Q&A | Lisa Crawley: Melbourne, Weddings, & Elizabeth

From performing ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ in hotel bars in Japan to sharing the bill with the likes of Paul Weller and Simply Red – and keeping it all oiled with regular gigs moonlighting as a wedding singer – Lisa Crawley’s mastered her own musical destiny from day dot. Having just completed a residency at the renowned Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, she’s about to open, and star in, the stageshow Elizabeth, which she co-wrote with acclaimed Kiwi playwright Rochelle Bright. Sarah checked in with Lisa about being a lady striking out alone, the Melbourne music scene, and her latest single ‘Wedding Band’.

How did the Banff residency come about, and what was it like?
I discovered the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity through a friend who was applying for the jazz residency there – he mentioned there were a number of other residencies and opportunities, across the arts. I checked out what else was coming up and saw that applications had just opened for the singer-songwriter residency. I was one of 24 songwriters from around the world to be accepted, and next thing I knew I was on a lengthy trip to Banff from Melbourne. Going from 25 degrees to -20 was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Elk and deer would come right up to your window and say hello. I felt like I was in my own Narnia.”

The facilities at the Banff Centre are incredible – we were each given an ‘artist hut’ amongst the snow to write and record in, and everything I could have asked for was there. A Steinway grand piano – one of about 90 at the Banff Centre – mics, guitars, and recording interfaces. Elk and deer would come right up to your window and say hello. I felt like I was in my own Narnia, sans the white witch.

Part of the residency includes recording time with Howard Bilerman in the main recording studio, and they organised timpani and tubular bells for my session. There was a faculty onsite featuring various songwriters, predominantly from America, that we could book one on one sessions with to workshop our songs. Our residency also included performance opportunities in the onsite theatre and underground club.

Where did the concept for the narrative come from?
The story for ‘Wedding Band’ came from really wanting to write a song but having done about four weddings – but no funeral! – in a row and having very little creative energy that particular weekend. People say to ‘write what you know’, and although this song very much has a fictional narrative, I could imagine that – if the next few years didn’t go as planned career and relationship-wise – it would be highly unlikely but not impossible that I could end up singing at an ex’s wedding.

We’re booked without people necessarily knowing all the band members, and we often don’t know whose wedding it is till we turn up. So I wrote about it. There are small truths in the song, like travelling and taking a very unpredictable path in pursuing music whilst a large percentage of my peers have steady jobs and are getting married and having kids and things.

I had also been going through my phone, looking at all the footage of outlandish people, funny dancing and stupid comments that I’d filmed knowing it would come in handy for something down the line, and it clicked to put it all together.

You cut the video yourself. Have you worked behind the camera on film-related projects before?
Aside from discussing ideas and concepts with the directors of my previous music videos, I haven’t had any off-camera experience. I really enjoyed filming things that amused me, and filming scenes that I thought might work with the song whilst on holiday in the Philippines. I’ve taken various trips overseas alone, but this was the only time I would allow myself to purchase and use a selfie stick, which I think I managed to avoid being seen in the clip apart from one shot. Please don’t judge.

“I’m so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone, and have a lot more depth as a person because of it.”

My boyfriend Ben Mastwyk was a big help in being patient with my ideas and editing everything together with me on his computer. The clip definitely worked and was a great affirmation that you can create something cool on a literal zero dollar budget. I’d like to do more.

As a woman who’s left her hometown to travel the world, what have been some challenges and highlights you’ve experienced along the way?
I’ve been travelling since the age of 19, and prior to that lived in a bit of a bubble with a comfortable upbringing, with quite extreme ideals that have definitely been challenged. I’m so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone, and have a lot more depth as a person because of it. Since a young age I have had ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression, but they really took their toll when I went to work performing in a Japanese hotel in a remote town, with no English speakers or access to internet or phone signal.

