Although Sheryl Crow has been a household name since “All I Wanna Do” became a global hit in 1994, her album output has been anything but steady. She’s just released what is only her 10th studio album. Titled Threads, it will also be her last, barring any unforeseen changes. After 25 years as a solo artist, Crow has decided her days as an album-oriented songwriter are over. Streaming services have, as she points out, allowed consumers to choose exactly what they want to hear by plucking songs from an artist’s carefully chosen track order and often inserting them in playlists populated by tunes from other performers. The album format is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent to the average consumer.
“A lot of people say the streaming services have saved the music business, and perhaps they have in some ways,” Crow says. “But the issue is so much deeper. When music is designed for a six-second attention span, there’s so many things you have to look at and analyze differently that don’t have anything to do with making music and buying records. For me, at my comfort level, I’m thinking this is a great record to go out on. It documents my history and inspiration and where I am now.”
Crow’s days as a musician are far from over. She’ll still release songs and perform, keeping alive a career that began well before she released her multimillion-selling 1994 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. Long before her breakthrough as a solo artist, she had been a highly successful backing singer and session artist for stars like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, who gave her a spot duetting with him on his late-1980s Bad tour. She’d also done well writing and recording jingles, including a particularly lucrative advertisement for McDonald’s.
Threads is the culmination of nearly everything that followed. With it, Crow closes her album career with the help of friends and associates she’s met and worked with over the past two and a half decades. The album is comprised of collaborations with artists that she has admired over many years, including guitarists like Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr., Vince Gill, Chris Stapleton, St. Vincent and Lukas Nelson, and music legends like the late Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples and Stevie Nicks. All together, it makes for a star-packed celebration of all that is great about music when it’s created with heart, soul and passion.
Are you absolutely convinced that this will be your final album?
No, I’m saying that so people will buy the album, and then I’m gonna make another one. [laughs] No, I’m really serious about it. I feel that it’s like a rite of passage, and I felt that particularly as I was working on this album, with so much reflection on my life and the albums that meant so much to me. I’ve loved the experience of albums that I had growing up: holding the jacket, studying the album notes, that whole thing.
It’s been a process of letting go of the idea that you create a sole artistic statement, when people just cherry-pick songs and make their own compilation so that they never really hear it as you intended it. It feels like this is a great way to go out. I feel at peace with that. I intend to continue writing songs and releasing them whenever there’s something I want to put out. It just feels more authentic to not spend so much time, emotion and money in the studio when people aren’t going to hear it that way anyway.
Having grown up with the concept of the album as a definitive statement, do you think there’s a chance that the songs might lose their weight if they’re released one-by-one over a long period?
Last summer, we put out “Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” which talked about the demise of truth telling in America. Annie Clark [St. Vincent] was on it, and it got a lot of traction because of the timeliness, plus having Annie on there. At this stage in the game, putting out music feels more urgent and vital. It feels like putting out a newspaper: By midmorning, the news is already old. I’m having to adjust my art to the challenge, and I’ve really dragged myself to the technology of this era. There’s nothing I’m gonna do to change that. The technology is here to stay.
Now that many people no longer buy albums, is it less economically viable?
Absolutely. The streaming services have done away with artists being able to make any real money, unless they go on the road. Luckily, I love being on the road. In fact, I probably love it now more than ever. I love the fans, and I’m grateful every time I walk out and connect with an audience, but how long am I going to want to do it if I’m my age, or how long can I keep doing it? And making records?
I feel sorry for young artists. It used to be that if you made a record, people liked it and bought it, and that gave you the ability to continue. It also encouraged artistic growth and self-discovery. Now everything is happening so fast that the music is practically out of date before you even put it out. I don’t see how that’s good for the art. It is what it is though, and nothing’s going to change that now.
Had you always planned Threads to be an album of collaborations, or was that just how things evolved?
It wasn’t designed to be an album of collaborations. It just wound up being that after three years. It felt like the impetus of it was to create moments with people that meant so much to me. I started off with Kris Kristofferson, then Stevie [Nicks]. It was an organic rolling out of songs and collaborations, and after three years we felt like this was a good stopping point.
Were you writing with the collaborators in mind, or thinking after a song was completed that this would be a good fit for whomever?
I was kind of working both ways. I’d written a couple of songs with Jeff Trott that I really liked. Once I wrote “Live Wire,” I thought how great it would be if I could get Mavis Staples, as I’d been a huge fan of the Staples Singers, and I was thinking of her when I wrote it.
I chose [George Harrison’s] “Beware of Darkness” thinking this song needs to come out now, because of what’s going on in the world. And the Bob Dylan cover, “Everything’s Broken” - that happened because I knew I wanted to do something with him, or for him, because he’s been such a huge inspiration for me. I knew he’d probably not want to come to the studio and record, so we just asked what he’d like to hear.
How did you demo the songs for the different artists?
