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Trains and Boats and Covers and Toddlers: An Interview With Laura Cantrell

Stuart Henderson
Photo (partial) by Ted Barron

Cantrell returns with an album of covers influenced by motherhood, the war, and, mostly, the need to just play.

Laura Cantrell is quietly becoming an icon. Consider (just a few of) her accolades: award-winning New York radio DJ, author of three successive 4+ star records, and boasting the support of such luminaries as Calexico, Elvis Costello, and John Peel. A hugely influential British producer and tastemaker, the late Mr. Peel famously referred to her first LP as "my favorite record from the past ten years, and possibly my life." (To call that a "desirable endorsement" is like saying George W. is a "poor orator".)

Her last record, 2005's top-shelf Humming By the Flowered Vine, saw her mix up the alt-country sound that had defined her first two (also excellent) releases, deepening the textures of her arrangements, and expanding the possibilities of the songs. The result was her best work to date, and a record that suggested as much as it demonstrated. A transitional record, then, showcasing a singer-songwriter (and respectful performer of others' work) with much territory left to explore.

Three years on, Cantrell returns with Trains and Boats and Planes, a new record of traveling songs -- a concept record (put away the lava lamps, she's still an alt-country singer) designed around the possibilities suggested by the title track, the classic Bacharach/David piece. It is an immaculate little collection, an EP offering tight, classy arrangements of characteristically well-chosen covers. From Gordon Lightfoot to Merle Haggard, Cantrell finds ways to push old material into fresh territory. And, on the record's most exciting moment, she even finds a way to re-invent a synth-pop classic (New Order's "Love Vigilantes") as an Appalachian folk-ballad.

On the phone from her home in New York City, Cantrell was warm, friendly, and brimming with excitement over both the new stuff and her toddler, a key reason for the three-year break since Humming was released. Her voice is as sweet and thin through the phone as it is over the airwaves, and as rich with intelligence and empathy. It's not a typical radio voice, but it has all of the confidence of someone who wants to talk, and knows how to do it. All interviews should be this fun.

Covers records are often dismissed by critics as "contractual obligation" LPs, but this isn't the case here. So, what was the motivation? Was it brand-new-baby-related (congratulations, by the way!)?

It was definitely part of the process. Or, was it the not knowing what the process was going to be like? I got pregnant at the end of the cycle on Humming. I knew it would be a crazy and distracting time. I've always been a slow writer and it would be so hard to get a whole record written with a toddler around. Last year when I was resurfacing, moment to moment you are just on call. I thought, let's just hang out with the band and make some noise. Not worry much about new material, just make some noise and have some fun. And, we'd been playing [John Hartford's existential classic] "Howard Hughes Blues" and "Trains..." in my live shows by the end of the Humming cycle. So, let's try some of those.

The record is held together by the theme of movement, of traveling, and yet you've made the record in a period of relative rest, at least from touring. Did you miss the road that badly?

When I was casing about I thought it would be a good way to get back to business a bit. I have a notebook full of things, songs it might be good to work with at some point. You feel so free on the road. I'll be out there again, but in the early months of having a kid, you really don't know what your life will be like. I might've shot some of my emotions into "Trains", about missing the tour.

As a Canadian folk singer myself, I have to ask this. Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", with its super-repetitive melody, lack of refrain, and six-minute narrative, seems to be an uncoverable song. And yet, it is among the most attractive songs for folkies to try out. Your version is masterful. What was your draw to this northern classic?

We obviously were looking for songs that fit the themes, so we were looking for a boat song. I have my soft spot for Gordon Lightfoot; you've got to have respect for the man. It was a huge challenge, singing-wise. The melody is incredibly repetitive, as you point out, and you really have to focus on the words of the song. There is no way to embellish it -- even Mariah Carey couldn't make it any more than it is! When we first started it I thought it would be crazy. I heard it when I was a little kid, because our parents had the record. For a moment it was a very ubiquitous song. And, I had assumed it was a very ancient song that he'd dug up. I never knew it was a boat that had just sank that year! I had no idea how enormously timely it was.

