At the beginning, no one saw Sheryl Crow coming. Moving from backup singer to centerstage in 1993, her dynamic, relatable honesty made her one of the leading lights of the era's "women in rock" movement, eventually winning her a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame just this past November.
Like her heroes Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde and Pat Benatar, the Sheryl Crow that started with a guitar and guts soon blossomed into a fierce fighter full of emotions and sensitivity to stories. She burst onto the scene with her massive-selling, three-times Grammy-winning 1993 debut Tuesday Night Music Club (featuring the now classic single "All I Wanna Do"), then continued to build a remarkable career throughout the decade with 1996's eponymous sophomore album (including the piercing "If It Makes You Happy," the breezy chunkiness of "Everyday Is A Winding Road," and the swivel-hip funk of "A Change Would Do You Good"), as well as contributing the title track for the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and onto 1998's The Globe Sessions with "My Favorite Mistake."
Crow continued scoring hits (especially 2002's inescapable "Soak Up the Sun"), writing protest songs, and touring endlessly in the current millennium right up to her guest-studded 2019 album Threads, which she announced was likely to be her last full-length album. Her reasoning for this was part family-related (adopting sons Wyatt and Levi in 2007 and 2010) and partly a result of questioning if there was anything more to add, when possibly letting out small portions of her songwriting would be a better idea.
Well, as she has now revealed, she's got plenty more to say. Crow's twelfth studio album, Evolution, releasing on March 29, is chock full of hard-edge crunch, wistful tenderness and astute observations. The album's nine new songs "tumbled out of her soul," as she puts it, while she had collaborator and friend Mike Elizondo produce. Q spoke to Crow via Zoom from Nashville, where she's been home after a pretty intense few weeks to talk about the album, artificial intelligence and that accolade she received from close pal Laura Dern.
How validating was it to finally be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
You would probably need to ask my 16-year-old and my 13-year-old about that. I think they find me to be mildly annoying. A nuisance, embarrassing. Although I will say I did drag them to the Induction, and there was a moment where I felt like they thought I was cool.
I saw you looking at them, and they seemed only mildly annoyed that you pointed them out.
Obviously, I'm an older mom. Anything I ever wanted to do or achieve, I got out of the way before my kids came. They're like the greatest song I've ever written. It's the most fun, the most gratifying, the hardest, the most emotional job ever. But I do tell them I felt like my sole objective is to make sure I embarrass them. That's what moms are supposed to do to teenagers.
My 13-year-old, who doesn't give away too much, when he realized that being in the Rock Hall was like being in the Basketball Hall of Fame, it was like, "Oh, okay, Mom. You're okay." My 16-year-old wears everything on his sleeve. I felt his pride. He's seen the work, and he understands a little bit better. He spent time in the studio with me. He loves playing bass and programming, and I think he sees it and feels it more.
How did Evolution first start to take shape?
Almost everything I do now is written from the standpoint of, I'm raising these two people and look what they're going to inherit. The springboard for the album was the song "Evolution." And really, that was my response to what is the world going to look like with AI competing with soul and humanity?
I'm afraid of cell phones. I mean, I don't like my cell phone listening to me. My kids, this is their reality. And they think I'm a dinosaur! And I am, you know it's not that it's for me. It competes with me for my kids' time. It competes with their ability to read a book, or to hang with a whole video or a whole song. And it's not just them. It's everyone now. And so the whole album deals with all of that.
Also I live in Nashville. We had a huge shooting [on March 27]. I had to go to my kids and say, "Look, I'm raising my voice about the Second Amendment and our drive to associate that with our patriotism. You guys go to a conservative school and you're probably going to hear about it. And I want you to know that I'm doing this. You can disagree with me, or you can defend me, or you can be quiet. But this is where we're at in our little family unit."
That's a hard conversation, and the song "Broken Record" was in response to the hate that I got from people that I know, people who have huge followings on the Internet. and who love the way it feels to whip their base up and have that great response of support with idolizing them. And that just brings me back to social media, and an ongoing conversation. I tell my boys all the time our response to everything is love and compassion, and there is nothing that robs us of our freedom — somebody being gay, somebody being trans. None of these things rob us of your freedom to be Wyatt and Levi and Sheryl. Except for guns. That robs you of your freedom to feel safe.
