Sheryl Crow gets serious about music, motherhood and making a difference

[5 August 2008]

By Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

A thriving, 15-year career in the pop-rock world is a triumph.

A thriving career for Sheryl Crow in 2008 is a bona fide feat.

It’s been two years since the celebrated singer-songwriter faced down the biggest challenge of her life: Just weeks after the breakdown of her high-profile engagement to cyclist Lance Armstrong, she was met with an out-of-the-blue diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a one-two punch that took Crow out of the public eye for several months, as she underwent surgery and radiation treatment.

That was then. This is now: an adopted baby boy, an album that’s been hailed by some as her best yet, and a successful concert tour that’s scheduled to traverse the globe through year’s end.

Crow, 46, doesn’t take a lot for granted now. On the road with her is 1-year-old Wyatt, whom she adopted in spring 2007. As she speaks by phone from a tour bus in New York, he romps noisily nearby, at one point mimicking his mom by picking up a nearby handset.

“You doing an interview, too?” she says to him with an affectionate laugh. Life on the rock ‘n’ roll road is different these days, says Crow. A little more regimented, a lot more restrained.

“He helps keeps things more focused,” she says. “You stop sweating the small stuff, that’s for sure.”

It’s the big stuff that’s been on Crow’s mind. Her personal renaissance transformed into a creative burst that culminated with this year’s “Detours,” an album of textured, smartly crafted pop-Americana with an assist from Bill Botrell, producer of her 1993 breakthrough, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” The new record finds Crow taking stock, filled with the sorts of broad protest themes and naked personal introspection that would feel at home on an early ‘70s John Lennon record.

That’s not unfamiliar territory for Crow, who points to the social commentary of earlier work such as “Soak Up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do,” the deceptively sunshiny breakout hit that she now says was a snipe at the cultural emptiness of the early 1990s. Still, with its pacifist pleas and anti-consumerism diatribes, the album takes that tendency further than she’s gone yet.

“For me, what’s paramount is writing from a truthful place,” she says. “Now I’m finding this extreme sense of urgency to cut to the core, to get to the truth. It strikes me that there’s a real lack of protest songwriters out there. What a real opportunity this is to write about what all of us are feeling collectively, to serve the role artists have served historically.”

Crow was among the first pop artists to take a visible stand against the Iraq war, and her devotion to topics such as green activism has been well chronicled. Still, amid the personal trauma of 2006, it had been a while since she’d channeled such passions into her work. The “Detours” songs were written in stream-of-consciousness gushes late at night, often around Wyatt’s feeding schedule - “a wholly inspired creative environment for me, a very prolific time,” she says.

Politics remains tricky territory for popular artists, particularly in an election year. But Crow scoffs at worries she might turn off portions of her audience, trusting that her fans have given her leeway to speak her mind.

“Not to sound too harsh, but with this record I’m not concerned who I’m going to lose or pick up,” she says. “Because everything felt more urgent_the environment, a war based on deception. And in general, across the board, people in America have become comatose or dulled out by the immense amount of information that’s out there. I had to take a leap of faith that a lot of people are feeling the way I’m feeling.”

That spirit has made its way into her live show, which features an expanded stage band and revamped arrangements of her older material amid the “Detours” songs.

“It feels bigger and grander, and goes to a more dramatic place,” she says. “I’m really enjoying playing the new stuff. It’s a collection of very intense songs, and it actually even intensifies the old stuff.”

Crow still shakes her head sometimes when she looks back on her success. She never expected “Tuesday Night Music Club” to catch radio programmers’ ears, let alone become one of the biggest albums of the 1990s. Her self-piloted career - which found her taking the production reins on subsequent albums - helped set the stage for what would become a surge of female singer-songwriters later that decade.

She says she’s flattered by young artists who continue to cite her as an important influence, and through it all, she has resolutely tried to avoid falling into stardom’s common trap.

“Throughout time, you have artists you really love who are so great in the beginning,” she says, “and as they get older and richer, they start making music that’s a little flat and not as inspired. I don’t want that.”

Though she has finally put to rest persistent rumors that she’ll be joining Fleetwood Mac for touring and recording, 2008 will remain bustling for Crow, who plans to perform at fund-raisers for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. In addition to a new song, “So Glad We Made It,” written and recorded for NBC’s upcoming Olympics coverage, she’s just put the final touches on her first-ever Christmas album, due for release in the fall. And while no recording schedule is yet in place, she confirms that she’ll link up again with Botrell for her next proper record.

“It’s either very sad or very telling, but music has become commerce. Artists haven’t really stepped up and written as artists, ” she says. “I’m just enjoying making that connection to the audience. I think that’s what people want.”

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