Hit or miss

Down in Austin, the little music city that thinks it's bigger than it is, thousands of musicians get up every morning and think to themselves, Today will be the day. They subscribe to the myth as common to rock and roll as the music itself: The poor saps actually believe that if they play the clubs, create a buzz, and maybe make an indie record, it will pave the way to that big-time record deal. That is why they move to Austin, a town that sells the myth in its tourist brochures.

There are the lucky few who manage to turn a little Sixth Street success into a record deal, but that only goes on to create a whole different fantasy: You get signed for a sweet advance, make a record (good or bad, it hardly matters), get tagged as a label priority, find a heavy-hitting manager, tour incessantly, get on radio and MTV, and become a star. Of course, chances are today's label deal means tomorrow's day job. Ask every musician in Austin; you can find them behind the counter at a local record store, buying back their old major-label records for a buck apiece.

But do not tell this to Kacy Crowley, yet one more Austin-based singer-songwriter this close to waking up in a dream--and yet this far from the place where myth becomes gold-spun reality.

Crowley landed in Austin in early 1995 after knocking around Los Angeles, her native Connecticut, and New York City, where she wrote songs, played the clubs, and recorded demos in hopes of landing a record deal; hers was the usual routine of a performer with ambition bigger than her hometown. Within weeks after arriving in Texas, she started playing on the sidewalks of Austin's bustling Sixth Street strip--during the annual South by Southwest music festival no less, when the streets are jam-packed with people rushing from here to there, paying no mind to street-corner distractions. Yet not long afterward, she was heard by a local music scribe, who recommended her to the owner of Steamboat, a Sixth Street rock club.

"I just started from scratch, playing open mikes, making friends," Crowley recalls now of her first days in Austin. "It was really inspiring. It just reminded me of why I got into music in the first place, and I was not so worried about the business end of it. But at the same time, I started reading books about the music business and actually really focusing on the business end."

Soon enough, she was playing with a band at Steamboat and the famed Antone's nightclub. Her drummer then hooked her up with the Dallas-based indie Carpe Diem, which has released albums by Cafe Noir and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. Label owner Allen Restrepo liked Crowley's demos enough to call and offer her a deal, sight unseen. An album, Anchorless, was made for about $20,000 with the aim of trying to sell it to the majors. Restrepo took it to Los Angeles to shop it to a slew of labels, and after his second day there, he called Crowley and told her to fly out to the coast and start meeting with Atlantic Records. Island Records also came to the table and hooked her up with Lookout Management, which lists Neil Young among its clients.

By SXSW '97, all the other labels who didn't first hear Crowley's potential crowded her showcase performance. She signed with Atlantic, and the tale of how Atlantic's guru Ahmet Ertegun wooed her away from Island was only recently recounted by Island's founding father, Chris Blackwell, in a profile on Ertegun in Vanity Fair--indeed, it led off the story. Blackwell said he respected Ertegun too much to get in his way of signing an artist he liked; Crowley was Ahmet's for the taking.

In July 1997, Crowley was favorably mentioned by Time magazine in one of those perennial women-in-rock features, coinciding with last year's Lilith Fair tour. (Christopher John Farley referred to Crowley as "another one to watch [with a] confident debut.") When Atlantic rereleased Anchorless last fall, the label crowed about how she was going to become a "priority" artist.

But since then, Crowley has yet to meet those very great expectations. Have you heard of her?

Of course, Crowley insists this is part of the plan--they always do. Better to rise slow than to fall fast, she will explain; better to build a sturdy career than one that could collapse at any moment. And she has a point: After yesterday, no one will remember Natalie Imbruglia. She came from nowhere, and she will return there even faster. Crowley, who shares a label with Tori Amos and Jewel, has a good idea about the tenuousness of fame.

"It's going slow, but I want it to go like that," she says. "It's nice and slow, and that's natural. Some things will be a phenomenon, and some things will not be right away. I think my thing is pretty organic, and it's gotta jell a little with people. And that's exactly how I want it to be."

And getting as far as she has in such little time in Austin keeps Crowley encouraged. Singing and playing music since she was a kid in Trumbull, Connecticut--her mother teaches piano and guitar--Kacy began writing songs after she became an avid rock fan in her teens. She dropped out of college to follow the Grateful Dead, and then headed to Los Angeles to become a star, all of which she recounts in her song "Rebellious." ("Then the Grateful Dead came to me like a wave on the air/I didn't shave my legs for at least two years.")

