We wanted to start off with what the main crux of the whole thing was. So we orchestrated having some big things up front and then we have a part where it winds down a little bit, and then it ends with something that is for everyone.

“Where” is a song that asks the question, “How do we still care if it’s getting harder and harder for us to feel?” So the idea of feeling feelings— it’s very hard, it’s scary to feel. There are a lot of different things you can do to not feel, there are a lot of different things you can do to keep yourself in ultimate distraction. But if you’re going to care, it’s going to dictate that you feel. And that’s the question that I ask: “How do you care if you’re not able to even allow yourself to hold the weight?”

It’s interesting talking about this record, because when I do, it seems like, “Oh, my gosh, this record sounds so heavy and down.” But it’s not. I hope people will feel the hope in it.

Well, for the record—that sounds like a terrible pun— it does feel optimistic to me, even if it points to some heavy topics that are worthy of consideration.

I’m glad you feel that way. I hope people feel that way. I actually thought about calling the record The Elephant in the Room, but I decided not to do that. What would be a great album title, though, is For the Record. [Laughs.]