Sheryl Crow: Not much to crow about

Suicide, failed relationships and chemical depression: Sheryl Crow's new album is hardly cheery listening. But she just doesn't want to fake it any more
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The Independent Culture

So here we are at the BBC with Sheryl Crow. She's just recorded a song from her new album for Parkinson, then rehearsed for Top of the Pops, and now we're being led down crowded corridors so that she can do a live webcast for her fans. As Eddie Izzard flashes by in the outside lane, I tell Ms Crow that I just saw Céline Dion and her retinue arrive, installed in the dressing room next door. "Oh, yeah?" Céline, I mention, is like Bambi. Crow slows her masterful stride. "Is she small?"

Now, most people think Sheryl Crow is a rangy amazon, but she's five three in her Harley Davidson stars-and-stripes boots. As a small woman myself, I understand her evident straw-grasping, but with regret I have to admit Céline's pretty tall – I just meant she had a fragile face. "Ah. OK." Oh dear. "But Kylie Minogue is really tiny," I offer pathetically. "Wrists like twigs." Crow raises a doubtful eyebrow, but before I can explain that I've met Kylie, and this is true, we arrive at the webcast. Lights, cameras. Four, three, two... "And welcome, Sheryl Crow. We have a lot of people online."

Second or third is Krista from Neasden. Men must be banging down your door, insists Krista. Is there someone special in your life? Do you believe in love? Sheryl grins gamely. "Well, whatever doors they're banging on, it's the wrong address. But I totally believe in true love and, though I've never found Mr Right, the men I've known were Mr Right-At-The-Time." This includes Eric Clapton, among illustrious others.

Ash from Southall is next: Who would play you in a movie of your life? "Hmm. I'm tempted to say Johnny Depp..."

And here's the thing. Because Crow always does seem to be one of the lads. Perhaps because she's a muso; she can play any instrument, and better than anyone in her band. On the other hand, she's very sexy, as she demonstrated the night before, during a showcase at London's Scala. At 40, she looks 30, she's tanned, as muscular as Dr Who's Leela and sings with a tigerish Debbie Harry snarl. She also gives the impression of being utterly laid-back, a down-home girl from the cotton fields of Kennett, Missouri. Men – some, not all – rave about how goddamn normal she is, as if earthy normality were the most bewitching quality a woman could offer. They seem not to have taken in the small fact that she's a suicidal depressive. Though Crow's rather good at hiding this.

When finally we're back in the dressing room – no candles, no ethereal vibes – she sits on the floor and makes me a cup of lemon-and-ginger tea. Right then: depression. (Which in Crow's case was so major that before she made her first LP, Tuesday Night Music Club, she couldn't get out of bed for six months.)

"I heard Charlotte Rampling on the radio discussing this subject, and it's strange and helpful to hear someone who is so accomplished, who has everything going for them... Which I do, too, I have nothing to complain about..." She sips her tea. "I just have a chemical thing that I live with. It's like a member of my family now. And for the most part, I can function well in public. The problem, sometimes, is the manic aspect. That's the part that helps you to fake it. I can be very productive in that phase – not calculating, but dogmatic. You're driven. But when you crash, it becomes so much worse if you spent a lot of time in overdrive." She shrugs. "You hit bottom very hard."

In her twenties, Crow took a degree in classical piano, and initially taught music in Missouri. Then she left for LA, where she toured as a backing singer with Michael Jackson and wrote songs for Don Henley and Clapton, among others. She got a deal, made a record and it wasn't released. Then she got invited to a music club that producer Bill Bottrell was holding on Tuesday nights. It was basically a jam; but what came out of it, in 1993, was that first album. It did fantastically, with sales of over eight million, and she should have been happy. But the fallout made sure she wasn't. Her upset was reflected on the sleeve of second album Sheryl Crow, where she looks like a malevolent goth drop-out.

"Bless her heart. Bless her little heart."

Is that what you feel, when you see that photo? Poor thing?

"I do. I was somewhat defensive then, I felt like I'd taken a royal beating. After the Grammys [she won three for Tuesday Night Music Club] everything changed."

It did, indeed. First, there was the case of author John O'Brien, who wrote novel-turned-movie Leaving Las Vegas. A friend of his, a musician, had suggested "Leaving Las Vegas" as a song title for Crow. Just after the album appeared, O'Brien blew his brains out, and a few jealous types said it was Crow's fault for not mentioning him in the credits. Added to this was the death of her ex-lover, Kevin Gilbert. Gilbert introduced her to Bottrell's music sessions, and played on the album. Not long after the Grammys, he was found dead, wearing a skirt and with a leather noose round his neck. A notebook recording his feelings on Crow included the line, "I don't know if I can ever forgive her," though it's not clear if this expressed emotional or professional animosity. You tend to suspect the latter from a guy who once wrote in a song, "I'm sick of angry, militant, lesbian feminists." Ho hum. Still, people with axes to grind promptly ground them.

"Kevin was a lot of hard work." Crow pours more tea and breathes deeply. "He was wildly talented and extremely at odds with the world. I think sometimes when people are that talented, they can't get out of their own troubled mind about other people making it. And it wasn't just my success, he resented all the successes of every band that was bigger than him."

I guess energy is attractive.

"Well, yeah, you join with that as a kindred spirit when you're down, a real brotherhood of being the misfits of society. I'd just made the first record and it didn't come out, and I had a year of sitting around hearing I was gonna be dropped, then I suddenly met these people who were bitter, like I was becoming, and we had the best time. I came out of it and I wasn't bitter any more. And then I found I wasn't a member of the club, either. It was a good life lesson."

Crow toured and toured, presumably to stay sane. Her third album, The Globe Sessions, was gritty, literate and all about her failed relationships. It featured "My Favourite Mistake", thought to be about her affair with Clapton. Another song, "The Difficult Kind", offered a touching "I've changed, you'd like me now" sentiment.

Crow snorts. "Who doesn't think that, though? 'I wish you were here now, 'cos I've gotten rid of all those terrible traits you said I had.' You do make changes in yourself when you realise aspects of who you are don't work in a relationship. Nothing teaches you about yourself like that can."

And so to the new record, C'mon, C'mon. Don Henley is on it. Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris and Lenny Kravitz are on it, and so is Crow's mate Gwyneth Paltrow. The first single, "Soak Up The Sun", isn't very good (there had been pressure to be upbeat, and it's certainly that). For the rest, there are majestically Byrds-like tones, almost a Faces feel on some tracks, a few crunchy Zep riffs and a dark country duet.

And then at the end there's something very beautiful, the acoustic "Weather Channel", which she described in the webcast as a "light ditty about suicide, basically". It's not any kind of ditty; it's grazed, vulnerable, brooding. In it, the depression beckons, closing in like a storm, shaking the house, and Crow considers one of her options: "It's just sugar/ Just a pill to make me happy/ And though it may not fix the hinges/ At least the door has stopped its creaking..."

There's also a particularly imploring phrase. "I got no one/ Who will bring me/ A big umbrella..." Is there really no man around to comfort or hold her hand? "Uh, nope. Ah'm flyin' solo right now." The Southern accent comes in handy for bravado.

So what do you look for in a partner? Someone like yourself?

"Oh God, no! But I do wish I could find someone who could make me laugh."

Which, surely, is the least she deserves.

The single 'Soak up the Sun' is out this Monday. The album 'C'mon, C'mon' is out on 8 April on A&M