Laurel's first ever video - "Fire Breather"
Singer and songwriter Laurel Arnell-Cullen is running late. And so she’s literally running, darting from the bar toward the stage in London venue, Dingwalls, on a Wednesday night in late November. She’s about to get behind the mic to open for label-mate Dan Croll, and has a full-capacity audience to entertain with her brand of confessional alt-pop.
“I’m nervous, but I’ve got to go,” she quickly exclaims, smiling over her shoulder as she dodges between punters. When the lights dim, and she and her four-piece band launch into their opening song, she hides her nerves well. Somewhere between the stairs in the crowd’s standing area and her spot-lit position center-stage, she transformed from Laurel, bright-eyed teen, to Laurel, the rather sultry, mononymous performer. I have to keep reminding myself that she’s just nineteen.
It’s no surprise, then, that since her single “Next Time” surfaced online in 2012 and attracted the usual blog buzz, Laurel’s garnered comparisons to just about every young pop singer out there. Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Laura Marling—although, as you’ll see, one’s got more weight than the others.
Yes, while the production on some of her songs overlaps with both Lana and Lorde’s, she’s vocally more on a par with Emily Haines of Metric, MS MR’s Lizzy Plapinger or a peppier Zola Jesus. As Laurel preps her debut album for an 2014 release, she’s learning how to style herself, exploring her penchant for thrift stores (charity shops, in UK-speak) and coming to terms with eking out her own existence in an industry that’s been lumping electro-pop female artists together since about 2009. And hey, it’s 2013, so of course she’s doing so in full view of both her fans and potential haters on social media.
“People just like having references, so as long as those references are credible, I don’t mind having them,” she says, curled up in a booth in a Camden pub before soundcheck at Dingwalls. “There’s always going to be people who are similar to you, especially if you’re female. It’s very hard to distinguish yourself when you’re doing alternative pop music—everyone just thinks it’s the same.”
Laurel’s always spoken pretty openly about her influences. Folk musician Laura Marling takes the prize for inspiring Laurel to start writing songs when she was around 13. “I got a guitar, ‘cos I wanted to be Laura,” she says, giggling. “She’s amazing, she’s so cool. I don’t want to ever meet her though, I just want her to be this cool person that inspires me”. Now, Laurel says she turns to Florence Welch, Marina and the Diamonds—and even Lana—for a hit of inspiration.
Her recent singles reflect those changes in taste, and the broadening of her musical palette. She’s left behind the twee, earthy tones from her days on acoustic guitar (when her stage name was still Under the Laurels) to explore the synths, bass-driven chord progressions, and touches of melancholy electric guitar that punctuate her Dingwalls set. In the way that just about every teenager’s obsessions flip and fluctuate over time, her sonic maturation totally makes sense.
The same applies to her style. She’s constantly trying out different looks, almost as though she pulls on different personas from one day to the next. Although she’s hesitant to describe or slap a specific label onto her dress sense, a quick flick through her Instagram photos uncovers a certain British heritage aesthetic, featuring plenty of Peter Pan collars, rosy-cheeked light make-up and co-opted menswear (see: wide-brimmed hats, heavy wool jackets with major lapels and a general love of doing up the top button on a blouse). Like so many English and British young women who’ve grown up with high street fashion—affordable versions of designer trends that quickly hit the racks in stores like Primark, H&M, New Look, and River Island—Laurel’s picked up from visual cues around her. So what are some of her favorites?
“I love vintage shops, especially in London,” she says, her brown eyes widening. “And recently I’ve been in charity shops a lot: you can find some absolute gems, but you have to be very patient. Or you’ll come home and be like, ‘Why did I buy this?’” she says with a throaty laugh. Laurel grew up in Sarisbury Green, a small town near England’s southeastern coast, so she also gleans plenty of sartorial inspiration from Tumblr and fashion blogs. She moved to London last year to be closer to her management team at Turn First Artists, but still prefers to thrift her way to looks that resemble some of her favorite Vogue editorials (which she loves, but feels are out of her price range).
Laurel’s rounding off the year with a new single, “Fire Breather,” to whip up interest in her forthcoming album. She’s been recording it in her bedroom and teaching herself how to produce the tracks on Logic. “I want to get it finished, and to be really proud of it,” she says. “I just want it to be a collective piece of work that can say, ‘Yeah! This is my first album, this is what represents me right now.’”
Back in Dingwalls, her 8-song set shows promise. She’s got a powerful voice, and controls it well when she switches from a subtle coo to all-out belting on tracks like “Mankind” and “Blue Blood.” She holds onto the mic stand, playing with her hair and channeling a coquettish confidence.
It’s refreshing. Both on and off stage Laurel just exudes a certain calm. I ask how she feels entering the entertainment world when people can scrutinize her every move and decision on social media (shout out to Azealia Banks), and she sounds unfazed.
“I don’t have a problem with people seeing what I do because I keep my private life private,” she says, laughing. “And I don’t have a lot of private stuff anyway: I’m quite an open person.” If she can maintain that slightly naïve optimism down the line, 2014 might just be a great year for Laurel. And even if she hardens, she’ll always remember how she branded herself as “London’s last sweetheart” for a while first.
Tshepo has been busy this AM texting her mates about the Beyoncé record and she’s on Twitter - @neuthings.