Nfld. & Labrador

From the barroom to a bar of soap: This musician makes suds on the side

Allison Crowe is best known as a singer-songwriter, but she spends much of her spare time manufacturing colourful, beautiful soaps.

Singer/songwriter Allison Crowe makes music for a living, but she also has another creative outlet

Allison Crowe uses a stick blender to mix the ingredients for one of her handcrafted soaps. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Musicians spend a lot of time getting new material ready by writing songs and recording. For singer-songwriter Allison Crowe, her newest material aren't songs at all. 

After nearly two decades of writing, singing and recording, the N.L. musician has started making handcrafted soaps as a hobby and a bit of a side hustle.

An unwelcome break last fall caused by a cold turned out to open the door to a passion for soapmaking. 

"I started watching soap-making videos because they were super-calming, and then I got really into it," the Corner Brook-based singer said in an interview.

Crowe started by ordering ingredients online, using recipes kindly shared by other soapmakers on the internet, and she set to work.

Before long, like a songwriter with a catchy melody or clever lyric, Crowe was hooked.

Just a different form of art

Soapmaking is a new interest, but Crowe has expressed her creativity through music since she was a teenager.

British Columbia-born and raised, Allison Crowe is probably most widely known for her version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

Crowe didn't perform Newfoundland music until after she moved to the province in 2006.

In 2013, she recorded a full album of Newfoundland music called Newfoundland Vinyl, inspired by the Theatre Newfoundland Labrador show of the same name, and which included such classics as Sonny's Dream, Tiny Red Light and The Mobile Goat Song.

From the stage to the soapdish

Crowe can see parallels between her life as a musician and her newfound hobby.

"It's creative. There is some math to it, and there is math in music as well," she said.

"So I can see similarities for sure." 

In fact, Crowe said the math required for the right combination of ingredients in soapmaking has been the trickiest part for her.

"Figuring out that you do have to be really pretty precise with that. And, math, it's never been 100 percent my strong point, I will say, so there's a lot of calculations involved."

Handcrafted soaps by Allison Crowe have been well-received by her customers. (Allison Crowe/Submitted)

And, just like things don't always go as planned on stage, Crowe said soapmaking can also require her to change things on the fly.    

"A lot of this is improvising as well. You can sort of plan stuff ahead and then you want to do this different. And that's what I'm doing right now."

On the day CBC Newfoundland Morning visited her soapmaking kitchen, for example, Crowe's concoction didn't turn out as anticipated, with the result being a soap with green swirls throughout, instead of black.

How does she do it? Allison Crowe walks Bernice Hillier through the steps of making soap from scratch in this podcast: 

An NL musician's latest release is...not music at all - it's soap. Also, an artist explores a mummer/drag queen connection, and we discover what a honey bee does all day. 21:10

Something else that carries over from music to soapmaking is that not everyone will like everything a musician or a soapmaker creates, and Crowe said she's fine with that.    

"Fragrance is really personal. I really like the food scents, that's where I'm at. And I'm not huge on the more cologne-type scents, but a lot of people absolutely are that way," said Crowe. 

"So you just have to make something for everybody."

Hitting the right notes

The method Crowe uses is called cold process soapmaking, which involves combining oils and lye to cause a chemical process called saponification to neutralize the lye, without any outside sources of heat.

Crowe makes sure her ingredients, like coconut, palm, almond, and castor oils, are all-natural and are ethically sourced.

She's also safety conscious, so she wears latex gloves and safety glasses to protect her eyes and skin, since lye can cause a bad chemical burn.

When Crowe is satisfied that the soap mixture has reached a pudding-like consistency, she adds micas to give colour and then fragrance. 

Then, Crowe pours her soap mixture into a silicone mold.

After pouring her soap mixture into a silicone mold, Allison Crowe uses a chopstick to create a swirl pattern in the top. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

"The chocolate cake one is pretty fun. I actually use that in the shower," where Crowe likes to sing and warm up her voice.

"I really enjoy the smell of the black raspberry vanilla. I think it's probably one of my favourites."

Looks good enough to eat

At first, Crowe stuck pretty close to the soapmaking recipes she'd found shared online so that she could perfect her craft without wasting expensive ingredients.

But, more recently, she has started experimenting with her own combinations of colours and designs.

For her own unique soap creations, Crowe gets ideas from the places where she spends time, like Cow Head, on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, where Theatre Newfoundland Labrador's Gros Morne Theatre Festival is based.

"Yeah, I love the sunsets in Cow Head, and they do all these colours, so I ordered all the different micas and I actually started coloring the mountain part with cocoa powder, which is pretty cool," said Crowe.

Allison Crowe uses a silicone mold to make her handcrafted soaps. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

The colours and layers in Crowe's Cow Head Sunset soap make it look more like a dessert than a skin care product.

Good reviews

So far, Crowe's foray into soapmaking has been well-received.

She said people seem excited that she's embraced it to such an extent, when she herself thought it was going to be just a fun little hobby.

The greatest reward so far, aside from the bit of money she makes, is that people have given good feedback on how her soap is working out for them.

"I've had a couple of people say it's been really nice on their skin so that's good. That's a bit scary to start as well," said Crowe.

Crowe said she uses herself as a bit of a guinea pig for the soaps before she makes them available to the public.

"I test them, because I have really crazy sensitive skin so I tend to think, if it's okay with me, it's probably okay on other people," she said.

Soapmaking requires plenty of creativity and patience. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Crowe said she's already excited about her ideas for new soaps for this fall, to tie in with Halloween and Christmas.

Customers can expect those to appear on the market around the same time as Crowe's annual holiday performing schedule starts to take shape.

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About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.

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