Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow

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Grammy-winning singer-songwriter explains why, in her career and personal life, she’s the poster child for infinite possibility and talks about her latest CD.

Superstar Sheryl Crow has sold more than 35 million albums worldwide and contributed to several film soundtracks. Her songs have been recorded by the likes of Bette Midler, Celine Dion and Eric Clapton, and she's won nine Grammys. Crow wrote her first song at age 13 and, after majoring in music at the University of Missouri, teaching music to autistic children in St. Louis and recording local jingles, decided to try her luck in L.A. There, she became a much-sought-after session artist and got her big break as a back-up singer with Michael Jackson.


Tavis: So pleased to welcome Sheryl Crow to this program. The multiple Grammy-winning singer-songwriter has just started a U.S. tour in support of her latest project, “100 Miles from Memphis.” The disc is a celebration of the R&B music that came out of legendary labels like Stax and Motown. From the new CD, here is some of the video for “Summer Day.”
Tavis: So I live not too far – in fact, just down the road and around the corner – from the Sheryl Crow Imaging Center.
Sheryl Crow: Oh, fantastic.
Tavis: So let me start by saying congratulations –
Crow: Thank you.
Tavis: – and most importantly, thank you.
Crow: We’re real excited about it, and we’re hoping to open up pink lotuses all over the nation, because we’re tying it in with a nonprofit to help women who are uninsured be diagnosed as well as treated. The great thing about the imaging center is that we have a digital mammography machine which we’ve just installed, which is the latest in technology, but also it’s full service.
You can be diagnosed there and also treated there. You’re not shuffled through the system all over town to get to the radiologist, to get to the oncologist, to get to the treatment. So it’s full service and it’s a combination of conventional medicine as well as any choice of Eastern medicine to enhance the Western.
Tavis: While we’re on this, why be so public, given that you in the public eye already, why be so public about your own battle, your own ordeal, number one, and then why step up in this way with the imaging center?
Crow: I think it’s a dubious honor to become a spokesperson for something like cancer. It is really personal. Before Betty Ford, nobody spoke about breast cancer. The breast, in and of itself, was – women just didn’t speak about their bodies.
So since then we’re more comfortable talking about it, but still, cancer, the word in and of itself, is terrifying, and I felt like after I went through my treatment and was able to go through it in the privacy of my own surroundings, I had the opportunity to really just think about what I wanted to do from that moment on.
Part of what came from the opportunity was the blessing of being able to actually speak with women who are fans or who follow me about being diligent about mammograms and knowing their family history, and just knowing the trait of their breasts. Until there is a cure, that’s really the best that we have as far as a cure, is prevention.
Tavis: Your view about life before the diagnosis and on this side of it has changed in any way?
Crow: Yeah. I think that – it’s a funny community, cancer survivors. Everybody will talk to you about the tailor-made lesson that comes along with a diagnosis and the treatment and the survivorship, and for me, the lesson really was about showing up for myself, putting myself at the top of my list. That idea of putting on your oxygen mask before you put your child’s on, because once you stop breathing, you’re not going to help anybody else.
That was my story, was just learning how to say no and learning how to listen to myself and to stand up for myself. That was sort of my tailor-made lesson that came along with my diagnosis.
Tavis: The lesson from that that has been most important to you where motherhood is concerned is what?
Crow: Well, I also think before I was diagnosed my life was something I thought I controlled, and that all the good things that had happened for me were things I manifested. I do believe in the power of manifestation, but I also believe that sometimes you limit yourself by painting a picture of what your life is supposed to look like.
For me, what I thought family was was a husband, a solid home surrounding, everything functioning in a healthy manner, and then the baby comes. For me that was – it just wasn’t going to happen that way, and I feel like creating expansion was about letting go of the idea of what I thought family had to look like.
I didn’t get married before I had my kids and I adopted my kids instead of having my kids. I didn’t go to the sperm bank because I feel like there are so many great children out there that are coming in that need homes, and I wanted to be a mom. So the blessing in it for me was about letting go of what I thought the conventional idea of a family was. Maybe it’s going to be backwards. Maybe the man comes in after the kids come.
Tavis: Did you ever imagine – I want to get to the record here in just a second, but since it’s appropriately titled “100 Miles from Memphis,” where you grew up – get to that in just a second, you growing up in Missouri – I assume, though, that you could never have imagined that you’d grow up and not just be this massive rock star but as we talk now, a spokesperson for a couple of major things.
People look at you now as not just a star but as a role model for breast cancer, for adopting kids. You’ve taken a lot on here, just by making your own choices in some ways.
