When Annie Crummer was two years old, her parents would hear her singing to herself before going to sleep at night. “Don’t interfere,” her father Will would say to Annie’s mother, Tangi. “It’s in her.”
It had been in Will too. Growing up in the Cook Islands, the youngest of 11 children, he was inspired by the sound of his mother’s singing – “she had the loudest voice in church” – and had become a singer himself. His favourite place to sing was at the top of a coconut tree, where the entire village of Turangi in Rarotonga (the biggest island in the Cook Islands group) would hear him. In his teens he entered and won many of the island’s talent quests. Sometimes the prize was money, sometimes it was a pig. He memorised hundreds of island songs, while modelling his vocal style on the smooth American singers he heard on the radio: Tony Bennett, Jim Reeves, Pat Boone.
In the early 60s, Will left his island paradise to pursue opportunities in New Zealand, recording two albums of Rarotongan songs for Viking Records before settling down in West Auckland with his Tahitian wife Tangi to raise a family, supporting them by working as a concrete finisher.
Recognising in his daughter Annie the same passion for singing that had driven him as a young man, he taught her songs – island tunes and popular songs of the day – and how to invest them with feeling.
When she was eight, he took her to Dame Sister Mary Leo, the nun famous for training some of the world’s greatest sopranos, including Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa. Annie lasted just one lesson. After hearing Annie’s spirited rendition of Donny and Marie Osmond’s ‘I’m Leaving It All Up To You’, Sister Mary determined that this singer’s future didn’t lie in opera.
Though shy by nature, joking that she remembers people by their shoes because she spent so such time with her eyes cast down, Annie began to enter junior talent quests around Auckland, most of which she won.
In 1975 she was invited to join a troupe of child entertainers managed by Lou Clauson, of 60s musical-comedy duo Lou and Simon. For the next three years she would spend all her holidays performing, usually in shopping malls.
Two months after turning 15 she left Avondale High School, knowing that singing would be her life. She began doing floorshows – featured singing spots – in South Auckland nightclubs such as Cleopatra’s and Casper’s, and downtown at The Pepper Mill. An appearance on televised talent show The Threshold Promotion Company brought her to national attention, and led to the recording of her first single, ‘Once Or Twice’, which reached No.16 in 1981 – before her 16th birthday.
By this time she had come to the attention of Murray Grindlay, formerly of The Underdogs and now the country’s leading writer and producer of radio and television jingles. For the next few years she sang on countless commercials, alongside prominent voices-for-hire such as Suzanne Lynch and Bunny Walters.
“Jingles, You get to play characters with your voice. And no one’s gonna see how stupid you look doing this.”
“Jingles, you get to act,” Annie told North and South’s Tim Wilson a few years later. “You don’t have to sing like you sound. One day you can go in and you have to be like a nun. The next day … you have to be like a man. You get to play characters with your voice. And no one’s gonna see how stupid you look doing this.”
Fried chicken, ice blocks, banks, fitness programmes … her voice would help advertise them all. But the next glimpse the general public would see of the singer was in 1985, when she featured on the Netherworld Dancing Toys hit ‘For Today’, and in its much-aired video. The soul-infatuated Dunedin band had recorded the single in Wellington with producer Nigel Stone, who encouraged the group to use Annie on the song. Annie’s cameo stole the show, and people began to ask when she would be making another record of her own.
During this time, most of the major record labels in New Zealand approached her with offers, but Annie’s next recordings were as part of a group. Formed in 1986, When The Cat’s Away brought together five female singers: Annie, Debbie Harwood, Kim Willoughby, Margaret Urlich and Dianne Swann. The idea was that the group would be a brief and enjoyable break from their respective solo careers, but it quickly took on a life of its own with their good-humoured, eclectic live shows.
In 1987 they released a live album and two singles. But it was their third single ‘Melting Pot’ – a cover of Blue Mink’s 1970 recipe for racial harmony – that was their commercial triumph, reaching No.1 in early 1989, as the Cats were packing out houses all over the country. Annie co-produced the single with Ross McDermott.
