Somebody told me recently that Sheryl Crow has her own line of jeans. At first I thought it was a joke, but it turns out it’s entirely true. And in a way, that makes a weird sort of sense. There’s always been something about Crow that’s reminded me of the Saturday Night Live commercial for Mom Jeans. Not because Crow doesn’t look amazing in denim, but because she makes the kind of music that’s designed to make mothers feel cool. I know that sounds like an insult, but it’s really not. If you’ve spent any time in a car with your mother and a Sheryl Crow song comes on the radio, you’ve probably experienced the refreshing compromise of “Sure, this’ll do.”
Most music is divisive. You love it or you hate it, and everybody who doesn’t share your opinion is an asshole. But Sheryl Crow, with her inoffensive guitar-driven pop, is a rock star that everybody can agree to listen to until the next song comes on. Remember “All I Wanna Do”? That song was totally playing all the time back when Clinton was president. And who could forget “Soak Up the Sun” and “My Favorite Mistake” and “Everyday Is a Winding Road” and all those other songs that sound vaguely similar. But the real appeal of a Sheryl Crow tune is the way your mom rolls her shoulders to the beat, pumping up the treble like it’s a dinner party on the verge of going off the hook. Sheryl Crow is musical armistice for people who otherwise have nothing in common. It’s an excuse to join hands and say with semi-conviction, “It’s about to get Adult-Contemporary all up in this bitch!”
“Summer Day, the first single off of Sheryl Crow’s seventh album, 100 Miles From Memphis (which “drops” next Tuesday, July 20th), sounds like the sort of radio-friendly ditty that Crow could write in her sleep. The chorus is “I just want to let it shine,” for god’s sake. It’s what happens when “Soak up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do” have unprotected sex and crap out a music baby. You can almost imagine her walking into a studio with Frank Sinatra bravado, grabbing a microphone and singing, “Summer summer, yeah, drinking beer, sunshine” and blammo, she’s got another Billboard hit. But the rest of 100 Miles From Memphis has a few things you’d never expect from a Sheryl Crow album. Like what? Like a funky bass guitar, for starters. And an R&B-style horn section. And cameos from Keith Richards and Justin Timberlake. This may be the first Sheryl Crow album that makes your mom raise an eyebrow in protest, which could be the most controversial thing to happen to Crow’s career since she was the non-public-blowjob alterative to Alanis Morissette’s pseudo-rage in the mid-90s.
I called Crow to talk about her new album, and there’s really only one word to describe her mood during our conversation: Mellow. It was like talking to Tim Meadows doing his Ladies Man character in a steam room. She was getting over a cold, so it’s possible (and this is just a guess) that an antihistamine was slowing her down. Or maybe that’s just what rock stars sound like when they’re asked questions about glowing vaginas.
Eric Spitznagel: There’s a cliché that white people can’t play R&B and funk convincingly. So how did you prepare for this record? Did you hire George Clinton as your personal funk coach?
Sheryl Crow: (Laughs.) That’s exactly what I did.
Was he tough with the workouts? I imagine it’d be like, “O.K., give me 15 cosmic slop crunches, followed by 30 reps of groovallegiance. Come on, Sheryl, hit it and quit it.”
I had to grow out my hair into an afro and dye it four different colors and wear platform shoes and try to emulate Roberta Flack as much as possible. It was rough. (Laughs.) Actually, we just got in the spirit of this album by listening to a lot of really great R&B music—all of our favorite songs from guys like Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson—and then we went into the studio and tried to play it. It was as simple as that. We started out by just playing a bunch of covers. We did a cover of “It’s a Desperate Situation,” which is an amazing unreleased song by Marvin Gaye. And we did an R&B version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” We just tried to be as authentic as we could to that style of music.
On “Sideways,” one of the songs on your new album, you have a pretty nice R&B drawl during the chorus. You actually sound a little drunk. Is that your secret to R&B authenticity?
Sadly, no. I was just completely and totally in the moment. I was completely coherent. Now Clarence (Greenwood) on the other hand…
The guy who wrote it?
Yeah. He recorded it as Citizen Cope, and he plays with me on our version. He wasn’t drunk, but…. (long pause.) Well, I better not say anything else.
When I think of R&B, I think of sex. I think of R. Kelly and Marvin Gaye, or Leon Haywood singing “I wanna do something freaky to you.” Songs that, just by listening to them, make you a little pregnant. But there’s nothing on 100 Miles from Memphis that’s overtly sexual.
I think there are a few songs on there that are certainly sexier than the songs I’ve written before. I think “Roses and Moonlight” is pretty sexy. But admittedly, after we recorded it, nobody left the studio pregnant. I don’t know why. We were sorely disappointed by that.
It’s not a great endorsement for an R&B record, Sheryl.
I did everything I could. I mean, I slept with everybody who came into the studio.
That takes dedication.
I was just trying to serve the art form.
When you first became popular in the mid-90s, Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair were singing about blowjobs, and you were singing about having fun on Santa Monica Blvd. Were you consciously trying to keep it clean?
I think that’s how most people saw it, unless they really listened to the lyrics. It’s very sardonic. It definitely wasn’t a song about sex. It’s more of a social statement.
About… what exactly? Getting a mid-day beer buzz?
