Laura Cantrell – Simple twist of fate
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.”