ABOVE: LAUREL IN LONDON, DECEMBER 2014. PHOTOGRAPHY: ALICE LUBBOCK.
Although Britney Spears inspired Laruel Arnell-Cullen as a child, the singer/songwriter, who is better known simply as Laurel, now imbues alt-pop tracks with folk-leaning lyrics. Putting her Britney fan-girl days behind her, Laurel has progressed to find inspiration in the likes of Laura Marling and T.S. Elliot, and to self-produce songs that mix rhythms reminiscent of The xx with those that could come from Lorde or Lana Del Rey. Vocally, you could liken her to a brighter Zola Jesus or Lizzy Plapinger of MS MR.
Laurel first began making what she considers real music at the age of 14, when she started using the stage name Under the Laurels and performing at local pubs. Initially, she wrote songs to be played on an acoustic guitar, giving the music an inherent folk overtone. As she progressed towards pop and grew into adulthood, the musician changed her moniker to simply Laurel. Now, she writes solely for the piano, while simultaneously retaining her poetic lyrics. “I guess it was just a part of growing up and writing on different instruments,” she says.
She released her latest EP, Holy Water, on Monday via Turn First Records, the same label responsible for Iggy Azalea, Ellie Goulding, and Dan Croll. In the second of four tracks, “Memorials,” Laurel croons, “He don’t, he don’t believe me and/my young soul is sold to his heart…I’ll sin with you, it’s a ceremony of you only/but now I’m singing memorials,” while deep melodies pulse behind her powerful voice. Here she recognizes her youth, although maintains an air of someone older and perhaps wiser. Prior Holy Water’s release, we caught up with Laurel over the phone.
BASED IN: London
HOMETOWN: A small place between Southampton and Portsmouth in the U.K.
LAURA AND LYRICS: When I was younger obviously I was in love with Britney Spears, like every other young girl at the time. [laughs] But as I got older, I really fell in love with folk music because of the lyrics. Words are my favorite part of songs and I write poetry as well. I really appreciate Laura Marling’s music because I love the words. I heard “New Romantic,” one of my friends showed it to me when I was 13, and [Laura Marling] was only 15 or 16 at the time. It was just like, “Oh whoa, this girl is amazing.” It made me think, “I want to start doing music like this this. I want to do alternative music with words with meaning, instead of just pop songs.”
“SPLASHING IN PUDDLES”: I started writing when I was probably about 11, but they weren’t proper songs. I think I wrote a song called “Splashing in Puddles.” [laughs] It was about how you can’t buy love, and giving this person everything you possibly can and even things you can’t buy–you give them a moon and you give them puddles, you give them things you can’t even buy–but they still won’t love you because you can’t buy love. I have no idea what was going through my head. But when I was 13 or 14, I started writing songs on guitar and gigging at local pubs with songs I’d written.
STUDYING MUSIC: I hated studying music. I absolutely hated it. In fact, I stopped studying after a year and sort of referred to business and English in the end because [music] is just something you can’t be examined on, like how good a song is. And we weren’t even examined on that. It was all about the history of music and the theory of technical music. I didn’t do very well in music at all, but here I am writing my own songs and producing my music. It’s just one of those things I can’t really study. I just have to do it on my own.
LYRICS FIRST: Lyrics probably always [come] first, because I don’t usually write songs unless I really feel strongly about something. Luckily I’m a very emotional person, so ideas just come to me all the time. I also keep a list on my phone of words I like, things I hear, and things I read in magazines. Whenever I’m reading poetry, I write down phrases that I like. It’s always lyrics I reckon. Music is second to me.
CINEMATIC MUSIC: I watch a lot of films and I really love big, romantic love films and all the old kinds of films as well. I think that’s definitely influenced me. But also with big cinematic films–I write down-tempo music–I think it’s because I can put more thought into the lyrics and can put so much passion into it. Sometimes fast happy songs, you can’t go into so much detail; it’s all about [overall] feeling. I want to make it more in-depth.
I actually always watch Where the Wild Things Are. I watch it when I have a hangover or feel a bit sad about life and it makes me happy. It makes me wanna be in a dream world. [laughs] Another one of my favorite films is Candy with Heath Ledger, one of his films. It’s quite classic—two junkies fall in love and he’s got this scene with poetry that the lady has written, and it’s just amazing! I think it’s such a beautiful film. It’s stories like that that I want my music to represent. Absolute passion and desire, I guess.
POETRY: I’m a really big fan of T.S. Eliot. Recently, I found this bookshop in Covent Garden in London and they’ve got loads of really old poetry books. I just go in every now and then and buy new ones and use that as my monthly inspiration. This month I bought Wilfred Scawen Blunt, he’s this Brit from the 1920s and the whole book is one poem. It’s just this man who’s pondering and thinking about life and you can read through his poetry. It’s beautiful.
HOLY WATER: You might not necessarily think it first of all, but what this means to me, is about finishing up something and moving on to the next section of your life, which is all very much what is happening to me right now. There is loads of change going on in my life and there’s the New Year coming and I feel like I have to get everything out. Like it is about missing someone, but you’re basically saying, “I’ve missed you for so long, I’m not going to miss you anymore.” Like, “I’m moving on.” It’s quite sad, but it’s kinda happy in a way if you think about it like that. It’s just ready for the new next year.
STIRRING EMOTIONS: I could be feeling pretty sad about life when things are going to shit and then I hear a song–and it doesn’t necessarily have to be my favorite song, or a great song, but just a song that reminds me of something–and it can completely change how I feel. That’s why I like writing music; I want to make people feel something. I don’t necessarily want them to think, “I’m happy!” or, “That’s the best song I’ve ever heard!” I just want them to feel slightly different from when they first started listening to it.