It’s a cloudy day in The Woodlands, Texas, and Crystal Bowersox, former American Idol finalist and Chicago busker turned Nashville rocker, is finishing up soundcheck with her bandmates (Dave DePrest on guitar, Lucas Morton on bass, and Derek Louis on drums). The Ohio native sounds more like she’s giving a full performance to the near-empty venue that will be filled to capacity by 8 P.M. She unquestionably looks right at home, as if standing with a guitar and delivering a message in song using her wall-rattlingly strong vocals is as natural as breathing for her.
Those vocals, by the way, have drawn comparisons over the years to Janis Joplin and the like — comparisons Bowersox doesn’t mind, but doesn’t really hear for herself. While her covers of songs like “Bobby McGee” and “Hallelujah” are definitely crowd-pleasers, it’s Bowersox’s originals that are awe-inspiring, and her new album, Alive, captures them in their trues and most natural form — in real time, in front of an audience, live in the studio. Crystal took some time to hang out before her show and talk about what she’s been up to in the seven years since American Idol launched her career, her new album, and Lilly Diabetes, a cause close to her heart.
It’s been seven years since American Idol. I bet a lot has changed.
Everything has changed. Every cell in my body has changed in seven years. I think that’s a scientific fact or something. Life is good. I have stability. My son is healthy and happy. I’m healthy and happy. I quit drinking a couple of years ago, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m taking care of my mind body and spirit. I have an amazing crew with me. My band is like family. We have a good time on the road. I keep writing songs that hopefully will inspire others, or invoke feelings they’ve had inside, or pent up, or they can relate to an experience of their own. I think in our society, in this day and age, people don’t know how to release their emotion, and it causes sickness of the mind and the body. I hope people come to my shows to release joy – not just sorrow, but joy.
Alive is your rather aptly titled new live album. Was it all recorded in the same place?
Yes, in Sante Fe New Mexico. It’s the land of enchantment. My good friend owns a studio there – The Kitchen Sink. It’s a hideaway there. Not too many folks know about it. It’s a hidden gem, and Jono Manson is an amazing human being. He had the space to have an audience in the live room, which was ideal for me because there’s just – I don’t know – doing a studio album for me is just flat and stale. I can’t get to the same place emotionally in my performance without them there. We had 60 people come per show. We did three shows, and then the final album is the best of the three shows.
Everything about the sound of Alive is natural. There’s an easy flow to it, and an emotionality that some — not all, but some — studio albums can miss out on.
Recording in a studio is tough. I need to know there’s someone there receiving the message, rather than singing it to a wall or microphone. It’s a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship. I think my next album will be a studio album, though. I’ve got songs. There may be some songs from this live album, as well. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to do things anymore. I’ve released these songs on a live record, but who says I can’t put a few of them on a studio record? They’ll be different anyway, and some new songs, too, because I’m writing all the time.
Where do you pull inspiration from?
It’s everywhere. For me, I’ve always been one to write about my own emotional journey, but I’ve ventured out to writing about others and what inspiration comes from that. “The Ride,” for example is not a completely true story, but I did date some biker guy, but that’s the thing about writing songs. You can take liberties here and there. Inspiration is everywhere. It’s all around.
You’re also a bit of genre-crossing artist. I hear people refer to you as Americana a lot, which isn’t inaccurate, but it seems like such a blanket term these days.
Such a blanket term. It’s this big mess of everything – Americana. It’s fine if they want to put me there. I don’t think about it too much, as far as “What genre am I?” I think this album is more of a rock album – maybe slightly country. What is my genre, Dave?
Dave: Folk-pop-classic-rock-soul-blues-and-country. It pretty much catches everything. It’s also true.
Was there pressure when you signed with a major label post American Idol to fit into a given mold?
Absolutely. Because it’s a business, and at that level, it’s all about numbers. It’s not about artistry or things that sit right with your soul, it’s about selling as many copies of something as you possibly can. They were basically trying to hand me 13 songs, and say, “Here’s your album.” Meanwhile, I’m like, “Excuse me, I’m a songwriter.” I was fresh and green and didn’t understand how the industry worked then. It was a learning curve, but I don’t regret a single step or misstep from then until now. I mean, life is good. I just released [Alive] from Mama Sox Records. I’m doing my own thing. I produced this record. Jono Manson is an amazing engineer as well as producer, and we worked together. I don’t tell my bandmates what to play, either. I work with these guys because they already know what to do.
There’s an authenticity in that, that can be really rare. I think we all get caught up trying to be what we’re supposed to be.
I’m sitting here picking my toe, ya know [laughs]. I don’t play the Hollywood game.
Just hang out and be yourself. Be yourself no matter where you go, and if they don’t like you, fuck ‘em.I think if more people speak their truth – obviously not in an unkind way – but I don’t think it’s unkind to say, “Well if you don’t like me, fuck you.” I don’t think that’s unkind at all. I think that’s how you find your tribe. That’s how you find people who love you for who you are.
What was it like being able to take the reins on the production of this album?
