High Credit Rating
When Laura Cantrell isn't power-dressing for her day job on Wall Street, she's moonlighting as a country singer whose fans include Elvis Costello.
By David Gritten
Around 7pm, near the end of a busy 10-hour work day on Wall Street, where she is a vice-president in Bank of America's equity research department, Laura Cantrell can often be seen rushing for the door in her smart two-piece business suit, a change of clothes under one arm.
An hour later she will appear on stage at a New York country music club, either clad casually or in 'retro country' threads. 'My work friends turn up at my gigs and say, where did the black suit go?' says Cantrell, 35, with a smile.
High-powered banker by day, country singer and songwriter by night: it's quite a double life. Cantrell's well-paid office job subsidises her musical labour of love, and she now enjoys a cult reputation that is growing fast. Her debut album, Not the Tremblin' Kind, received rave reviews on its release in 2000; but her latest, When the Roses Bloom Again, easily surpasses it.
Its 12 songs, four of them her own, are mostly new yet sound like enduring classics. Her clear, unadorned voice harks back to a vintage era of country music: she can make a song sound both sharp and sweet, investing every lyric with austere beauty.
Cantrell has eminent fans: John Peel called Not the Tremblin' Kind 'my favourite record of the last 10 years and possibly my life'. Elvis Costello invited her to support him on his recent American tour. Yet while she awaits her big breakthrough she must maintain her double life.
Her peers and subordinates at Bank of America (she manages 28 employees) knew she was moonlighting as a country singer, but Cantrell kept it secret from her superiors. She 'came out' this summer, when Costello invited her to tour: 'They realised the importance of getting that kind of call from an artist everyone admires,' she says.
'They didn't want to stand in my way.' Her boss was surprised but supportive: 'You have to seize the day,' he told her.
She agreed to stay in touch from the road via mobile phone and do paperwork in hotel rooms: 'A lot of each day is spent travelling in cars or waiting for sound-checks or concerts to start,' she shrugs. 'So I can get work done.'
Cantrell's leave has been extended to include a tour of Britain, a significant country in her career: her debut album was first released on a Scottish label.
She had recorded four demo tracks, mainly to hear how her voice sounded, and when a musician friend visited Glasgow, he played them for Francis McDonald, head of Shoeshine, a small independent label. 'I was so impressed by those songs, I said if she completed an album, I'd put it out,' McDonald recalls. He created a subsidiary label, Spit & Polish, just for her, and sold 5,000 copies of Not the Tremblin' Kind, largely by word of mouth.
Cantrell is Nashville-born, but nothing in her affluent background suggested a musical career. Her father is an appeals court judge, her mother a lawyer. She also planned to study law, but after taking a summer job at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, she became hooked by the country scene.
She left to study English literature at Columbia University in New York City, and never went back home. 'New York is a fine place to live if, like me, you love old country music,' she says. 'Lots of artists come through town all the time.' After college she took a secretarial job with a radio network, decided corporate radio was not for her, and ended up in banking.
For the past five years she has been married to Jeremy Tepper, who runs Diesel Only, a tiny Brooklyn record label that specialises in truck-drivers' music and releases Cantrell's albums in America. They met when he was a singer and guitarist with a group called the World Famous Blue Jays. 'Jeremy was one of a bunch of like-minded country musicians in New York,' Cantrell recalls.
The couple share a fanatical love of music. Cantrell notes they recently moved from 'a bohemian, arty area in Brooklyn - all loft spaces - to an older apartment in Queens. It actually has rooms. We took 60 boxes of vinyl records with us, not counting CDs. Those 60 boxes are still not unpacked.' The new home is full of thrift-shop furniture and 'old stuff'.
This leads neatly into her third identity, as a weekend disc jockey on WFMU, a New York radio station. On her three-hour Radio Thrift Shop programme she plays rare old country and jazz records, some of which she finds herself: 'You keep an eye open for what people cast off. I spend a lot of time in Salvation Army shops and scouring the $2 pile in used-record stores.'
She presents the show with a laidback, deadpan drawl, referring to herself as the thrift shop proprietress. Rolling Stone magazine calls it 'the best country radio show in the New York area'.
Still, her singing career is her priority. 'I know I'll never be Patsy Cline reincarnated,' she says, 'but I've figured out how to communicate something real by singing. Jeremy and I would love kids, but maybe not yet. You have to wonder, what with everything I do, how would that fit in?'
* Laura Cantrell is touring Britain until December 9
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.