Sheryl Crow talks songwriting, politics and going back to her roots on Be Myself

(Image credit: Gabriel Grams/REX/Shutterstock)

With the release of her 2013 album Feels Like Home, it appeared that Sheryl Crow was putting a full stop on a whirlwind period of her life and beginning a new chapter.

The nine-time-Grammy winner recorded the album in her adopted hometown of Nashville, having moved out there following her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2006. In the years that followed, Crow beat the disease and stayed in Music City to raise her two adopted children, Wyatt Steven and Levi James.

So, when Feels Like Home dropped (released by Warner Bros. Nashville), it made perfect sense that the record had a hefty dollop of country twang. However, for new album Be Myself, Crow has taken a step back from the country world.

This time, Crow instead dug back into her roots, channelling a feel more akin to the early records that set her on a path to singer-songwriter superstardom. Ahead of Be Myself’s release on 21 April, Crow filled us in on the switch, as well as all things gear, Donald Trump and the perils of 21st century parenting.

Feels Like Home was very much a country album, whereas Be Myself has the feel of your first two or three albums. Was it a conscious decision to go back to your roots in that respect?

“It wasn’t a conscious decision stylistically, but it was in terms of making the record. The country record was really fun to make and I really enjoyed the process of co-writing. It was a good experience and one that I really wanted to have, but the actual promoting of the record left me kind of sour, to be honest.”

Why was that? 

“It’s a different world, the whole country thing. You do free gigs for radio programmers in the hope of getting played when I was probably the last person they were going to play. It wasn’t that they didn’t play me that left me sour; it was all of the work that went into it that was not really about the fans or anything.

“My desire to have a fun recording experience like the old days kind of wound up with my old songwriting buddy Jeff [Trott] moving about three minutes from my house. We started getting together and it was fantastic - it felt like the second, third and fourth record. The next thing we knew we had 16 or 17 songs.”

On this record you can tell that there’s a lot going on around us - from the election to the atmosphere of technology and social media. It’s all there

Did you revisit your early material in the making of Be Myself?

“We listened to a couple of things. For me, it was more about trying to remember the spirit of the recording process from back then. You can really hear it on that second record: the desperation to not be pegged by the first record. Then on the third record, for me, that was the result of having a really hard break-up and being really hard around the edges. The experience of going into the studio informed how the record sounded.

“On this record you can tell that there’s a lot going on around us - from the election to the atmosphere of technology and social media. It’s all there.”

Did the change in tact have an impact on your approach to writing? Were you still writing on an acoustic? 

“This record was a throwback to how Jeff and I always wrote - it was him on a guitar and me on bass, and a programmer giving us some good beats. The big difference between this record and the last one was that this one was written with me on bass whereas the last record was more me with a pad and a pen.

“The heavier songs on this record were not written on an electric; it was Jeff playing my old Gibson Country Western through a really small tweed amp that made this gigantic sound.” 

Did you track a lot of bass on the record as well?

“Yeah, I’m embarrassed to say that, much like the second record, often our writing demos are what’s on the record.”

I basically recorded during school hours and we wound up with a really rockin’ record even though we started at 10am and wrapped at 5:30pm every day

You mentioned your Country Western; is that the one you tend to go to when you do write on guitar?

“I typically write on that same guitar. I’ve bought lots of nice guitars, but that guitar speaks to me. It’s a 1966 Country Western and I play that on the road as well. We have a model that has been patterned after that from Gibson, a Sheryl Crow Country Western I guess you would call it, and we use those on stage. They’re great guitars. It’s my go-to in the studio.”

And how about your go-to bass?

“I’ve got two go-to basses. I’ve got a 1972 and a 1974 M85 - they’re Guild basses. I love those for the sustain. They’re great live. I also have a 1957 Kingman bass and I tracked quite a bit with that as well. That bass has a deep history to it that really shows up sonically.” 

Over the last couple of records you have had the added responsibility of motherhood - has that had a big impact on your worldview, and in turn, your songwriting?

