Fifty years ago Sheryl Crow was born in Kennett, Mo., to a trumpet-playing father and piano-playing mother. After college, she worked as a music teacher before a burgeoning sideline career singing commercial jingles emboldened her to make the move to L.A. in 1986. Work as a background singer for Michael Jackson and Don Henley led to a solo recording contract and her 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. After a slow start, the breakthrough of the third single, “All I Wanna Do,” helped propel the album to septuple-platinum status and establish Crow as a major player in the ’90s wave of successful female singer-songwriters.
To celebrate her birthday today I’m going back to our very first interview with her, when Tuesday Night was just released and Bill DeMain, my senior writer, landed one of her very first interviews. Here is that conversation with the then 31-year-old woman whose foot was on the starting line of a phenomenal career to come with 6 more acclaimed albums, 9 Grammy awards and a global following. It was at a time when weekly informal jam sessions with a group of musicians (David Baerwald, Bill Bottrell and the late Kevin Gilbert) deliberately ignored all thoughts of radio format, pleasing a record company and even proper song structure. The only intent was to have fun, jam on new ideas and put the results down on tape.
I find so much inspiration in the giddy hopefulness that comes with beginnings, and revisiting that time can remind us why we do what we do. Thank you so much, Sheryl, for the years of great songs you’ve given us to sing along to, and for allowing us to join you on your journey. Happy birthday!
Can you remember when you first got the songwriting bug?
I remember discovering I could play by ear. I was maybe 6 years old, and there was a song called “Me and My Arrow,” and I remember learning to play it on the piano and not knowing why I could play it, but just being able to figure it out. From that point, I always tinkered around writing my own stuff, writing my own melodies. I didn’t really get into lyric writing until later on. The first real song I wrote was when I was 13, they had a music contest for kids across Missouri for a state theme song and you had to actually write out the music and the whole thing. That was the first time I wrote out lyrics, staff line, the whole thing (laughs) but I don’t remember what it was called.
So you’ve been writing a long time. Has it gotten easier?
For me, songwriting is never easy or hard—it’s either joyful or painful. It doesn’t have anything to do with the strenuousness of it. For me, my best stuff comes when I’m not thinking about it and when I don’t have any sort of deadline or demand for me to write. That’s always the most natural. Over the years I’ve learned how to craft a good song, and I know all the formulas for writing songs. But on this particular record we didn’t adhere to any of those rules, which made for a much more honest, a much more free-spirited record.
The songs on the record are credited to you and then one or more writers. What was your role in the songwriting process?
This was the very first time I’d ever gone in with a bunch of people and just jammed and wrote. The way we did it was if you were in the room, whether you contributed two notes or one word, you still got publishing credit on it. So, generally, since it was my record, I wrote most of the lyrics and all of the melodies and played on all the tracks, jammed along. Everyone contributed to some extent on some of the lyrics. It kind of varied with each song.
Would you bring half-finished ideas to the session?
In the sessions that were the Tuesday night music sessions, we generally started off with a theme, something that I really wanted to write about. We’d talk about it to a certain extent, then just start goofing around on it. For me, that’s a really good musical experience and that’s what making records is about.
It’s great to be able to capture a song on tape when it’s new, before it’s been demoed to death.
I agree. I did that actually before, where I’ve demoed songs, then went in and cut them. On this record there was no demoing. I think that’s a good policy, never to demo anything because then you’re always having to beat the demo.
What effect did David Baerwald have on your writing?
I think the one really great thing that David did was to convince me that my stories were interesting enough to write about. I think when you live your own life a lot of times you overlook the simple experiences that people might be able to relate to, or might even be able to learn from. As I would sit around with him and talk about stuff that’s happened in my life just casually, he’d say, “Well you ought to write about that.” Also, he’s really good at writing in a narrative fashion and I think he made them stretch out that way. You know, when you’re writing with other good writers it’s like having quality control. You get a lot less lazy about it, and you don’t let things go by without really thinking about them. You find the best way to say things. That was one good thing about having he and Kevin Gilbert around. Kevin Gilbert was with Toy Matinee and is a great lyricist. So when you’re around people like that it makes you strive to make things better.
When you’re starting a song, do you write a dummy lyric?
I do it all different ways. Sometimes I like to write a complete lyric, then go and put music to it. Other times I’ll write a piece of music and for a month I won’t have anything to go with it. But a lot of times if I do have music I will sing syllables or just phonetics and sometimes you get lyrics that way. Certain syllables work really well in melody lines and that can inspire you to write things that you might not have written. It goes all different ways.
If you came up with a line that felt really good to sing, but you weren’t sure what it meant, would you keep it?
Well, that’s interesting, because I think a lot of times when you’re really writing subconsciously, you don’t know exactly what you’re writing about. It’s truly from the subconscious, and later on those things sort of teach you and inform you as to what you were writing about. And those are some of the best lyrics ever. A few people write lyrics and don’t know at the time they’re writing them exactly what they mean, and later on they sort of find meaning in them. I think that’s where music is really healing and spiritual. I went through a period of feeling like everything had to be symbolic and an art piece. Sometimes simple, very clear meaning is what moves people to relating it to their own lives, so that’s kind of where I am right now. Most of my stuff is very clear and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what I’m saying.
Tell me about writing “Leaving Las Vegas.”
“Leaving Las Vegas” was the first thing we wrote in Tuesday Night Music Club. I’ve never even been to Vegas, quite honestly (laughs). But for me, Vegas is quite metaphorical for L.A. At the time I was living in L.A. and was really, really sick of it. I felt pretty beat up by the whole scene. I think L.A. and Las Vegas are similar in that people move there for a very specific reason. People go to Vegas with big dreams of leaving there rich and having a happy life. So that’s what the song is about. It was recorded in a very spontaneous way. We played it a few times, worked a few things out, then recorded it.
How did the lyrics to the “Na Na Song” come about?
We were at the studio on the Tuesday night that Clinton was elected. We were watching the polls come in and there was definitely sort of a ’60s feel in the room. It was the first time in years that with an election there came optimism and new hope for youth in the White House. Since Kennedy, I don’t think we’ve seen that happen. So there was a lot of energy. We hooked up the TV monitors through the board and kind of jammed to what we say with this ’60s groove. The lyrics are stream of thought. Some of them are things that were happening with me at the time. Others are just information overload. Just mainly thought association. It’s nothing more than just a fun jam, I wasn’t trying to make any sort of point.
Is there anything you wish you could do as a songwriter that you haven’t yet been able to?
Well I’d like to write a hit, that wouldn’t be too bad (laughs). I don’t know, for me it’s an ever-changing process. I write something and then I’m able to put it away. I think that’s what most writers do. After you’ve written about something that you feel the need to write about, it’s somewhat therapeutic. So every time I write a song, I feel like I’m progressing. I’m sure there’ll be lots of things I’ll want to do down the line, but right now I’m happy where I am.
What advice would you give to someone who’s got good songs, a direction and is seeking a label deal?
I kind of went through the gamut of trying to put tapes together, and I think people get bogged down in the production of songs, making sure they’re sonically correct and all that. Really, I think the most important thing to do is sit down with either a piano or guitar and demo things as simply as possible with a good lyric and a good melody. If it’s honest, people will get it..
—Interview by Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 6, May 1994
Performing Songwriter March/April 2008