Crystal Bowersox: Carving Her Own Niche
There’s a line in the Crystal Bowersox song “How Long” that declares “I’m from Ohio / Not American Idol.” During her live show, it’s that lyric that elicits some of the loudest cheers from Bowersox’s faithful following, even those who discovered the alt-country busker on the FOX singing competition in 2010, instead of the streets of Chicago, which long served as her favorite stage.
More than four years and two albums removed from her runner-up stint opposite Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze, Bowersox is still recognized, almost daily, for her time on Idol. It not only inspired “How Long,” which appears on her brand new, seven-song EP, Promises, but has made the 29-year-old more contemplative about those who have benefitted and those who haven’t by appearing on the TV show, and others like it.
“When people recognize me from the show, I take it lovingly because that’s where they know me from; but the song itself is about the light and the dark side of reality TV competitions,” Bowersox says by telephone, during a tour stop in Kansas City, Mo. “Thankfully for me it’s brought nothing but great opportunities, but I have friends on the other side of that who can’t get a gig right now because of the show. That’s something people don’t really talk about.”
Bowersox has made the most of that duality. While she can’t seem to shake the image of the dreadlocked singer-songwriter whose bluesy growl and humble persona made her an Idol favorite, she’s used the exposure to carve out her own comfortable niche.
“I went from complete obscurity to having people from the Phillipines send me fan letters,” Bowersox says. “I was grateful for it, but at the time I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But now, almost five years post-Idol, I’m doing what I love for a living and I feel like it’s my show and my brand.”
Growing up in the small town of Oak Harbor, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Toledo, Bowersox discovered her penchant for music early on. She started playing the piano at age 6, sang in school choir and, by the time she was 10, had booked her first paying gig.
“This woman asked if I wanted to sing outside her little coffee shop in the mall for tips,” Bowersox says. “So I picked up a guitar and learned 10 songs and played them over and over, and made $300 in an hour. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I can buy a lot of games with this.’ That was just the start of it. I didn’t have the easiest upbringing. There were a lot of domestic issues in my home. So for me it was also a release. I believe it saved my life and kept me from getting into more trouble than I already got into.”
At age 17, Bowersox moved to Chicago, where she frequented open mics, and began busking at several train stations, — most notably the Washington and Lake Redline stops.
“It was like Social Science 101, learning about human behavior,” she says. “You see people walking around like zombies, nobody saying hello to each other and the minute there’s a familiar tune, people start smiling and making eye contact and dancing. Music is such a powerful tool. There were a few times people tried to take off with my box of money and I’d have to defend myself, but there was also the joyful side of it. I realized I could do this for a living, which was cathartic for me.”
The day after Bowersox’s second place Idol finish, she signed with 19 Entertainment and Jive Records, which released her debut record, Farmer’s Daughter, in December 2010. It peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard 200 chart. Ten months later, RCA Music Group shut down Jive as well as the Arista Records and J Records imprints. Bowersox was one of the many artists left without a record label following the consolidation. In 2012, she self-released an EP of pre-Idol recordings called Once Upon a Time, and was then signed with Shanachie Records to record her 2013 sophomore album, All That For This. That album — produced by Steve Berlin and anchored by the song “Stitches,” which features Jakob Dylan — reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart.
“I grew up with the Wallflowers and Bringing Down the Horse, which was a huge hit in my world,” Bowersox says. “So getting to work with Jakob was one of those bucket list check-off things. The song was written about my son, and Jakob has four boys so we bonded over that. It’s just a song about parents loving their children and making them feel better when they’re feeling down.”
Her newest EP was largely recorded in Sante Fe with singer-songwriter and producer Jono Manson. Although the project, which was initially meant to be her second album, was shelved, she revived five of those songs, added two others, and had the EP mastered in California.
“I’m really proud of these songs that we did during those Sante Fe sessions, so I decided to release them on my own,” Bowersox says. “I love Jono. He never pressured me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Just watching him and the way he interacts with people, and his family… he’s just so generous musically and personally, that it’s just something I hold very dear.”
In addition to “How Long,” another highlight of the EP is the title track, which Bowersox describes as a “slow, bluesy, baby-making tune.”
“It’s about promises that aren’t meant to be broken now, matter how much you’d like to break them,” she says. “You have to be a person of integrity and stay true to yourself and who you’re with. Relationships are difficult and it takes two to make it work.”
Bowersox is currently working on writing what will be her third full-length album, pushing her own musical boundaries from her blues-infused alt-country comfort zone into indie-rock territory, while retaining the same sensibilities that made her a successful busker for so many years.
“It’s a living, breathing process now, and I’m looking to making it a more modern sound without losing real instrumentation,” she says. “… I still feel like a busker on stage, it’s just that their focus and attention is on me, but they’re still putting money in my case and keeping my show on the road. There’s this symbiotic relationship between a musician and a listener that fills my spirit. Music is a gift, and I just want to share with people.”