Everything has to be led by love and acceptance and compassion and empathy. And that, for me, was the impetus for putting the record out. I didn't ever intend to put an album out again. But I wound up with this body of work that I felt like, "OK, it just feels like I've barfed it out and let's just put it out." [Laughs] I laid it at Mike Elizondo's feet and said, "Can you please just make some beautiful cinematic movies out of these songs?" And that's what he did.
Was it important to have that familiarity with Mike as the producer of the album?
You know, it's the first time in so many years that I haven't either produced or co-produced my stuff. Generally what that means is, that I'm in a studio, playing, calculating and orchestrating. I'm running the show. And making creative decisions. And I just didn't feel like doing that his time. I felt like writing my short story and then going to somebody I knew. I've known Mike for 20 years. I've known him since he was young and still working with [Dr.] Dre and Eminem. And us having so many of the same references. We were both music nerds.
I grew up reading album covers. I knew every musician on every album cover. I would go and hang out in jazz clubs, in music clubs. I waited tables so I could see great players. I was that kid. So I went to him and said, "These are the songs." I played him "Evolution" and "Don't Walk Away" and I think he felt the immediacy of it. I walked in there feeling like a raw nerve, especially after the shooting and the reaction to my having reached out to so many people on the other side to have a conversation. I told him, "I'm being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I have a body of work that feels like it's on the surface and I want to bring it.' And he said, "You know, gimme a minute." I came back two days later and listened to "Evolution." And my mind was blown.
That song has a sound that's not familiar from you, almost like Electric Light Orchestra, and then with Tom Morello playing guitar.
I told him this was what I wanted. I want no parameters. This song feels terrifying. I am terrified, and if you can take that feeling and bring to it that emotion, I'll be happy. And that's what he did. Then when he suggested Tom — who I've known for a lot of years, and who I love — what he does is not at all what I do. But what he brought to it was so appropriate for the song. I felt like let's take some chances and let's think outside of the box. And I loved it. I loved knowing that there were people that would be diehard Sheryl Crow fans who would go, "Wow! This doesn't sound anything like her! But it still feels right."
I wanted to ask about "Love Life." There's this small portion right at the start of the song, where you have a child say, "Kick it!"
That's so funny. It's me! [Laughs] And I'll tell you, that is one of the songs that Mike and I worked on and started writing 20 years ago. It was the last thing we did on the record. I've had it all this time, and I have loved it so much, and I've never been able to write a lyric for it. And finally, at the end of this, I said, "We just have to finish that." And so there it is, and Mike's the one that was like "You have to keep. Kick it." My kids are, "Mom, no, don't." [Laughs]
See? The adults prevail in this situation.
Now, the funny thing about "Alarm Clock?" They thought that was cool!
That one is almost another "non-Sheryl Crow" vocal, where your vocals have that buzzsaw treatment.
I had this idea. We get up at the crack of dawn. Get out for school, you know, 6:15. And every day, I hate my alarm clock. So I went in [to Mike] and I was like, 'Look, I wanna write a song about how everything amazing is happening. And then your alarm clock goes off, and how that is synonymous with the reality of living.' So he came up with this driving track. and we brought in this buddy of ours, Emily [Weisband] and I said, 'Look, this is the idea,' and I sang. That's the only take I ever sang of that song. And it was really fun.
And I think at my age, having fun is really important. I don't want to overthink it. You know I've had numerous conversations with my manager [Scooter Weintraub] about what it's like to be 61, and put your heart and soul on a piece of art and know that nobody's ever gonna hear it: "No, it's never gonna get on a radio station." I don't even know what gets on radio anymore. But it's all based on social media and playlists and streams. And so you go, "Okay, how do I not invest my emotion and my self-worth on what I'm putting out, knowing that it's gonna qualify as a fail in comparison to what it was before social media?" And it's just something I've realized I just have to do for me and have it be fun. I think at my age it matters to my mental health as well, to not overthink it, to not take it personally that I'm not played right alongside Boygenius and Taylor Swift. It's not gonna happen, you know, no matter what the quality of my art might be.
