MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
Sheryl Crow has 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, Crow is back with her new album, "100 Miles From Memphis."
(Soundbite of song, "100 Miles From Memphis")
Ms. SHERYL CROW (Musician): (Singing) I got nothing behind me. Nothing left to remind me. Just a worn out picture and a number written on the back 'cause it's so far down, shake this town. Drive a while, 100 miles from Memphis.
MARTIN: Well, I don't know if she's been driving 100 miles, but she is on tour and she was kind enough to stop by our New York bureau to talk with us. Sheryl Crow, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. CROW: Thanks, Michel, how are you?
MARTIN: Now, I understand that this album was influenced by a number of legendary soul artists like Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. So, what inspired you to go in that direction?
Ms. CROW: Well, 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 of 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 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.
Ms. CROW: Oh, that's great. That's what you want, right?
MARTIN: Right. But 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")
Ms. CROW: (Singing) Oh, let me hear you now. When I had you to myself, I didn't want you to 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: My bad. What made you do the Jackson 5?
Ms. 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?
Ms. CROW: It was everything. You know, I've told a lot of people the fact that I didn't even own a passport. I mean, I had basically been a schoolteacher 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 cause everybody, you know, collectively to sort of reflect for a moment about - 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 every day 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, and my situation 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 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.
Ms. CROW: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You know, it doesnt take place sort of privately. I would like to ask, if you don't mind my invading your space a little bit...
Ms. CROW: Sure.
MARTIN: ...to talk about how you think that experience changed you as an artist?
Ms. CROW: For from 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 - and 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 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...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: ...the collective apology on behalf of my colleagues.
Ms. 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'd 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 youre about and get an idea of who you are. And I think there is 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CROW: And I actually listen to your show so...
MARTIN: Well, thank you.
Ms. 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 here from time to time. Weve played (unintelligible) from time to time. Yeah.
Ms. CROW: Oh, that's good. That's good. My three-year-old is very into Lady Gaga.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre 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. But how are your kids and that is also a big life change, isn't it - as an artist, having two young children?
Ms. 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: Well, give me an example.
Ms. CROW: Well, you know, the last record was really an interesting record to make, because 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, because 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 are performing yourself? Youre not - it's not authentic unless - is that - you know what I mean? I'm trying to understand how that...
Ms. 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 - that 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 had gone to music and I had made it - made my music about making it feel okay, I think I would've really missed out on 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...
Ms. CROW: Well, you know...
MARTIN: ...has made you feel even more urgent about what you're trying to do.
Ms. 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 am 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: Let's play a little bit of one of the songs from the new album, "Say Want You Want," which seems to pull together some of the things that we're talking about here. So let me just - let me just play a short clip and let me hear what you have to say.
(Soundbite of song, "Say What You Want")
Ms. CROW: (Singing) I saw you ranting on TV today. I heard you tell me to reload. You got a lot of nerve to talk that way. Someone unplug the microphone. Im tired of all the fighting, cynicism and back biting. Can't even hear myself think, you pour the Kool-Aid and then we drink. So much noise, so much chatter. Does the truth even matter?
Say, say what you want to, even though you never mean it.
MARTIN: Are we thinking about anybody in particular on this one?
Ms. CROW: Well, you know, obviously the word reload...
MARTIN: Anybody in particular come to mind here?
Ms. CROW: ...certainly evokes Sarah Palin. But it was - for me it's more of a -- it's a more broad indictment. And this song is a comment and I'm sure it's peeved and a lot of people. In fact, I know it's peeved a lot of people. But the point is, when we follow people, when we choose people to speak for us, that it's important that we really listen to the word choices. Because words are very powerful; they are weapons, and they are as powerful the other way. They can also edify and they can build us up. And I look - I think about this at the simplest level. In my household I was not allowed to call somebody else in idiot. I wasnt allowed to use the word stupid. I couldn't tell my sisters and brothers they were stupid or tell them to shut up. There is a level of compassion that goes along with speaking, and the tone now that we've gotten use to from our leaders, is this snarky sarcastic tone. And I just believe that we are entering a place that's slightly dangerous. When we are following people like Rush Limbaugh, who's from my home state, who really does pre-emulate(ph) from a place of meanness. And I just, I don't have any use for it. I don't think there is any place or call for meanness, and we are at a place now where that's what we look - we look at that as great leadership and it isn't.
MARTIN: Do you see yourself as a leader?
Ms. CROW: A leader, I dont, I mean I'm not leading anything. I'm just merely -if there's anything that I want to motivate people to do is to try to cling to the divinity that exists in all of us, which is where our greatness lies. Which is when we do something that we can't even believe we did. We run a race, or read write something that we go wow; I can't believe that came from me. Or when we're the best part of ourselves, when we defend somebody when everybody else is cutting that person down. When the best part of us steps out, that to me, is what we need to get back to being. If there is any leadership in what I do, I hope it's that. I mean I hope that I'm a role model for that, more than anything else.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking the time to stop by. What should we go out on?
Ms. CROW: Well, I think the next song that they are going to release, actually, is the Terence Trent Darby song from the early '90s called "Sign Your Name." And actually, Justin Timberlake is on this song. He was in the studio at the time and I dragged him down the studio and I said hey, I want you to hear this song and he said, you know, I'm from Memphis. And I said yes. And he said well, I want to sing the backgrounds on it and he came a few days later and did it. So it's pretty special and its called "Sign Your Name."
MARTIN: Okay. All right. Sheryl Crow's latest album is "100 Miles from Memphis." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Sheryl Crow, thank you so much.
Ms. CROW: Thank you, Michel.
(Soundbite of song, "Sign Your Name")
Ms. CROW: (Singing) Sign your name across my heart. I want you to be my baby. Sign your name across my heart. I want you to be my baby.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.
Lets talk more tomorrow.
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