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Allison Crowe: A Songbird Takes Flight
You might like to check in with Nanaimo singer Allison Crowe soon, at least before her topflight talent puts her out of reach.
Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist
Thursday, November 21, 2002

What: Allison Crowe Trio (with guests Rebecca Hennessy and Henry Alcock-White)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Young Auditorium, Camosun College
Tickets: $10, $15 (advance at Lyle's Place, Ivy's Book Shop, The Patch)

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Darren Stone, Times Colonist / (Allison Crowe.) It might be a smart idea to catch Allison Crowe's concert at Camosun College this weekend. It could be one of those deals where, years later, you'll be able to nonchalantly say: "Hey man, I saw her before she was a big star."

Stories about up and coming singers are more common than Elvis sightings at 7-Elevens. Yet in the case of this 21-year-old Nanaimo singer-songwriter, it appears there's substance to the ever-growing buzz. Consider this. Earlier this year Crowe's manager, Adrian du Plessis, entered into a partnership with Jack Ponti, a U.S. music industry veteran. He's the man who was instrumental in managing pop singer India.Arie to seven Grammy nominations this year. Like Crowe, Arie was considered a "grassroots" artist before her breakthrough. Although he no longer manages her, under Ponti's guidance, Arie was able to pole-vault into the ranks of artists with multi-million album sales.

This week Ponti said Crowe displays the same level of ability as Arie did at early stages in her career. While the two singers are very different, both show "honesty" in their approach to music.

"I think Allison has an extraordinary natural talent," Ponti said from the offices of his company, CazzyDog/The Commission, in Toms River, N.J.

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Du Plessis, a loquacious Saltspring Islander who was once one of Canada's top stock market investigators, says he first encountered Ponti on the music industry Website, Starpolish. The pair began exchanging e-mails about Crowe's nascent career. Ponti eventually expressed interest in helping her tour and record in the United States.

At first, Crowe and Du Plessis were wary of Ponti, a colourful figure with a pronounced Jersey accent who's produced Alice Cooper albums and once played guitar with Jon Bon Jovi. Ponti advised the pair that to play in the U.S. big leagues they'd have to line up a label willing to plunk down $1 to $3 million U.S. to support her.

Du Plessis has until now taken a slow but steady grassroots approach with Crowe's career. This summer she completed her first Canadian tour. She recently recorded an independent EP, Six Songs, but has yet to issue a full-length recording. Fretting about becoming indebted to "large unknown powers," Du Plessis -- with Crowe in agreement -- initially said no to Ponti's offer to co-manage.

"It seemed like we were suddenly going from where we are to the big, giant leagues," he said.

Du Plessis changed his tune after talking further to Ponti about the difficulties of breaking into the U.S. music market and, at Ponti's suggestion, reading Hit Men -- Frederic Dannen's in-depth 1990 book about the hustlers and kingpins who populate the sometimes corrupt pop music industry. It seemed Ponti might have the smarts and connections to guide Crowe through hazards lurking in shark-infested waters.

"I woke up one morning and thought, 'This is Ally's opportunity,' " said du Plessis. He and Crowe have now entered into a handshake partnership with Ponti, who intends to oversee the U.S. end of her future career.

The management team plans to have Crowe sign with a major U.S. label by early 2003. After that, she will play a string of American showcase dates. This will be followed with the release of her debut album, followed by extensive North American touring.

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Central to Crowe's vision of her future is to somehow sidestep becoming a manufactured commodity like many young female vocalists. It's a real danger in an age when the big stars are Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Crowe specializes in piano-driven pop ballads at times reminiscent of Jewel and Fiona Apple, delivered with an often thrilling raw power and passion. Many of her songs are confessional and angst-ridden, inspired by the pages of her diaries.

Crowe says she's not worried about being shoe-horned into the Aguilera/Spears mould if she signs to a big label.

"If someone told me to be the next so-and-so, I'd say, 'No. How about if I be myself?'"

If du Plessis -- who sports granny glasses and graying hair -- sometimes seems like a worried mother hen, it's hard to blame him. On the surface, Crowe seems like a particularly vulnerable talent. A reserved person, she punctuates her softly-worded comments with girlish giggles. The last time she played Victoria, opening for jazz artist Jane Bunnett at JazzFest International, Crowe seemed visibly nervous and told the audience, "I was expecting to get booed."

Yet it seems there's a certain resilience and determination beneath her unassuming persona. Classically trained as a pianist, Crowe managed to talk her way into an open stage performance at the Queen's Hotel in Nanaimo when she was only 15 years old. The singer, who was under the drinking age, was ordered to stand beside the sound board until she performed.

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It takes a certain courage to cross Canada playing concerts as a solo artist (she is part of a trio featuring bassist David Baird and drummer Kevin Clevette). Crowe says she has no problems in the self-confidence department.

"I'm OK. I feel fine in myself. I always want to learn more. I always want to practice more and stuff like that. I feel like I should do that, and I am."

And if Crowe is years away from accruing the business acumen of a veteran, one suspects her mid-40s manager might be able to fill the gap. In the late '70s, du Plessis managed rock bands in Vancouver.

Later, he became a stock broker, then a stock market investigator. His persistence and encyclopedic knowledge of the market gained him a reputation as one of Canada's top stock market sleuths, nicknamed "the Scourge of Howe Street." He was instrumental in the notorious 1998 shut down of Pennsylvania-based YBM Magnex, which reportedly had links to the Russian mafia. Du Plessis, also a sometime journalist, was co-winner of a National Newspaper Award for helping report on the YBM business scandal.

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Crowe's 11,000 kilometre summer tour of Canada -- with stops in Toronto, Montreal, Regina and other cities -- was artistically satisfying. But it was plagued with the sort of mishaps familiar to any struggling independent artist. For one thing, the band's privately rented motorhome turned out to be a lemon. The awning blew off, and the tires had a habit of exploding. The torn rubber became ensnared in the undercarriage of the vehicle, leading to an unfortunate situation in which sewage lines got mixed up with the air-conditioning pipes. The results: a horrible methane gas smell and leaking raw sewage.

"It was a disaster," said du Plessis.

If all goes according the plan, Crowe's career will shift into high gear next year. She initially had trepidation about crossing Canada, wondering how she'd be received in other cities. Does this small-town Nanaimo girl find the prospect of possible global stardom daunting?

"I guess I won't know until I get there," said Crowe with a giggle. "Like, I do want to think about it. But I think I might psyche myself out if I think about it too much."

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Note: Allison Crowe and her band will perform a free 20-to-30 minute in-store concert at Lyle's Place, 770 Yates St. on Saturday at 3 p.m.

© Copyright 2002, Times Colonist. (Victoria, B.C. Canada)