Singer Sheryl Crow: Learning To Feel Helped Me Make Better Music

In this encore presentation, Grammy Award-winning singer Sheryl Crow talks about her music, motherhood, love, breast cancer and what she's learned from it all.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As we head toward production of our final program on August 1, we've been bringing you encores of some of our favorite conversations. Today, we're hearing again from Grammy-winning recording artist Sheryl Crow. She's been a rock star for more than a decade. Her breakthrough came in 1993 with her debut album, "Tuesday Night Music Club," and the monster hit "All I Want To Do." Well, seven albums and nine Grammys later, she's got a new concert video out featuring the late Johnny Cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION DAY")

SHERYL CROW AND JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) There is a train that's heading straight to heaven's gate, to heaven's gate. And on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait...

MARTIN: Sheryl Crow stopped by our New York bureau in 2010 to talk with us about her album "100 Miles From Memphis." And I started by asking her about the soul influences on the record.

SHERYL CROW: Interestingly enough, I grew up in a really small town, 106 miles from Memphis. And when I was growing up, the music that we always listened to came out of Memphis - came out of Memphis radio stations. And a lot of that was informed by the music that was born of Memphis - people like Al Green and Otis Redding and all the music was made out at High Records and Stax.

So when I first started singing when I moved to L.A., what I was doing was, you know, basically soul music and really could not get arrested by a record label. I got turned in by everybody. So I just felt like it was really time to get back to doing - to making a record that was solidly committed to my earliest influences.

MARTIN: And speaking of earliest influences, I have to play a little bit from the bonus track. And I have to tell you that when I got the CD, I was just - I just popped it in, and when I got to this one, I just - I don't know. I can't express the feeling of joy that came over me.

CROW: Oh, that's great. That's what you want, right?

MARTIN: Right. But I'm going to - I'm just going to play it. I'm not going to tell people what it is. I'm just going to play it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

CROW: (Singing) Oh, let me hear you now. When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd. Someone picked you from the bunch. One glance was all it took. But now it's much too late for me to take a second look. Oh, baby, give me one more chance.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Show you that I love you.

MARTIN: And I'm 12 years old again.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Love it. What made you do the Jackson 5?

CROW: Well, it was just kind of a happy accident. We recorded quite a few covers on this record, and one of them was an unreleased track - which actually you can now get on iTunes - by Marvin Gaye called "Desperate Situation." And the rhythm track was really, really similar. And at the end of it, I just started singing "I Want You Back" over it.

And we wound up recording the whole song. And the band really fought hard for me to put it on the record because, you know, in some ways, it was really a celebration, for me, of how I got my start. I got my start as a backup singer for Michael Jackson. The first record I ever owned that Santa Claus brought me was "ABC." And it was also the year anniversary of his death. So things just kind of lined up for that to work out. And I contend, people say, wow, you sound just like him.

MARTIN: I do have to ask about that experience singing backup for Michael Jackson on the tour for the album Bad. What was that like? And what do you think you learned from that?

CROW: It was everything. You know, I've told a lot of people the fact that I never - I didn't even own a passport. I mean, I had basically been a school teacher up until six months before I got that gig. And I moved to L.A. I was doing some backup work. I heard some singers talking about a closed audition, and I crashed it. And I wound up getting it. And the next thing I know, a month later I'm singing with, you know, arguably the biggest artist to ever come along, and probably who will ever come along.

It was very surreal, but at the same time, when I look back on it - and granted, it was 20 years ago - I can't believe how blessed I was to actually get to witness Michael Jackson in his brilliance - you know, his divinity. And not many people have that memory of standing on the side of the stage in the dark and getting to double him on - (singing) she says I am the one. And getting to sing with him and getting him - getting to watch him do these moves that no one had ever seen before him and that now, of course, we take for granted.

And, you know, I think his death really caused everybody, you know, collectively to sort of reflect for a moment about who we are, you know, because it's really easy to invest in the tabloid fodder that goes along with someone who is really ultimately at the core, just a human being - a very fragile human being.

And no one will ever really know the truth about what went on in Michael's private life. But the real fact is that he grew up with a very unnatural upbringing. And, you know - and I think it reflected to us something about our level of compassion and our level of compassion in everyday life - of really investing into other people's lives and their misfortunes, and so on and so forth.

I would safely say that I've been relatively untouched by my success, because I got a late start. I wasn't successful at the age of five with people trying to get at me and surrounding my limousine. My situation was much, much different. And I can safely say that I enjoy a certain amount of anonymity that he could never ever enjoy.

MARTIN: Except that it - except that whatever happens in your life still plays out publicly. I, too, take your point that, you know, he could not go out on the street. But getting back to you - when you - you know, you experience something as personal and as profound as breast cancer, for example.

CROW: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, it doesn't take place sort of privately. I would like to ask - if you don't mind my invading your space a little bit...

CROW: Sure.

MARTIN: ...to talk about how you think that experience changed you as an artist?

