Name: Lisa Crawley
Nationality: New Zealand
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Lisa Crawley's EP Looking For Love (In A Major), is out July 23 via her own bandcamp store.
Recommendations: I've had my friend Aaron Embry's album Tiny Prayers on repeat. He's one of my new favourite pianists/ songwriters.
For a book, I'll mention the one I talked about before - my friend Adam Houghtaling's, 'This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music.' I had the accompanying Spotify playlist of the 'Top 100 saddest songs' turned up on full volume from the booth during the fight scenes of Godzilla Vs Kong when working part time at a drive-in cinema. It was quite beautiful.
If you enjoyed this interview with Lisa Crawley, the ideal point of departure into her world is her official website. That said, she is also on Facebook, Instagram and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first started writing lyrics around the age of fourteen or fifteen, unless you count me rewriting lyrics about animal rights to Alanis Morrisette's 'Ironic' for a Greenpeace competition at the age of 10! I started reading music at the age of four when I began recorder classes and never stopped. I played keyboards in a rock band throughout high school but was a little self-conscious about my lyrics, but our lead singer heard one of my original songs and encouraged me to try and write more for the band. I played a lot of music growing up in church - I would stand there behind the person doing the sermon and play ambient music in the background which gave me the skills to be the musical wallpaper you hear in hotel lobbies and bars which funded my first few recordings.
I was drawn to music by both the technical and emotional aspects of it. The way that a truck reversing sounded like a slightly off high D on the descant recorder, the way that a chord change or pedaling bass note gives me goosebumps and the way that writing a song helped me (and still helps me) understand what I actually think or feel about something.
I grew up listening to a lot of show tunes, a bit of punk/rock, 90s R&B and whatever easy listening or jazz CD my parents were playing in the background when they had friends over.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I grew up wanting to be a musical theatre performer so in my early teens I spent a lot of time working towards that and took classical voice lessons. But when doing my singing exams, I always leaned towards the pop pieces and didn't enjoy the operatic side as much, although I had a huge appreciation for the the technicality and discipline that requires.
I ended up going to jazz school for a while instead of doing jazz dancing on Broadway, and because of the ten thousand or so hours in hotels, my voice was definitely influenced by jazz artists.
Being a versatile vocalist who loves a lot of styles is great, especially for session work, but singing my own songs in 'my own' voice is very important to me and of course I'm forever evolving, but I try my best to take all those influences and experiences and tell my stories in my own voice.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
When I was younger I think it stopped me from saying things as honestly as I do now. I was extremely worried about offending people in my songs, would sugar coat things and tend to compensate sad lyrics with a happy melody. But now I like to think I would do that as a creative decision rather than a default.
The last year has taught me that my creativity certainly influenced my identity - a little too much perhaps. I've enjoyed figuring out who else I am outside of being a musician and songwriter.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
One of my biggest challenges when I first started gigging and releasing music was what box I fitted into. I worried that I was too alternative for the pop radio stations and 'too poppy' for the indie ones, and same with what kind of gigs I did or allowed myself to do. It didn't mean that I changed what I did, I just worried a lot. I'm still very good at worrying about things but less so about that. I've gotten over worrying about not being 'trendy' enough and I'm pretty content just doing what I do, as long as I think my songs are getting stronger over time, then I'm happy.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I'd say about 80% of songs I've written have started on the piano, it's always been my go to.
When I did my first EP in 2007, my recording process was not one I repeated because I learned some harsh lessons! I recorded the piano and vocal first and tried to work the bass and drums around it afterwards and it wasn't done to a click. The engineer who came on board helped me piece it together. But, I learnt from that mistake and went on to record with a full band in a big studio altogether over the course of a week or so.
Over the last five years due to my home setup I've mostly worked in rooms with just an an engineer/producer or hired people.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
My trusty Q-chord and omnichords have played an important part in a lot of my songs both playing live and composing. They introduced me to the idea of writing to (very retro) beats which was a nice stepping stone for me getting more into Logic Audio and to the concept of composing the music and coming up with a 'feel' before lyrics.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I've been grateful to have a very talented network of friends, producers and composers. I love having different line ups for different occasions. A large amount of time I gig alone, but other times I'm lucky to work with a full band, sometimes it could be me on keys and vocals joined by three trombones. One of my most memorable gigs was hearing the Auckland Symphony Orchestra join me for a song I arranged to perform with them. Other times, and more so over the last year or two out of necessity, I've worked and recorded a lot remotely, whether that's bouncing ideas, clarinet melodies or concepts online.
My last few releases have been co writes with one of my regular collaborators Rob Kleiner. If we're working together it will be in his studio where we discuss concepts and melodies and usually write and record the whole song in a day. It’s a nice contrast to other songs that I have sent myself to write alone the other side of the world in -31 degree snow!
