Already an icon of American popular music, Sheryl Crow lives and learns. The only difference between Sheryl Crow and most of us is that her path took her into the rarefied air of celebrity. Along the way she earned nine Grammy Awards, chalked up more than 35 million album sales worldwide and broke the Platinum barrier with five albums. Music fueled this journey -- unforgettable songs that chart the milestones she passed, address issues that concerned her and her peers or, sometimes, set all that aside just to rock out.
Eventually, her travels led her to the outskirts of Nashville, to the house she shares with her two young sons and some adjoining land that includes a gray-wood barn converted into a recording studio. It’s close enough to the city to keep her engaged with friends in the musical community yet sufficiently removed to encourage a quieter regimen, centered above all else on her family and her music.
“I’m the hardest person I know to get hold of,” she muses. She’s sitting in a weathered leather chair, steps away from the piano and crackling fireplace in her study. “There are times when you just want to turn off your gadget and you find that you’re happy in the dark.”
Crow is paraphrasing a lyric from “Alone in the Dark,” one of the tracks on her latest album, Be Myself. As this brief reference suggests, Be Myself is like each of her preceding releases: thoughtful, candid. It’s unlike them too, mainly in that it represents contradictory movement -- a look at the world today powered in part by a return to the energy that first lofted Crow and her music into the limelight.
“Musically, this record is about coming back together with Jeff Trott,” she says, referencing the producer, musician, songwriter and invaluable partner on several of her early albums. “This past summer, because of what was going on in the world and particularly in the United States; I began to feel a sense of urgency about writing. So he came out from L.A. for a couple of days here, a couple of days there, and we turned out some good old-school Sheryl Crow tunes.”
This wasn’t by happenstance. In fact, it was Crow’s main goal going into the project. “After my last album, I really needed to investigate what made my early songs strike people as being authentic and original,” she says. “So for the first time in my life, I made it a point to sit down and really listen to my old records. I’d drive my kids to school and play the old stuff as I came back home. That helped me remember what it felt like when I was just beginning as an artist.
“But,” she clarifies, “it wasn’t about repeating myself. It was about revisiting where I came from and seeing where that would take me now.”
With Crow playing bass, Trott on guitar and an assortment of drum grooves locking them together, they jammed out the songs that comprise Be Myself. “When I write on bass, I think more about melody than I do about the next chord and how it’s gonna lead to the last chord,” she explains. That accounts for the consistently emphatic guitar riffs and accessible tunes that animate their new music. In this sense, these are classic Crow compositions, though conceived within the strictures of her everyday demands.
“We’d work between the hours of school drop-off at 9 in the morning to school pickup at 2:30 in the afternoon,” Crow confirms, smiling. “That’s what you call controlling your inspiration. We didn’t edit ourselves, though. We just put down what we were doing as demos, thinking we would recut them and make them better. But then we didn’t because we realized what we had recorded was authentic to what we wanted to achieve.
“The other thing that makes Be Myself special to me is that it’s really topical,” Crow continues. “It’s a grownup record, as opposed to other records I’ve done that were also topical but tried too hard to appease radio.”
One final touch completed Crow’s and Trott’s hopes for making Be Myself a labor of love. “When we’d finished 17 songs, we were like, ‘What do we do next?’ What would really complete the process?’” she says. “We agreed it would be great to get our old buddy Tchad Blake involved to engineer and mix. We hadn’t worked together in 17 or 18 years so I knew it would be a long shot. But when I emailed him, he replied immediately: ‘What time should I be there?’ He got on a plane, came out to Nashville and stayed for three and a half weeks. And we finished the record.”
Be Myself reflects Crow’s commitment to looking at life without illusion and responding to what she finds with honesty and artistry. Over a raw, pared-down instrumental bed she sings with the conviction her fans have long celebrated, addressing the virtues of solitude in the wake of a broken relationship (“Alone in the Dark”), humorously recounting her sense of disorientation in the social media maze (“Be Myself”) and playfully extolling an occasional escape from its entanglement (“Roller Skate”), mourning the fissures that divide us from others (“Halfway There”) … even forecasting the results and predicting the consequences of last year’s presidential election (“A Heartbeat Away”), with a prescient reference to a “man with a red face with his finger on the button … as he ponders the eternal on his private jet.”
Marking her return to the Warner Bros. label after a brief run with Warner Music Nashville for her 2013 country music project Feels Like Home, Be Myself is diverse yet unified, complex yet exhilarating. It achieves Crow’s ambition to articulate her concerns for the future while rocking the house with the passion of her seminal recordings.
“In the old days, we were up for sleeping during the day and then writing and recording furiously all night because we were making music that could save the world. Now, Jeff and I are a couple of old dudes in the studio.”
She laughs and then makes a final and undeniable point. “But for us, it’s still about making music that people can connect with, music that can have an important place in how we feel and what we believe.”
Be Myself just might be the album that brings us all back to that place, back to our wellsprings as Crow has returned to hers.
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