Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Laura Cantrell: Nashville girl, Wall Street banker, apple of John Peel's eye


Right at the end of a live show at London’s Jazz Cafe – a performance which had included tales of murder, heartbreak and drunken regret – Laura Cantrell hit a wall. She had dedicated her song Bees to the late John Peel; understandably, as Peel’s support of Cantrell’s work had helped launch her career. At the mention of the disc jockey’s name, the audience erupted.
It was a long time before Cantrell was able to speak again. When she did, her voice was broken with emotion. She couldn’t speak, but she was able to compose herself enough to sing. The song, like much of Cantrell’s work, was quietly, sweetly devastating.
Bees is a rumination on the death of an old friend. The verses are stacked with melancholy images of an abandoned hotel, and the persistent signal of an old crystal radio. “I’ll be coming through,” Cantrell’s dying narrator intones, “on that wavelength I hearken to.”
In its emotional clarity, the song is typical of Cantrell. It’s telling, too, that she uses the image of a radio: for 12 years she was the “Proprietress” of Radio Thrift Shop on the New Jersey radio station WFMU, playing old-timey records she had rescued from second hand stores, and educating her listeners about the careers of forgotten country singers such as Molly O’Day and Rose Maddox.
“WFMU’s a serious place. Even though everyone is a volunteer, they take their work seriously. I feel it’s more of an avocation: something that you do because you want to do it, and something you want to be good even though you don’t get paid for it. Truthfully, I’ve done it for longer than I’ve been a professional performer, and the experience gave me more confidence. Over the 12 years I’ve honed in on what my taste really is, for songs. And what is my thing to contribute, about music. It’s been part of the development process for me, of becoming an artist.”
Like Peel, Cantrell is a music enthusiast, though it must have come as something of a surprise when the former-Radio One man hailed her first album, the 2000 release, Not the Tremblin’ Kind, as “my favourite record of the last 10 years and possibly my life”. Peel, though noted for his catholic tastes, was not usually an advocate of girl singers playing country music.
This was not the only surprising aspect of Cantrell’s route to success. Until 2003, she was managing a department in a Wall Street bank, and playing music in her spare time. The first album emerged through a circuitous route on the Glasgow independent label Spit and Polish, run by Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald.
She recorded five Peel sessions, three of them at Peel’s home. After she overcame her sense of intimidation, Cantrell began to regard Peel as a friend, and remains heartbroken that he is gone. Still, she did find out why he was so keen on her records. Peel told her that when he was starting out as disc jockey in Texas in the early 1960s, he had made friends with several people who were into honky tonk music.
“He saw and understood that it was the music of their lifestyle, and of their upbringing. He got the cultural significance of it. Even though my music’s very different than what he would have heard at that time, I also have an appreciation of that stuff, and I think it does come out, especially on Tremblin’ Kind, because it was such a labour of love. We didn’t know we were making a record, so we were just trying to make things that sounded cool to us as a band. But we made a lot of references to old music that we liked. I think that those little touches reminded John of that period that he’d spent in the States. He was sentimental about it.”
Cantrell can be sentimental too. Her new album, Humming by the Flowered Vine, is a prettily melancholic affair. Khaki and Corduroy looks back on the innocence of her time as an English literature student at Columbia University in New York, while Downtown is a poetic exploration of the monuments of her hometown, Nashville, and her current home, New York. Almost imperceptibly, the song switches from a consideration of childhood memories to an appreciation of the aura of dreadful ruin that surrounds Ground Zero.
Though it made a good story, the early concentration on Cantrell’s job in Wall Street was a diversion. “Superficially, there is some irony to it. But if you look at who modern country artists are, very few have the background of Loretta Lynn – the coalminer’s daughter - or Dolly Parton. A lot of them come from suburban backgrounds and have college degrees.”
Cantrell is a Nashville girl, with Southern manners, and a deep fondness for her musical heritage, though she did rebel against it in her teens. Her parents loved the Outlaws and Willie Nelson, but the airwaves were crammed with the likes of Hank Williams Jr and the Oak Ridge Boys.
“That’s also when the reverberations of punk rock were being felt. Elvis Costello was coming to Nashville, and I went to see the Clash at Vanderbilt, the Pretenders, all those bands. It was easy to be into that stuff, and not into what seemed to us to be local music, which was also the country music of the day. It really took my leaving home to understand that there was a view of country music that went further back and that people that I admired, like Elvis Costello, were into Johnny Cash. Or discovering that Nick Lowe was married to Carlene Carter.” (Later, Costello returned the compliment, choosing Cantrell as the support act on an American tour.)
The most traditional song on the new record is the murder ballad
Poor Ellen Smith, included as a tribute to the singer’s great, great aunt, Ethel Park Richardson, an East Tennessee “songcatcher” in the 1920s, who published the book American Mountain Songs. Cantrell knew of the book, but had no idea she was related to its compiler until recently, when one of her family embarked on a genealogy project.
“I thought I had maybe done something unique to my family, at least,” she says, laughing. “Then you find out that no, every thing you have done has been done before.”
Ethel Park Richardson was a school teacher who was interested in folk music. After her children were grown she embarked on field trips to collect songs. When they were published, she did a radio programme on folk music broadcast out of New York. In the 1950s, she was a contestant on a television quiz show, answering questions about American folk music and culture. “She appeared on the show over several weeks, and at the end of the run they were asking her to appear in period garb, so she was on this television show in a big bonnet and a granny outfit. She won $100,000 and got invited to the Grand Ole Opry to perform.”
In one regard, at least, Cantrell has trumped her great, great aunt. Richardson never managed to take up her invitation to play at the Opry. Cantrell, did, in July 2003. It was a memorable, if slightly eerie experience.
“I had been to the Opry quite a bit when I was younger. It was really amazing because Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl were still there then and I had that memory in my mind. We were playing in the dead of summer, and a lot of the main artists of the Opry, like Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, were away on tour. So it had this empty feeling that made me a little bit sad, to not feel the presence of those other stars, and how exciting that was. At the same time, they’ve got to populate it with people that can keep it going, and it was very much an honour to be asked to perform, and I’d love to do it again. I was totally in awe. I was trying not to trip and break my nose.”
One peculiarity of the Opry appearance was that the Nashvillian Cantrell was introduced as a performer from Brooklyn, New York, by the host, the “Ragin’ Cajun” Jimmy C Newman. “He made a big deal of it, and my parents and my friends were all standing at the side of the stage. I was afraid my mom was going to go interrupt him and say, ‘You know, she is a homegirl here.’”
Alastair McKay
‘Humming By The Flowered Vine’ is released on Matador. Humming Songs, an acoustic EP of songs from the album is available on iTunes. It's good, too.