Sheryl Crow gets her Nashville country initiation with her ninth studio album Feels Like Home
Sheryl Suzanne Crow was born in Missouri in 1962 to musical parents, her mother being a pianist, her father a trumpet player. Though showing promise as an athlete during her school years, Crow chose music and attended the University of Missouri, and graduated with a degree in music composition, performance and education. Her first commercial success in music came when writing advertising jingles for companies including McDonalds and Toyota. Between 1987 and 1989 she toured with Michael Jackson as a backing singer, often taking lead vocals for the duet ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’. Crow went on to sing backing vocals for a wide range of artists including Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and Belinda Carlisle.
By 1993 Crow released her first studio album Tuesday Night Music Club – a reference to an ad hoc group of musicians and songwriters. The album spawned the unexpected mega-hit ‘All I Wanna Do’, resulting in Crow being catapulted the forefront of public consciousness. The album went on to sell over 7 million copies in the USA and UK alone and secured Crow three Grammys for Record of the Year, Best New Artist and Best Female Vocal Performance
Since then, Sheryl Crow has gone on to release a further seven studio albums, two compilations and a live album. Total sales now exceed 17 million in the US and over 35 million worldwide. Her mantelpiece is now home to a total of nine Grammys from 32 nominations, making the 52-year-old singer, musician and songwriter one of the most successful, respected and prolific artists of our time.
Released in September 2013, Crow’s ninth studio album, Feels Like Home, is her debut country music recording and a significant departure from the radio-friendly soft rock that she has built her career on. Some would argue, however, that Crow’s music has always incorporated elements of country music and as such Feels Like Home is something of a return to her key influences and roots – hence the album’s title. Crow disagrees, asserting: ‘Personally, I don’t see that big of a difference from my previous record. All of my albums have had a few different styles going on in them, and this album definitely has a few different takes on what country music means to me, but not calculatedly so. First and foremost, I wanted to make sure that for this album I wrote about things that I really knew about – subjects that hit close to home.’
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Crow moved to Nashville and very quickly felt at home. ‘It wasn’t until I moved here that I realised what an amazing community it is,’ says Crow of working in Nashville. ‘It’s the thing I’ve been missing my whole career, the feeling of being able to sit around with a guitar and have people know each other’s songs and know songs from people who’ve influenced all of us. Soon after I moved to Nashville, Vince Gill started calling me to do guitar pulls; it was like heaven on earth!’
You’d be forgiven for making the assumption that being immersed in the home of country music was the catalyst for the new album. Not so. ‘The whole thing really came out of people encouraging me to make a record with a Nashville feel. After I sang with Loretta Lynn at the Country Music Awards, Brad Paisley came up to me and said: “It would be really good to have you make a country record.”’
Crow wasn’t convinced but Paisley sold her the idea by adding: ‘The thing that makes it different from what you already do is the fact that the lyrics are the most important thing and the vocals are really loud! Let’s just do what you do – bring your influences with you.’
Soon after that conversation, Paisley put Crow together with some Nashville songwriters. Crow recalls the initial excitement: ‘It meant a lot that such a great country artist like Brad put his faith in me and I wanted to at least explore that form of song craftsmanship. I believe that some of the best songs that have been out there in the last few years have been in a country format.’
Feels Like Home is the first album in Crow’s career in which each one of the 12 songs was co-written with another songwriter. ‘It feels like the most focused record I’ve ever made,’ she says.
Though the new album is her first country release, Crow has definite views on the current health of country music. ‘The country format is a lot different now than how it used to be but in some ways it’s the same in that you have some really great stuff out there and then you have some stuff which is just… popular, fun and more of the moment. That’s the way it’s always been, whatever format of music you listen to.’
Being a capable songwriter in her own right, we ask if working with numerous other songwriters on one project meant having to compromise in some way. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a compromise,’ Crow says without hesitation. ‘I definitely wouldn’t put anything on the record that I don’t love or feel is authentically me. The way the songwriters in Nashville work is they write in groups, typically three, and that’s definitely a new thing for me. I’ve only collaborated with only one other person at a time and there’s basically only two other people I’ve collaborated with in my career. But I’ve still collaborated with my old songwriting buddy, Jeff Trott; he’s on the new record. I loved the practice of it, sitting around with two other people and getting the job done. I really felt that as long as I loved the record, there was no compromise. I feel like some of the best songwriting I’ve ever done is on this record.’
Does writing as part of a team make the songwriting process quicker? ‘I guess it’s quicker in the sense that you’ve got two other people to bounce things off,’ says Crow. ‘But it’s not quicker in the sense that you let things go. You don’t ever think: “Oh that’s good enough.” But it’s not that different from what I’ve done in the past, except for the fact that the songs are written mostly in the first person, they are more story-orientated, very succinct, not a lot of imagery – it’s pretty straight ahead. It’s quite a bit different writing songs here in Nashville. In some ways, after 25 years of songwriting, I was the apprentice again. It was a bit like stepping out onto a tennis court with Roger Federer, but I love learning.’
