A little over three years ago, Sheryl Crow took her career in a radically different direction with the release of her debut country LP, Feels Like Home. Despite a relentless touring schedule and promotional campaign, the album didn't make much of an impression with country fans and no single placed higher than Number 72 on the Hot 100. "It was still a great experience and I learned a lot," says Crow. "But I gotta say that the country market is commerce at its most fully realized. Right now, I want to have an experience that feels detached from anything in commerce."
That was her mindset when she recorded her upcoming pop record Be Myself, which was cut with her Nineties collaborators Jeff Trott and Tchad Blake, the team responsible for hits like "My Favorite Mistake" and "Everyday Is a Winding Road." The album is slated for release in late March or early April. "I really wanted to get back to how I got started on my second record and third record," Crow says. "I wanted to revisit that sound and that feeling. It was a complete blast and the most effortless thing I've ever done."
Crow has worked consistently with songwriter/producer Trott during the past two decades and they remain close, but reuniting with Blake was another story. "It began with Jeff and I saying, 'What would complete this?'" she says. "We both said, 'Tchad Blake!' I thought in a million years he wouldn't come over because he lives in Wales and I haven't seen him in 15 years. But I emailed him and he said, 'When do you want me there?' He flew over and stayed with me in an apartment over my garage. Every day at 5 p.m. we'd drink a Guinness. He went through cancer treatment a year ago, and so we both had that in common. It felt profoundly sweet having him and Jeff here."
Once the trio that created 1996's Sheryl Crow and 1998's The Globe Sessions had reassembled, new songs began coming quickly. Over a period of just three weeks in September and October, they had created 17 compositions. More than anything, Crow wanted to make sure she wasn't overthinking the work. "As you get older you start making records that are more calculated and you're trying to compete with what you've done and not repeat yourself," she says. "You get more methodical and more analytical about the music and that doesn't necessarily make it better. I wanted to have the feeling I had when I made my first two records, which was like being a kid playing with my friends and writing about whatever came to mind."
The record was finished before Donald Trump won the presidential election, but the chaos that overtook the world in 2016 is still heavily reflected in the lyrics. "Fear is definitely present in the songs," Crow says. "I think the election really incited a feeling of us against them, and a feeling of trying to get back to reason, so thematically there's a lot of that on the record. Also, technology, for better or worse, is a theme. I really think that so much vitriol in our dialogue is partially due to the fact that people communicate over technology without having a sense of empathy."
One track Crow is excited to share with her fans is "Heartbeat Away." "I wrote it before that was any discussion of Russia," she says. "But it's about espionage and a guy who is burying his money off the coast of the Cayman Islands and Russia is hacking. Cut to the election and it became really foreboding, very eerie. It ends with a guy with a red face getting on a private jet and flying off into space. I almost changed it to an orange face, but I decided to just keep it red."
Another song, "Halfway There," reflects on divisions in America and is a contender for the first single, which may come out shortly after Trump's inauguration. "I am a liberal, which I think most people know," Crow says. "And I've seen Nashville change a lot in the past 10 years that I've been here. The idea of the song is that even though you may drive a big Chevy truck and I drive my hybrid, or you may wear designer clothes and I wear ripped jeans, that doesn't mean we don't want the same things in life and the same things for our kids in the future. The message is we need to agree to disagree and just try and meet halfway there."
Returning to her Nineties roots may come off to many as a complete rejection of her short-lived country period, but Crow doesn't see it that way. "It's not a rejection at all," she says. "It's just that a fair portion of my songs where inspired by the Rolling Stones during their Let It Bleed and Exile periods when they were doing their version of country, and the Flying Burrito Brothers and people that rocked. That doesn't get played at country radio, so I don't know why I would ever get played at country radio. I'm not shunning country music. I'm just not part of that format."
"I'm not shunning country music. I'm just not part of that format."
Even if she were part of the format, the country-radio promotion game isn't something she enjoyed. "It was more political than I expected," she says. "You do lots of free playing for radio stations in trade for getting played between three and four in the morning. And that's just not how other formats work, and that goes against my grain. I'm too old to allow that for myself and to spend any night away from my kid for that is not justified."
Crow plans to promote Be Myself with a huge tour. At one point there was talk about doing an "Outlaws" tour with Neil Young and Willie Nelson, but she's not sure if that is still happening. "They're still putting it together," she says. "They've asked us to do it, and I'd be fully on board. Then we'll do a bunch of our own dates." In the meantime, she's also working on an all-star record with Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and many others. Several of the songs are new, though she's duetting with Keith Richards on the 1994 Rolling Stones tune "The Worst" and Johnny Cash's estate has allowed her to cut a virtual duet with the Man in Black on "Redemption Day," a songs of hers he covered toward the end of his life. She hopes to get the album into stores near the end of the year.
In the meantime, Be Myself seems poised to reconnect with old school Sheryl Crow fans, but she says that isn't the goal. "I don't know who I'm gonna connect with," she says. "I don't know how it gets played at Spotify or other subscription services. I don't look at it and think I'm gonna make a ton of money and I'm gonna have big hits cause I know that's not how it works anymore. But I would love for people to hear it, and I would love for them to enjoy it and have the experience that I used to have when I'd hear a song and go, 'Oh, my gosh, I totally get it.'"