By Joe Bosso | PHOTOS: Jeff Fasano
In a business obsessed with youth, Sheryl Crow is an anomaly. Several times during our interview, whether she’s talking about protecting her two young sons from spending too much time on social media or how she currently approaches her writing process, she makes self-deprecating references to her age, calling herself “an old lady” or “an elder stateswoman of rock ’n’ roll.” It’s a little surprising at first. One’s first reaction to her statements is to let out a startled laugh, but it’s quickly apparent that her words are no put-on. At 55, Crow is quite comfortable in her skin.
It wasn’t always that way. Back in 2001, as she was eyeing the big 4-0, Crow started to question who she was and if the music she was writing still had a place in the market—this, despite her string of massive hits and Grammy wins.
“Here I was, about to turn 40, and everybody on the radio was, like, 12,” she observes. “Britney Spears was new on the scene and was crushing it, and Christina Aguilera was coming up. Everybody was getting younger and younger. I really started to feel like a dinosaur.”
Crow had kept up a punishing pace of recording and touring during the preceding decade, never taking a moment to rest or reflect. “I kept saying, ‘Okay, after this record I’m going to take some time off,’ ” she says. “And, of course, I never did.” Things finally came to a head during the recording of her fourth album, 2002’s C’mon, C’mon, the sessions for which she calls “the hardest I’ve ever experienced—a lot of teeth gnashing.”
It took a visit from her friend Chrissie Hynde to put things in perspective. “Chrissie came to the studio, and she saw what I was going through,” Crow says. “She just looked at me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You gotta stop this. Music isn't your life; it's something you do in your life.’ That made such a difference.”
In response, Crow awarded herself with a well-earned break, laying low for eight full months. When her 40th birthday rolled around, she celebrated the milestone by throwing herself a giant party. Fully rejuvenated, she and Jeff Trott—her frequent collaborator, with whom she’s written a number of hits such as “My Favorite Mistake” and “If It Makes You Happy”—cooked up “Soak Up the Sun,” an unabashed good-time pop single that not only became one of Crow’s biggest smashes but also landed her on the dance charts for the first time. Crow was finished beating herself up, and was determined to balance life and career on her own terms.
Her new album, Be Myself, reflects this mindset. On it, Crow addresses social, political, and deeply personal issues with a biting wit and relaxed, confident candor. The disc’s 11 immediately memorable cuts seamlessly blend the country/blues and rock-and-roll grit of her first three albums with C’mon, C’mon’s breezy pop hooks. “Writing has become easier,” she explains. “I think a few things in my life have changed, like the ability to get out of my own way. That’s largely just due to getting older and being okay with it. There's something strangely liberating about knowing you're not competing with a bunch of 20-year-olds at radio. I can say what I want.”
In the album’s groove-rock title cut, Crow gently ribs herself for past missteps: “Saw my shrink today. He said, ‘Girl, I can’t help you. I’ve been seeing you so long, but nothing has changed.’ ” One could easily make a case that the song represents something of a mission statement, and it does, even if it took a while for Crow to come around to that notion. “I felt like ‘Be Myself’ wasn't as weighty as everything else, so I hated the idea of calling the album that,” she says. “But the more I thought about it, I realized that the song says a lot, and I made my peace with it. And now I feel like it's really so apropos.” She laughs, then reveals that she almost called the record Music for Adults. “Because that’s what it is.”
In stark contrast to how she recorded some of her past efforts (“late nights, wine, and a lot of blood, sweet, and tears”), Crow and co-producer Trott composed and tracked Be Myself in an angst-free, leisurely fashion at the singer’s Nashville studio, which is housed in a gray-wood multiuse barn just off her main property. In the mornings, Crow would drop her sons (Wyatt, 10, and Levi, 7) off at school, and then she and Trott would work throughout the day, calling it quits at dinnertime.