I'm more excited about collaborating than ever. I love how it gets me out of my head and I often work best when there's a deadline involved.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My morning rituals involve a cup of coffee and spending twenty minutes drinking that while watching a New Zealand TV show that many of my friends and myself have acted in online - let's just say it doesn't have the highest IMDB rating but I find it entertaining and it helps me feel a little less homesick.
A couple of days I have piano or songwriting students I teach online, and a couple of writing sessions per week. I get out and hike or exercise as much as possible when I don't have musical commitments throughout the day.
I try to spend at least an hour a day at the piano for my own songwriting purposes (more is ideal). I do around two original shows a month and as things are opening up, have a weekly Monday residency show at the San Vicente Bungalows and play piano at various functions at least one other night a week.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Performing as 'GIRL' in the musical "Once in New Zealand" was a real highlight in my career as a performer and musician. That was in 2019 and I worked hard to get the role. I could relate to the character well - we are both in a foreign countries and not having enough money to buy your dream piano, but having a lot of passion and song ideas. I'd been a huge fan of the movie and music in it since it came out in 2007.
Performing my own songs with the Auckland Symphony was also a huge highlight for me, particularly the song I spent a bit of time writing the arrangement for. Those bassoon lessons in high school paid off after all.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The last year I have lived in a tiny studio but it's forced me to get outside and explore Los Angeles which has led to me walking more than ever which I've learnt is vital for me in clearing my head and allowing for creativity and song inspiration.
As someone who is often performing music five nights a week, going from that to no live gigs throughout the pandemic was confronting and a struggle. Being a completely DIY musician, the distractions and time consuming nature of social media and necessary admin work can get a bit depressing, particularly as they often lead to unhelpful comparisons when given too much time and attention. I try to set aside time to write, to eat, to worry, to forget, to learn and to forget.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I can't help but transcribe the melodies in my head. I find it hard to relax when there’s music playing somewhere where while I'm meant to lie down or sit still and ‘relax’.
I am currently living with a condition called Patulous Eustachian Tube where I hear my own voice and sounds really loudly (autophony) and my ear distorts when I sing which has been very stressful. I have hyper sensitive hearing so my neighbours TV drives me insane and keeps me awake despite earplugs. I probably should be living out in the country rather than an apartment in Hollywood. Even with these setbacks, music has been way more healing than a hindrance in so many ways - whether it's a clever lyric, a beautiful string arrangement or an unexpected harmony someone comes up with … the joy that brings outweighs the stress that day to day sound has for me.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Understanding the difference of cultural appreciation vs appropriation is very important. The more countries I've lived in and places I've travelled to, the more I have tried to self-reflect and examine my own culture and that's taught me more about respecting the limits of copying and using signs and symbols that don't belong to me. Listening to other people's stories and understanding the implications behind aspects of cultures has definitely broadened my horizons and made me a more compassionate, educated person which will hopefully reflect in my songs.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
When people talk or my cat meows, I hear musical notes. Certain chords and notes for me overlap with touch, smell and taste. My favourite key is D flat, it is so much warmer and emotional for me than C major. I don't know why.
The opposite of synesthesia is anesthesia (having no sensation), and weirdly I've been anesthetized twice in the last few years for surgery to HELP my ears. It's all a bit beyond me but I know that whenever I play a game of air hockey I think of the note Eflat, because when the puck hit the striker when I played a game on a date, I couldn't help but be distracted thinking of my favourite songs in E flat. I think I still won though.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I ultimately strive to write about things I care about, songs that challenge people - or to find out what I was really thinking about something that I perhaps struggled to articulate.
Since I was eight I've called up fast food companies and asked what kind of oil they use, or make up companies to ask if they test on animals, and although I don't have too many songs about beef fat, my first song was an animal rights song which encouraged people not to litter. Perhaps I need to go back and co-write with my younger self, that girl had no filter!
I want my songs to mean something to people, but at times I'll try to calm my own mind by writing something less serious and that doesn't necessarily have a big social or political message, but as a person and artist I stand up for what I believe in as much as possible which hopefully people are drawn to and respect.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I read my friend's book "This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music" while working, singing and playing piano on a cruise ship. It helped my brain cope with having to sing certain kinds of songs that required a smile seven nights a week.
I experienced the death of someone very close to me. They weren't a ‘musician’ but told they could hear music as they were about to pass away. I spent a long time wondering what that song sounded like for them. My contribution to the funeral was choosing the music - the songs I chose we were ones I knew they loved. A couple in the playlist allowed me to say the things that I perhaps couldn't in person.
I can't express how often the right song, whether it's a joyful one you're singing along to in the car with a friend or a song full of sorrow, has allowed me to say the right thing when the words weren't there.