The first Sheryl Crow song I ever heard was "All I Wanna Do." It used to play all the time on the rock station my mom and I would listen to while driving around. I was probably nine or ten then, but I always loved that little part in the song where she sings "A happy couple enters the bar / dangerously close to one another" because of the way she sang dangerously, dragging out that first syllable like an unbuttoned shirt falling over a shoulder, an unexpected surprise. Her delivery made me feel like if I had been watching it on TV, my mom would have changed the channel because it wasn't appropriate for me.
Just two or three years later, I came across Sheryl singing/prowling inside one of those diorama displays at the Museum of Natural History in an animal-print coat and bright-red lipstick, singing "If it makes you happy / then why the hell are you so sad?" And although I was still too young to understand the world of complicated relationships that would result in a song like that, I became obsessed with it, taping it on VHS so I could watch it anytime I wanted. She was the woman I hoped to be like "when I grew up," to one day exude the strength that always came across when I watched her on television.
That was twenty years ago, and while Sheryl has experimented with different genres since then, like the slick summer-pop vibes of "Soak Up the Sun" and the full-on country sound of 2013's Feels Like Home, her new album, Be Myself, is a throwback to the music she was making back in the late '90s. Her signature storytelling is there, as are her catchy melodies, twangy guitars, and take-no-prisoners attitude, all displayed in songs about love, about the weird political situation we are in, and even about social media. I've revisited her music again and again throughout the years since I first fell in love with her, and now that I have lived life, my appreciation for her has only become stronger.
A few weeks before the new album's release, we talked on the phone about psychic lyrics and making a grown-up record while sometimes feeling like being a grown-up sucks.
Laia Garcia: I've read that you were listening to your old songs in order to prepare to start this new record, which was surprising because I've heard that a lot of musicians don't usually like listening to themselves. Was that a problem for you as well?
Sheryl Crow: Oh my gosh. I hate listening to myself. In fact, I find that if somebody plays my music while I'm sitting at a restaurant, I want to run out the door screaming. So, yeah, it's not something I do regularly. In fact, I can safely say that once I make a record and it's mixed and out, I generally don't listen to it again.
On this record, I called my old buddy Jeff [Trott], who I've written a lot with, and he was just moving to town, and I said, "Hey, let's just sit and listen [to these songs and look] for what the vibe was." You know, the second record [the self-titled Sheryl Crow] was really a response to how popular the first record was and the backlash to that. We went in to make that second record in response to people just being sick of me. Everything was just super-negative. We're like, "Let's just close the door and make a record." It felt like just two kids in the studio, like in a laboratory mixing up concoctions. That's sort of what we wanted to try and capture again.
We did that same exact thing for this record, except now we have kids, so we dropped them off at school, we came in, closed the door, and we just wrote about everything that's going on. It made for a really fun experience, to just kind of barf it all out.
LG: Did you rediscover any feelings listening to those old songs?
SC: Yeah, I think the thing that was obvious for me was the emotion that went into the songs. I could immediately feel what was going on in my life at the time. I remember Bruce Springsteen saying "When you're making a record, if you're truly honest, it will be a snapshot of your life," [and] that is exactly what it felt like. I could feel what it felt like to be in the room while I was making it. The Globe Sessions [her third record] was very, very inspired by a terrible breakup I had, and this terrible broken heart, and listening to it I could feel that sadness and at the same time that relief. So it was kind of great to go back and experience those records again without the attachment and then go and make a new record.
LG: You've also talked about this being a "grown-up record." Why do you think about it that way?
SC: Well, I have kids, and what they want to listen to all the time is pop radio — and I have to admit this does make me sound like an old hag — but when I turn on pop radio, I feel like I'm hearing super-young kids just thinking about sex. So I was laughing and just saying, Hey, I'm making music for grown-ups, because when you get to a certain age, you are less consumed with your libido and more distracted with the reality of living. Not that libido doesn't factor in! Certainly, it does. I mean, everybody is a sexual being. [Laughs.]
SC: There are a lot of other things, too, that are right in front of you or "in the ether," as I like to say, that are unavoidable. What was in the ether when we were making this record [the election] was looming so large that it informed every song.