Crow: Life is – you just live it as it goes, and I wouldn’t have been able to say I’m going to adopt kids and then people are going to look at me and admire that and want to know about it. It’s just you live your life, at least for me. I meditate and I feel like I’m led to make the decisions based on what my spirit tells me to do, and I would never have thought as a kid, particularly in a small town in the middle of the Midwest, that I would ever be doing anything like this.
So it’s for me another example of how infinite possibility is all around, and to be grateful for the idea of infinite possibility. It opens up an incredible wealth of opportunity. Then it’s what you do with it from that moment forward that really, I think, speaks volumes about who you are.
Tavis: One of the things I’ve always admired about you, having met you just now for the first time, but I’ve always admired about you as a fan the fact that you have seemed to chart your own course. That’s always difficult for women in the world that we live anyway, but you’ve charted your own course.
When you mentioned a moment ago that you meditate and you try to follow what’s in your spirit, what happens when your spirit leads you in a way that is – you’re smiling already – that is –
Crow: Contradictory to it?
Tavis: – is contradictory and unconventional.
Crow: “But wait, this is what I wanna do.” (Laughter)
Tavis: The way the music business works or the way life works, what happens when that spirit leads Sheryl in this direction and the music business and the management team says, “No, that ain’t where you ought to be headed?”
Crow: I have to tell you something interesting, and what makes me think about it is I’ve been watching Obama lately. I think that for me one of the most important things in my life has been about surrounding myself with people who I feel like are conscious people, or who at least are on a constant course of attaining enlightenment or at least being conscious, compassionate human beings.
I have an amazing bunch of people around me who are not afraid to say no any day of the week, or tell me that my – does stink and that I don’t know everything. I really rely on those people to sometimes have a vision that I can’t see because of ego or because of subconscious or unconscious – whatever it is that’s going against what it is you innately know is probably the best thing.
One of the things I thought about Obama and I still believe is that at this moment in our evolution as people and that collectively, it is about who we choose to represent us. It is about the words that they speak and the message that they bring, and what it is that they reflect and emulate, and that those people, when we can’t necessarily completely rely on what our spirit says, can help us to identify it and to understand what’s resonating in us, even when it’s uncomfortable.
I’ve just been lucky. Since the very beginning of my career, from the moment I worked with Michael Jackson until now, I’ve had the same manager who’s always been on a course of enlightenment and consciousness and who has been a great source of strength, and he has surrounded me with people that we all can count on.
Tavis: Since you mentioned Obama, let me go there and then I promise to get back to Michael Jackson, because I want to talk about that, as a Michael fan myself.
Crow: I just want to make sure you saw that hair in that picture. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, we’re going to bring that back when I get to Michael, so Jonathan X, hold that photo for just a second, I want to see that again. But I’ve got to ask this Obama question, since you raised it. You got pretty political during the campaign this last time around. Had that been a journey for you?
Crow: No, I have always been political, and I’ll tell you, my family laughs about it but when I was a kid, when I got to –
Tavis: One hundred miles from Memphis?
Crow: Yes, a hundred miles from – when I got to vote for the first time, my mom was a Democrat and my father was a Republican, and so secretly all of us kids that could actually vote by that time, 18, 21 and 24, they were campaigning us because they knew they were going to cancel each other’s vote out. So I’ve always been graced –
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, your mom and dad were working the kids?
Crow: Yes, working us totally, totally. (Laughter) So you see I come by it honestly.
Tavis: You get it naturally, yeah.
Crow: Yes (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, okay. (Laughter)
Crow: I was raised in a family that was highly invested in community and in what happens around us, and I was raised that way and I’ve been politically active since I was 18. Very active for Gore, I was very active for Kerry, but with Obama, it was different for me because – and I think it was different for us as a nation.
I am from a really small town where sometimes the race lines have been very divided, and people came out at that moment in our history, Whites and Blacks and Hispanics, and went door-do-door. In my little town, my dad (unintelligible) was knocking on doors.
There’s something about message that resonates with all of us, and it’s one of the things I’ve been verbal about. I have deep concern about what I’m watching all across the board – Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party – about our words, the power of our words, and I always go back to Bobby Kennedy and I read his speeches and I think how forward-thinking he was, and the speeches of Martin Luther King and how forward-thinking he was in just appealing to what resonates in us as our divinity and our greatness.
I see us getting away from that with so many political pundits, people who are actually from my part of the world, the Rush Limbaughs, who instead of speaking to us at a level of being – of seeking the greatness in us are appealing to us in the part that motivates us equally, which is fear, sometimes hatred, and it frightens me.
It frightens me for the country because I feel like even the greatest leaders, even when we were really down during Reagan times, people followed him because of the words that he was using, even though the unemployment was less than it is now. I think it’s just really important that we demand the greatness in our leaders that we deserve that exists in all of us, and not allow that kind of rhetoric to take over and become what we qualify as leadership.
