Laura Cantrell - Simple twist of fate
"I figured out a way to stay in New York, which was get a day job and then be involved in the things you love to do and it'll work itself out. I had no huge goal of conquering the music business. I got to do cool things, and all those things just made me want to do more music." Amid an era of renewed interest in traditional American music, a popular and eclectic New York radio station broadcasts the brainchild of a well-known collector of old songs, cultural artifacts that might be lost were it not for her passion for keeping them alive. This week's program spins around a folk song involving the struggles of a young couple and the kindness of a wealthy relative. The latter leaves the pair an inheritance -- a favorite armchair -- and they treasure it, never knowing that stuffed inside is all the money they could ever need. Live musicians perform in the studio, and the show's producer acts out her role as the elderly benefactor of the story. It's the mid-1930s. Alan Lomax is combing the country collecting the imperiled music of America's receding backcountry landscape, but intrepid women already have taken to the Appalachians, engendering their own lore as "songcatchers." In 1927, the same year Carl Sandburg debuted his American Songbag, one such collector, Ethel Park Richardson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, published her landmark American Mountain Songs. Her related regional radio shows attracted the attention of NBC, who lured her to New York. For the next decade she produced "Heartthrobs Of The Hills", a weekly NBC melodrama based on mountain songs and enlivened with performances by whatever well-known traditional musicians were passing through town. Laura Cantrell is pretty sure she'd read about Richardson (perhaps in Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann's Finding Her Voice, a history of women in country music) at some point before learning that she and Richardson were related. A series of e-mails sprung the news when her mother's side of the family dug into their genealogy recently and found Richardson to be the sister of Cantrell's great-grandfather. By then, Cantrell already had put in her own decade or so of keeping traditional music alive with her eclectic "Radio Thrift Shop", a Saturday staple on the New York area's popular WFMU. Cue "Twilight Zone" theme here. "I had this fantasy that these were the most amazing radio shows and if I could ever hear one it would just blow my mind," Cantrell says. "NBC donated all of their radio stuff to the Library of Congress in the late '70s. They had five or six of her programs, so I went and checked them out. It was funny because it was like 1935 in the Depression and...they're very dated. They're about things going on at that time and they sort of have the morals of that period." If Cantrell was disappointed to find she wasn't the first radio personality in her family (and she was, a little), surely she's the first to make a splash as a musician and songwriter in her own right. Her June 21 release on Matador Records, Humming By The Flowered Vine, includes in its range of country and pop-tinged pleasures a nod to her ancestor: "Poor Ellen Smith" was documented in Richardson's American Mountain Songs. Cantrell grew up thinking that law was the family business. Her parents and one aunt are Nashville attorneys. Expecting to follow suit, Cantrell headed to Columbia University. After falling in with a crowd of musicians and fans there -- Boston indie rockers and North Carolina punks -- she landed her own radio show at Columbia's WKCR. "When I really started to learn about country music," she says, "I was already in New York and starting to collect records. I graduated with an English degree, but I probably spent a lot more time at WKCR than I did in the library." Her college radio show, "Tennessee Border", provided the foundation for "Radio Thrift Shop". "It was really great for me that, without knowing it, I was walking into a place that really valued kind of this historical presentation of music," she says. When not studying English, thrift-shopping for old country records, or broadcasting at WKCR, Cantrell learned guitar and then began performing wherever she could -- solo at dorms and coffeehouses, or elsewhere with one of two bands: the folk-country Potters Field or the lo-fi noise outfit Bricks, both with a pre-Superchunk Mac McCaughan. "Totally not anything country about it," Cantrell says of the latter act, "although I kept joking with the guys that I was trying to turn them into my country band. It's one of those things you do with your friends -- get together and make noise and run the four-track and see what it sounds like." One McCaughan pal who really liked how it sounded was Matador founder-to-be Gerard Cosloy, who booked the band to play one of a series of concerts he organized for CBGB's Record Canteen. After college, Cantrell needed a job to support her music habit, so she landed one with a Wall Street bank, eventually working her way up to vice president for research. All the while she was also building a broad and devoted fan base for "Radio Thrift Shop". And she continued to play music. "What I did was I figured out a way to stay in New York, which was get a day job and then be involved in the things you love to do and it'll work itself out," she explains. "I had no huge goal of conquering the music business. I got to do cool things, and all those things just made me want to do more music. But I did it for the fun of it." Which was why she started recording, too. "We'd been performing at bar gigs and things kind of sounded good," she figured, "and maybe it would be a good time to sort of capture that." Imagine her surprise when she returned home from a Thanksgiving trip to find her answering machine full of messages from a Scottish