Crystal Bowersox has taken a great deal of influence from singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. She even uses her lyrics to hammer home philosophical points.
"I keep quoting Ani DiFranco: 'If you're not getting happier as you get older / then you're f---ing up,'" Bowersox says. "It's true. I feel like at this point in my life, I've noticed the serendipitous ways things have been for me. I've worked very hard, but there's also been lots of luck. Every moment has lead to this moment I'm in now, all the bad and all the good. In my darkest days, I did not really believe it was going to get better. But it did, and now I'm on the good side of things, and I'm kind of surprised that it all worked out."
She's explaining the thinking behind the title of her new album, "All That for This," out March 26. It's a superb set -- wonderfully written, beautifully performed and expertly produced -- and a refreshing follow-up to her post-"Idol" major-label debut, 2010's "Farmer's Daughter."
with Monte Mar
• 8 p.m. March 1
• S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave. in Evanston
• Tickets: Sold out; (847) 492-8860; evanstonespace.com
with Monte Mar
• 8 p.m. March 2
• Arcada Theater, 105 E. Main St. in St. Charles
• Tickets: $15-$39; (630) 962-7000; oshows.com
The 27-year-old former "American Idol" runner-up (to Chicago suburbanite Lee DeWyze in 2010) and occasional Chicago resident has been through the wringer, personally and professionally, and settled in a good place. Now living in Portland, Ore., with husband Brian Walker and their young son, Tony, she recorded the new set in comfortable circumstances with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. "All That for This" comes out on Shanachie Records, a roots and world music label that's a perfect fit for Bowersox and her down-to-earthiness.
"Shanachie -- the word literally translates as 'storyteller,' and I guess I fancy myself one," Bowersox said in our recent interview from her West Coast home. "The process for this album was very relaxed and laid-back. We did it here [in Portland], so I got to sleep in my own bed every night. Music is best when the players are feeling good. Steve did such a great job. He has this gritty way of recording drums. He never wanted to do anything I wasn't comfortable with, and he makes sure everyone's happy and chill and relaxed. And he knows all the good restaurants."
Bowersox kicks off a string of tour dates with two shows in the Chicago area, which she called home for several years. She and Walker met at the Wrigleyville Uncommon Ground and eventually were married there in 2010.
One song on the new record, "Someday," describes the asynchronous communication every songwriter practices -- about how to "write a song and hope you hear it someday." But this one has less to do with romantic what-ifs.
"It's true, a lot of times the only voice I have is through my songwriting," she said, "and if there's a person in my life I can't talk to anymore you send a song out into the universe and hope they hear it and get the message. That song sounds like it's written for a lover, but it's really written for a good friend of mine in Chicago who passed away [in 2010, singer-songwriter] Mark Brink. He was known in the folksy circle in Chicago. We were waiting for him at a show one night, we knew he had tickets, and we found out the next day he'd passed away. He was a very good friend from before my 'Idol' days, and it really touched me losing this person."
The last time we encountered Bowersox, she had just initiated an impromptu, on-stage collaboration with Blues Traveler's John Popper at the 2011 South by Southwest music festival. She wound up guesting on a Blues Traveler album, and she says there may be more.
"I just brought this up this morning," she said. "I wondered if he'd be down for making a Christmas record. Jingle bells and harmonica, c'mon!"
Later this year, Bowersox takes a big leap in her career -- to Broadway.
Bowersox will play the title role in the current New York musical "Always, Patsy Cline," beginning this summer.
"About a year ago, I said to the universe a little prayer. I just put it out there that I'd like to do Broadway if that opportunity ever presents itself. A year later my manager calls and is like, 'Hey, these guys want you to be Patsy.' ... Thankfully, I know most of the material. I grew up with Patsy's music. It should be a breeze, right?"
Why does she think the musical's producers sought her out?
"I think it's my lips," she said. "I saw a picture of me that someone had put next to Patsy. It's kinda creepy."