Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Lisa Crawley is playing for keeps

She's a gun-for-hire as a musician but Lisa Crawley's aim remains to get her own songs heard. She talks to Lydia Jenkin

Lisa Crawley says the songs on her new album cover a wide range of subjects.
Lisa Crawley says the songs on her new album cover a wide range of subjects.

Lisa Crawley really is a woman with many strings to her bow. Not only is she a multi-instrumentalist (though piano is her forte) in the nearly two years since she released her debut album Everything That I Have Seen, she's been adding all manner of interesting jobs to her CV.

First there was performing in White Cloud, a show written by Tim Finn, at Bats Theatre in Wellington.

"That was the first time I worked with Tim, and it was awesome to play with Chris O'Connor and Ben King and Brett Adams, and even actors like Stephen Lovatt."

She must've made an impression, because Finn asked her to join his band for a few gigs in Australia.

"I spent my summer learning the Split Enz back catalogue, and it was a great job, although trying to work out the parts that Eddie Rayner played for the Split Enz stuff was a bit nerve-racking," she says with a laugh.

Then she spent a few weeks transcribing the parts for a new musical that Finn has written, called Woman In Black.

"My job was to listen to all the demos, 27 songs, and write them out into sheet music, which was kind of funny, because Tim was doing all these different voices for the different parts, you know, like an old lady and so on."

Up next was a tour with Greg Johnson (a couple of his band members recommended her for the gig) and shortly after that it was straight into working as a musician on X Factor New Zealand - you might've seen her blond head at the piano at the judges' retreats, accompanying the contestants as they were whittled down to the final 12.

It's quite a workload on top of her regular covers gigs, mentoring, small roles in The Blue Rose and Go Girls, and of course working on her own album.

"Sometimes it gets a bit stressful," she says lightly, "but I try to keep in the back of my mind that this is all money I can put towards recording."

It's not the easiest of routes for a young musician, working on your music by yourself, while also supporting yourself, and trying to make enough to pay for a band, producer, and recording time, but Crawley is a determined soul and, despite several experiences with reality TV singing competitions, doesn't see that as a better path.

"I've done a few weird reality TV singing things now. The first one was Wannabes, with Jason Gunn, and then I auditioned for NZ Idol when I was 16 or 17, and I remember being told I was too vanilla. And then I did Stars In Their Eyes. It was interesting to be involved in X Factor and see it unfold without being a contestant, but I know now I'd rather be recording my own album."

All those hours of experience, and extra work have paid off though - her second album All In My Head is a beautifully recorded collection of 60s-tinged, heartfelt pop that she's put together through several months of work at Revolver Studios, in Waiuku, with the help of producer Djeisan (Jason) Suskov (whose father George runs the studio).

"It's really beautiful out there, and it's kind of bizarre as well," she laughs. "There's these old collages of The Beatles and Neil Finn and Tim Finn, other iconic Kiwi songwriters. And there's this piano that looks really psychedelic, it's this kind of honky tonk thing. But they've got a beautiful grand piano as well, and heaps of awesome gear."

She credits Suskov (the man behind Cool Rainbows, who has worked with acts such as Tiny Ruins, Artisan Guns, and Kids of 88), as a great help across the project. From helping her with recording early demos to get funding, to collaboration on arrangements and as a sounding board during songwriting, he was instrumental.

"I've known Djeisan for nearly 10 years now, and he's great. We spent a number of months demoing the tracks before we went into Revolver, and we had a good enough friendship that we could respect each other's opinions without getting offended.

"I think we have different strengths. I'm good at doing things like melodies and string arrangements, and he's really good at bass and drums and so on - things that I don't have a huge amount of experience with."

There are some lovely string arrangements on the album ("I'd listened to a lot of Burt Bacharach," she smiles), but it's also sparse in places, and often piano-driven, leaving her voice to the fore. Lyrically it's a more upbeat album than her first, which was heavy on the heartbreak.

"This one is slightly more balanced I think, which is good. More wide-ranging topically."

Indeed, as well as relationships, friendships and loneliness, it seem to draw on life's little challenges - some wide-ranging and familiar, and some more personally inspired. "I think some of the songs are probably a little inspired by less-than-ideal living situations. I feel like I've lived in quite a few rubbish places. I used to live in a flat on New North Rd, upstairs from a fish and chip shop and shared a kitchen with them. It was weird and inappropriate.

"And Elizabeth definitely isn't about a boy," she laughs. "It's about the man who tried to put a CD down my pants and asked me to play him a song [during a show]. No, it's about the frustrations of all those covers gigs I guess, annoying punters. And the video is kind of a 60s horror movie interpretation of that, with a mad man trying to create this woman in his lab."

Who: Lisa Crawley
What: New album All In My Head
Where and when: Performing with her band at Leigh Sawmill on Sunday, October 14

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