“It’s funny: it has impacted the content and the way I look at the world now because I have two little boys. I’m raising people, they will become people. It’s such a different time to how I grew up. I’m conscious that they’re not face down in a screen and they’re experiencing what it is to be in life as opposed to an observer.

“The other impact of having kids is your work hours and your level of fatigue. This record was like no other. I basically recorded during school hours and we wound up with a really rockin’ record even though we started at 10am and wrapped at 5:30pm every day. Even so, we ended up with what feels like an edgy record.”

Your children are now aged nine and six - does that mean that your touring plans may be scaled back for this record?

“With the country record, I missed more nights than I wanted to miss with my kids. I said I would never do that again and spend nights away from them promoting a record. That is counter to what I believe being a mom is about. But this year we’re going out this summer.

“Two years ago I told the boys that we weren’t going to tour any more, and my nine-year-old got really choked up and said, ‘We’re not going to go on the tour bus any more?’ I didn’t realise how much that is a part of who he is. They’re going to come out with me this summer and bring some friends out and share some of it with their buddies. I know that in a couple of years they won’t want to do this, so we’re going to enjoy this tour.”

Lyrically on Be Myself you’re covering some big themes, notably politics on Halfway There. On that song you speak about compromise, but there seems to be very little of that in modern politics…

“It’s been really disillusioning watching the dialogue in [America] change. If you’re a person of reason it is dumbfounding when you hear people talk about their belief systems. For me it has been unavoidable in terms of writing about it.

“I live in a town that is predominately conservative and I’m a liberal. The fact that we can’t live together and figure a way of meeting in the middle; that, to me, is the end of civilisation as we know it. I feel like we are standing on that precipice right now. We are redefining humanity and it doesn’t look that great.”

I understand why [Trump] has been elected, but it makes me sad for the people who believe that he cares for them, because I think he is beyond the definition of narcissist

Was Trump a big inspiration for themes on this record?

“These songs were written before he even got the nomination. Songs like Heartbeat Away were heavily influenced by the atmosphere, the fear and trying to keep people off-kilter, feeling unsafe and that feeling of trying to manufacture mistrust.

“It was shocking for me when he got elected because I couldn’t reconcile who would vote for a man like that. But, I do now understand it. There are a lot of people who have been hurting for way too long and they feel like no one cares for them. I understand why he has been elected but it makes me sad for the people who believe that he cares for them because I think he is beyond the definition of narcissist.” 

This record, and this is not a very attractive term, but I was barfing out lyrics. I felt like I couldn’t write fast enough

Sticking with Halfway There, you have Gary Clark Jr guesting on that one. How did that come about?

“He is somebody I adore, but I have an in with him because he is managed by my manager. I know him now and I’m a huge fan of his talent but also of him. He was gracious enough to let me send him that track, and he sent me back his awesomeness.” 

There’s a lot of heartbreak on the album as well. Is it important to you to always be so personal in your writing?

“If I get to a place where I am comfortable with closing a door and writing what is on my mind and in my heart then these topics are in the ether. I hope lyrically what is on the record will resonate with people.

“I know that people in my circle are talking about these topics; from technology and how that affects how our kids see themselves and your ability to be a good role model with the likes and dislikes they are trying to get on social media. It’s the wild west, it’s a new frontier.”

Is songwriting a cathartic process for you?

“I can safely say that it has been in the past. This record, and this is not a very attractive term, but I was barfing out lyrics. I felt like I couldn’t write fast enough. Most of what is on the record started from being on the mic and just letting it go. I think that is because a lot of these things are swirling around in the ether every day surrounding us. Life influences your art.”

Be Myself is out on 21 April.

Rich Chamberlain

Rich is a teacher, one time Rhythm staff writer and experienced freelance journalist who has interviewed countless revered musicians, engineers, producers and stars for the our world-leading music making portfolio, including such titles as Rhythm, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, and MusicRadar. His victims include such luminaries as Ice T, Mark Guilani and Jamie Oliver (the drumming one).