CROW: For me, once I was diagnosed - once I was handed that diagnosis, it was very apparent to me that my life was never going to look or feel the same to me again. And that - my lesson was, in my diagnosis and laying on the radiation table every single morning for seven weeks, was nobody can take care of me but me. And I wasn't doing that. I was putting everybody's needs before me. And so it was really - you know, I met myself on that radiation table every day. And I had to reflect and had to remember who it was I came in as and had to really sort of redefine my life.

And the thing that I would say in addressing the whole fame thing was that I got a glimpse into how crazy and how sensational the whole media thing can be, in that I had - I had photographers camping outside of my door, wanting to get pictures of me at my lowest. You know, having been through a public breakup and then having been diagnosed. And I have been able to make choices, now, in my life that - choices that have made my career smaller, but have given me a life that I can enjoy more.

MARTIN: Well, let me apologize on behalf of my colleagues for your - I mean - (laughing) - the collective apology on behalf of my colleagues.

CROW: Well, no, no. This is quite different. I mean, it's wonderful to be able to go - I mean, doing radio is wonderful because - I had a conversation with somebody earlier who does print. And he asked me something that was completely - he said, I just want to clarify something. It was something that was really ugly that I had supposedly said. And it's wonderful to be able to go out and speak and have people actually hear first-hand, you know, what it is you're about and get an idea of who you are. And I think there's great merit to that. So it's great to have the opportunity to use my voice and get to speak with someone who does intelligent interviewing.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Well...

CROW: And I actually listen to your show, so...

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

CROW: My poor kids are growing up with - not getting to hear Lady Gaga, but instead are listening to NPR.

MARTIN: We have a little Lady Gaga on there from time to time.

CROW: Oh, that's good. That's good.

MARTIN: We hit them up from time to time. Yeah.

CROW: My three-year-old is very into Lady Gaga.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning artist Sheryl Crow. We're talking about her new album, "100 Hundred Miles from Memphis," and, you know, a lot of other stuff that occurs to us. How are your kids, and that's a - that is also a big life change - isn't it? - as an artist, having two young children?

CROW: Oh, my gosh. As a person, it's a real game-changer. And it's great, and I love every minute of it. And we are a traveling circus now. We are like the Cirque du Soleil of pop rock, I guess. We have the blowup pool and the little bicycle and all of his books and all the dinosaurs and the bottle warmers and the diapers. And all the drugs, sex and rock 'n roll - all that mythology just flies right out the window when do you come on my bus. It's, you know - it's really a trip. But it's been a joy. And it's really, for me, artistically - it's made it a very wonderfully provocative time to be a writer.

MARTIN: Give me an example.

CROW: Well, you know, the last record was really an interesting record to make 'cause I had gone through the breast cancer thing and the public breakup and adopted a child and had not really sat down to write anything, and consciously so 'cause I didn't want to go to music to sort of bury the emotion of it all. I really wanted to experience it in order to be done with it.

MARTIN: But is - are you saying that sometimes if you write about something too soon, it's almost like you're performing yourself? You're not - it's not authentic unless - is that - you know what I mean? I'm trying to understand how that...

CROW: I think emotionally it's really authentic. I think for me - when you go to your work, it sort of fortifies that that belief system that we Westerners have, which is, oh, I know you're going through a hard time. Just try to stay busy. Try not to think about it. And ultimately, the real learning and the real growth comes from experiencing our emotions. You know, that's where the awakening really occurs.

I remember reading an interview with Dana Reeves, and I really had a lot of respect for her. That when Christopher Reeves died, somebody asked her, how do you get through the grief? And she said, you grieve. You know, the only way to get through it is you grieve it. You experience it. And with me - you know, with losing the relationship that I had and what was family for me, and then getting diagnosed six days later - if I'd gone to music and I had made it - made my music about making it feel OK, I think I would've really missed out on what was - what was important to me. Which was learning how to be sad and to be scared and to be angry and all those things, which ultimately made me stronger and made me more equipped to move forward and be a real active participant in the emotional aspects of my life.

MARTIN: Oh, tell me about the urgency. That's where I interrupted you. You were saying that something about being a mom...

CROW: Well, you know...

MARTIN: ...has made you feel even more urgent about what you're trying to do.

CROW: Well, having a three-month-old and sitting down to write. And having been on the, you know, on the Global Warming tour and watching what was happening with, you know, our government at the time really denying the IPCC reports. And feeling like what is it going to take for us to really wise up and understand that no matter what the science says, we share this planet.

We can't be that selfish to think that I'm going to - I'm going to get out of what I can, living my life and not care about my neighbor or the people that come after me or my kids or whatever. It's like the idea of leaving the campground in a better space than how you found it. It's just - it's about being a conscious person and not having it be a political stance. And, you know, compound that with we had just gotten into a war that was, to me, unfounded and was based on lies and - so there were all these things that I felt like we were a direct reflection of who we were.

And it felt personal for me, with having a three-month-old. It felt like, wow, who are we becoming? And when we choose people to represent us, we really need to look at that - what that person - what aspects of ourselves that leader represents in us. And to have a little one look at you 24 hours a day to be the truth for that little person - it just made me feel differently about writing and about who I was and who I wanted to be.

MARTIN: That was Sheryl Crow talking about her album "100 Miles From Memphis."

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