She may not be the tremblin' kind, but Laura Cantrell sends shivers down the spines of her many unlikely fans, says Mark Edwards
There are two things everyone knows about John Peel: that his favourite single of all time is Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and that, for the most part, he plays music on the radio that most of us find unlistenable. So when John Peel says that Laura Cantrell's debut album is his favourite album of all time, we would naturally assume that she either plays furious punk or makes a horrible racket. But we would be wrong on both counts. Cantrell is a pure-voiced country singer.
Cantrell - whose second album has just been released - is also unique. She must surely be the only artist who is highly rated by both champion-of-the-new John Peel and by lover-of-the-mellow Bob Harris. In all probability, she is the only Nashville-born country singer signed to a Scottish record label; and I'd be prepared to bet good money that she's the only country singer with a day job in the equity research department of a Wall Street firm.
Cantrell's new album, When the Roses Bloom Again, has just been released, and is every bit as special as her debut, Not the Tremblin' Kind. Cantrell will be playing dates as part of the Further Beyond Nashville festival that runs from November 23 through to December 11 at several London venues (Cantrell plays the Borderline on December 9), as well as strengthening her Scottish connections by playing some shows supporting Teenage Fanclub. All of which activity will keep her away not only from Wall Street, but also from her weekend job - as a DJ on the New York radio station WMFU, hosting the long-running country-music show Radio Thrift Shop (cited by Time Out's New York edition as one of the best shows broadcast in the city).
Cantrell isn't the kind of alt-country artist who merges country with other genres to create radical new hybrids. Instead, she adheres to classic country values, playing a style of music that recalls the days before Nashville turned into just another pop-music conveyor belt. She picks great songs to sing, and her clear, understated voice proves the perfect vehicle to convey the emotion-drenched lyrics.
Cantrell is the kind of Southern woman who raises politeness to an art. She finishes her answers to questions with a helpful "That's all I have to say", a self-effacing "I'll let you ask another question" or a needlessly apologetic "I don't know what your question was. I'm sorry. I just prattled on".
Despite growing up in Nashville, it wasn't till she was just about to leave the city that she began to get interested in country. "For young people who grow up in Nashville, there could be quite a lot of resentment about country music," she explains. Basically, it's the establishment that the kids react and rebel against. When a friend who was doing a summer job as a tour guide at the Country Music Foundation suggested Cantrell join her, Cantrell agreed, expecting that the two of them would enjoy treating the place with total disdain. "But once I was there, I realised that a lot of the music and the characters were very compelling, and that I wasn't going to be embarrassed about country music any more."
At college, Cantrell started working in radio and performing, but once she moved to New York, the radio work at WMFU took precedence. "It's a community-run station, all the people on air are volunteers. It attracts people who are historians of their genre. When I arrived, there were a lot of people into exotica, lounge music. I felt it would be unique in that arena to play old country music, but also to give newer bands some space, to let the old and the new stuff find their meeting point."
Having pretty much defined alt-country before anyone else had even noticed it, Cantrell then needed a job "to sustain my record-buying habit" and ended up at Bank of America Securities. "I started out as, like, a secretary for a research analyst in the media sector. Now I've kind of evolved into a business manager for the equity research department," she says.
The obvious question - what's a country singer doing working in the heart of capitalist greed - hangs in the air, unasked. Cantrell answers it. "It's a good environment. I probably had a lot of preconceived notions of what working in Wall Street meant, but there's a lot of intelligent, sensitive, not always greedy, people there, and if you really scratch the surface, quite a few artists."
Cantrell's radio show quickly began to get a lot of positive feedback, and this in turn gave her the confidence to start performing live, playing in New York bars. Once she was getting regular gigs, she decided to record some tracks with her band "just to see if we could make a recording that was as satisfying as our live shows".
People responded well to the demos, but Cantrell felt that they still considered singing as her sideline. "You know, that might have been my approach too. I wasn't blaming anybody for not saying, 'My God, she's an artist. Sign her up.'" But when the tapes reached Scotland's Shoeshine label, they had no preconceived notion of Cantrell as just a DJ who did a bit of singing. They asked her to make a record. Not the Tremblin' Kind was released in 2000. Cantrell came over to play at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival. And then came Peel sessions.
"John Peel is a legend round the world," says Cantrell. "I just assumed there was no way he could be interested in this. When he was, it was such a surprise. I relate to his devotion to just being a DJ. And he's an all-time example of the art of just being yourself on the radio. It was wonderful to get a peek into that." When Peel later visited New York, he looked Cantrell up. "I said, 'What do you want to do?' John said, 'Let's go record shopping.'" The acclaim Cantrell received here was echoed in the States, culminating in a glowing review in Rolling Stone that described Not the Tremblin' Kind as "an austere beauty, a record of such graceful hill-country minimalism that you can hear every ounce of sorrow and steel in Cantrell's strong, direct voice".
Cantrell's is just one of the voices you can hear during the Further Beyond Nashville festival, a follow-up to last year's acclaimed Beyond Nashville. As last year, the festival is based at London's Barbican, but it's now grown and spread across into several other venues in the city. Among the artists appearing are Los Lobos, Will Oldham, Calexico and Sparklehorse. There will also be a tribute evening to Waylon Jennings, hosted by Rodney Crowell, and an appearence by a slimmed-down Lambchop Quartet.