It was literally like Groundhog Day meets Lost in Translation but without Bill Murray, and the added task of dancing to a Japanese version of ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ seven nights a week for four months. That was always followed by playing uber cheese like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in the piano bar later on. Not surprisingly, I went a little nuts. Another challenge was falling in love for the first time in London and coming back to New Zealand halfway through a visa as that person became very unwell. That was probably the hardest thing I’ve been through.

There have, however been tonnes of highlights, the recent Banff residency being one of them. I’ve been lucky to play gigs with some of my favourite artists, and I’m proud, despite the extreme highs and lows, to realise I’ve made a career from music since leaving school, without ever going completely broke – despite having a con artist for a manager for a few years, and a publisher who gave away my songs without my knowledge.

“I’ve made a career from music since leaving school, without ever going completely broke – despite having a con artist for a manager for a few years.”

There have been a tonne of setbacks, but I’ve been pretty adamant about making sure things are put right, and I’ve also been very lucky to have worked as a music mentor around high schools, where I’d learn heaps from working with young, upcoming songwriters.

What advice would you offer to other women wanting to strike out into the great unknown, to make their name in music or otherwise?
It’s a life-changing experience stepping out of your hometown, into that unknown territory. Do your research, don’t worry if no one emails you back – keep persisting. Make sure you understand the practical aspects of what’s involved to make a career around doing what you love.

Live in Ballarat

I need to take my own advice, but it’s a decision to not compare yourself to others and what they’re achieving. If you’re in it for the long haul, don’t worry if what you’re doing doesn’t fit the latest trend – there’ll be a time where you’ll be noticed, and when you are it’ll be because you’ve put in the gruelling work to be really, really good at it. Oh, and don’t trust a manager who can’t spell the word ‘sponsorship’.

What’s the Melbourne music scene like? Who are some other local artists we should look up?
The Melbourne music scene blows my mind. I can see why it’s voted the most ‘liveable city’. There’s something going on every night of the week, an abundance of galleries – so much to do and see, and more often than not it’s free. Some of the main venues I’ve played at are Some Velvet Morning, my favourite little bar in Melbourne; Compass Pizza, where I run a weekly piano karaoke night which is always fun; the Paris Cat – a beautiful, seated cabaret bar with a grand piano; and the Butterfly Club, a very eclectic venue with music and theatre, where I’m about to put on my show for the Fringe Festival.

Some fantastic local artists I highly recommend: Jen Cloher, Ben Mastwyk, Jude Perl, Doc Halibut, The Tarantinos, Mighty Duke and the Lords, Dustin Tebbutt, Oh Pep!, Tinpan Orange, Theme Team, Sweet Jean, Brendan Welch. There’s a very varied bunch of Melbourne talent to start with!

You’re about to open Elizabeth, a stageshow you co-wrote with Daffodils director Rochelle Bright. Can you tell us a bit about the show, and writing and performing it?
Elizabeth is the show I’m collaborating on with Bullet Heart Club – the brilliant duo that are Rochelle Bright and Kitan Petkovski. I wrote about a bunch of stories and memories that I found interesting, funny, strange, and sad while working playing piano and singing in hotel bars – the job I’ve done to pay the bills since I was 17. Rochelle took these stories and did a superb job of turning them into a show incorporating  a selection of my original songs. It’s a fiction but – like Daffodills – a fiction based in truth. There’s a lot that has been either embellished, or toned down.

We’re doing the world premiere of Elizabeth mid-September at the Butterfly Club, for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. There’s a lot of hilarious moments, but also some pretty sad ones. It’s a great mix, as I feel like most of my experiences are either funny or sad in that strange people-watching line of work.

I can’t wait. I haven’t done any acting for a while, and it’s just me out there on stage doing all the narration, characters and music – so it’s a challenge that I can’t wait to embrace and share with others. All going to plan, we’ll be taking Elizabeth to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018.

Lisa Crawley is a Melbourne-based songwriter, performer, and wedding singer. Find her at www.lisacrawley.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.