As Lance Armstrong pedaled to another Tour de France victory, Sheryl Crow found herself in an unfamiliar position: on the sidelines.
For years, Crow's universe revolved around her multiplatinum records, her sold-out shows, her celebrity. But about a year ago, after deciding to take a break from recording, Crow went to Europe to explore a new relationship with Armstrong and a life that didn't revolve around work.
"It was a challenge in more than one way," Crow says during an interview, munching on a late breakfast in her hotel room. "Not only was I not working, I was in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language, and I'm with somebody who's new to me, and I experienced a lot of vulnerability (it) was a challenge to my ego, and in the end, was kind of exciting."
And life-changing. Besides cementing a relationship with Armstrong, who is now her fiancee, the experience changed the way she approaches her life and her music and it's reflected in "Wildflower," her latest CD, which was released Tuesday. "I feel much less pressure," says Crow, 43, looking taut in a black tank top, stylishly tattered jeans and a yellow Livestrong bracelet.
"I feel have tinges of 'This has got to be really good, this has to have meaning,' but I allow myself to enjoy it." She's had a lot to enjoy over her 12-year career. From her first album, the multiplatinum Tuesday Night Music Club," the singer-songwriter has released a steady stream of best-selling albums and chart-topping hits.
But making those albums wasn't always enjoyable. She recalls the process as "one of gnashing of teeth and hair-pulling" as she tried to balance substantial, credible songs with radio-friendly hits.
"A lot of people get into (the record business) because they wanna be seen, but for me, I wanted to be so great, I wanted to matter, and that's an immense amount of pressure to put on yourself," she says.
In Crow's eyes, her work represented her self-worth. Even while promoting a completed album, she found herself worrying about the next record.
In many ways, The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, her recent greatest hits collection that had a few new songs on it, was her mental breakthrough. It was a huge success, selling more than two million copies, a rarity for compilations. And it spawned more hits, including her pure, mellow cover of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is The Deepest," which became not only a pop hit, but a country one as well.
John Shanks, the Grammy-winning producer who worked on that record and Crow's new album, says that song made her realize she didn't have to worry about radio-friendly hooks. "I think it gave her more flexibility to tap into some of the songwriters and sensibilities that she loved," he said.
At the same time, Crow was beginning to date Armstrong, the bicycling champion, cancer survivor and international superstar. Crow was just ending her album promotion duties when Armstrong invited her to Spain to stay with him as prepared to train for the Tour de France.
So she took time off _ and this time, she really stuck to it. "I felt, 'Wow, 'I'm just going to investigate this and explore a little bit and see what happens without thinking about work ... I'm just going to experience life,"' she says. "I felt like I was just reinvesting myself in my art, and into my artistry. Shanks says taking a break helped Crow realize she didn't have to always focus on work to have success.
"You can lose years of your life in order to promote your career and your name," he says. "You can take a minute off and know that the talent is there."
More importantly for Crow, it helped her complete a missing component of her already full life _ having a life partner. "Just spending our days together was I think one of the only things that have been really missing from my life, the experience of serving somebody else and having them serve you, just being in a partnership, part of a team, as a unit," she says. "It was a very necessary experience for me."
While she calls Armstrong the inspiration of "Wildflower," the disc is not the sunny, dreamy album one might expect from someone reveling in a new love.
"Even though the record feels like a bunch of love songs, most of those records are based on the conversations that Lance and I would have about religion, and Terri Schiavo and about our government, and how we felt about what kind of world we felt we were leaving his children," she says of the divorced father of three. Few of the songs on the album are radio friendly, and Crow is unsure if "Wildflower" will meet the success of her previous discs. But she says she's not panicked about whether it succeeds or fails. She's more anxious to enjoy the experience _ and enjoy what lies ahead.
"I know that nothing I do is ever going to be perfect but I still have the exciting feeling that my best work is ahead of me," she says, "and I feel that way about my life."