Thom Crawford shares notes with Mao's last dancer, Li Cunxin

SURREAL is a word singer-songwriter Thom Crawford uses a lot to describe his experiences in 2014. And it’s easy to see why.

Hazelbrook's Thom Crawford with Li Cunxin in April this year.

Hazelbrook's Thom Crawford with Li Cunxin in April this year.

Thom Crawford (left) on stage with Blue Mountains hip-hop group Thundamentals this year. Photo: Cole Bennetts.

Thom Crawford (left) on stage with Blue Mountains hip-hop group Thundamentals this year. Photo: Cole Bennetts.

The 25-year-old came within a whisker of Oscar glory in January, spent an inspiring day with Australian of the Year finalist Li Cunxin in April and then toured the country with hip-hop group Thundamentals on the back of a hit collaboration with the Blue Mountains musicians. He also managed to squeeze in a trip to the United States for a red carpet screening of the film that generated Oscar buzz for a song he contributed to its soundtrack (but more on that later).

Standing out among these events was Crawford’s April mentoring session with Li Cunxin, the artistic director of Queensland Ballet who achieved global recognition with his moving autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer.

“Li radiates positivity and simply sitting with him made me appreciate how inspiring he is,” said Crawford.

“I took away so much from my session, but it was definitely Li’s encouraging and supportive personality which ultimately taught me about my own creative process and helped me better understand myself personally and professionally.”

The Hazelbrook resident was one of only two people chosen to take part in mentoring sessions with Australian of the Year finalists in the Commonwealth Bank-sponsored program. While pairing a singer with a dancer might seem like an odd fit, Crawford never had any doubts about his choice of mentor.

“Really, it was his passion and creative energy that drew me towards him and I knew there would be so much to learn from his experiences, hardships and triumphs,” he said.

“I wanted to meet Li so he could help me build a greater understanding of the artistic portrayal of expression and emotion, no matter if the medium is music or dance, physical or emotional.”

As a successful businessman who has forged an equally successful artistic career, Crawford also wanted to get Li Cunxin’s “perspective on balancing a creative profession with those everyday life financial pressures many artists face while starting out in their profession”.

Crawford was given a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes ballet world when Li Cunxin allowed him to witness the rehearsal process for the company’s latest production. 

“I think I’ve been the only person invited in to see the unfinished process [of the ballet]... The reason Li did that was because he wanted to show me that nothing is perfect. He said when you write a song you write a rough version, then you might have two or three demos and finally you produce the finished product. It’s the same with dance, he said.”

While Crawford’s creative process is usually more drawn out — like the ballet rehearsal he witnessed — brevity was the hallmark of his collaboration with leading Australian hip-hop outfit, Thundamentals.

“They sent me the track, I sent them back some stuff and the next week we were in the studio together. The week after it was mixed and mastered and the week after that it was on the radio. It was a pretty quick process,” he said.

Even quicker was the public’s reaction to the song. With an infectious hook sung by Crawford, Something I Said quickly rose up the national urban and singles charts and was on high-rotation on Triple J. Released as the second single off Thundamentals’ latest album, it wasn’t long before Crawford was on the road performing the song live with his fellow Mountains musicians.

“When we started playing it live and people started singing it back to us I knew it had taken off,” he said.

For a singer-songwriter more accustomed to intimate gigs, Crawford relished playing to large festival crowds on the Groovin the Moo regional tour as well as at Thundamentals’ own shows.

“It’s surreal [performing the song live]. It’s just absolutely crazy. It’s almost like a drug you get such a high from it. 

“When the show’s over you’re up half the night on the buzz,” he said.

Crawford was overseas for a red carpet screening of the documentary, For No Good Reason, when Something I Said began its ascent up the charts. Bones, a song he co-wrote and recorded for the film, was shortlisted for an Academy Award in January. Although he missed out on a nomination, the film about British cartoonist Ralph Steadman was the event that kickstarted Crawford’s amazing year.

It’s all a long way from his first “lucky break” — the chance event that kickstarted his music career when he broke his leg as a 16-year-old while BMX racing.

“I was on a couch for 12 weeks and ended up picking up a guitar and that's what started me writing music," he said. 

Since then,  and with the help of mentors like  Cunxin, his music has gone from strength to strength. 

Unusually, he is now enjoying a rare quiet period at his Hazelbrook home, writing new songs and recording new material in Sydney. 

 “It’s incredible that I’ve had these experiences but I’m always looking to the next thing,” he said.

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