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Lisa Crawley adds another string to her bow with Once, the musical

Lisa Crawley. Photo/Frances Carter/Supplied

The chance to fulfil her teen dream of being in musical theatre has drawn Lisa Crawley home from her overseas career.

About a year ago, Lisa Crawley was at a songwriting festival in Hawaii, watching the house band keeping up with Kenny Loggins. Crawley had maxed out her credit card to attend the small conference, which offered her a chance to do some industry networking in between sightseeing on the Big Island.

But the band were young. They didn’t know how to play Loggins’ 1984 original soundtrack hit for the film Footloose, so Crawley jumped up on stage and bashed out the opening chords. The band followed her lead. The stylishly bearded Loggins muttered, “Hey, okay”, then launched into the song that possibly still haunts Footloose star Kevin Bacon’s nightmares.

She saw Loggins in the hotel the next morning and he was impressed she knew the song well enough to join him on stage. Crawley didn’t let on she knew it from her days playing golden oldies at wedding receptions. But she’s added it to her ever-growing CV: “Played keys for Kenny Loggins.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“It’s all about perception when you’re a self-managed artist,” she explains.

Perception’s one thing, brave is another. Since leaving Avondale College, Crawley has forged a music career by taking on whatever projects she’s needed to keep paying the rent and keep travelling.

In between her solo recording career of three EPs and two albums in the past 10 years, there have been jobs such as the five-star hotel in Japan where she sang the same songs for four hours every night, seven days a week for four months. She’s played in covers bands, including the session band for New Zealand’s Got Talent. And there’s been voiceover work, acting in adverts and teaching piano at a Jewish school in Melbourne.

It’s telling that the day we meet in downtown Auckland for coffee and a chat, two people from different parts of the music industry tell me they think the 32-year-old is one of the hardest-working musicians they know. “She makes music work for her” is the line that sticks.

Crawley is back in New Zealand because she’s about to add another string to her bow: musical theatre. She’s one of the two leads in a local production of Once, the hit stage musical of the 2007 Irish movie.

Crawley’s role as a classically trained Czech pianist who becomes a muse to a talented but disillusioned Dublin busker seems a brave first professional role in a stage musical. It involves having to act, play and sing on stage, the performance including the duet Falling Slowly, which won the 2008 best song Oscar for its writers and original performers, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.

She has already performed the song on stage, albeit as the shadowy backing singer to New Zealand’s Got Talent finalist Dudley Fairbrass in 2012. And it’s come up in her human-jukebox cabaret act where she uses her repertoire of 1200-plus songs to accompany amateur audience members.

“Yes, I’m very aware of that song. I’ve played it for a lot of people,” she says, including some guy in Colorado who was rude to her beforehand. “And then I still had to play it for him after he’d insulted me.”

To get the Once role, she sent a tape, then eventually auditioned via Skype during a sub-zero Colorado January, enlisting the cellist from the next-door cabin to read lines for her.

Performing the song on stage in Auckland during the two and a half week run will be something special for a woman who, as a teenager, was desperate for a career in musical theatre. But her first return to New Zealand in five years is also the chance to finish an album she started in the US earlier this year.

To accompany her new portfolio of tunes, a solid base back in Auckland also means a ready-made backing band and production crew, including cousin Mark Perkins (better known as solo act Merk), Cass Basil, Tom Healy and Alex Freer from Tiny Ruins, and producer Alistair Deverick.

At the end of last year, Perkins, Healy and Deverick combined to help produce the single Baby It’s Fine, a sultry piece of indie pop that features Crawley’s smoky vocals, glacial synths and a beautifully smooth clarinet solo. It’s a seriously bold step for an artist who readily admits to having felt “sheepish” about her own quirky songwriting style in earlier days. But being brave is something at which Crawley seems to excel.

Once, ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, from June 27-July 14.

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.