She's earnest & honest

She's earnest & honest

back in form

She's earnest & honest

Sometimes the comfort zone is where a musician belongs. That’s the charm of ‘Be Myself’, Sheryl Crow’s pointedly titled new album, which gleefully and unabashedly returns to the sound of her hit albums from the 1990s. “This record, of all the records I’ve made, was just sheer joy,” Crow said in an interview.

For this album, her ninth, Crow reunited with her late-1990s collaborators, though some things had changed over two decades. She was recording in her own barn in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, not in Los Angeles, New Orleans or New York. Instead of doing all-night sessions, she made music between taking her two sons to school and dinnertime. And she had new topics to write about: divisive politics, relationships filtered through technology, and the way social media prizes photos of derrières.

But ‘Be Myself’, due April 21, still relies on her girl-next-door voice, on straightforward songs that don’t hide their fondness for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and on mostly hand-played instruments with subtle sonic tweaks. Crow wrote and recorded, as she did on her albums ‘Sheryl Crow’ (1996) and ‘The Globe Sessions’ (1998), with the songwriter and co-producer Jeff Trott and the engineer and mixer Tchad Blake.

In a relaxed conversation that let the drawl of her Missouri childhood emerge now and then, she spoke about shifting expectations, about thinking as a parent and about how songs with serious intentions can still sound lighthearted. “I’ve been working for over 30 years,” she said. “Artistes who have been around that long become criticised for their later work being kind of soft, or it’s not what it was, or they don’t have anything to say anymore now that they have money. I really, on this record, wanted to feel like I felt on my second and third and fourth records, which was just a feeling of liberation. We were celebrating us coming back together, celebrating this liberation of being older and making music that isn’t trying to be anything other than what it is.”

Began with a bang
Her debut album, the multimillion-selling ‘Tuesday Night Music Club’ (1993) — which brought her three Grammy Awards, including record of the year — modestly presented her as part of that ‘club’, sharing credit with a Los Angeles studio coterie. But with the next albums, ‘Sheryl Crow’ and ‘The Globe Sessions’, she made it clear that the songwriting, and much of the playing, was hers above all. For ‘Be Myself’, she said, “This whole experience felt like the second record or the third record, where it was kind of us against them, and we were just like kids in a laboratory, stirring up these concoctions.”
Those early albums would go on to influence a next generation of country music, as younger singers like Cam, Kelsea Ballerini and Lady Antebellum looked as much toward California soft-rock as toward honky-tonk. “She’s one of those artistes, super few and far between, that aren’t defined by a genre,” Ballerini said by phone. “She’s indie and she’s country and she’s pop, all at the same time, and that’s never even been questioned because she just makes timeless music that fits in everywhere.”

Cam, in a telephone interview, said Crow has a gift for sounding like herself and standing her ground. “I don’t think anyone would ever come around and say she really played by the rules,” she said. Crow’s own foray into modern country left her dissatisfied. Her 2013 album, ‘Feels Like Home’, tried a typical strategy for ageing rock hitmakers: head for Nashville to make a mainstream country album with the city’s in-group of songwriting collaborators and studio stalwarts. Crow had moved to the Nashville area, where she still lives, in 2006, and by the time she made ‘Feels Like Home’, mainstream country seemed like both a progression and a challenge. “The writing and the making, it was a good experience artistically,” she said. “I felt really proud of the craftsmanship.”

For the love of country music
Yet country radio programmers treated her more like a carpetbagger than a forerunner. “I grew up loving country music and feeling like there was a pretty sturdy country influence in my music, but the format itself was really taxing for me,” she said. She played free promotional shows for radio stations, which in turn might grudgingly play her songs “between 3 and 4 in the morning, if that,” she said. “And they don’t really play women.”
On other tracks, she grapples with social media, while the music cheerfully twangs and thumps. In ‘Alone in the Dark’, her trust is betrayed by a partner who ‘went to the world and broadcast me’; in ‘Roller Skate’, an embrace is interrupted by a text message, making her urge, ‘Put your phone away, let’s roller skate’.

She doesn’t want to be a “parent-dinosaur” rejecting technology. “I don’t think you can really subtract technology from relationships anymore,” she said. “On this record, I hope that I’m more of an observer than a critic of it. But I do look at the presence of technology and what it’s doing to our relationships with real concern. It may connect all of us, but it’s definitely creating a chasm between us. And raising two humans, which is my first and foremost job, I see how, as a parent, you have to figure out some way to navigate their relationship with technology.”

For all of Crow’s earnestness, her music keeps a playful momentum, full of scruffy analog sounds and vocals that can sound just a moment from laughter. She has seen other ageing artistes grow “bitter” and is determined not to. Treatment for breast cancer in 2006, she said, pushed her into living purposefully, yet savouring every moment. “I don’t know what I would have felt like if I had not had the moment of reckoning,” she said. “My life shifted into something that was more authentic in a lot of ways.”