Tavis: Let me take a piece of what you’ve just said now and connect it back to this project, the new record. When you talked about – and I’m paraphrasing here – the fact that words have meaning and that words are powerful, and I think you said it’s message that resonates, not that every one of your lyrics on every song has to be socially redemptive, because indeed they aren’t, and it’s just fun sometimes and I love that.
Everything doesn’t have to be socially redemptive, but how much thought do you give to the lyrical content to your stuff?
Crow: Well, this record I really was wanting it to be in the time-honored fashion of old soul music, which was about vulnerability and about desire and less cerebral. Even though there are a couple of – I think there’s maybe one socio-political comment on the record, for the most part, hopefully, it’s steeped in emotion.
The last record came on the heels of having breast cancer and a public breakup and being very involved in the environmental movement, and feeling a sense of urgency, having a three-month-old, about what was happening in the direction of the country.
So that record was very, very political, and this record really, for me, I wanted to sing songs that I felt were coming from a place of love and desire. That’s really what the record is.
Tavis: You mentioned, speaking of the record, Michael Jackson. All right, that’s your cue, Jonathan. (Laughter)
Crow: Let’s see the hair, let’s see the hair.
Tavis: Thank you, let’s see the hair.
Crow: There it is.
Tavis: But here’s the – leave that up for a second, Jonathan, because here’s the cool part about this story, and I’m sure you’ve talked about this many times, but it’s cool for me and I don’t even live in your world. But as a Michael Jackson fan myself, how cool is it that your first record that you ever got was what?
Crow: “ABC.” That was Santa Claus.
Tavis: “ABC.” So the first record you ever get as a kid is “ABC,” there it is, and then fast-forward some years down the road and you end up on stage singing with Michael. How cool is that?
Crow: That, I’m telling you, I’m the poster child for infinite possibility, because – and I think a lot of people who are my age can relate to this. On Saturday mornings we watched the Jackson family cartoon.
Tavis: I was right there with you.
Crow: We watched the variety shows, and a lot of us kids thought that when we grew up we wanted to have our own TV show, thinking that you’re never going to leave your family, you’re always going to stay young, and we saw them as being the example of what family was.
Then years later he was the first person to really give me my first gig. But more than that, I’m lucky that I got to stand on the side of the stage and watch him define to me what divinity is. I think inspiration is something that we can’t put a definition on it, we can’t understand where it comes from. The only thing we can understand is that when we get out of our own way, that’s when the best of us is released, and we can look at it and go, “I don’t know how I created that, but here it is.”
There was something very special about him. I miss knowing that he’s on the planet and that he’s going to make more music. There was something that just felt right about him, even in the years of scrutiny and speculation. There was something in him that we all could relate to and that made us believe in something.
Tavis: I thought a second ago to ask one question, and I want to actually ask, I think, the inverse. What I wanted to ask, what I thought to ask, was the pretty typical question of what it is that you learn from watching a genius like Michael at work. He was the greatest entertainer of our time, maybe of all time. What’s it like being able to watch this guy work from the side of the stage and on stage with him?
I could ask that, but I want to ask, I think, instead, when you’re working with that level of genius, when you’re working with the entertainer of all entertainers, what is it in you that says, “I can do this, I can headline my own show?” I guess my point is it can be inspiring on the one hand, but it can also be intimidating.
Crow: And it was. It was. Really, midway through the tour, I think I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it until a few months in, and then I realized this is heavy and it started to work against me and I lost a lot of confidence. I look at it now and think gosh, I wish I could go back and I wish I could be who I am now, knowing what I know, and step into that. But that’s not the way those things are structured for you to learn.
Tavis: When you say you lost confidence, though, Sheryl, what do you mean by that?
Crow: As soon as you get – and I know it now, but as soon as you enter the public eye there are going to be a multitude of people who, out of jealousy or whatever, or just straight up dislike, are going to criticize you. What you learn is you learn to ignore it or not read into it or whatever, but at that early time I didn’t understand that that’s just the way that works, and the politics that go along with it, of having such a high position.
But I think ultimately for me the learning curve and the growth came out of not just watching the brilliance of what he could do and how it was perfect every night and how he was involved in the production and the choreography and everything else, but it was in witnessing how people – how he could be present for the people.
Now that I’m touring, I don’t think you can ever understand that until you’re standing in front of an audience and you can see their eyes and make a connection that is a real connection, and he – there are very few artists that I feel like are really, when they step out they are there for the people, they’re not just there because they do a really good job with it.
