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Sheryl Crow's winding road

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NEW YORK -- Shortly before announcing her engagement to champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, Sheryl Crow is sitting in a production studio talking about her new CD, Wildflower, and the relationship between life and art.

"Everything that happens to you influences your writing," Crow says. "And if you're really true and open, a lot of what you're going through gets exposed.

"Then you have to go out and talk about it. It does make for a tenuous situation."

Two weeks later, the singer/songwriter seems less pensive as she calls to relay details of how Armstrong proposed. The couple were wrapping up a vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho. "We drove up to this little town called Stanley and went out on a fishing boat. There we were in the middle of this unbelievably clear lake, and we promptly ran out of gas. Then Lance became really romantic, and he said, 'I have something to ask you, and I'm really nervous.'"

Moments later, the serial Tour de France winner popped the question, and the multiple Grammy Award winner said yes. "Then we both got really emotional. And then we picked up the oars and rowed back to shore, which is kind of a metaphor for what being a couple is like, I think. It's about teamwork, you know?"

Those who have followed Crow's career may be surprised to hear the singer, 43, who will be a first-time bride -- Armstrong, 34, has three children from a previous marriage -- discuss private matters with such giddy candor.

"I've always been reticent to advertise my personal life for the sake of celebrity," she says. "But there was no hiding my relationship with Lance because he's extremely high-profile. In the last couple of years, he's been more high-profile than I have."

For Crow, one of the most distinctive and prolific artists of the past decade, being a celebrity girlfriend for the better part of two years has proven something of a double-edged sword. "I've received a lot of criticism from women who have asked why I would give everything up to follow a man," she says.

"But it was a great gift to give myself, to invest in my life, in all the things I wanted to do outside music. I learned how to ride a bike, got to see all of Europe."

She also kept working. Crow had planned to take a breather after releasing a greatest-hits collection in late 2003.

"I saw that as an opportunity to say, 'OK, now I'm closing a chapter.' I can step back from my career a little bit and begin to figure out how to begin the second phase. I was in a new place and a new relationship, which creates vulnerability and requires you to face who you are. And I had a lot of alone time where I could just sit with myself and write about what someone my age is thinking about."

Crow eventually wound up with 36 new songs and a plan to record a double CD.

"My intention was to have one record that was all art songs without any conscious aim to have a hit single. The other would be made up of 10 or 11 3 1/2-minute pop songs in the flavor of The Beatles. But somewhere in the process, I realized that the pop record would likely overshadow the other one.

"So I decided that instead of just giving people what they want, maybe I would try to give them something they could use."

Thus the seeds were planted for Wildflower, which arrives in stores today. It's a collection of intimate, lyrical songs dressed in lean, rootsy arrangements. Neil Young's 1972 release Harvest and George Harrison's 1970 album All Things Must Pass "were my parameters," Crow says.

"I've found George Harrison creeping up in my psyche a lot since he died. To me he was a really pure example of someone who tried to live with wide-open eyes and a wide-open heart. I wanted to make a quiet record, something that really spoke to my spirit, because there is so much chaos out there right now."

Crow, who was principal producer on her previous efforts, also opted to work with an outside boards-man, pop veteran John Shanks.

"In the past, I would get so wrapped up in making the production interesting and keeping the listener involved that the vocal would be the last thing I would think about. This time we started with the vocal and built around that."

On Wildflower, Crow's dusky-sweet singing often is set in slightly higher keys, further enhancing the tender, keening qualities of her songs. She points to the gently glowing title track as "dealing most strongly with the recurring theme of the album, which is that the more chaotic times are, the more we have to reach within to find the more innocent part of ourselves."

That theme was greatly affected, Crow says, by the time she has spent with Armstrong's son, Luke, who will be 6 in October, and his twin daughters, Isabelle and Grace, who turn 4 in November. "Being around children that small, you see how naturally they gravitate to the light. They're not cynical yet. It takes many years to unlearn that kind of innocence."

