Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Lisa Crawley is most at home behind the piano, whether she’s performing in music venues, jazz lounges, hotel lobbies or on national television. Together with her natural ear for music and a refreshingly honest onstage presence, she produces heartfelt, authentic pop songs.
Her involvement in music began at a young age. Recorder lessons paved the way for classical training in clarinet and piano; the latter became her main tool for songwriting and performing. She also plays guitar, recorder, melodica, Omnichord and keytar, making her a sought-after session musician.
Lisa Crawley has recorded with Dave McArtney, Greg Johnson, Julia Deans, Annah Mac, Tim Finn, and for the first season of X Factor New Zealand. She was also given the task of transcribing Tim Finn’s demos for his musical Women In Black into sheet music and work-shopping the show with the cast.
While studying at Auckland’s Avondale High School Lisa Crawley joined the band Velez, who then entered the National Battle of the Bands. However, it wasn’t until the band broke up that she began writing songs of her own. As a teenager, Crawley was also passionate about musical theatre, and hoped it to be her future. As she told NZ Musician, at 17 years old she turned down a place at a stage school in Singapore due to the fees. “I was quite distraught and thought that my chances for music were doomed… I learnt that I had to change my idea of success [to] being achieved in small steps.”
Instead, Crawley taught piano for a year after finishing school, before being accepted to study jazz at the University of Auckland. After one year of study she accepted a four-month residency as a singer/entertainer in Atami, Japan, to the dismay of her tutors, who saw promise in her ability to play by ear.
‘Stranger’ won her the Pacific Songwriting competition in 2008.
“It was like a full-on dinner show, with people all sitting down, watching. Seven days a week we’d do two shows each night, and then I’d go and play piano in the lounge later in the evening. It was really cheesy material, like Japanese pop songs,” she told the NZ Herald in November 2011.
When her experience in Japan wrapped up she decided to make the move to London. In order to have a physical product on hand, she recorded and independently released an EP called Shoot The Night (2007) three weeks before the trip. The four-song introductory release included ‘Stranger’, which won her the Pacific Songwriting Competition in 2008, and ‘Trying Out Tonight’, which was accompanied by her first-ever music video. She excitedly printed 2000 copies, of which only a small number actually sold.
An inspiration to Crawley in those early years as a singer-songwriter was US musician Regina Spektor. Crawley told RNZ in 2011, “I’ve admired how she can just use her voice and piano and make an awesome song, and not need a big slick production to write a song that moves people.”
While in the UK, Crawley managed to slot in a few gigs between shifts working for a nightclub. She eventually joined former Goodshirt frontman Rodney Fisher’s band. Leaving and returning to London with a valid visa a year or so later, she picked up gigs as a lounge pianist in hotels including The Ritz, which helped to pay for the recording of her follow-up EP, Hello, Goodbye and Everything In Between (2009).
After returning to New Zealand, Crawley recorded with her live band The Conversations under the production guidance of Ben King (Goldenhorse). The five-track EP was praised for its quirky songwriting and impressive range of vocal tones and emotion.
With a rising profile in New Zealand, Lisa decided to stay put in Auckland. Between gigs she entered into the singing impersonation show Stars in Their Eyes. Her rendition of US songwriter Norah Jones’ ‘Don’t Know Why’ made it into the grand final in June 2009. She was placed second behind Cantabrian mother-of-two Mandy Pickering (who performed as Sarah McLachlan). Crawley’s original work proved more successful, with support slots before international acts John Mayer, Paul Weller and Jools Holland.
Continuing the themes of her second EP, Crawley’s 10-song debut album, Everything That I Have Seen (released October 2011) captured more of her experiences and emotions from her time as a lounge singer in Japan and London, as well as the tragic passing of her boyfriend. “It was literally like Groundhog Day meets Lost in Translation” Crawley told Huffpost, “... 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 über 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.”
The album was recorded and mixed over the period of a year at The Lab Recording Studio in Auckland with Oliver Harmer. As a first, Crawley self-produced the majority of the album, with some assistance from Jol Mulholland, Wayne Bell and Andrew Keoghan (who features on the closing track, ‘We Are Wolves’). The general critical response was positive and the single ‘Leaving’ went on to make the long-list for the 2011 APRA Silver Scroll. On RNZ, Lydia Jenkin aptly described the sound as “Sweet and Sour,” remarking that Crawley “balances personal and beautifully melodic music with stuff that can be quite humorous, quite black humour.”
Off the back of her Scroll nomination, Crawley won the second monthly Wild Card Making Tracks grant, through music discovery website theaudience.co.nz, with her song ‘What Would I Give’. With a $10,000 prize from NZ On Air, she was able to fund her second album. After a few months of pre-production with Djeisan Suskov (Cool Rainbows), Crawley booked two weeks at rural Waiuku studio Revolver to record. “Jason [Djeisan] was really helpful,” she told NZ Musician in 2013. “We have different strengths. I think my strength is more in the melodic things, like arrangements and strings and horns, and he’s really good with the bass and drums
The lyrical subject matter explored her struggles with depression and anxiety, motivating the album name All in My Head. “There’s a song called ‘Imagination’ and I thought about calling it that, but then I noticed that the lyric ‘all in my head’ had come up in a few songs and seemed to be a theme,” Crawley explained to NZ Musician. “I guess it’s like Ladyhawke calling her album Anxiety. It’s a similar kind of thing. Like imagining the worst case scenario too much, thinking the worst. There are a couple more happy songs than on my last album I think, so [I’m] getting there, slowly.”