He was different that way. I think he was uncomfortable in every area of his life except for that area, and having toured now for 16 years I find that if I can’t see the audience that it doesn’t have the deep, meaningful connection that just going out and playing and connecting the check would.
Tavis: So hence the bonus track on the new project is “I Want You Back.” Why that one, of all the –
Crow: I know, and actually that was not even (unintelligible) but we did quite a few covers on the record and the song that that came out of was a song called “Desperate Situation” by Marvin Gaye, which was on an unreleased album. The rhythm track was so similar that I just started singing it and the whole band just fell out on the floor and they’re, “You have to do that.”
Tavis: So the band talked you into it.
Crow: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: Does that happen often, or just every now and again?
Crow: Nobody tells me what to – no, I’m kidding. (Laughter)
Tavis: Except the band.
Crow: Well, no, initially I was like, “No, we can’t do that; I sound too much like him.” But it was the year anniversary almost to the day, and then when I started reflecting, okay, it was the first album I ever owned, he was my first employer, there were too many strong connections to say well, who cares what people say? I loved singing it, and there it is.
Tavis: Before we come back to this project, since we mentioned the first record was “ABC,” take me back those years ago. What do you recall about getting that first album and being able to play it? What do you recall about that experience?
Crow: Well, I was the third of four kids, and so my older sisters had the record collections before I did. To actually have a record that was mine, that my sisters wanted, it was pretty heady stuff as a six-year-old.
But yeah, I can remember playing it over and over and for those who remember holding an album and the smell of it and the pictures and all that, as a kid that was such a high, to get to drop the needle, especially as a six-year-old. You never got to work your parents’ Magnavox anyway, so it was a big deal. It was my first grownup record, so, and we wore it out.
Tavis: I’m sure you did, scratches everywhere.
Crow: Uh-huh.
Tavis: (Laughs) You mentioned a moment ago, you were explaining the experience of having toured now for 16 years on your own, of being on stage. Is it what you thought it was going to – you’ve been doing it for a while now, but is it what you thought it was going to be when you had those dreams about getting on stage and headlining and doing your own thing and looking out into the thousands of faces? Is it what you thought it was going to be?
Crow: It is now. I think there were a couple of years in there early on when I won all the Grammys and I’d already been touring for a year and a half when I won the Grammys, and then we had to tour the same record for another year and a half. And nobody told me I could say no, so I was doing multiple interviews and then playing and then driving all night and getting up and doing the same thing.
It was really tiring and I lost my perspective about what it was I was doing and why I was doing it. I think a lot of young artists suffer that. There’s that inability to discern what you have to do and what is not that necessary in order to exercise some self-preservation.
I think breast cancer was a game-changer for me because before that, I would go out and I would play, and I didn’t want to see the audience. I wanted it to be dark and I wanted the lights to be on stage and for them to come up and go down, and it would be a real distraction for me to lock eyes with somebody.
Then after breast cancer, something was awakened for me that made me want to have the ability to see everybody and to be able to connect with the – it sounds really stupid and woo-woo, but the brokenness or the vulnerability and the joy-seeking –
Tavis: That doesn’t sound stupid.
Crow: I think people come to see you for a lot of reasons. They don’t necessarily come because they read about you and “Us” magazine or whatever. They come to see you because they really want to be transported. They want to feel some kind of emotion, they want to forget about what’s going on in their immediate life for just a couple of hours and there’s a gift and a responsibility in that for me.
Tavis: So the ultimate benefit or benefits of growing up 100 miles from Memphis are what?
Crow: Well, a lot. I grew up in a really small town, much like many small towns in America, and I grew up with everybody knowing everybody’s kids and being able to get away with very little, and it was in the Bible Belt and people went to church and they worked hard, and the Puritan work ethic was alive and well. People didn’t travel as much; they didn’t eat out as much, so life happened in the home.
Going to the big city was going to Memphis, and we did it maybe twice a year. We’d go see Santa Claus at the Goldsmith’s department store, and that was what Memphis was, except for the radio stations. There was something really mythical about tuning in radio stations and hearing the city.
And the city for me, it was that music, it was Al Greene, it was Otis Redding, it was Sam and Dave, it was – and then later on it became Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern rock and country and straight-up blues and Motown, so my education really happened not on TV but through the radio.
Tavis: Well, she’s out now on tour, so since she wants to look in your eyes and you want to look in hers, here’s your chance. Catch her while she’s on the road touring for the new project, “100 Miles from Memphis.” Sheryl Crow, an absolute delight to have you on this program. I enjoyed this so much.
Crow: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Glad to have you.
Crow: I watch you all the time.
Tavis: I appreciate it; I listen to you all the time. (Laughter)
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm