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THE SINGER AND THE GUMSHOE
Allison Crowe wants to forge a career without manipulation; Adrian du Plessis plans to make sure that happens, writes ALEXANDRA GILL
ALEXANDRA GILL, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 29, 2002

[Picture] Singer/pianist Allison Crowe can silence a loud barroom whenever she hits a stage, with vocal stylings that some have compared with Alanis Morissette and Janis Joplin.

VANCOUVER -- If you haven't heard of Allison Crowe, you will soon.

Why? Well, partly because the 20-year-old pianist-singer from Nanaimo, B.C., has a dark, powerful voice that seems to come out of nowhere, then thrusts into the stratosphere, falling somewhere between Alanis Morissette and Janis Joplin.

And given that Crowe is being managed by (as unlikely as it seems) Adrian du Plessis, the financial-market crusader who has exposed wrongdoing on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and should know a thing or two about sniffing out the real thing.

But if Crowe becomes a huge star someday, it won't be just because the local critics have touted her as the next Diana Krall (they both hail from the same hometown on the east coast of Vancouver Island and happen to share the same birthday). Or, because many will surely soon begin drawing parallels with India.Arie (Crowe and du Plessis just this week signed a partnership deal with Jack Ponti and the U.S. artist-management team who nurtured the relatively unknown soul singer into a seven Grammy Award-nominee, seemingly overnight).

She possesses, as du Plessis would say, "that intangible star quality that separates the good and the great from the exceptional."

Though hard to describe, you'll know it when you hear it. It's that rare ability to silence a loud barroom whenever she hits a stage, leaving the entire room rapt as shivers tingle down spines.

And if you catch her this summer, when the Allison Crowe trio plays a string of small bistros and nightclubs on its first cross-country tour, you might very well be able to someday say "I saw her when."

On the West Coast, critics have been raving about her for two years. "A certified poet whose rich, powerful voice shows the influences of everyone from Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan to Janis Joplin and even Nina Simone," is how Crowe was billed in this year's guide to the Victoria International Jazz Festival. Billie Holiday, Fiona Apple and Eddie Vedder are other names that often crop up to describe the "preternaturally worldly" voice of this "megatalent in the making."

Classically trained, Crowe sings a repertoire of original tunes and cross-genre covers that range from moody jazz to ballsy blues. They've earned her a crossover fan base that runs the gauntlet from female folkies (she was the featured guest for April on Jewel's official Web site) to alternative rockers (she was invited to perform at a Pearl Jam conference in Seattle last summer).

It's remarkable to find an artist who can generate so much attention before her first full-length CD has even been released (Midnight Syren is due out by the end of the summer). Crowe might be a "natural and gifted talent" with "enormous potential," as Ponti wrote in this week's press release. But much of the credit for the buzz thus far goes to her devoutly dedicated manager.

Du Plessis is the first to arrive for the interview last weekend, on the eve of Crowe's first tour date in Nanaimo, at which her first video was also being released.

A bundle of energy, the 43-year-old hippie with long greying hair bounds into the coffee shop, talking a mile a minute after a long day running around in his 1988 Pinto, picking up concert T-shirts and Crowe's new, six-song EP, which that includes a bonus track, Midnight.

Du Plessis's transition from financial watchdog to artist manager isn't as odd as it seems. Long before the "scourge of Howe Street" became a freelance muckraker, the high-school dropout managed punk-rock bands. That was back in the late seventies. His girlfriend at the time didn't think there was a future in music and persuaded du Plessis to look for a more stable career. In 1980, he was hired as a board marker for the Vancouver Stock Exchange, primarily because he was tall enough to fit the height requirement.

He soon graduated to floor trader, but quit in disgust in 1986, after being asked to participate in a stock-rigging deal. He spent nearly a year with Stockwatch, a Vancouver publication that follows the market, exposing dozens of scandals that helped his hometown acquire the nickname "Scam Capital of the World."

Things got a little hairy during his independent investigation of YBM Magnex, a magnet-making company that was alleged to have ties to a Russian mob.

"It was like a bad movie," says du Plessis, recalling the threatening phone calls he received in the middle of the night. In 1996, he retreated to Saltspring Island, after someone tried to drive his girlfriend off the road. The girlfriend lasted a year before cabin fever set in. "And then I ended up living alone and wondering what they were going to do to my cat," du Plessis says.

In 1998, the FBI raided YBM's headquarters in Pennsylvania. "It was a great day," recalls du Plessis, who was co-winner of a National Newspaper Award for business reporting in 1999 involving YBM coverage. "It was like the cavalry appears on the top of the hill at the right moment."

That was the turning point for du Plessis. "At the start, it was largely an intellectual puzzle for me. And by then, I'd kind of figured out that things were rotten from the bottom to the top."

Living on Saltspring, he had begun appreciating the bounty of nature around him. He tended sheep for pocket money and formed a non-profit group to help promote young musicians.

"And then Allison entered my life," says du Plessis, who speaks of the singer in reverential tones. (The relationship is strictly professional.) He decided to give up his whistle-blowing ways and make it his mission to toot Crowe's powerful horn.

Crowe arrives a few minutes later, the calm yin to du Plessis's frenetic yang. She smiles brightly, but doesn't say very much. "I'm not good at articulating things in words. That's why I sing."

When du Plessis begins comparing her to Sarah McLachlan and Jewel, she tugs on her dark curly hair and rolls her eyes self-consciously. "I'm always like, 'Well, okay. If you think so Adrian.'"

Crowe is no young ingenue. Even though she sits silently and nods through most of the interview, there is a quiet determination about her. It's the same determination that gave her the chutzpah to talk her way past the bouncer at the Queen's bar in Nanaimo when she was only 15 to make her appearance on a stage.

The next year, in 1998, she won the Vancouver Island's Songbird Talent competition. With a firm foundation from her early training in piano and vocals in Nanaimo's rich school-district music program, she began taking classes at the city's renowned Malaspina College while still in high school.

She now plays with a trio with Dave Baird on bass and Kevin Clevette on drums.

Shortly after moving to Saltspring Island, du Plessis began hearing about this young singer with the otherwordly voice. It took a long time to get to know her but finally got Crowe's number, rang her up and told her he'd be interested in doing whatever he could to help her and the band.

Crowe told him her concerns. "I did want to go professional, but I didn't at the same time, because I knew all the crap that goes along with it," she explains, in a sudden burst of near chatter. "I didn't want to sign my life over and let anybody tell me what I should be doing or how I should be doing it or what to look like when I'm doing it. It looks to me like that's what happens a lot."

Du Plessis realized his background made him well-suited to help her. "Initially, I thought I was out of my element. And then when I started to learn more about the business and talk more to record-company people and agents and bookers and meet some of the interesting characters of the industry, I remember one day sitting at my computer and thinking: 'I'm in the same business.' It's the same entrepreneurial snakiness."

But du Plessis says the music business still retains many elements of good. "And for someone like me, who kind of needs a moral mission, it's even more important to be around to see that the good doesn't get crushed and destroyed by the systemic corruption. There are so many artists who just want their music to be heard. But they're fighting these same forces and they're totally unprepared and unaware that they're entering into this world that has so many elements that are not conducive to nurturing art."

The campaign to launch Crowe's career began slowly, as she insisted, but surely. A three-song demo helped promote small gigs in small towns close to home. When rave reviews started pouring in, they slowly expanded outward, to small clubs in Vancouver and Seattle.

The band recorded a new demo last summer, at Turtle Studios in White Rock, B.C., with producer/engineer Larry Anschell (who has worked with Pearl Jam, Sarah McLachlan, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden).

"We had no marketing plan, other than a belief in ourselves," says du Plessis. But, sure enough, the local media requests soon turned into bigger ones. In the past year, Crowe has been featured on CBC Radio, CTV's Vicki Gabereau and MTV Canada's Select. Last fall, she performed back-to-back with Diana Krall for the televised launch of CHUM Ltd.'s new Vancouver Island TV station, the New VI.

Over the winter, the trio was awarded a FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records) grant to return to Turtle studio to begin recording their debut full-length album. They also acquired a VideoFACT grant to make the video. And now the tour and the partnership deal with Ponti.

"We're doing all this from my parent's basement," says Crowe, who is obviously pleased with the pace of things so far. "It's like, 'Yea for the little people.' "

She and du Plessis say they are waiting for the right label -- someone who will believe in Crowe as more than just a product and who has influence in the U.S. market.

"If you know much about India.Arie," du Plessis elaborated in an e-mail after the deal had been reached this week, "you'll know that, along with her seven Grammy nominations, she's excelled at being herself. That holds a lot of appeal for Alley. We're excited, and in ways, relieved, to find a guy like [Jack Ponti] in the music business. Someone who's so blunt and honest about the business. It's going to get verrrry interesting in the next six to 12 months -- and beyond."

The Allison Crowe trio plays tonight at Hugo's in Lethbridge, Alta.; July 1, CanWest Global Park, Winnipeg; July 2, Great Northwest, Thunder Bay; July 3, Lone Star, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.; July 4, Sudbury Art Gallery, Sudbury; July 6, Rivoli, Toronto; July 7, Upstairs, Montreal; July 9, Academy, Winnipeg; July 10, Roca Jack's, Regina; July 12, Pavilion Theatre, Kamloops, B.C.; July 13, Verve, Vernon, B.C.; July 14, Starbelly Jam, Crawford Bay, B.C.