It was an ordinary morning for Kev Crane, who was working on the pipes in a client’s bathroom while belting out the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
The 49-year-old U.K.-based plumber always sings on the job. In fact, some people in Quorn — a village in Leicestershire, England — call him “the singing plumber.”
Crane brings a portable radio with him to work, and unless he’s politely asked to pipe down, he unabashedly croons everything from Dua Lipa to the Beatles.
Crane’s unsolicited musical performances are often met with applause, but a recent reaction was truly unexpected: He was offered a record deal.
As Crane warbled along to the radio while repairing his client’s bathroom, Paul Conneally — the owner of New Reality Records, a small, independent label — took pause.
“I stopped and listened. And I was really impressed,” said Conneally, 62, who hired Crane to fix up three bathrooms in his home.
The two men got to talking, and Conneally asked Crane whether he had any original material. Crane gave him several songs he had recorded in his makeshift basement studio during the pandemic.
A few days later, in mid-July, Conneally approached Crane and posed a question he never thought he’d ask his plumber: “How would you like to release your album on my record label?”
“I was gobsmacked,” Crane said. “It’s something you read about that happens to somebody else. You don’t expect it to happen to you.”
“You can’t make this stuff up,” echoed Conneally. “It’s a strange story.”
Conneally launched his record label in April 2020, prompted, in part, by the pandemic.
“I’ve gone through life always thinking it would be great to start a label, but it took a massive heart attack and a global pandemic to put me into action,” he said.
Conneally has always been an avid musician and was a vocalist in a post-punk band in the late 1970s. Still, music became more of a passion than a profession, and he went on to pursue a career in education instead.
He worked as a physics teacher for 15 years, then became a health-education adviser for several local schools. Four years ago, though, he suffered a heart attack that “nearly wiped me out,” he said.
Then the pandemic hit, and it prodded him to think to himself, “If I’m ever going to do something, I might as well do it now.”
Conneally started New Reality Records, which has so far signed more than 15 artists.
“It’s all different genres on the label. The thing that links the artists together is that there’s something slightly off-kilter about everyone,” he said.
Conneally runs his label as a collective, with the goal of helping lesser-known musicians disseminate their work. Any profits earned are shared between him and the artists, though making money isn’t the primary objective.
“I see my role as a catalyst for people who might not realize their own potential,” he said.
That’s why his ears perked up when his plumber, of all people, unintentionally showed off his singing skills.
“It was a fully formed voice,” said Conneally, adding that he immediately approached Crane and inquired about his obvious musical aptitude.
At the time, “I knew he had his own independent record label, but I never thought he would be interested in me,” Crane said.
They quickly bonded over their shared love of the New Romantic music era, which originated in the U.K. in the late 1970s. Crane explained to Conneally that he started a band with a friend in college in the early 1990s, but life got in the way and he put music on the back burner.
Crane, who has been a plumber for 13 years and worked as an upholstery cutter before that, only recently refocused on songwriting. At the onset of the pandemic, when he was unable to work, Crane revisited an album he started writing some 25 years ago but never finished.
“I decided to convert the basement into a recording studio, and I just spent weeks trying to learn how to mix songs,” said Crane, who has two children. “That was the perfect time because I couldn’t go to work.”
Conneally, who also has two children, was intrigued.
At first, “I was a little bit apprehensive, because I was just doing it as a hobby in my basement,” Crane said.
But he passed along his music anyway, and “I was struck by the songwriting and lyrics,” Conneally said. “I listened again and I couldn’t get the tunes out of my head. It reminded me so much of the ‘80s sound, but it also felt right for now.”
In the weeks that followed, Conneally and Crane fine-tuned Crane’s eight original tracks, sorted out the distribution rights, and officially launched the album, called “Why Can’t I Be You?” last month on various streaming platforms. The music has a retro, ‘80s pop feel.
Since releasing the album, “people are listening to him from all over the world,” Conneally said, adding that they’ve been contacted by several people in the music industry about potential opportunities and collaborations.
“It’s been an absolute whirlwind,” said Crane, whose ultimate goal is to write songs for other artists.
For Conneally, he felt it was his duty to publicize Crane’s work.
“Kev’s stuff would have still been in his computer because he had no intention of sending it to anyone,” Conneally said. “I would love for him to go on and score some success.”
He believes Crane’s story resonates with people because “Kev is an ordinary working man. He is not pretending to be something that he’s not. He is exactly what he is: a guy that fixes bathrooms and writes brilliant songs at the same time.”
“It begs the question,” Conneally continued, “how many other people like him are out there?”
This experience has taught Crane an important lesson: “If you haven’t got a dream, how can you ever have a dream come true? Never, ever give up,” he said.
If all else fails, Conneally quipped, “he’s still a great plumber. The bathrooms look fantastic.”