For her second album in 1996, Sheryl Crow decided to take matters into her own hands. She produced it herself and co-wrote many of the songs with guitarist Jeff Trott, including “If It Makes You Happy.”
Released in September by A&M, the single climbed to No. 10 on the Billboard pop chart. Ms. Crow won a Grammy with the song for best female rock vocal performance; the album, “Sheryl Crow, ” won another.
Ms. Crow and Mr. Trott recently looked back on the song’s evolution and their collaboration. The pair co-wrote songs for Ms. Crow’s new album, “Threads,” due out Aug. 30. Edited from interviews:
Sheryl Crow: After my first album, “Tuesday Night Music Club,” came out in 1993, I went out on tour, won three Grammys and stayed out for another two years. By the time I came off the road in early ‘96, I was worn out and overexposed.
After a brief rest, I went down to New Orleans to get away from the music industry and to record my second album.
I had recorded my first album with great players. But when it became successful, many seemed disgruntled that I had a successful solo record. They wanted the album to be a band success.
So for my second album, I dropped the band and reached out to guitarist-songwriter Jeff Trott. I had a lot to prove.
Jeff Trott: I started writing “If It Makes You Happy” right after my girlfriend, Quinn, broke up with me in January 1994—just hours before the Los Angeles earthquake.
Starting the song was part of the grieving process for me. I needed to figure out how such a perfect, loving relationship could go so wrong. Over the next two years, the song became a work in progress.
I’m originally from San Francisco, but back in the early 1990s, I lived in L.A. I first met Quinn in November in 1992 while touring. We met backstage after a concert and it was love at first sight.
We went out that night and spent several hours talking about music and life. I felt I had met a kindred spirit. We corresponded while I was on the road, and Quinn ended up coming down to L.A. Eventually she moved in with me in 1993.
By January 1994, Quinn was done with L.A. She couldn’t take the traffic or the city’s impersonal character. On the afternoon of Jan. 16, she packed up and left. As her little car drove off to Roseville, Calif., near Sacramento, I was heartbroken.
That evening, I opened a crappy $1 bottle of sherry and sat at my little Baldwin Acrosonic piano. I thought about what I could have done to keep her in L.A. I turned on my little cassette player-recorder and started ranting.
I played and sang about my past years in bands and how Quinn and I liked to go to thrift shops and find weird things. Then I went to bed.
At about 4:30 a.m., a 6.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the apartment and plaster came dumping down on me. When the shaking stopped, I couldn’t get out of my apartment.
Fortunately, Sabrina, my next-door neighbor, was dating a big guy who took a crowbar and pried open the door. The next day, I was told to evacuate the building.
I was allowed back into the apartment briefly a few days later. I grabbed my music tapes, including the one with “If It Makes You Happy.”
The following month, I moved back to L.A. By then, I had the song’s first verse and chorus:
“I’ve been a long, long way from here / Put on a poncho, played for mosquitoes / and drank till I was thirsty again / We went searching, through thrift-store jungles / Found Geronimo’s rifle / Elvis’s shampoo / Benny Goodman’s corset and pen.”
The poncho was a reference to the garb we wore in the band Wire Train when we toured with Bob Dylan in 1990. The mosquitos referred to us playing on the banks of the Columbia River and inhaling the insects while I sang.
The thrift-shop lines were about my treasure hunts with Quinn. If we were so good together, why did she leave? The chorus was also about her: “If it makes you happy / it can’t be that bad / If it makes you happy / then why the hell are you so sad?”
Then I wrote part of the second verse: “Get down, real low down / You listen to Coltrane, derail your own train / Well, who hasn’t been there before?”
In 1995, I got a gig playing with Pete Droge, and we opened for Sheryl Crow. During that tour, Sheryl watched our show every night. She wanted me to join her backing band after the tour and thought we should write together.
I first played “If It Makes You Happy” for Sheryl at a cabin near Yosemite National Park owned by drummer Brian MacLeod from Wire Train. He had all this gear up there.
Ms. Crow: When Jeff played me what he had for “If It Makes You Happy,” I heard it as a message to quit complaining. By that point, my first album had sold 6 million copies, so how could everything be so bad?
Mr. Trott: Sheryl loved the song and wrote the second half of the second verse:
“I come ’round, around the hard way / Bring your comics in bed / Scrape the mold off the bread / and serve you French toast again / OK, I still get stoned / I’m not the kind of girl you’d take home.”
We worked on the third verse together:
“We’ve been far, far away from here / I put on a poncho and played for mosquitoes / and everywhere in between / Well, OK, we get along / So what if right now, everything’s wrong?”
Sheryl also changed “Elvis’s shampoo” to “Marilyn’s shampoo,” which sang better.
She decided to record her album at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans. I was going to join her a week after she started. But she called me in L.A. right away and asked me to come down as soon as I could.
Ms. Crow: When Jeff arrived, I strapped on a bass and he took out his guitar. A buddy played drums. “If It Makes You Happy” was the first song we worked on.
Singing the song was my way of shaking the blues. It was a cathartic moment. I said to myself, “If everything you want as a songwriter is to make money, you’ve made a lot of money so why are you so sad?”
The truth is I wasn’t sad at all. I just felt I needed to deliver the message: For everyone who feels bitter about something in their lives, there are so many things to be happy about. Jeff being a really positive person tapped into that experience.
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Mr. Trott: Once we had the basic rhythm track for “If It Makes You Happy,” Sheryl overdubbed some Wurlitzer electric piano, and I worked on the intro. We felt the song was really special and big.
I played two electric guitars—a 1973 Gibson Les Paul run through a Vox AC30. I overdubbed the same lines on a 1963 Telecaster running through a Fender Concert amp.
For the solo on the bridge, I used a Silvertone electric baritone guitar, which has a sound that’s between a bass and guitar. The baritone guitar also plays the lead. Then I overdubbed a mandolin playing pizzicato 8th notes.
When Sheryl added her lead vocal, she gave the song musical sensibility. Her phrasing was beautiful, and her octave vocal jump on the title line in the chorus made the song a hit.
Ms. Crow: Jeff and I didn’t change his original instrumental feel. His guitar tone was emblematic of the imagery that came naturally to me. His influences were in line with what I had grown up listening to—Keith Richards and a lot of English rock. Jeff was my alter ego.
“If It Makes You Happy” was me saying, “Hey, I’ve been a musician since I was 3. I grew up with parents who were musicians. I played seven different instruments. I know how to front a band.”
When I hear the record now, it puts me back in that place of being the underdog. But it’s empowering and tells me to be as great as I can be. I hear that in the angst of the song and the angst of my delivery.
Mr. Trott: When the album came out in September 1996, we went out on year-long tour. After the tour, I bought a house in Portland, Ore. I moved up there in 1998. Then I reached out to Quinn, who was still living in Roseville.
It had been a while, and I asked her if she’d heard “If It Makes You Happy.” She said she had. I told her that she was the inspiration. The phone line went quiet. Then she said, “Oh wow.”
Today, Quinn and I live in Nashville, Tenn. We married in 2005 and have two sons—Adrian, 17, and Griffin, 13. Tennessee doesn’t have California-sized earthquakes, but we had six minor ones in July. We didn’t feel anything shake at home. We worry more about hurricanes and tornadoes.
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