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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jonathan Richman: rebellious straight-man, Warhol fan, insect-lover, roadrunner (but not in jogging shoes)

How to get Jonathan Richman? You might ponder the introduction to his signature tune, Roadrunner, in which the singer starts off by counting to six. Or you could examine the irony of the fact that Richman, a gifted lyricist, has had only one hit record, Egyptian Reggae - an instrumental.
Usually, Richman shies away from offering answers. He is a reluctant interviewee, quite unsuited to self-analysis. And yet, on his DVD, Take Me To The Plaza, he is, if not exactly explaining his art, talking around it. At first, he explains that many of the printed interviews with him have been fictional. Interview magazine in the early 1970s: he never said half that stuff. The Kansas City Pitch: that interview never took place. NME, he says, printed interviews that never happened.
He talks about his records. Two-thirds of them were nothing to do with him. There are ugly covers. "There’s one of me in a tracksuit, running, with some sort of transistor radio or Walkman. I found that especially revolting."
Roadrunner, of course, is nothing to do with jogging. It is a bleak and lonely song about Richman driving around Massachusetts in his father’s station wagon, finding beauty in the mercury vapour labs, and solace in the rock and roll on the radio.
He viewed his first album, The Modern Lovers - a classic - as a collection of demos but, 30 years on, his opinion has softened. He likes the guitar solo on Girlfriend, and Pablo Picasso - who was never called an asshole - because it has John Cale, ex of the Velvet Underground, on piano.
He likes I, Jonathan, dislikes Jonathan Sings, but his favourite is Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, from 2001. The live album, Live at the Longbranch, released by Ernie Brooks, the Modern Lovers’ bass player, is OK, in that it sounds terrible. "The great stuff is really great and it’s so-oh embarrassing. I blush when I listen to those things. I was such a brat."
Some of his records are, he says, too precious. The children’s songs - perhaps he means Hey There Little Insect, or Abominable Snowman in the Market - were misunderstood. They were meant to move people, not to be cute. "The good thing about my old records is that I was given complete control. The bad thing about my records is that I was given complete control."
He offers fragments of biography. He was heavily influenced by Roy Rogers singing The Happy Hungry Chuck Wagon Song. If you listen to the music from Zorro, you can hear where his guitar got its cartoon colours from. As he grew older he liked Little Richard, Little Eva, Frankie Lymon, the Crystals, the Chiffons, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stooges, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Who. His fondness for the Velvets blossomed when he swapped a Fugs record for one by the VU.
Sweet, soft Jonathan. So private, so eternally mysterious. I arranged to call him and a familiar voice, half-cheerful, half-anxious, boomed from the telephone.
"Hello!?" the voice said. "Just a second! Don’t go away!" After 45 long seconds, Richman returned. "Hi! I’m ready."
We talked awhile. Tiny talk. About his audience, which is aged 20-25, because "they’re the people who go out". His role in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy, There’s Something About Mary, was "a lot of fun". It also got him recognised "for a few minutes". Every show is different, he said. "It never doesn’t change."
We could have gone on like this forever. Everything was nice. It was like breathing on Andy Warhol’s mirror.
"I started out making drawings and paintings. It was really hearing the rock band the Velvet Underground ... I wanted to try and make an atmosphere like that with musical instruments. I didn’t play anything at the time and some people still say I don’t play anything now, but I just showed up with a guitar and started to make a bunch of noise.
"Painting is good, but you’re in your room painting it, or on the sidewalk, and then you show it to people later. With this thing you make it up right there in front of people."
At 18, Richman moved from Boston to New York, to follow the Velvets. He wanted to explore the scene surrounding Warhol at the Factory.
"It was really starting to break up, so I was on my own. There weren’t so many films anymore. If I’d gotten there three years earlier then I would’ve seen more of the wild stuff."
Warhol, he said, was "very nice. A very honest person, like, uh, I very much liked him."
The public front of Warhol was true?
"I’m not too sure about what the public front is. I was really young and he was just a very nice person to me."
When the Modern Lovers relocated to California, Richman encountered another legendary figure, Gram Parsons. They used to play softball together and there are tales of an inebriated Parsons struggling to complete a round of miniature golf. "Gram played guitar for me sometimes. If he’d lived, he mighta sang on a record or two with me. He offered. I didn’t offer to sing on a record with him because I didn’t want to embarrass him."
Tiny talk exhausted, it seemed safe to ask Richman about his own material. I suggested that critics always claimed his lyrics were naive.
"I don’t know," he said. "What do they mean by that?"
Perhaps, I said, it is because some of his songs have a childlike quality.
"I can’t tell. Some of them were just supposed to be made up for children."
We talked about rock and roll. Richman’s records are pure and direct, but they seem, at first, to lack rebellion.
"I don’t know what you mean," Richman said. "I don’t know one way or the other. I don’t know whether I did or didn’t do that."
To fully understand Richman, you need to go back to the start, to that wild live album. There you can hear that, actually, Richman could hardly have been more rebellious. On the song, I’m Straight, he boasts about the fact that he doesn’t take drugs. He was singing to a hippie audience. "The audience hated it. They were supposed to."
They were supposed to, Richman said, because he was angry. "They weren’t supposed to like it, and they didn’t."
By now, he was trying to get off the phone. We had picked at the enigma long enough. I asked him about his earliest memories. One was hearing opera, Carmen or Aida. He hummed the tune. "Dum dum dum dum, dum-te-tum-te dum."
Was it a happy memory?
"Well," said the author of I’m a Little Dinosaur, Here Come the Martian Martians and I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar, "songs are different. Happy or sad."

Alastair McKay
The Scotsman, 13 February, 2004