Some of the songs I wrote with Jeff Trott, who I sometimes call “my musical husband.” We do demos together, but sometimes the demo actually becomes the record. We’d usually have something to send to people to see if they wanted to work on it with me. Joe Walsh came into my studio, as did Chris Stapleton, to actually write their song with me.
How does the process work with Jeff?
Generally, he sits with a guitar, I sit with a bass. We have a mic set up, and we play and record what develops. It usually happens after we have a long conversation - that sometimes informs what comes up. Usually I write the lyrics. If I get hung up, he might throw something in to loosen up my quagmire.
What’s your go-to instrument out of all the things you play?
If I’m writing I like to write on bass. The piano is my first instrument, but live I like to play guitar or bass.
Was everybody’s contribution recorded there and then or emailed?
With Joe [Walsh], we worked together. We did some finishing via email for backing vocals. The biggest part was done here in my studio. Best case was all together in the studio. Stevie was on the West Coast though, so Steve Jordan took the song out and we Facetimed. The wonders of technology!
Did you get everybody on your wish list?
There were one or two people who will remain nameless. One was on the road on a very lengthy tour. He’s a very dear friend. We’ve collaborated in the past and we will again.
People often say it’s a bad idea to meet your heroes. When you became the new face on the scene, you met and even worked with many of yours. Did everyone live up to your hopes?
I’ve been so fortunate. When I came out, it was basically the grunge scene that was happening. My peers ostensibly would have been Courtney Love, Billy Corgan. Those people thought I was a joke, basically. I had the good fortune to be embraced by an older generation, which was totally fine by me. Truth be told, what a blessing!
Looking at a few tracks in particular, the opener “Prove You Wrong,” is a great way to start the album. Really positive and upbeat. I believe Waddy Wachtel is on that one, isn’t he?
Yeah, Waddy, Joe Walsh and Vince Gill. We couldn’t get anybody good! [laughs] It’s one of my favorite tracks. Waddy has probably played on three quarters of my favorite records of all time. If you’re gonna have something that rocks with a retro feel, that’s the guy you want.
He does a lot with Stevie [who is also on the track], and it’s very cool that he wanted to play on it. He brings that swagger. I think Stevie wouldn’t mind me saying that we’re both big Linda Ronstadt fans. That thing that she does so well - singing that male energy kind of song with the femininity in there - that was the goal.
“Live Wire” is interesting. With Mavis Staples’ unique voice on there you’re always going to get a Staples vibe, but Bonnie Raitt’s guitar seemed to summon up something extra, almost like the spirit of Pops Staples.
That’s a high compliment. When Jeff and I were writing that song, we were tapping into the whole Staples thing, and not by accident. They represent so much of the civil rights movement. They were always in the thick of it and bravely addressing the truth of it. Audley Freed was playing a very Pops-sounding part. Bonnie’s slide - obviously you can’t mistake that. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s her.
“Redemption Day” is the track that drew the big initial interest. I think that as great as Johnny Cash’s early records were, there was something in his voice as he got older that took it to an amazing depth of soul and emotion.
That song and “Beware of Darkness” are both hard for me to listen to. They make me feel so emotional. One thing was that when I sent it to Roseanne [Cash’s daughter], she said that she wasn’t prepared for how present he sounds. I think that sums it up beautifully. He recorded it in 2002, but here in 2019, I think it’s really found its moment. Having him on it makes it feel much more profound.
“The Worst” - the Rolling Stones song from Voodoo Lounge - was an unusual choice for your collaboration with Keith Richards.
Well, I reached out to him. I said I want to record “The Worst,” but I can’t imagine not having you on there. He was right in there. Talk about a surreal moment, my having gone from being a schoolteacher watching Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll [Taylor Hackford’s 1987 Chuck Berry documentary in which Richards performs] to being in the studio with him. He played everything. He was on fire. It was such an enjoyable experience.
On your albums, you can have a mixture of mellow and upbeat material. But I often think that, live, you seem to lean more toward the rock and roll side of your work.
On any given night, we mix it up. There’s something about the urgency of saying, “Let’s go out and get lost!” My band and I all love rock and roll, and we really enjoy that experience.
Bonnie Raitt on “Live Wire”
“From the start, I’ve thought Sheryl is one of the coolest, most soulful and talented singer/songwriters I’d heard in a long time. We draw from a lot of the same influences, and I’ve always admired her ability to nail every style she dives into. She’s a great songwriter and as badass on bass as she is on guitar and keyboards. As a singer, there’s really nothing she can’t do.
“I thought ‘Live Wire’ [with Mavis Staples] was a perfect fit to showcase all three of our strengths. We love each other so much, and to finally get to do something this cool together - what a joy! That sultry, backwoods feel, those sly lyrics. Such a soulful combination.”
Lukas Nelson on “Cross Creek Road”
“For me, Sheryl is one of the most legendary musicians, writers and performers that ever lived. To perform with her is a great honor. As a songwriter, I look up to her abilities in this field the most. However, she’s an expert performer and instrumentalist, and a human of integrity. And those are just some of her strengths.”