Young Allison Crowe at home, rehearsing, by Adrian du Plessis
"SOULFUL. ALIVE. JOYOUS. GRIEVOUS. REAL, TRUE, MUSIC is what I want to make," says Allison Crowe.
It’s a simple goal, articulated near the turn of this millennium when the musician ventured from her birth-place, Nanaimo, to launch a national, now international, career after half-a-dozen years of gigging up and down Vancouver Island.
The story begins typically enough with signs of a precocious talent, an exceptional vocal instrument, and a transcendent gift for communicating through song. Augmenting school band training and classical piano and voice lessons with concert performances, by age 16 Crowe was a popular performer on stage at Java Jam coffee-house in Qualicum Beach, and Nanaimo live music institutions, Katz lounge and the Queen’s rock club.
Audiences, and media attention, grew with her reputation. Once Allison Crowe began performing on BC’s mainland and across the border in Washington state, record industry players made the scene – transparently, their focus more on pigtails than polyphony.
In 2003, Allison Crowe was being courted by, and rejecting, the mainstream record industry for the last time. She’d flown to New York City to meet with label execs ostensibly testing the waters for her debut album. Housed in $10,000-a-month Chelsea digs feet away from a new recording studio, beach-combing on weekends in the Hamptons, the lure for a young artist, (still living in her parents’ basement back in Canada), seemed irresistible - to the suitors.
Confident and, at times, remarkably candid, over a nine-month period Crowe’s would-be partners revealed how things work. A score of writers, musicians, producers, media coaches and more would team up to forge a natural image and sound. Songs, ghost-written or otherwise, would receive airplay through services of shadowy middle-men with connections to radio conglomerates. There’d be songs placed in Hollywood movies and opening slots on tours with big-name acts. These high-profile spots would come through payments of many thousands of dollars to a network of studios, agents, lawyers and other players – and billed back to the recording artist.
“They’re not looking for talent. They’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate… As long as they look good, they can pitch-correct them now, they can interior-decorate their music. The artists don’t have to play anything, - they can cheat, buy songs and put their name on them, so they can build the illusions that they are creative. And because [the record companies] made you, they can kiss you off."
This assessment of the modern record business, courtesy of Joni Mitchell, (interviewed by W magazine), reflects a basic truth. You play the game, or it’s no deal. (Famously, in the mid-’90s, Texas-born Michelle Shocked gained release from a contract after suing her record label, citing a violation of civil liberties under the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution – the Amendment which prohibits slavery).
It’s difficult to imagine top-calibre athletes acceding to Olympic or major league imperatives that dictate: “You’re among the world’s fastest, strongest, the most talented and inspiring in your field. You’re welcome to play in our arena - as long as you’re willing to take steroids, be part of a rigged competition… and hand your earnings to a mobster”. In popular music, artists or their handlers enter into such a pact routinely.
Allison Crowe’s New York residency in mid-2003
wrote the final chapter of that courtship. She
walked away from her life’s dream. At least,
that’s how it appeared from the outside. Leaving
the Big Apple and discarding the core illusions
was, she says, easy. She’d never join what Joni
Mitchell refers to
as the industry’s “style inventions”. Back home in Nanaimo, though, she faced a real puzzle: “Now, what?”
Following the lead of Ani DiFranco (Righteous Babe), and Loreena McKennitt (Quinlan Road), Crowe launched her own label, Rubenesque Records Ltd. Janis Ian, the writer of “At Seventeen”, “Society’s Child” and other classic songs spanning 40 years, was found online – pioneering the use of the internet by recording artists.
"If you are disgustingly sincere and terribly
diligent, there are ways for any serious artist to
operate outside the corporate structure." Ani
DiFranco’s words of assurance are a blueprint, but
each must find their own way to build success. For
Crowe her career cornerstones include a singular
ability to communicate live, without any enhancement, and, an affinity for computers and the web.
Against the backdrop of NYC’s Code Orange “terror” alerts, she released, via the internet, a song for peace, “Whether I’m Wrong”. Before 2003 was out it featured on the website of UNESCO-endorsed New Songs for Peace Project. More songs uploaded travelled the world to overwhelmingly positive response.
Crowe, like Janis Ian, discovered that making
music freely available online, reciprocally,
increases sales of physical CDs (and, even, of
digital downloads). With the emergence of
YouTube, music videos further expand a global
presence. Crowe’s interpretation of Leonard
Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, recorded for under $100, has
been viewed over four million times. More than
200,000 people each month tune in her video
channel’s range of original performances and
interpretations of songs from such favourites as
Cohen, Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Tori Amos, The
Beatles, Pearl Jam and Counting
Bolstered by social media, between 2003 and 2008, Rubenesque released six critically and commercially successful albums: Lisa’s Song + 6 Songs; Secrets; Tidings; Live at Wood Hall; This Little Bird; and Little Light. A seventh album/CD, Spiral, is in the works.
Concert tours are now arranged largely through research and contacts online - especially in Europe where Crowe performs regularly, making the trans-Atlantic hop from Corner Brook, NL, her second home since 2006.
When Crowe comes to the Pender Islands Community Hall this month (November 27) she’ll celebrate the holiday season with her Tidings concert repertoire. Characteristically, it’s an idiosyncratic blend of rock, jazz, folk and traditional Christmas carols.
"Be prepared to be amazed," chimes ChristmasReviews.com
That’s a good goal, too.
Live at NYC's Laurie Beechman Theatre, by Ben Strothmann
Pender Island, Canada, by Billie Woods