In a previous music video she was being bothered by a giant pink elephant but in her latest video, for the song Elizabeth, Lisa Crawley is both a glamorous headless body and a well-coiffured head, being put together on a crazed scientist’s operating table. The allusion is to 1960s horror movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but it can also be seen as a reference to some of the peculiar challenges encountered by an attractive female solo entertainer. Richard Thorne met with the otherwise very together Lisa Crawley to discuss her newly released second album ‘All In My Head’.
Getting a bit older, but her dreams aren’t growing colder, singing’s still the thing she has to do.
Being professional, and responsibly well-mannered, Lisa Crawley calls to say she’s running a bit late. It’s evident that she’s rarely idle, and as soon as our interview is over she races off to the X Factor TV studio for rehearsal, ahead of one of the final shows. She’s been involved (in the background) for much of the series, including the overseas ‘bootcamp’ segment, but has done enough such competition-ing herself to get too excited by it all. She entered NZ Idol when just 16, but was quickly ejected with judge Frankie Stevens saying she was ‘too vanilla’.
“That was me, gone…”
It was probably a good thing she admits, with that nervy laugh she has, her green eyes twinkling.
Lisa Crawley has got plenty of nerve – both the ‘good’ sort and the ‘bad’. The good nerves have allowed her to appear on small stages all over the shop, Japan and Europe included, and on big stages in support of some legendary musical stars – Jools Holland, John Mayer and Paul Weller. (Playing a piano-based set at a Jools Holland concert – there’s a teeth-grinding challenge for anyone.) The bad provide what she candidly describes as her ongoing struggle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks – though she’s typically so bubbly you wouldn’t guess it.
Inevitably they also provide her with good song stuff – and the title of her newly released second album.
“It’s called ‘All In My Head’, and it’s kind of songs about stuff that I… either imagine or…” she hesitates before changing tack. “There’s a song called Imagination and I thought about calling it that, but then I noticed that the lyric ‘all in my head’ had come up in a few songs and seemed to be a theme.
“I guess it’s like Ladyhawke calling her album ‘Anxiety’. It’s a similar kind of thing. Like imagining the worst case scenario too much, thinking the worst. There are a couple more happy songs than on my last album I think, so getting there, slowly.”
People asked Elizabeth why she wasn’t big time yet? They meant well but they had no idea.
She doesn’t mean that as any kind of metaphor for her career, but the shoe does fit.
It’s 10 years since that “too vanilla” put down, and Lisa has been working hard at gaining a big break for pretty much all of that decade. Two self-released EPs and now two self-funded albums testify to her determination to progress. Music competitions, some of which she’s come perilously close to winning and some she has won, have been another part of her journey.
After NZ Idol, the National Battle of the Bands, with her Avondale High School band Velez, was one of the first. She wanted to be on stage and at 17 successfully auditioned for a musical theatre school in Singapore – but then couldn’t find the money to pay for it.
“At the time, I thought was the end of the world when I couldn’t go. I was quite distraught and thought that my chances for music were doomed ’cos I was so old! I learnt that I had to change my idea of success [to] being achieved in small steps, and to try and remember the stuff that you have done.
Instead, after 7th Form she worked in music retail and taught piano for a year, before taking on jazz school at Auckland University. She’d had classical training in clarinet, piano and voice, but jazz was a new challenge. A natural ability to play by ear helped her though the course, but she dropped out by the end of the first year, her tutor noting she had the best ears, but was the least motivated student on the jazz course.
After a stint entertaining in Japan, she moved on to London. Again she was far from idle and while there she placed second in a British competition called Slice The Pie that would have won her £40,000 – and quite likely set her off in another direction.
Best dear, you tried your best dear. All the rest yeah, what do they know?
In 2008 she won the Pacific Songwriting competition and most recently her song What Would I Give was a monthly winner on theaudience.co.nz, meaning $10,000 worth of NZ On Air audio and video production for the track – a helpful kick start to the ‘All In My Head’ album.
She says she “half-pie released” an EP called ‘Shoot The Night’ before heading overseas. That included Stranger, track five on her new album, and one of the first songs Crawley wrote – back when she was 15 or 16. Trying Out Tonight (track six) was also on that EP and became her first ever music video – in 2007 she calculates. Both have now been re-arranged with the addition of real instruments, strings and horns respectively. Some of the other songs were written around the time of her last album but didn’t fit. A follow up EP titled ‘Hello, Goodbye and Everything In Between’ came out in 2009.
Released in October 2011 ‘Everything That I Have Seen’ was her album debut. Recorded at The Lab in Auckland, it rather disappointingly had the sense of just mopping up various old and familiar songs about past relationships.