Though a talented songwriter and guitarist, Crow’s trademark and instantly recognisable vocals set her apart from many female artists. Feels Like Home certainly features some of the most powerful and heartfelt vocals of her career. We ask if recording a country music album meant approaching the vocals differently. ‘No. Not at all. The approach isn’t different but one of the nice things about the new record is there’s a lot more range melodically speaking and I love to be able to use my full voice. I recorded the vocals in my barn, they were done really quickly. I think because I’m standing behind a guitar, most people don’t know I can actually sing so it was great to have the opportunity to maximise my voice. And I enjoy being able to sing dramatic country in the context of 70s country, which I love; people like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt.’
Having built her career in a different genre of music, maybe there was some trepidation or nerves about making the “cross-over”? ‘I was nervous about how I would be perceived,’ admits Crow. ‘A lot of pop and rock artists have come across to the country format in the hope of capitalising on the loyalty of the fan base and I didn’t want people to perceive me as doing that. Country music is rightly suspicious of those whose jump on the bandwagon but I’ve always loved country music and I’ve played with country artists since the very beginning of my career, so that was my main trepidation.’
Having worked with a vast array of artists including Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, BB King, Don Henley, Tony Bennett, Sting, and who can forget Kid Rock, we ask if there were still other artists she’d like to work with. ‘I’d really love to work with Bobbi Gentry or Linda Ronstadt, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because they don’t really sing anymore. Obviously I’d also love to work with Keith Richards but as far as the young cats out there go, I’ve been a bit spoiled in that I’ve already worked with so many people that I love.’
Crow has had a long association with Gibson guitars, with various models appearing on the new album, but she regards one in particular as her go-to guitar. ‘It’s a 1964 Country Western – it’s the one that I’ve always had and the one I’ve basically written every successful song that I’ve had on. It’s funny because I’ve got a lot of lovely guitars, but I always come back to that one – we call it the money-maker! It plays beautifully and evenly and I love the way it records – I gravitate to it.’
Also included in Crow’s guitar collection is a recent J45 and a Hummingbird. ‘When I’m writing and recording I tend to use old Gibsons, but playing live I prefer the new Gibson guitars. It’s taken me a while to get a great acoustic sound on stage, but I feel like we’ve got that now.’
Crow enthuses when talking about her guitars. Perhaps she’s a secret collector? ‘I am a bit of a collector,’ Crow confesses, ‘but I only buy instruments that I know I’ll use and enjoy playing. I have them all hanging up in my studio and sometimes people walk in and say it looks like Gruhn’s, but I love the fact that people pick up guitars and sit around and play – they’re all very accessible. I don’t keep them locked away in their cases!’
Country music guitarists develop a specific technique. We ask Sheryl if she had to adapt her style for the new album. ‘No, I’m a meat and potatoes player. I’m not a lead or flashy player. The guitar playing that I’ve always emulated was in the vein of the Rolling Stones. I definitely think that kind of playing came from blues and country and I always gravitate to that. I love the sound and feel of it so that’s the lane that I’ve always stayed in. I don’t feel that I’ve changed too much as a guitarist on this record but I would say that looked into a lot of authentic country and that’s influenced me. I love players like Bobbi Gentry – she was just so funky on an acoustic guitar.’
So working with Brad Paisley hasn’t turned Crow into a demon picker? Laughing, she replies, ‘No. Brad’s like an Albert Lee – he’s quick! I come from a more old-school country place.’
With live performances planned for 2014, we ask whether playing live is an exact representation of the studio recordings. ‘No, it’s definitely not exact. I have a new band who have played together for years and they are amazing. The reason they are so great is they always play the right stuff – they play off of each other. I want them to do what they do and I’m loving every minute of it. They’re also the tallest band I’ve ever worked with!’
When asked about the different dynamics of working in the studio and playing live, Crow clearly prefers the latter. ‘I love the unpredictability of playing live and the response from the audience – if they put their phones down! For me, playing live is what it’s all about.’
Having worked with such an eclectic range of artists, we ask what sort of music we’d find on her iPod. ‘I listen to stuff from right across the board, there’s some really good stuff at the moment. I love Rhianna, Bruno Mars, the Black Keys and Mumford & Sons – there’s a lot of cool stuff out there.’
As we finish up the conversation, Crow reflects on how happy she is with the new album. ‘Making this album meant working with people I really love and admire and it’s great to be part of that, to be able to play with friends on any given day. I can have a dinner party and people pick up guitars and start playing. For me, it’s exactly what I’ve always loved and wanted.’ Steve Harvey
Feels Like Home is out now.