The lyrics are about what was going on socio-politically at the time, with the amount of burnout and cynicism in America in the early 90s. That’s what the record is really about. But I think people latched on to the hook line of that song and didn’t realize that masked in a Marvin Gaye pop track were some very caustic lyrics.
There are few things as hilarious as an R&B video, with the synchronized dancing and ridiculous outfits and “come hither” looks. Do you have any favorites?
I think Donna Summer made some of the most fantastic videos. The video for “Love to Love You Baby” was kind of hot. She might as well just have taken her clothes off, it was so sexy.
Have you seen the video where she lip-syncs “Love to Love You” with a creepy dude in a silver jumpsuit dancing behind her?
Yeah I have! I love checking out old videos on YouTube. There’s some great live footage of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, and I enjoy pretty much anything by the Brides of Funkenstein. That’s like cream of the crop for me.
Let’s say you’re going to do a classic R&B-style video for one of the singles from 100 Miles from Memphis. What happens in it?
Well, I think we definitely need to incorporate that rainbow strobe light, like the kind Michael Jackson used in his “Rock With You” video. And there needs to be a smoke machine. I’ll be wearing a Halston two-piece wide-leg outfit with a pair of platforms. And blue eye shadow, of course.
Will your band be wearing Cameo-style codpieces?
It’s funny you should mention that. You know those velvet hats that Sly Stone used to wear? I wanted the guys in my band to wear matching Sly hats.
For your tour?
Yeah. Why not? I also wanted them to wear silver jumpsuits and platforms.
Like from the Donna Summer video?
Exactly. But they weren’t having it. They took a vote and decided it wasn’t happening.
Can they do that? I don’t know if they’ve heard, but there’s a recession going on. There are plenty of musicians out there looking for work.
And a lot of them would be very happy to wear a silver jumpsuit. I told them, even before we started recording, you are not irreplaceable. (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding.
100 Miles from Memphis includes a cover of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.”
That was a total accident. We were in the studio, playing around with some songs, and we decided to try Marvin Gaye’s “It’s a Desperate Situation.” It just sounded so much to me like “I Want You Back” that at the end I started singing the chorus. We ended up played the entire song, and as soon as we finished, the band was like, “That’s going on the record. No discussion!” It was just so perfect. I love Michael Jackson. I mean come on, the guy gave me my first job.
When you recorded it, were you wearing the blond fright wig from your stint as a backup singer on Jackson’s Bad tour?
That was not a wig! That was my actual hair!
I don’t know if I just lost all respect for you, or gained some I didn’t have before.
For better or worse, that’s what my hair looked like back in the late 80s. It took three hours and a few dozen curling irons to get it up to that height. Thank god those days are behind me.
So you’re telling us you weren’t sporting big-ass 80s hair during the recording of “I Want You Back”?
I just sang it with my boring normal hair. I don’t think I could ever do something like that again, especially with all the unenvironmental hairsprays these days.
Not even as a tribute to the king of pop?
Had it not been as spontaneous as it was, I might’ve broken out my red leather jacket. I still have my entire wardrobe from the Jackson tour. I was doing a photo shoot not long ago, and my stylist was pulling things from my closet, and she pulled out one of the jackets, not realizing it was from the Bad tour. She was like, “Oh, this is perfect. It’s so cool, very appropriate for this record.” And I was like, “Um…. maybe, maybe not.”
You know what that jacket would be perfect for? Going on tour this summer with Lilith Fair.
You think so?
You’re sharing a bill with Ke$ha. You’ve got to do something to stand out.
Oh. I haven’t seen her, I’m embarrassed to say. What’s she like?
I’m not sure how to answer that. Everything I know about her is from her song “TiK ToK“.
That’s a good place to start.
Well… I guess she brushes her teeth with Jack Daniel’s
Oof. Good luck with that.
And she won’t sleep with guys unless they look like Mick Jagger.
And good luck with that.
I don’t know if you watched the MTV Movie Awards, but apparently the big thing now for female singers is glowing vaginas.
Really? No. Really?
I swear to god. Christina Aguilera performed a song on the show, and at the end the camera zoomed in on her crotch, and it was a flashing neon heart.
Wow. (Long pause.) I don’t even know what to say. How do I miss out on some of this stuff?
I guess it means you’re not particularly concerned with what the kids are doing these days?
I guess not. (Laughs.) I had no idea you could have a glowing vagina. Is it too late for me to get one of those? And would it help my record sales?
As soon as we hang up, I’m going to check it out and see where I can get a glowing vagina. I have a record coming out, I don’t want people to think my vagina isn’t glowing.
You did an interview with Katie Couric for Glamour not long ago, and you said some controversial things about the Tea Party.
Really? Why was it controversial?
Some people thought you were calling the Tea Party uneducated.
Uneducated? I haven’t read it, but I don’t think I called anybody uneducated.
So what you meant to say was, the Tea Party is… lovable?
Lovable yes. If by lovable you mean slightly uninformed and maybe operating on fear.
But not lovable because they’re uneducated?
I don’t know about everybody in the Tea Party, but I’ve seen interviews with people in the Tea Party, and when they’re asked about the specific ideas that they stand for, a lot of them have no idea what to say. It’s not that they’re uneducated, it’s that they get wrapped up in fear. And fear is one of the great motivators. Love and fear.
Is it O.K. that I imagined you saying that last part with a glowing vagina?
Please do. When I was talking about love and fear, my vagina was definitely glowing.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com