Crystal Bowersox was compared to Janis Joplin the moment she first stepped onto the national stage, and yet, she was still a bit ahead of her time. While her rich, powerful voice, rootsy outfits and bare feet helped her sail to the American Idol finals, it would be years before those cheeky Brits Mumford & Sons brought Bowersox’s home-base Americana sound back to the top of the charts. Recently freed from the shackles of major labeldom, Bowersox’s timing is right on the money for the release of her second album, All That, For This (out March 26, 2013).
Even though Crystal and I are both from Northern Ohio (near Toledo for her, outside Cleveland for me), we both lived in Chicago and frequented Uncommon Ground café (she sang, I drank) and we both survived Hollywood Week (OK, my run was six years), our paths have yet to cross. We recently connected by phone from our respective homes in the Pacific Northwest (Portland for her, Seattle for me).
There’s a lyric on the title track of the new record that goes: “All that I’ve been through is a stepping stone to where I’m going to.” Are you talking about your time in the Idol spotlight?
CRYSTAL BOWERSOX: I can’t really single Idol out in that phrase — it’s about the long strange trip of my life in general. It’s about being thankful for every moment that has led me to the one I am in. That song goes along with the album track ‘Fall into Place’ where everything finally does. Idol is part of my story — it’s the reason everyone knows my name, so I am grateful for those moments as well and every moment that has led up to this one.
I’m in the best health I’ve ever been in. I feel I’m making smarter choices all around. My last major purchase was an elliptical machine (laughs) I just need to use it more often — but it’s there; it’s waiting for me to get on and use it. Health is good. Life is good.
I still raise awareness for Type 1 Diabetes and work with the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) to help educate people with what it’s all about — Type 1 and 2. Thankfully, it’s a manageable thing.
How do you stay fit on the road? Is your tour rider all organic?
There’s a joke with the band I’m touring with — our manager doesn’t want to touch anything green and he’s touring with a bunch of granolas. We’re a band of healthy eaters so we’re gonna get him to eat a salad by the time the tour’s over. One salad — he’ll thank us for it.
Since your time on Idol, roots music and Americana have really broken through with the success of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons. Their sound fits perfectly with what you’re doing.
I sure hope so. I’m glad its back though not really sure if it ever went away. All That For This is a new sound compared to my debut. Producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) is great to work with — he’s a genius in my opinion.
‘Dead Weight’ from the new album, All That For This:
I read you worked on the album in New Mexico and Portland. It sounds like such a Tennessee record.
I’ve always been a wanderer. My husband I were going to move to Nashville and at the last minute we decided not to. We spent our anniversary in the Northwest and decided we wanted to stay. It’s so gorgeous here. Steve lives here as well. It was so nice to make a record and sleep in my own bed at night. I could take my kids to school and live very normal and comfortable. It made the music happen in a much lighter way.
It’s all true. Portland is a place for weirdos and that’s the way we want to live. Portland has a laid back attitude; it’s artistic and creative and people think about the environment. I want to know that my chicken’s name was Colin. Happy chicken, happy eggs.
Be careful, you’ll wind up on an organic farm living with a dozen sister wives.
We actually do have chickens and sheep — the whole nine yards.
With the recent tragic loss of Mindy McCready, we’re reminded that fame has a dark side. Is this new life keeping you grounded while you make your way in such a ruthless industry?
Yes it is. People can get caught up in the hype and the hoopla. I think it’s all about living a happy, compassionate life. You can get caught up in your body image and your public image or just tell the truth and live that way and nobody’s gonna bother you. People who will like my music will; people who don’t — well, you don’t need to convince them. Just sing songs to the people who like it.
I want to take it all to a positive place. Mindy’s family, I can’t imagine what they’re going through. That’s a sad one.
Sounds like you have good people around you.
Quality not quantity. You can have a million friends — a million shitty friends — or honest people who are tried and true and help you feel good about yourself — I have positive people in my life and I am blessed.
What was it like stepping into the machine and then stepping back out?
