Reviewers say she's 'the next big thing' to come from Vancouver Island, which has produced Diana Krall and Nelly Furtado. But singer-pianist Allison Crowe is in no hurry -- heck, the kid is still enjoying herself.
Mark Hume, National Post
November 29, 2001
She is nursing her voice, which, when she throws back her head to sing, will pierce the boozy darkness, make people turn away from conversations and silence every last clinking glass in the place.
And somewhere at the back of the room, her father, Del, starts to weep.
"I don't cry so much any more," he says a little sheepishly.
Del Crowe has been listening to his daughter sing since she was about five; professionally since she turned 15 and talked her way past a bouncer to get on stage at the Queens, a noisy bar in Nanaimo that allows walk-on talent.
He remembers the night when he first realized she wasn't just a kid with a sweet voice but a singer with real talent.
"It was a Valentine's gig at my cousin's coffee house. She did a cover of a Counting Crows song, Raining in Baltimore. It wasn't the music, it was what she did with it. It still chokes me up, just thinking about it," Crowe says. "That was the first time. She was 14. I thought: She really is great."
Allison Crowe has been called more than that by small-town reviewers lucky enough to catch her.
"Incredible ... Awesome ... A mega-star in the making," they have said of the classically trained pianist and singer who has veered into a mix of jazz, blues and rock.
Critics in Nanaimo, Victoria, Chilliwack and on Salt Spring Island are all raving about the girl they say is "the next big thing" to come from Vancouver Island, which has already produced Diana Krall and Nelly Furtado.
"Alley," as she is called by her friends, just turned 20. She has yet to produce her first commercial CD, although she has a couple of demos out. The tiny Railway Club, with a stage barely big enough for her grand piano, is one of the few Vancouver venues she's played. She is a long way from stardom and gets flustered when asked about comparisons to Krall, who is now being called the greatest jazz singer on the planet.
"Oh my gosh," Crowe says. "I admire her so much. I don't think I could ever be that good."
But when you hear the voice, when you listen to her lean into a song and give it an ephemeral, haunting quality, it is easy to think the small-town critics might just be right.
"I'm in awe of her," says her manager, Adrian du Plessis. "There is musical genius in her soul."
You might expect that from a manager. On the other hand, du Plessis should know the real thing. As a former investigator on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, he has spent most of his professional life exposing frauds, including YBM International Magnex Inc., which he found had links to Russian mafia money.
Long before he put on a suit and became known as "the scourge of Howe Street," he managed bands. When he left the VSE a few years ago to retreat to Salt Spring Island, he went back to his musical roots, "looking for something to nourish my soul."
As he moved through the West Coast music scene he kept hearing about Crowe, a young woman who was described as having Janis Joplin's ballsy power and Sarah McLachlan's lilting sweetness. One night he wandered into the Queens, in Nanaimo, and heard her voice bring the place to a standstill.
"It was just stunning. She made the hair on the back of my neck stand up."
When he learned she didn't have a manager, he volunteered for the job. But she was too shy to talk to him. So he got to know her over the next few months by exchanging long e-mails in which they discussed the twisted and "creatively dangerous" world of the professional music business.
She wanted success, she told him, but was worried her music, which she writes in bursts of energy in the early hours of the morning, would be swallowed up by a big company and shaped by market forces.
"I thought: With my skills, maybe I could help her avoid some of the pitfalls of the business -- to hang on to her integrity," du Plessis says.
There have been offers of recording contracts, but nothing that would allow her to have creative control.
Du Plessis talks about how break-out artists are often signed to multi-record deals, then forced to churn out material and alter their styles in response to surveys. "You have to be careful. You can't just plunge in," he says.
Sitting at the bar, Crowe nods in agreement when her manager's concerns are mentioned. She would like to produce a CD. To play big concerts. To hear her voice on the radio. But she is not willing to bend much for the sake of fame.
"I'm not very good at having people tell me what to do. If they told me how to look, how to sing, what to wear -- I couldn't deal with that.
"It's really hard to maintain control of your own work and be a success," she says. "I'd like to be able to do it as independently as possible."
Earlier this year Crowe, who still lives at home with her parents, told du Plessis she didn't want to travel. She wanted to play in Nanaimo. Maybe go to Salt Spring. Small clubs in small towns, close to home.
It was her shyness, he said, and the rave reviews she was getting had scared her. But he coaxed her out of it, and she admits now she's glad he did.
She looks around the Railway Club.
"This is fun," she says. "I love singing for people. And I like travelling."
Her dad likes to remind her that Krall found fame only after working in small L.A. clubs for more than a decade.
Du Plessis says Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto might be the next steps.
Crowe says she's in no rush.
"I'm learning," she says. "I'm practising and working hard, and playing clubs like this is a good experience. Sara McLachlan played here. The Tragically Hip played here. It's a good place to start."
One day people will say Allison Crowe played here, too, with bassist David Baird and drummer Kevin Clevette. People will say they blew the doors off the place.