The singer says she has enjoyed being able to nurture her more maternal and domestic leanings through her beau and his brood. "I was in Europe a little while ago, and USA TODAY ran this item about how I was washing bike shorts and doing dishes. People asked if I was insulted by that, but Lance and I thought it was so cool."

Crow met Armstrong when she was performing at an annual fundraiser thrown by tennis champion Andre Agassi.

"While I was on stage, I made some comment about wanting to go ride bikes with Lance Armstrong," she recalls. "He came up to me later in the hallway and said, 'OK, I'll take you for a bike ride if you teach me how to play guitar.'"

For the next month, the two communicated via Blackberry, "which is really a sort of lame throwback to letter-writing. In this weird way, we got to know each other before we ever went out."

He has proven no slouch as a guitar student. "He can remember anything; he learned five or six languages without taking a class and is extremely good at math. So you can show him a chord and how to strum, and he'll remember everything the next time he picks the guitar up. Now that he's not riding, I'm going to crack the whip and make him practice more."

Of speculation that Armstrong might return to the professional sport he has dominated since the late '90s, Crow quips, "Nothing would surprise me -- as long as it doesn't interfere with the wedding." (Armstrong said in a media conference call last week that "I'm not going back.")

Regarding allegations in the French media that her fiance used performance-enhancing drugs early in his career, she says: "I don't think the French people are on a mission to strip him of his integrity. It's just a handful of people pursuing that theory, and it's tiresome and a nuisance, and it will eventually end, I hope."

Crow is more vexed by other, larger developments in recent years, since the launch of the war in Iraq and last year's re-election of President Bush. Having performed in the past for American troops in Kosovo, she has worn slogans promoting peace and supported John Kerry's presidential candidacy, even planning to perform at a celebratory concert had he won.

"Having spent so much time in Europe, I've seen how the news there portrays what's happening in the world so differently than we do in the United States. I typically have always thought of Americans as a warm and embracing people, but the attitude toward us outside our country is definitely different. I think people are surprised that we re-elected a government that many of us don't trust. I was shocked myself, because I really felt that the voice of America was saying we don't believe in this war.

"I try to look at it from a spiritual standpoint, that we tried to define ourselves morally and chose to allow ourselves to be reflected this way. It's fascinating to watch how it's tapping into people. That's something you have to explore, and it makes it a compelling time to be an artist." (Tracks on Wildflower such as the plaintive Where Has All the Love Gone? seem informed by such reflections.)

At this stage in her life and career, though, Crow plans to do her exploring at a more relaxed pace. "For the better part of 10 years, I've been on this course of making records, touring and then going back into the studio the second the tour's over. I'm 43 now, and I don't want to be gone all the time. Large chunks of your life just disappear. I have missed playing, I've missed that connection with the audience, and I'm ready to go out again.

"But now I want to figure out a way I can be home as much as possible. Maybe we'll do something like two weeks on, then four or five days off."

There may be a few extra days off in the spring, when Crow and Armstrong are planning to get hitched. "In a perfect world, we would let (Armstrong's) kids plan the whole thing. Doing whatever's fun for them is going to be the biggest thing motivating me."

Crow is drawing inspiration from older family members as well: Her parents recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. "They're sort of the example for me. I'm really old-fashioned, and I believe in marriage."

Crow recalls being in the kitchen when her old friend Don Henley, for whom she once sang backup, called. "He asked me what I was doing, and I said, 'You're not going to believe this, but I'm cooking, I'm doing laundry, and it's been really fun.' And he said, 'You know, it's in the small things, in the domestic exercises of life, that you can find your deepest, most meaningful inspiration.' My new record does feel like a home record in that way, in being kind of about the thoughts in your head. It was an exercise in getting out of my way and enjoying writing songs.

"It's the only record I could make at this point, and hopefully, it will resonate with other people, too."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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