Around this time she also visited the Cook Islands for the first time. “As soon as I arrived I rang my parents and told them, ‘Now I know exactly what you have been talking about all these years!’” Over the years she would return there for spiritual succour whenever she could.
In 1990 Annie toured as a featured backing singer with Jimmy Barnes. When The Cat’s Away continued to perform sporadically until 1991, when Dianne Swann left for England to form The Julie Dolphin and the rest returned to their solo pursuits.
Now signed to Warners as a solo artist, Annie set to work with Nigel Stone assembling material for her first album. Language was released in 1992. It included songs by local writers such as Mahinarangi Tocker and Dave Dobbyn (whose ‘Guilty’ had been a Crummer showstopper on the Cat’s Away tours); recent material from international songsmiths such as Keith Reid and Maggie Ryder (‘Surrender’, ‘Provocative’) and Jerry Williams (the album’s single ‘See What Love Can Do’); an epic cover of the Boston hit ‘More Than A Feeling’ (with a cameo by Jimmy Barnes) and a couple of Crummer originals, including the co-written title track.
Though Annie had only visited her ancestral home of the Cook Islands for the first time when she was 21, she was now travelling there frequently. Threaded through Language were sounds of choirs and log drummers, recorded during a trip she and Nigel Stone made to the Cooks while making of the album.
She ate fish and chips and went nightclubbing with Cook Islands Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry
In 1998 she was invited by the Cook Islands government to open the new auditorium and cultural centre, and 70 local children joined her on stage to sing ‘Language’. After the show she ate fish and chips and went nightclubbing with Cook Islands Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry.
That year she played a part in Shortland Street, as nurse Jaki Manu’s singing cousin Marlene. To go with the role, she and former Holidaymakers keyboardist Barbara Griffin wrote ‘Keeping Up The Love Thing’ which featured in the programme and was released simultaneously as a single, under the screen name The Katene Sisters.
Over the next couple of years she toured extensively, both as a headliner and as opener for some of the biggest international names including Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and Sting (who invited her onstage each night to solo on his song ‘Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot’.)
In 1996 she performed Tim Finn’s ‘I Hope I Never’ as part of ENZSO, an orchestral project led by former Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner, combining the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with popular singers. The track appeared that November on the ENZSO album.
Around the same time her second album, The Seventh Wave, was released.
While Language had touched on her island heritage, her next album explored that connection more deeply. Early in the recording process, Annie spent two weeks in the Cooks with Australian producer Daniel Denholm, recording everything from birdsong to church choirs, but also introducing him to the culture. “I knew it would make a lot more sense to him, why I was the way I was and where I was coming from.”
Various members of Annie’s family appear on the album, including her father, a brother and several cousins, singing as well as playing such specialised instruments as ukuleles, nose flutes and conch shells.
This time she shunned the northern hemisphere songsmiths. “You get sent all these songs from overseas and each time I’d put the tape in and think, ‘Please let me like this.’ But a lot of those people have never seen a Polynesian before. That was the missing element. That’s what I couldn’t hear in it.”
All but two tracks on The Seventh Wave were co-written by Annie, either with Denholm or Griffin. Of the songs she had no part in, one was by Denholm; the other, ‘Here Come The Gods’, by Neil Finn, with additional lyrics in Cook Island Māori by Tangi Crummer.
Mixing of the album was completed at Paisley Park, Prince’s Minneapolis studio, rehearsal and living complex, where Annie spent two weeks. Was Prince around? “Oh yeah. It’s so weird,” she told me at the time. “You can hear him, and smell him too. He’s got this kind of sandalwood sense about him. You could hear him playing his pinball games and stuff.”
Though they never spoke, they locked eyes. “I don’t think he’s ever seen a Polynesian before,” she said. “But things I hear about him made me think, I quite dig you from afar, so let’s keep it like that …”
Though The Seventh Wave projected more of Annie’s uniqueness as a Pacific island musician and Annie worked hard to promote it, the album didn’t achieve the international breakthrough Warners had hoped for.
In 1998 she took a sabbatical from her solo career to join the cast of the first Australian production of Rent, the musical loosely based on La Bohème, which had opened on Broadway two years earlier.
