Laura Cantrell: 'This is much more than a career to me'
Nevertheless Cantrell retains a keen interest in music, and this month the 55-year-old singer-songwriter returns to the UK for a three-week run of concerts to promote Just Like a Rose, her first new album in “almost 10” years.
She attributes the decade-long gap between this record and its predecessor, No Way There From Here, to family and other commitments. “I have a 16-year-old daughter, anyone who’s wrangled kids into their teenage years knows that’s obviously a big time commitment,” she says. “I feel like I spread my music activities around. I do some satellite radio, I had a long-time radio show, the most recent one was on a service called Gimme Country, a streaming radio service here.
“And I pursued co-writing, which I hadn’t done as much before my last album, I really dove into that in earnest for a chunk of time. That was probably right after we finished the cycle from No Way There From Here and I was approaching making new music and wanting to try that. I had worked with friends in New York, but I had never really done the Nashville version were you go meet a stranger and see what you have in common and see what comes out of that. All of that was going on in the background.”
Her last visit to Britain came in 2017 on tour that corresponded with the release of an album of sessions and live performances that were mostly recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show between 2000 and 2005. “It was around that time that I thought I have this project and this (20th) anniversary (of her debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind) coming up, and how should we approach that. Then the pandemic happened and threw a lot of my plans out of the window.”
Lockdown at least afforded her more time to mull over the record, which she “wanted to be a celebration” of her music. “This is much more than a career to me,” she says, “so I wanted that to come through in the process of making this album. Before we began I really wanted to have this celebratory thing going which is not the way most records are made.”
At one stage Cantrell intended to release a series of digital singles by using crowdfunding, so donors ended up hearing the tracks as “work in progress”, but as they began to run behind schedule due to problems accessing studios, she realised “it didn’t make a lot of sense to chase this other format”, so she decided to delay it until they had a finished collection.
Ending up with “five different sessions with different bands” caused her some concern over how it might all hang together when it came to mastering.
“There were two sets of sessions that were happening towards the end of the recordings – one was with Rosie Flores and the great band in Nashville with Kenny Vaughan, but we didn’t realise Rosie was going to get the opportunity to bring in Ed Stasium to help finish the mixes and do some additional production that was so great,” she says.
“I was getting those back emailed to my inbox while we were finishing up with Steve Earle and David Mansfield on the version of When The Roses Bloom Again, so I realised we were landing on this larger sound than I had put on my previous albums and I wasn’t expecting it so much. Especially the Ed Stasium touches were to elevating, he really took what had been a garage rock ’n’ roll kind of thing and made it more complete and bigger.
“That was a surprise to me and we were rushing at that point so I was turning round to the mastering engineer saying, ‘Take a break. I have Ed Stasium, who likes everything really loud’. So we had fun sorting that out, but I have to say despite the concerns that it would feel disjointed or not connected as a body of songs, when we sorted out the sequence and listened through everything, I was like, ‘This actually sounds almost intentional how the arc of the first side felt like a whole’, so I was pleased we didn’t end up with something that seemed that it didn’t hang together.”
That Just Like A Rose works so well “was all luck”, Cantrell reckons, given she had not wanted “to limit” the different producers with whom she worked. “When you hunker down on a record and you’re working with one producer in that role, you go through this whole process of figuring out what the sound is going to be, and within that there can be some variable things, but I was taking this risk of farming this out to different people and seeing what they would do with my music and then rolling with it as it came back to me.”
Making the record became a refuge during a time of international crisis. “What was our foreground on a day to day basis was really horrible, but I think with a lot of people stuck at home, you can’t travel, you can’t interact with people the way you normally do, you can’t just go down to the corner pub, all of that reflective time that everybody had, again it made me think about it in a way,” Cantrell says. “I was talking about what was important in my life and not for this music career that you talk about in a different way. I felt that became really important to just have this (way of) celebrating how positive making music has been for me, and also how important music has been in my life.
“So the urge was to come from that place, and not from ‘Oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we could get this person to play on it, and you can see the press releases?’
“Don’t ever talk to a press person when you’re making a record, they’ll freak you out about ‘what’s the narrative going to be on the record?’” she laughs. “I’m like, how the hell am I supposed to know? Don’t we just need the music? The idea of selling the music can interfere with the fun and the satisfaction of experiencing making the music. I wanted to stay in that more pure place.”
Just Like A Rose includes the Amy Rigby song Brand New Eyes, which Cantrell says was a homage to the late Ronnie Spector. “I admired Ronnie Spector for many years and Jeremy Chatzky, who plays bass with me, was Ronnie’s band leader for 20 years. If I were doing gigs and he wasn’t there, he was on tour with Ronnie. I had seen her play many times. I was always so impress as a woman of her generation there weren’t that many that got to continue to perform in the big band format and really do these great shows in the manner that she had always been accustomed.
“She was such a great performer, and I had wanted to see if we could interview her for Dark Horse Radio (the radio programme she hosts for SiriusXM based on the music of George Harrison), because of course George produced Try Some and By Some single with her. I never got the chance unfortunately but she was in my mind when we were going in to record the songs that Rosie Flores produced.
“Brand New Eyes and Just Like a Rose were among the last ones and we’d just got the news before we were going into the studio that she had passed and that song, Brand New Eyes, is kind of girl group format anyway, so it lends itself, we would’ve had that type of production, but there was a little extra intentional nod to Ronnie just thinking of her as we were in the studio.”
In the UK, Cantrell’s music still remains indelibly linked to John Peel, the BBC Radio 1 DJ who avidly championed her work before his death in 2004. She says: “It’s been a long time, so when you think of people coming up to me after so long saying, ‘We heard you on Peel’, it’s always impressed me the amount of love there was for him as a figure on the radio. I don’t want to call him a tastemaker, he was more like everybody’s favourite record-playing uncle.
“Many generations of listeners had this experience of learning things from his programme and enjoying his personality and his taste as it evolved, as he heard things he’d never heard before, so I’m so grateful I got to experience that and got to know his family a little bit and come to do the show live and see him in action. He was another one who was just all about the music and the excitement of finding something new and sharing that with people.”
Just Like a Rose is out now. Laura Cantrell plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Friday June 23 and Hebden Bridge Trades Club on June 29. https://lauracantrell.com/