Arriving just nine months later, ‘All In My Head’ is a much smarter album. This time Crawley’s production mate was Djeisan Suskov (of Cool Rainbows), who has lately been earning plaudits for his recording work with acts including Artisan Guns and Tiny Ruins.
The two met as teenagers at a Parachute Festival, and were neighbours when he was lead singer in Nova Echo, the band that turned into Cut Off Your Hands.
“I had tried working with Jason on my song Leaving years ago, and it didn’t work so well. We just didn’t gel at the time. Because we were such good friends anyway we just agreed to do our own thing.”
With Suskov’s production star very much on the rise (he’s lately been working with Ladi6, Glass Owls and Loui the ZU), the time evidently felt right to try again. They started working on some songs as an experiment.
“When I could afford it I would go out to his place and work on a song for a day. He has a pretty good [studio] set up at home.”
After the first few sessions she was confident they could finish an album together this time and following a few months of sporadic demo and pre-production work she booked two weeks at Revolver to record with the band in May. The rural Waiuku studio is itself something of a legend, and Suskov is son of Revolver’s likewise legendary owner George Schoushkoff – the spelling change actually taking the family surname back to the Bulgarian original.
Putting herself out there ever since she could remember, singing songs to anyone who’d hear.
With earnings from mid-week covers gigs playing piano and singing, along with jobs like X Factor funding her original aspirations, Lisa’s band of guitarist Sam Taylor, bassist Cass Mitchell and drummer Stephen Thomas, were booked for just five days of recording.
“Jason was really helpful. We have different strengths. I think my strength is more in the melodic things, like arrangements and strings and horns, and he’s really good with the bass and drums. Like Elizabeth I had written on guitar and in a kind of folky style. It didn’t have any of that ‘dink, dink, dink’ beat, which he put to it. I liked the song but didn’t like my arrangement.”
It’s her own clarinet on the album, with Claire Cowan providing cello, Steven Huf horns and some violin from Jess Hindin. Selecting takes as they went made the tracking longer, but song mixing quicker.
The jauntily black Elizabeth is a good example of Crawley’s songwriting. Her clear diction and the unthreatening wholesomeness of her voice, combined with a readiness to use scat links, mean there’s often a theatrical pop sense, despite the content. While far from naive, the songs are often introduced with simple and repetitive piano parts.
“I like to have a memorable melody I guess – maybe that’s due to my lack of technical skill! I do like to have something that’s easy to remember, and work around that rather than complex melodies. Memorable melodies plus thought provoking lyrics – but I am playing around with the idea that it could be a bit more fun.”
Lyrics typically arrive first, the songs then written on piano, guitar and omnichord – she likes to mix it up so has just bought herself a bass as well. Once an idea is ready to be fleshed out though she reverts to piano, on which she has more confidence to “come up with fancy things.”
As the album title suggests, these songs almost invariably tell her own story, drawing on a wealth of often challenging personal experiences in combination with her history of performing in church, regular work since a teenager singing covers in bars and, of course, her aspirations to succeed as an original artist.
“I guess part of the theme of the album is due to musical backgrounds. The contrasting environments of church vs bars, where men would tell you that your skirt wasn’t short enough. I’ve always been working in two worlds I guess.”
Elizabeth (the lyrics quoted here) is a rare ‘character exploration’ song, but that character seems plainly herself.
“I do find it easiest to write songs from personal experience, but working with Jason he really made me think about taking out any filler lyrics I had that were maybe covering up what I was trying to say. That was a good task. He’d send me away sometimes telling me to think about what I was actually trying to say and to get to the point.”
This year has been a busy one, also including a tour with Greg Johnson and several weeks working with Tim Finn, playing live and transcribing his newly written musical for an Australian production.
“It’s good being able to use the skills that you have to earn money, and playing with others is a nice change to sitting playing covers all the time. I do enjoy it but I think it’s easy to get caught up in that world. I went from the last day of the X Factor retreat to starting work on my album the next day.”
With luck, ‘All In My Head’ might just provide commercial radio with the ‘hit’ song the gatekeepers are waiting for before getting behind her. Like many others, Lisa suffers from being too polished for student radio play, but too alternative and awkward for the other.
She felt patronised, wanted to cry, but kept her head held high…
“I did my first gig with the orchestra a few weeks ago and that was really cool. The APO arranged What Would I Give, and one gig with an orchestra cancels a years of shitty gigs I reckon, it was great. I could have been doing the exact same song at the bar where I sing every Wednesday and no one really gives a shit. I would like to get more opportunities like that where I can play to a completely different audience.”
And that’s Lisa Crawley. Disarmingly candid, charming, anxious, determined, motivated, honest, busy and necessarily self-reliant.
Get through the night, ohhh, turn out the light ohhh, let it go…
(All lyric excerpts from Elizabeth.)