Photo (partial) by Ted Barron

As a child of the '80s, growing up amid the computerized beats and synthetic noise, I retreated to my Dad's record collection and became obsessed with Fairport Convention, Emmylou Harris, Townes van Zandt, and Gene Clark. But now, for some reason, I've been able to approach some of the stuff that I missed back then. I've been singing "Ceremony" by New Order as a folk number for a few months. And here, to many people's delight, you've dug up the country undertones of "Love Vigilantes". How did this come about?

When I moved to New York to go to college, I heard New Order coming out of many a dorm room. But it wasn't my scene. Then, traveling in England so much [touring on my records], you realize how important they are there, and I wouldn't have known. I saw them at the Peel concert, after John died, and seeing them in that context in front of that audience that was Peel-informed, they were just huge, huge stars. I just got a sense of their kind of gravity or something, I don't know. My accordion guy would often be playing that song, bluegrass-style. And, to be honest, we started playing it as kind of a goof. But, when we were starting this recording, I was like let's just throw that down, for fun. Then, when we started playing it, and figuring out how to arrange it, we just... There's something so sad about this song -- it's a ghost story [about a patriotic soldier who returns home to realize he has been killed in battle]. The brash brattyness of the New Order version melted away, and left this beautiful folk song underneath. We had a little controversy over it. Some people feel that we took away the irony of the song, and I thought about that. You know, people might hear this as a pro-war song. But, who wouldn't feel this about their wife and child? Maybe being a new mum made me feel this way?

You've recorded anti-war songs before. Have your fans reacted positively to your political stance?

I'm not a sort of flag-waving artist in any way, actually. I'm not trying to be overtly political in any way. But, I feel that making records over the past few years, this stuff comes up. We are at war. I've tried to keep my microscope focused on that. But, if someone asked me if it was an anti-war song, I mean, yeah. Bring 'em home. That's anti-war to me. Too often, people go over there with the best of the intentions and end up with a raw deal.

When Nanci Griffith came out with those fabulously stripped-down records in the mid-80s (I'm thinking of Last of the True Believers and Once in a Very Blue Moon) all these folkies said,"Wow" -- and then went back to overproduction and reverb on their guitars. You seem to be doing much what she did back then, and standing apart in much the same way. People often remark that they admire your continuing ability to produce records that push musicality and songwriting without resorting to schmaltzy production. Why do you think you stand out in this regard?

I can't take any credit for this myself! We've sort of kept to the formula of reproducing what we do live on record. A little bit on Humming we did some things I wouldn't have done live. But here, on this record, we just did what we would do live. I've recorded with very talented people, and I actually felt really good about this particular product. It never sounded unnatural to me. You hope it'll be worth listening to over and over again, but that it's natural enough to be honest. That's the balance. Having Humming behind me, I felt so much more confident about going in and doing this. I was so thrilled that [violinist and downtown jazz hero] Jenny Scheinman came in to help us -- she lives a block away.

When you play a standard, an unadulterated classic like "Trains and Boats and Planes", who are you covering? Dionne Warwick? Billy Kramer and the Dakotas? Dwight Yoakum? Astrud Gilberto? Is it tough to find your own take on it?

We definitely started from scratch, but the general vibe of the song probably goes back to the original Warwick recording. I'd say we took some of the, I don't want to say bossa nova, but the rhythm from that recording. I actually had a Bacharach/David book, and we were looking at the piano arrangements, but we actually used it for the words. We were just fooling around with it. We went to the original for the template. But, if it is too much some person's song, it really is difficult to try to go near it. If there had been a killer Dolly Parton version, it'd be tough to go near it!

So, I'm told that countless New Yorkers miss your radio program -- any thoughts of getting back on the air, pulling a Stevie Van Zandt or a Dylan now that you're a rock star?

I actually have been doing a web show for a couple years, twice a month. I started doing a web thing because I was missing radio a lot and was still feeling it was difficult to commit to their full schedule time-wise. But, there's stuff online you can listen to at WFNU.org. I show up a couple times a month. So, this way I can do some radio ... but I don't know how all the stuff I used to do will fit into my new reality. Toddlers are something!

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