Laura Cantrell was born in Nashville, but it wasn't until her 2011 Kitty Wells tribute record that she recorded an album here. It went well.
"[Kitty Wells Dresses] was one of my favorite things I'd ever made, and I really wanted to come back and work in that atmosphere again," Cantrell tells the Scene by phone from New York, her home for the past 25 years. That atmosphere suffuses the Beech House studio, where she recorded her first collection of original material since 2008, the brand-new No Way There From Here, with producer Mark Nevers and a crack team of locals that includes Caitlin Rose, William Tyler, Kenny Vaughan, Paul Burch and Jim Lauderdale.
"I knew bringing my own original tunes would be a different kind of experience," Cantrell says, "just because they were going to need different instrumentation and more space to just figure out what kind of recordings they should be." And figuring things out is a theme that runs through the album's 12 songs.
"They're just working out who they are," Cantrell sings on "All the Girls Are Complicated," the opening track. "Complicated" is an open letter of gratitude to the women (and at least one 7-year-old girl) in Cantrell's life — "From the ones who tend their looks / To the ones that mind their books / To the one who's got her hooks in you" — and whatever their respective ages, they seem to feel some measure of happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time. As any good Track 1 does, it sets a tone for the proceedings.
Taking some cues from Nashville's self-described "most fucked-up country band" — "I think about the Lambchop records with pedal steel and vibes on them, and how cool that sounded when I first heard it," she says — Cantrell has made an album that, in its elegant way, floats between lucid country-style storytelling and the more evaporative tendencies of late-model indie rock. Piano and keyboard gurgle just below the plaintive melodies, 12-string guitar arpeggios shimmer like fish briefly brightening a kill, and horns tug and bounce around the edges. Throughout, Cantrell's voice is clear and serene, verging on laconic at times, soaring humbly at others.
"Driving Down Your Street" is a song with country in its bones — it's a "train song," in the parlance — but plenty else pinned to its lapels. Cantrell says that after taking the original recording back to New York, she decided to change the key.
"So we ended up just keeping the drum track and layering out all the stringed instruments, starting with a new guitar part that was in the key I wanted to sing in," Cantrell says. "And when we did that, I was like, 'Wow, this sounds much cooler than what we started with.' "
In addition to the flat-picked guitar and banjo, there's a doubled-up stuttering snare drum over the choruses and, in a space left open when the strings cut out, a twinkling piano undercurrent that sounds like it wandered in from a Vangelis movie theme.
"Some people when they hear it might just hear a little country song," Cantrell says with a laugh. "But to me, I felt like we were able to mess around with the elements in a satisfying way that made it something that both referred to country music that I love but also felt like something more original, too."
Not unlike The River and the Thread (fellow Tennessean-turned-New-Yorker Rosanne Cash's musical travelogue, released earlier this year), No Way traces the imprint of the South on its author, though less explicitly. On the title track, Cantrell sings, "I was sitting in the dark as the band played on / Listening to the words of an old Southern song." As it turns out, the song is actually a book.
A friend of Cantrell's in New York composed a piece that used an excerpt from James Agee's novel A Death in the Family as lyrics for a Samuel Barber composition.
"I'm referring to the 'Southern song' in quotes, because I was really thinking of this [passage]," Cantrell explains. "But the James Agee novel is a lot about figuring out who you are and where you come from, and what your memories are — how real are they — and all that stuff works into 'No Way There From Here.' "