It was a lot of fun. I got to choose the songs, and the mixing was a lot of fun. I flew back to Santa Fe, and listened to everything. Getting the final product – the vinyl just showed up at my house the other day. I watched it come off the truck on a forklift. It was this beautiful moment. It’s great to do what you love for a living. My son asked me the other day, “Mom, what if you get fired?” And I said, “Son, Mama can’t get fired. I’m the boss,” and he’s just like, “Oh, that’s good.”
He’s really grown up with this. Does he get that what you do is sort of off the beaten path?
Yea, he goes to public school. I try to keep his life as normal as possible. He’s just like any other kid, except he’s apparently told his classmates that I’m famous, so anytime I walk into the school, this little group of girls wave at me, and they’re like, “She’s a singer!” I’m just Tony’s mom. That’s the new band name: Tony’s Mom. I think he assumes that everyone in the world plays an instrument because in his world, everyone does, which is kind of a beautiful thing.
You’re really big about sticking around after shows and talking to your fans.
Yes, unless I’m feeling truly ill. I like to stick around and shake hands and I like to say hi. Some of the bigger shows, it can get overwhelming, but I still want to make sure I give 100 percent of myself – even if I’m at 80 percent, I’ll give 100 percent of that 80. People spend their hard-earned money to spend an evening listening to my songs, that’s amazing to me. So, I want to thank them.
I have some very, very loyal fans. Some who have been there since the Idol days. There was this one woman who tearfully said to me that I saved her life. That’s heavy. Really heavy. There’s music that’s saved mine, so I get that.
I don’t remember the city, but there was one show where fans showed up with their RV, and I got to hang out on their RV afterward. That was fun. It was really cool. Willie Nelson is a great example, too. He stays out after his shows to say hi to people. He’s kind of a hero of mine.
You mention that there are songs that saved your life. What are some of those songs?
Amos Lee “Violin” is a song that I recall going through a rough patch and having this religious experience, and just feeling God within me, listening to that song. Ray LaMontagne “Let it be Me.” Nathaniel Rateliff – I’ve been listening to him a lot. Keb’ Mo’. You have to listen to some Keb’ Mo’. John Prine – his music has been save-your-life for me. “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” by Patty Loveless. Every time that song comes on, I break into a full sob, and I have no control over it. There’s something about the melody. Everything about that song makes me cry. My band snickers about it because I’ll turn and look at them, and there will be tears streaming down my eyes, but I’m laughing because there’s nothing I can do. Gets me every single time.
I get frustrated with the world, because there’s this stigma with crying – especially if you’re a man, and let me tell you – old men who come to my shows, they leave crying. That’s what I’m talking about – emotional release. People need to find ways to let that out.
How much room for improvement do you think there is for the way women are treated and portrayed in the industry?
I think that it’s really up to female artists to not conform or give into whatever standard they think applies to women in the industry, regardless of how they think that will affect their quote-unquote success. It depends on how you’re measuring success. For me, for example, yea, I put a little bit of makeup on at my shows, but I’m not a sex symbol and I’m not trying to be a sex symbol. I dress relatively conservatively and it’s not for any other reason than I want to be comfortable. I’m not going to compare myself to anyone.
It’s something you learn with age, too. Sex is confidence. It’s self-love and self-care, and kindness to others. I love an artist like Brandi Carlile, too. She’s just selling CDs off her pure, immaculate voice with poetry and messages and positivity. That’s great. I mean, I don’t condemn anyone. I think women need to support women. A young girl who isn’t feeling confident or self-assured, I think it’s takes another woman in the industry to tell her, “You know what, you do your thing, and if you have people in the business telling you that you need to lose 10 pounds or wear skimpier clothes, then you’re working with the wrong people.” The only way it’s going to get better is if women stop conforming to what they think will sell more records. Be yourself. People will respect you — I sound like such a mom.
Turn off the social media. Call an old friend. See them in person, talk to them. There’s balance. It’s all about achieving balance. I think we’re missing human connection. Go do something with your friends.
I also want to talk about Lilly Diabetes, because I know for you, someone who has Type 1 Diabetes, it’s something really close to you.
I work with them – they send me around in a partnership to talk to young people living with Type 1 Diabetes, which I’ve had since I was six years old. I have an insulin pump and glucose sensor. It’s a daily balancing act between food and insulin and exercise. Some days are better than others. If my blood sugar goes high, I feel sleepy and lethargic. If it goes low, I can’t think straight, and I get sweaty, and I need more glucose in my system. Thankfully, there are devices and technology that maintain stability in that, so I can live a better life and do the things I love, like being a mom and going on tour. I think it’s important for public figures with Type 1 to go and talk to these kids because it is a very lonely disease, especially in rural communities, where they might be the only kids living with it, and the rest of the class is having a snack and they can’t do that at that time, or they have to sit out for certain things. You get lonely. These camps are a place for these kids to go where they’re the in-crowd. There’s a sense of belonging and community. And to see someone living their dreams gives them hope. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about what I do.