label. "Basically a tape got passed from one guy to the next and the label in Scotland heard it," she recalls. "They were starting sort of an Americana label [Shoeshine] and they just thought it would be good to put it out." The ensuing extensive airplay in the U.K. made two important fans for her: Elvis Costello, who invited her to open for him on seventeen U.S. dates, and the venerable and influential DJ John Peel, who called Cantrell's first effort, 2000's Not The Tremblin' Kind, "my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly, my life." Cantrell's related European tour turned up an old acquaintance, too: She spotted Cosloy, then living in London, in the audience for her show at the Borderline nightclub. The European success of her debut bode well for a domestic release. The obvious place for it was the Diesel Only label, which Cantrell owns and operates with her husband, Jeremy Tepper. "Diesel Only wasn't really putting out CDs of single artists," Cantrell says. "They'd done compilations (most famously the Rig Rock series) and 45s of some local bands. There was some reservation on our part about putting out my record. When it was picked up by [Shoeshine] and they got really into it, they opened our eyes a bit to what the possibilities might be for it over here." Cantrell and Diesel Only followed up with When The Roses Bloom Again in 2002. "The first record [was with] the guys I did my gigs with...we wanted to go in and sound like we just played the best gig we ever had. We kind of approached Roses in a similar way, but. I knew it would be time to add some other instruments and textures. For instance on Roses, we had a fiddle player on one song and I wanted to do more of that." In the spring of 2004, Matador signed on for Cantrell's next project. Says Cosloy, "It really took that long for us as a label to reach a determination that not only was this an artist that we were a big fan of, but we had enough time and space on our roster to really sink our teeth into this and spend upwards of a year promoting and marketing Laura's record without other titles getting in the way. That was definitely the big practical issue and less to do with 'can we handle this style of music' or 'is this the right artist for us.'" Matador's backing enabled Cantrell to quit her day job and enlist producer J.D. Foster to realize the growth she felt in her music. "One goal that I had was to include some other folks who could expand the sound a little bit," she says. "I was hoping for growth in a few different ways on this record, one with my own original material. I'm still just kind of developing as a writer; I need to work on the discipline of getting shit finished. "We had some really lovely songs. [Guitarist/bassist] Dave Schramm had a great song [the exquisite pop ballad "And Still"], and there was an uncovered Lucinda song ["Letters", written while Williams was living in New York], but I felt like I did raise the bar a little bit in the quality of my own writing. And I kind of wanted that to be reflected in the sound of the record, to feel like we'd maybe taken a step toward a more lush sound. Ultimately if lushness is there and there's not an emotional underpinning to give it a reason to be there, then it might be wasted, but I felt that it would match the scope of some of the songs." The recording also emphasized the increased fluidity in her vocals. "My other records, literally, we did them at my house, especially the vocals, and at my producer's [Jay Sherman-Godfrey, also her guitarist]. It was modest and relaxed and had a homey-ness to it. This time I wanted to see if I could get that comfort level going in a studio. There are all kind of different microphones, different processes, different types of compression and reverb and all this stuff, but...I think in terms of my own job of just going and singing, I felt like I'd gained some confidence in taking the step of quitting my job and whatever, and that I wanted that to be reflected." Cantrell's voice may in fact be the most notable difference between Humming By The Flowered Vine and her previous projects. Without sacrificing a trace of her trademark lyric sensitivity or silky timbre, it stands up confidently to the context Foster provides, including subtle cascades of harmonies in the opening track, "14th Street", a New York fantasy by Emily Spray. A quick shift into country mode on Jennifer Jackson's "What You Said" backs her lilting Tennessee phrasing with an accordion, violin and harmony arrangement. Her own "Old Downtown" is highlighted by a quiet drum tattoo for a lost era. "Khaki & Corduroy" features an inspired claviola accent to her intimate reveries about old friends. An adoring cover of Wynn Stewart's "Wishful Thinking" rounds out this eclectic collection, which, for all its contemporary embellishments, is rooted in decades of traditional music history. It's the Matador showcase at SXSW 2005. An elegant, brooding Prada fantasy in a Les Miserables T-shirt is heckling loudly for Laura Cantrell to get off the stage; he feels betrayed, he says, by Matador's signing of Cantrell. The crowd that trusts the label to deliver indie-rock acts such as Dead Meadow and Stephen Malkmus, who share the bill, is mocking her, he says, with their dancing. Maybe, but it looks like they're having a pretty good time. A discussion ensues about which of us is missing the point. Cosloy is a bit weary of the backlash question. "I'm really trying not to think about it in [genre] terms," he insists. "I think she has appeal to really any smart music fan that is interested in good, heartfelt, serious material. That can be a fan of country or a fan of rock -- anybody who is a fan of absolutely classic singer-songwriter [material]. "The fact that country provides the foundation for much of what she does, for anybody who's a smart music fan, that's not an issue."