Released in September 2013, All In My Head also included re-arranged versions of her previously released songs ‘Trying Out Tonight’ and ‘Stranger’. The end result was a more confident and focused piece of work with 1960s pop flavours scattered throughout. The response was equally as positive, with music writer Simon Sweetman calling it a “star-making record”.
Crawley made the move to Melbourne to mine new opportunities.
Commenting on the leap between Crawley’s first and second albums, NZ Musician’s Richard Thorne noted that Everything that I Have Seen “rather disappointingly had the sense of just mopping up various old and familiar songs about past relationships. Arriving just nine months later, All in My Head is a much smarter album.”
Following the release of All in My Head, Crawley made the move to Melbourne to mine new opportunities, and work the plethora of live venues. “It hasn’t been all that easy,” she told the NZ Herald. “You work hard and you build connections after being in a place so long, so having to start somewhat from scratch is a challenge. But for the time I’ve been here, I think it’s gone well. And a lot of people go to gigs here, even during the week… the community of musicians has been great.”
Despite the initial struggle, by 2015 Crawley had created enough networks to lay down a five-track EP in her new home country. Up in the Air was recorded in Melbourne with Australian producer Ryan Ritchie – known for his ARIA winning work with Kimbra. The EP was met with glowing reviews, with NZ Musician commenting “This should have been an album.”
Crawley’s consistent touring saw her regularly return to New Zealand – including gigs with Simply Red and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – as well as bookings in Tokyo and LA. Then in 2017, she travelled to Canada to take up the artist residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, which included studio time, peer workshops and access to engineers. “We were each given an ‘artist hut’ amongst the snow to write and record in,” Crawley told Huffpost, “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.” It was a productive time for the multi-instrumentalist, the fruits of which included ‘You Got Me’, ‘Wedding Band’ and ‘It’s Fine’ – three singles, equal parts dreamy and moody.
Recently, Crawley has utilised her vocal talents for musical theatre – her long abandoned teenage dream. Taking on the alter ego of “Elizabeth”, Crawley collaborated with theatre makers Bullet Heart Club for her own one woman show – a cabaret that mixed live performance with story-telling to explore the strange world of a showgirl.
As with all of Crawley’s work, her show Elizabeth juggled both light and dark moments with honesty and charm. Reflecting the Me Too Movement of the time, the show touched on the vulnerability of a lone female singer, in a room of drunk businessmen.
“It wasn’t very pleasant,” she told RNZ in 2018. “I had to really affirm that I am good at what I did and I did deserve to be there. That’s been the case for a lot for women doing original music in New Zealand and worldwide as well. I’ve lost opportunities from potential people for not following through with their agenda and things, and you have to really remind yourself that you’re good at what you do, and that’s sort of what Elizabeth is about as well – remembering the positive things, despite some challenging moments.”
Crawley hit the ground running with a strategic move to LOS ANGELES and a number of new releases.
Elizabeth debuted at the 2017 Melbourne Fringe to positive reviews (“an exquisite show” – Australian Arts Review), before featuring in the Wellington Fringe Festival the following year. This foray into theatre primed Crawley to take on a lead role in Once: the Musical in early 2019.
Upon returning to her day job as a singer-songwriter, Crawley hit the ground running with a strategic move to LA and a number of new releases. A writing session with prolific LA producer Rob Kleiner – whose client list includes Sia and Kylie Minogue – resulted in two new tracks, ‘The Best Thing in the Room’ and ‘Tragedy Boy’. The former gained local publicity through a quirky music that played off the neo-groove sound, as well as featuring on the Official NZ Music Chart “Ones to Watch” list.
In late 2019, Crawley released Songs I Like But Did Not Write Vol.1, a collection of some of her favourite tracks, re-imagined in her typical style of smooth keys and emotive vocals. This five-track cover EP was another product of her jam-packed time at Canada’s Banff Centre: “It was 11:30pm, I’d just finished filming a music video and demoing about 10 new songs in the studio. I had half an hour left and I didn’t want to make the most of it, so recorded my late night versions of songs I like, but did not write.”
Despite the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Crawley still found a way to stay productive. In April 2020, she released the official video for ‘Show You What Love Is’ as a montage of clips from her friends, family and fans finding joy despite the isolation.
Although the track was recorded with Rob Kleiner and Rich Jacques before the worldwide standstill, the song’s message of “wanting to let some light in during dark times” was apt. Crawley found her light through performing live via social media and working on a new album at home, with the added boost of ‘Best Thing in the Room’ being shortlisted for the 2020 APRA Silver Scroll. The positivity and creativity Crawley displayed throughout the pandemic certainly seems reflective of her journey as a musician – always imaginative, always open-minded and always a survivor.
Updated by Rosie Howells, 2020