Rebellious Young Woman
photograph by Jeff Cannon
"I went home unrecognizable, my mother said/ `what happened, you used to be beautiful'/ and I dyed my hair, and I got tattooed/ I let my body be recklessly used," sings the 28-year-old Crowley in the song that lists a litany of rock & roll dalliances including the Grateful Dead and drug addiction. With a transciption of "Rebellious Young Woman," Crowley had her bio written.
Even a publicist couldn't make up a story this compelling. When, mid-song, a friend robs a bank and doles out some loot to Crowley, the story almost turns too good to be true -- too Springsteen for a local singer-songwriter that started this leg of her young career busking on Sixth Street. And yet, it's all true. The rasp of her voice, all over this confessional and the rest of Anchorless is the evidence -- the scar. But if Crowley's already got the voice of experience, why reveal so much so soon? "Why does anybody write songs so personal?" she asks in return. "You just want people to understand you. It's freeing."
Freedom is indeed the theme of the new album. And while its musical diversity duly prevents it from becoming a concept album, Anchorless is clearly a well-sequenced song cycle aimed at airing Crowley's issues: self-doubt ("Anything"), poverty ("Hand to Mouthville"), and pain ("Scars"). The songs are acoustic-based pop songs, both rootsy and straightforward. For women, Crowley believes she represents "the non-threatening, clumsy side." For men, there's just enough Keith Richards swagger to make the songs palatable. And yet, for all its narrative specifics, Crowley says she's comfortable with Anchorless because it stops just short of revealing too much.
"That's the way I am," says Crowley. "I will tell you every detail of my life, but you really have no idea what I'm thinking. That's kind of my shell. Everybody thinks I'm like this really outgoing and open person, and I am, but part of that is just so I really don't have to tell you how I feel."
Just weeks before the album (on the Dallas indie Carpe Diem) is dues in stores, Crowley is quick to tell you she's feeling optimistic. Ideally, she says, the album will get picked up for major-label distribution -- not that far a stretch considering it's a well-produced Dave McNair effort with backing by local studio luminaries like Craig Ross, Rafael Goyel, and Brian Beattie. And yet, with the promise of major-label talent scouts already handicapping Crowley's South by Southwest showcase next week as a must-see, the singer says she's most concerned with proving she's learned something from her past music business near-misses.
Ten years ago, Crowley dropped out of the University of Massachusetts to chase the Los Angeles dream, only to find herself getting more involved with drugs than the music industry. "I was playing and making lots of connections, but sleeping through meetings and not finishing demos... basically screwing up anything I started," she says of the years that laid the inspirational seeds for songs, but yielded no actual records.
After L.A., Crowley returned to her rural Connecticut home to clean up with the help of her mother, a music teacher who'd given her seven-year-old daughter the first taste of performing by bringing her to piano bar gigs. Several years later, in 1992, Crowley chased the New York version of rock stardom, putting together a string of pop and alternative bands, and entering into a production deal with ex-Southside Johnny & the Jukes guitarist Billy Rush that also proved unfruitful. "Before I moved here, I spent like eight years crossing my fingers, and going, `Oh please, if I write good songs it should happen.' Then I realized I was 26 and nobody fucking wants to help me," says Crowley. "I knew it was time to do it myself. That's why I came here."
Shortly after arriving in Austin -- two years ago this month -- Crowley hooked up with another struggling singer-songwriter, Rene Woodward. Together, they played the corners of Sixth Street and made decent money for buskers, partially, admits Crowley, from the novelty of two women playing on the street. "Even if I had a band, I didn't know any clubowners," Crowley says of her decision to busk and hit the open-mike circuits as a solo acoustic act. "But I felt like, even if it was on a street corner, if people would just stop and listen, they'd help me by pointing me in the right direction."
Within six months, those street contacts landed Crowley a Steamboat residency, a backing band, and a circuit of gigs, which included diverse haunts like Antone's, the Hole in the Wall, Stubb's, and Flipnotics. Some positive local press, regional gigs, and the Carpe Diem deal followed relatively quickly; a chain of events that Crowley says is more about her finding a business focus and spending four hours a day on the phone than any real change in musical style or attitude. But Crowley also admits that the primary difference between her Austin efforts and the New York and L.A. attempts is that, even with a backing band, she's finally declared herself a solo artist, first and foremost.
"I'm tired of seeing women get bands together and their second album is a solo record," explains Crowley. "Why didn't they just do that from the beginning? The reason I always kept bands together was that I didn't have the strength inside me to tell everybody, `Let's not pretend. It's not about you guys. It's never going to be, and you're going to hate me until I'm honest about it.' There was always so much resentment in every other band because I was the center of attention and singing so personally about myself. So now I'm done pretending that I'm something that I'm not."
Kacy Crowley's SXSW showcase is Friday, March 14, 10pm, at Ruta Maya Coffee House.