If you're an artist and you're trying to tap into something, the one thing that you can't do is self-edit or be critical.
LG: Speaking of the grown-up thing, I wanted to ask how the song "I Don't Want to Grow Up" came about. I was listening to it, thinking, I don't think Sheryl wants to be fifteen again!, but I imagine that's not what it's about. [Laughs.]
SC: I do feel like, no matter how old you are, you always feel like you're that young person that you always were. You feel like you're in your twenties still. You look at your hands and they look older, and you can't even relate to them because they don't represent how you feel on the inside. More than that, Prince had just died at the time [when I wrote that song], and he was someone that I knew. When you lose someone or when someone who you feel is immortal dies, it kind of stops you in your tracks.
On top of that, watching everything that was going on politically, I just started feeling like, Man, if this is what it looks like to be a grown-up, I don't want to grow up. I want to still have that innocent look at life, where everything isn't going to hell in a handbasket and we're not fighting over stuff. So that was how the record came about. It really kind of jump-started with Prince passing away and hearing his music getting played so much and hearing his abandon and his joy, and then juxtaposing that with all the ugliness of Donald Trump and people fighting. Just like, Man, I want to be in the youth camp. You know?
LG: Yeah, I've totally had that thought a lot postelection, like, Ugh, being an adult sucks. I also want to hear a little bit about your writing process. When you got together with the other guys to make this record, did you have lyrics written?
SC: I was not remotely prepared. The last record I made was overly prepared, but I don't generally love to work that way. This time I wanted to kind of wing it. So I would drop my kids off at school and I would meet up with Jeff and this awesome drum programmer. I'd get on bass, Jeff would get on guitar, and we'd just start playing. I would just let my heart run with it, and that's basically how it all came together. It was really quick. We would write and make these demos, and then basically the demos became the album. Over the course of about three or four weeks, we had a whole album done.
LG: Was there ever a time when you wrote something that surprised you, that had you go, Oh, I didn't realize this is how I was feeling?
SC: Yeah, a couple of times! Those are always the fun experiences of songwriting, when you get out of your own way and write something and you go, Wow. That doesn't even sound like me. There's one song on the record called "Heartbeat Away" that's a rock song in the spirit of [the Rolling Stones song] "Gimme Shelter." The lyrics were very inspired, I can't even tell you where they came from. There was so much mistrust and fear in the election cycle, like all the claims about Hillary, before Donald Trump even had the nomination. So I wrote a kind of a tale of espionage and Russia. [And back then] Russia wasn't even mentioned yet. I wrote about Russia hacking into our security and then, lo and behold, here we are, and it's happened. It's a kind of lyric that was born from the atmosphere, the vibe of what was happening.
LG: Yeah, that reminds me of this time Courtney Love said in an interview "I'm not psychic. But my lyrics are," which has always stuck with me.
SC: Oh, wow! Yeah, I love that idea. I definitely don't have any psychic tendencies, but I do think that if you're an artist and you're trying to tap into something, the one thing that you can't do is self-edit or be critical. If you can ever get out of your own way, that's when the good stuff comes.
LG: I couldn't talk to you and not ask you about "If It Makes You Happy" because it is one of my all-time favorite songs. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how that song came about.
SC: That's really cool! Well, Jeff and I made the record in New Orleans, and that song was the response to the success of my first record and the people that had been involved in it. I made my first record, Tuesday Night Music Club, with a bunch of friends. That was a super-fun record to make. It was a lot of drinking, a lot of hanging out, a lot of conspiracy-theorizing. Then when the album became successful, a lot of those people became disenfranchised. It was like "You're selling out if you become successful" and "You're so much cooler if you are under the radar." So that's really what inspired the song, just the disappointment of how people who were friends became jealous and ugly. So, if it makes you so happy, then why the hell are you so sad? That's really what inspired it, just people's discontentment.
LG: That video is so iconic, too.
SC: Oh, thank you. Well, it is funny, because no matter what it's about, there is some truth in it. I've had relationships like that where it's like it's supposed to make you so happy and then you wind up being so sad. You know, it's life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia sings a Sheryl Crow song every. single. time. she does karaoke.