Well, you're having Boygenius, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo... all these younger women artists who are acknowledging what you've done.
I will say there is a crop of young women out there — and these kids are it! You know, it took me years to ever go to therapy. I wrote most of my first couple of records all in the third person. I would never reveal my identity in my songs. And these young women, they're bright and astute, and also great writers and poets and fearless. And I love that.
Part of the Threads experience was looking back and wanting to pay homage to the people that brought me here. But also there are a lot of people that are inspiring me to keep going. I'll hear a song and go, "Oh, my God! I wanna go write something," and that's a beautiful thing.
I got to meet and spend some time with Olivia Rodrigo, and I told her, "I hear the Breeders. I hear some Blondie." I wasn't sure if she would even be familiar with the Breeders. She was, praise the Lord! [Laughs].
There was a time, especially a few years ago, when I felt like I was fighting with the Grammys' patriarchy: we have to figure out a way to get women inspired to pick up an instrument. It can't all be about moves and bodies and dance routines and Auto-Tune. We have to figure out a way to get women to pick up a guitar or a bass, or sit behind some drums, and really deliver some truth. And, not because of my mission, but because I think it was bound to happen, we're seeing so much more of it. Olivia, St. Vincent, Larkin Poe, Courtney Barnett. I mean, there's so much great rock, whether it's female or not. That gives me great hope, because you don't even see that many men or bands coming up now, where they're writing great rock songs that are resonating.
I did want to ask you about "Where?," especially the string arrangement, which brings to mind Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song."
The guy that we used for the string arrangements has exquisite references, from Paul Buckmaster to Zeppelin, and the history of my music has come from all those records. I think one of the things that happens when you become a legacy artist is you do come back around [to your roots]. I am very aware of what's happening in music right now because of the Rock Hall, and because I have a huge audience of young people who've grown up being exposed to my music. And what a gift that is! 'Cause we still tour. We still play all the time.
But when you're making records, you need someone to know those references and to be able to say, "Man I really would love a little bit of a [Beach Boys] 'In My Room' vibe," or being able to reference amazing deep cut arrangements. That's what I hope kids are getting some of. It can't all be about programming. And I mean, there's something beautiful about crying to a deep cut on an album that you know, that you're the only person that knows it. Yet there are millions of people that know that song. I love it and value it.
You know, that Ozempic commercial that plays all the time did turn my kids onto [sings] "Oh, oh, oh it's magic!" [Laughs] However they get exposed to it! A couple of years ago during Covid, we made a road trip, and my son, then 14-years-old, was just so into the Let It Be album, and we listened to it over and over. And you know there are those moments where you go, "I'm doing the right thing." I think a lot of teenagers do turn around and seek out great old rock songs because they hear it. I made my kids go see Stevie Nicks. I made them go see Elton John with me. They couldn't believe how many songs they knew. So you do feel like, "Okay, I'm doing something right!"
What's next for you from here?
I've had numerous conversations about it lately, about what would I do next. And honestly, this is all I know, it's my go-to! It's my refuge. I wish I was a great cook. I wish I had other little things up my sleeve that I was interested in. I did try gardening. I tanked. So if I gotta get my rocks off, I'll pick up a guitar, program a drum groove.
I do stick with one thing, and that's that my kids see a happy mom. and my happiness comes from them, but also they'll see me playing the guitar. They hear me playing the guitar. They hear me sitting at the piano, and they know I'm happy. It's funny, you think your kids are gonna remember every little thing, but they don't. They do remember dance parties. When they were little, every single night they would yell 'Dance Party!' and they would dance to [Walk The Moon's] "Shut Up and Dance With Me" and "Soak Up the Sun." So that's when you feel like, mic drop. I could retire!
Sheryl Crow will be on the road in 2024 in support of Evolution, touring with P!NK on her extended 'Summer Carnival' tour and solo. Dates and tickets for the shows can be found here.