For a brief while, it seemed as though she might make a go of the music business while in L.A.; but the connections she made didn't mean much when she wouldn't show up for meetings with music-business folks.

"I was basically just doing drugs and drinking constantly," she says of her days in L.A. "But I lived through it, and eventually moved back to Connecticut and got my shit together, got clean and sober."

She began playing around Connecticut, cut some tracks with former Asbury Jukes guitarist Billy Rush, and eventually moved to New York City to play the circuit and work the industry there. "I'd been in New York for like three years and was basically really miserable," Crowley recalls. "It was fun for a while. I'd been waitressing, and I was seeing how all the people I knew were kind of stuck. It was like there's so much stimulation in New York that you don't have to make any change to yourself. It was like, I need to get out of here and make something happen for myself. My husband is a writer and an actor, and we'd both been equally trying to do it. And we just decided that we had to really work collectively to get one of us ahead, and it seems like my window of opportunity is right now."

So they loaded up their stuff in a truck and headed to Austin. They briefly considered returning to L.A., but Crowley was burned out by the music business. She chose Austin because her brother lives there and because, as she says now, she wanted an "earth-crunchy" kind of place, a town with a music scene that felt more like a community. And perhaps she felt like after New York and Los Angeles, she might well become a big fish in Town Lake; in Austin, it seems, everyone is famous for at least one record. (Just ask Sincola.)

But even though Crowley is one of those rare artists among countless local wannabes who actually came to Austin and found a little gold in the water, it's as much a result of her own growth and attitude as the place where she did it. In Los Angeles and New York, she was unfocused and unsure of her music; she was lost in the big city, drowned out by all the noise. Her move to Austin coincided with her decision to focus on writing and recording--the idea of waiting tables for the rest of her life scared her straight.

"I lived a lot of life, and I really had to live it all," she offers, finding the good in her wasted years in L.A. and New York. "It's like, I wouldn't take back any of those times. But I wouldn't wish them on anyone else, and if it was my kid going through it, I'd be having a heart attack. I still think about things I did and get a little nervous, like, Oh, my God, I can't believe I didn't get killed."

Those times of struggle inform such songs on Anchorless as "Hand To Mouthville," "Scars," and "Rebellious," the last of which sounds like a potential youth radio anthem. With an alt-pop vocal insouciance a la Alanis Morissette or Meredith Brooks--yet, at the same time, with a Rickie Lee Jones-like sophistication in her approach--Crowley's debut disc could win over listeners to both modern-rock radio and the more mature adult album-alternative format, much like her fellow Austinite Abra Moore managed to do over the last year with the single "Four Leaf Clover."

Crowley likes to say that she's "the rawest form" of singer-songwriter--someone not schooled as a musician, who plays by intuition instead of training. Indeed, Anchorless' great charm lies in the fact that it's a beautiful rock and roll record, somewhere between silk and steel.

"I'm really just following my heart and some sort of rhythmic sense that is in my subconscious," she explains. "It's kind of the way I just filter my thoughts. I consider myself a singer-songwriter, but I don't think I would do either one without the other. I need both, because it stimulates something inside of me, and makes me feel like I'm on the right path somehow."

And if that path is a bit more winding than perhaps she or the label expected, then that is fine with her; after all, overnight success does not come to those who work at it for years. She compares it to a high school student who dreams of becoming a doctor but can't get into medical school, even though the student might have good grades; she wonders how frustrating it would be for that kid to discover he or she would never become a doctor. If nothing else, Crowley got to make a record for a major label that allows her to write, record, and tour. For how long? It doesn't really matter.

"I've waited to have this life for so long," she says. "I really felt like I had everything in place. Of course, I look back now and see that I didn't have everything in place, though I thought I did. I couldn't get into med school, but I'm finally through it, and I'm getting to lead the daily life of touring and promotion. I feel grateful, and I know how lucky I am.

"I wanted to get from A to Z without doing the whole alphabet, and I just decided I had to enjoy the process as much as the getting there. Because you don't ever get there. What do you wait for? A Grammy? That's your big moment, and then it's over? You have to enjoy the writing and all of that stuff, or otherwise it's not worth anything."

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Rob Patterson