“It’s a big thing to ask someone to leave their country and have their hands tied for a year,” she told Louisa Cleave of the New Zealand Herald. “Every single day, everything you do is for the show that night. You have to weigh it up and think, is it a good thing or is it a bad thing? For me it was a great thing to do.”
2001 saw her reunited with When The Cat’s Away (minus Swann, but with the addition of Sharon O’Neill) for another New Zealand tour.
Though Annie had been working with Barbara Griffin on material for a new album, her next release contained just one new song, the Crummer-Griffin original ‘Love Not War’. Otherwise, 2000’s Shine: The Best Of Annie Crummer was a career survey, from ‘Once Or Twice’ to the present, including non-solo material such as the Netherworlds’ recording of ‘For Today’, The Katene Sisters’ ‘Keeping Up The Love Thing’ and When The Cat’s Away’s ‘Melting Pot’.
In 2003, Annie took another musical theatrical role, as Killer Queen in the first international production of We Will Rock You, the stage show Ben Elton had based around the songs of Queen, which began its southern hemisphere season in Melbourne that August. She also took a quick trip to the UK to re-record the Queen classic ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ with original members Brian May and Roger Taylor, which was released as a single, and added to Australasian edition of the cast recording.
Inhabiting Freddie Mercury’s alter ego on a nightly basis took its toll.
The following April the show moved on to Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and ultimately to Tokyo, keeping Annie busy with eight shows a week until 2005. But inhabiting Freddie Mercury’s alter ego on a nightly basis took its toll, and during the Melbourne season she burst a capillary in her vocal cords, requiring her understudy to step in for several shows.
Returning to New Zealand at the end of the season, Annie took vocal training to protect her voice, and learn “the biomechanics of song”.
“I’d never really known why I could sing,” she told Claire Harvey in Canvas magazine. “It just happened. But now I’ve learned to work out how I produce the sound.”
At the end of 2007, Annie took to the stage as Killer Queen again, this time at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. She continued to tour in the role into 2008.
In 2009 she played a number of gigs around New Zealand, showcasing favourites from her catalogue and previewing material she and Barbara Griffin had been writing for a projected album, working title “Project Annie.C”. At some of the shows, Annie introduced a special guest, her father Will Crummer.
Will was approached to make an album – his first in almost 50 years – and Annie came on board, playing the pa’u (Cook Island bass drum) and singing a duet on ‘Aue Taku Tane’, one of the first songs he had ever taught her. Recorded at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio and released in 2011, the album Shoebox Lovesongs saw the revival of Will Crummer’s career and led to performances at Womad Taranaki and the Penang World Music Festival, where Annie joined him on stage along with other members of the Crummer family.
In 2013 Annie joined fellow musicians Don McGlashan, Laughton Kora and Anika Moa in the second season of Songs From The Inside, a series for Māori Television, in which songwriters work inside prisons with convicted prisoners to write songs as part of a rehabilitation programme.
Reflecting on the experience in 2014 as the programme was going to air, Annie told the New Zealand Herald’s Sarah Stuart, “A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been strong enough for it. Your mind has to be as steely as those bars to deal with the weight of their life stories … that’s why I’m glad I did it now, when I was strong enough to walk through those prison doors and survive.”
She also talked about the songs she had written for Project Annie.C, still to be released, and the ups and downs of a long career. “Two words have saved me: ‘Oh well’,” she said. “[I’ve] tried to be upset and disappointed and envious and it doesn’t work. Even if there’s one drop in the bucket that’s plenty for me.”
Music, she went on, has “given me an incredible life and I don’t think about the negative. I get to do every day exactly what comes naturally to me. I’ve travelled the world and the world has been my truest teacher. There’s a connection with the spirit when I’m singing and it nourishes my soul. I have to remind myself of my blessings. I count them every day.”
In 2017 Annie Crummer was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music.
In 2011, Annie Crummer was awarded Senior Pacific Artist Award at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards.
Brian May of Queen called Annie Crummer "The voice of one in a million."