Laura Cantrell Finds Her Way Through Writing

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Laura Cantrell’s No Way There From Here seamlessly blends folk with pop while it reshapes modern country music’s stretching boundaries.

“I use the term ‘country’ very broadly,” Cantrell says. “I don’t think it has to be narrowly defined. What I call country might not be what radio today calls it. I’m from Nashville and fly that flag proudly and let people sort it out if it confuses them.”

Prior to her departure for a European tour, the current New York City resident spoke to CMT Edge about No Way There From Here, her songwriting process and the writers who inspire her.

CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.

Cantrell: I’d recorded an album in Nashville that was a Kitty Wells tribute. I really enjoyed it, and that was my first recording experience in Nashville. I just liked the vibe of the studio and the access to country music without having to translate for them what a fiddle should sound like on a Kitty Wells record. (laughs) I had a feeling from that experience that I wanted to come back to Nashville for my next recording.

How did these new songs come together?

The songs I had ready for a new Laura Cantrell project were somewhat different from what I’d done before. There were many more originals. I had worked a lot of them out or made rough sketches of them with a group of folks here in New York that call themselves the Radio Free Song Club.

So, I had a bunch of demos that I brought down to Nashville to Mark Nevers at Beech House [studio]. We figured out what we should do with them. It was the first album in several years with my original stuff.

Did you purposely write more originals than usual?

To be honest, I made that Kitty Wells record as a reason to get out and perform again, but I already had a few songs written. I probably was feeling some pressure to make another record, but I realized the songs were a little more mature, and I felt like they were better songs than I’d written previously.

Once I got on that roll, I thought, “Let me see how much more of this there is.” I felt like I had a run of strong writing for me. So, I took another extra several months to work through everything.

Describe your approach in the studio.

I just wanted it to be as free as possible with letting the songs really be fully realized. I didn’t want a lot of time pressure or to be too automatic. I’ve always liked to work with great instrumentalists, but when you work with a great steel player, you end up with beautiful pedal steel all over your record. (laughs)

This time around, I took a more song-by-song approach and thought, “What can we add here that helps flesh out the emotions of the song?” I tried not to think, “Is this gonna be country enough?”

Tell the story behind writing “All the Girls Are Complicated.”

I have a 7-year-old daughter and have been coming home to Tennessee much more frequently in the last several years with her to see my folks and sister in Nashville. I was bringing my daughter down and talking to my sister about a not-great date that she’d been on, and I started working on this idea how people are complex.

I wrote it for all the ladies in my life — my daughter, my sister, my friends, somewhat for me. I wrote it as if I were someone on the outside trying to understand.

Does the new album have a common lyrical theme?

I don’t know if I would say they have a common lyrical theme. They’re different thoughts on relationships and what home is and how to connect with people. A couple of people pointed out that there are two songs that use “green, green grass” and that could be a country reference. You know, “The Green, Green Grass of Home” or that image we have when we think about home. Even in your own memories, you can romanticize what the sweet things are about home.

Describe your typical writing process.

I get phrases that usually come with music, a little bit of lyric and melody together that seem like they could have potential. I’ll have an idea in the back of my mind for a while before I’ll pick up the guitar and figure out the rest.

I will say, for this record something that’s different — after having a kid — is you realize that you don’t have all the time in the world anymore for yourself. It’s made me persevere with some ideas. You know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Willie Nelson doesn’t have to hear this song and pass judgment on it today. It just has to be strong enough to play with a band.

What other songwriters do you draw from?

It’s interesting because I’m not sure I think about it that way. When I hear something written by Guy Clark, I think, “God, that sounds so rich.” John Prine. These people can write whole stories. I’ve never gotten anywhere close to being able to having a whole world in a song like that.

I love people like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. I’ve been inspired by the folks from the earlier days, too, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. They write a way that’s like a whole film in one little song. All the details are so right and it conjures a whole image in your mind.

I don’t feel like my writing is like that, but that’s the kind of writing that’s made me want to try to sit down and write.

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