I still have personal friends from the experience. I needed to learn and everyone else knew what they were doing. This time around was easier — I wasn’t as hard headed and in shock from being on American Idol. It does that to you — it’s a crazy process — it’s intense so you learn as you go — fake it til you make it (laughs).
We got to choose a different vehicle, and I’m still driving my Ford Escape. My husband just got one too.
See readers, product placement works. Speaking of escape. You’re on a new label now — Shanachie Records — isn’t that a reggae label?
They’ve always had a lot of roots and music, old blues collections — it’s a label for true music lovers. They appreciate the story behind the music and they love watching an artist blossom so they’re fun to work with. They wanted to help me make the music I wanted to make and share it with the world.
What was it like recording with Jakob Dylan?
It was cool. I was awkward and nervous for the first 10 minutes. He was very nice — a breeze to work and so talented. When he said yes, I got excited. I could not believe he wanted to record a song with me — a song that I wrote with my husband nonetheless. It was very special.
Does your child know the song is about him?
He knows. When we play music, he’s like “come on — stop!” He gets it. He can listen to a song now without trying to take the guitar away with me so I can play with him. Hopefully he’ll thank me for doing Idol someday when this is over. It’s paid for a lot of toys.
We’ll see if Idol’s still on the air when he grows up.
I like to think he’ll say that he’s proud of me
You cover the Sundays, what was your approach to reinterpret ‘Here’s Where the Story Ends’?
I’m a lyric gal — I listen to the words and if there are lyrics I can relate to, I’ll attach my own personal meaning to them. When Steve first played me the song I actually hadn’t heard it before. I asked people, “do you remember this song?” and they are “Oh yeah, I love it.” I guess I just missed it; I was too young. I really liked it, so I picked up my guitar and started playing and the song took its own natural shape.
I have plenty of souvenirs from terrible years — so I think about it that way.
Most of the POPDOSE writers still hold a torch for Harriet Wheeler.
She’s a cutie (laughs). People say they love my rendition of ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ but when I first did that song, I had never heard the original. Somebody played it to me and gave me the lyrics and I performed the song and then heard the original. It’s good to not be familiar with a recording so you can make it your own.
The Sundays tune is happy, upbeat, makes you feel good and then you listen to the lyrics and discover it’s so sad — lessons learned from heartbreak.
After you sang McGee, you were anointed the next Joplin. Were you familiar with her life and music?
No. But my dad’s a classic rock guy — you can’t listen records with him without hearing Janis. People always tell me I sound like her and I take it as a compliment — she was feisty, she was on fire. She was a great singer, so I’ll take that compliment.
Are there any belters on the new album, or are you favoring ballads?
I’ve always been a sentimental gal — the whole screamo thing happens at the live show. There are some big notes on this record, but it’s all about the songwriting for me. I don’t write a song just so I can belt a note.
I hear you’re going to be playing Patsy Cline on Broadway this year.
I am so excited and have such big shoes to fill. Always… Patsy Cline starts in May, so I’m working on memorizing script. It’s a wonderful story. The bond between Patsy and her fan Louise in the story is really special. I have a couple fans who are like that — it will be nice to get behind the music and learn more about Patsy and her life.
So what was more daunting, stepping onto the American Idol stage, or the legendary stage of the Grand Ole Opry?
The Opry was more surreal than the Idol stage. On Idol, I felt “OK, I’m doing it.” The Opry was more like “I can’t believe I’m doing it!”
There are photos of all the greats on the walls in the dressing rooms — it’s a really special place. Another place I was proud to play is the Fillmore in San Francisco — that place has a lot of history. Janis was on that stage.
Do you stay in touch with your Idol castmates?
I look out to see what everyone is doing. I bumped into Big Mike on Broadway and Kris Allen at the Grammys. Idol has such a small group of alumni, singers who have been though the process and can appreciate it. While I don’t see everyone that much, I wish them all well.
See Crystal on tour here:
March 29 – Sacramento, CA – Harlows
March 30 – Napa, CA – Uptown Theatre
March 31 – Berkeley, CA – Freight & Salvage
April 7 – Seattle, WA – Triple Door
April 26 – West Hollywood, CA – The Troubadour
April 27 – Portland, OR – Aladdin Theater