Much More Than Skin Deep

timthumb3In honour of NZ Music Month, Gary Steel climbs into the crumbling catacombs of his back catalogue, and disinters a different story Every Day In May (EDIM). Today’s piece appeared in The Strip magazine, December 1996.

 

Note: When I wrote this, most of my energy was going into running a quaint record store full of avant-garde electronica, so Annie Crummer definitely wasn’t my thing. But I felt that she deserved fair go, as it was. NZ media can be so mean-spirited at times and so super-aware of whether an artist captures that possibly mythical spirit, the “zeitgeist”. Trend, trend, blah! So that’s why I wrote about Annie.

 

THE RECORD COMPANY promotions assistant is having a hernia. She speaks with a tone hinting at battle fatigue. Annie Crummer, New Zealand’s most accomplished popular singer, has a new album and the media just aren’t interested. They reckon Crummer’s just too ugly. It’s a depressing indictment of New Zealand’s current preoccupation with the superficial, and denies a long history of phenomenally successful stars with unconventional looks, from Dave Dobbyn to Janis Joplin, Meatloaf to Mama Cass. Here’s one for the record: Annie Crummer does not resemble the creature from the black lagoon. Oh, and something else: She’s sexy, vibrant, warm and talented.

Crummer has been around so long on the Kiwi music scene, she’s like part of the landscape. Who could forget the song which put her on the map; her distinctive, wailing contribution to the otherwise best-forgotten Netherworld Dancing Toys hit, ‘For Today’? Or her part in the all-gal conjunction, ‘When The Cat’s Away? In between, that voice infiltrated our living rooms in kazillions of TV jingles, and lent essential back-up to gravel-voiced Jimmy Barnes on numerous hard-rockin’ tours.

There’s more, lots more, but despite her mana in music circles and her high profile work, after more than a decade in the biz Crummer has only now released her second solo album, Seventh Wave. It’s not cutting edge, hip stuff and has no pretenses in that direction. Like her first album, 1993’s Language, Seventh Wave is full of broad strokes, anthemic choruses and those lush pop sounds which Mariah Carey fans love so much. Except it’s better than a dozen Careys, or Houstons, or Estefans, or Dions. This makes it all the more surprising to find Crummer ended up paying money to cut the platinum-selling Language and not making a bean.

“I’ve never made any money,” she says. “In fact, I had to pay thousands and thousands back. I paid $22,000; money I didn’t have. It’s like an overdraft.”

366824The reality of being super-talented in a country like New Zealand hit home, which is why Seventh Wave is being released in a number of different countries with some hope of recouping costs. It all sounds like a huge struggle, but it’s infectious optimism which comes through in conversation with Crummer, who is justly proud of the album. She’s loving her part in the ENZSO concert expedition, and is still reeling from her ecstatic support tour with k.d. lang through Australia. That tour was a major buzz (“She just opens up her mouth and goes blaaah. I asked her how she does that, and she says: ‘Annie, it’s just like surfin’!”), but now she’s got her own album promotions and possible live dates to think about, both her and abroad.

It’s hard to translate Crummer’s conversation, because the way she talks says more than the words she uses. It’s like a flow of hot lava creating its own patterns, its unique emphasis, over the geography. Her reputation as a reticent interviewee proved unwarranted. Today, at least, she seemed relaxed and quite prepared to say what’s on her mind.

The Cook Island-born singer has brought her culture to the fore on Seventh Wave, and she’s happy with the way the elements fused.

“The Island lyrics are done in such a way that my fellow whities can sing along too. I’m into those joyous choruses. I don’t want the cultural thing to seem too threatening to people. People like things which are familiar. There has to be a balance.

“Obviously, I want to say ‘this is where I’m from’, but I also have to take note of what’s happening in today’s world and what I personally like, in a way which is still being respectful to my Polynesian heritage. I must be the only Rarotongan who’s actually gone out and said ‘this is where I’m from’, and I feel a responsibility.”

When I mention the love affair Cook Islanders seem to be having with Westernised candy pap, when they have the produce of paradise on their doorstep, Crummer grows sad.

“I’m disappointed. I’m a hypocrite because I’m exploiting my music to the world, but at the same time I don’t want people to come over and spend their dollars and Westernise my country any more. The local people are so vulnerable. They’ve no idea just how wonderful that place is. Their back and front yards are full of pawpaws and coconut trees, and they can go fishing. It’s paradise, but they drink Coca Cola and can’t wait to go to LA or something.”

hero_thumb_mqdefaultAs for the Mariah Carey comparisons:

“I reckon I sound like a lot of them. I have a familiar voice which can be compared with them, but it’s the Polynesian stamp that moves me a bit to the left and I like that. I’d much rather be looked at like that, rather than plateauing on the same course as everybody else. I need to know I’m a little different; it makes me feel a bit more spesh. There aren’t that many Polynesians (on the international scene). I know, I went out there and had a look!”

Crummer says she has made huge progression in the years between Language and the new album, and getting older has calmed her down.

“I like being older. I’m a lot calmer and more relaxed. I still have my hang-ups, probably because society said ‘you’re supposed to look like this’. Even with the new album, I’m very calmly ecstatic about it! I’ve got a backlog of life behind me. So much so, I can even write about it, because I co-wrote most of the album. Because I’m older, I’ve now gained many other colours of myself, and all those colours are projected on this album. You can see them.”

She’s even learned how to pat herself on the back once in a while: “Like when you’ve remembered something like putting the milk back in the fridge!”

The other half of her songwriting partnership is former Holidaymakers keyboardist Barbara Griffin, and it’s something Crummer’s really getting into.

“I’m not a Neil Finn or a Dave Dobbyn. I’m a singer first, so everything else is a bit of a challenge for me, but I’m really enjoying exploring songwriting. It’s been great collaborating with Barbara. She’s a person I’m not afraid to be a dork in front of. She can tell me ‘Annie, that’s the worst idea you’ve ever come up with’ and we’ll just laugh about it, and she’s an amazing, talented freak. Honestly, she’ll pick up this bag and play it, you know? Because I don’t play an instrument, she was my instrument. We just click; we just talk in eyebrows, and we know just what we’re talking about.”

The most notable outside contribution to the album came from Neil Finn.

“There’s a song written by my Mum and Neil. Through pure persistence and annoyance, I managed to get him to clear out that cleansack and find me a song. I kept on persisting for, like, three years, until he finally finished it. He needed the Island lyrics, one thing he couldn’t do, and that’s where my Mum came in.”

Ultimately, local apathy could drive Annie Crummer to other climes, which she accepts as a possibility.

“I’d love to go and live in Spain! I need to learn another language. I’d also like to get involved in my Scottish heritage and my Chinese. It’s way back, but it’s enough for me to be interested and want to find out about. I’ve been known to wear tartan and tapa at the same time. Confused?” GARY STEEL

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