Chantel McGregor Speaks To SonicAbuse

With ‘Lose control’ Chantel McGregor, the much feted blues guitarist,  has delivered a remarkably cohesive album that draws together her penchant for stinging leads, full-on rock, blues and southern gothic to keep the listener hooked from the stunning opener of ‘take the power’ to the smouldering closing notes of ‘walk on land’. If Chantel was just an amazing talent on the guitar, her future in music would be assured, but what also helps Chantel to stand out from the crowd is a voice that sets the heart aflutter. By turns a soulful croon, a delicate whisper or a rock snarl, Chantel not only covers all the bases with aplomb, she also has a knack for singing each song as if she’s singing it for you. It makes an album like ‘lose control’ all the more potent, and there is no question that this incredibly gifted lady is destined to go far.

Understandably, Chantel feels very much that ‘lose control’ is, in many senses, her debut record for whilst ‘like no other’ is a fantastic record, it was not the result of a single coherent writing process in the way that ‘lose control’ was, rather it gathered together pieces that Chantel had written over a number of years, clearing the way for ‘lose control’ with its dark, endlessly fascinating sense of drama. With Chantel now preparing to tour the UK in support of ‘lose control’, we were lucky enough to talk to her about the gestation of the album, the development of Chantel’s talent and the challenges of becoming a working musician when so few people are prepared to support the endeavour. Wonderfully upbeat, Chantel was a joy to interview as she charmingly discussed her music career, and we hope you enjoy reading as much as we enjoyed conducting it.

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Well, first off thank you very much for agreeing to talk to SonicAbuse, we’re very happy to talk to you.

That’s OK, no problem at all.

Well, first off, I’ve got some questions for you about how you started out. You picked up your first guitar around the age of three I think?

I did yeah. I probably picked up my dad’s guitar. He used to play and I used to fiddle about and detune it and break it and put pencils in it and things so he got me a half size at three and then he taught me a little bit before I started getting lessons at the age of seven and it went from there.

What do you remember about your introduction to music?

I think, probably listening to it was the first thing really because most children do, but it was never really kids music. It was more listening to things like free and Fleetwood mac in the back of the car.

Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to move from playing music as a hobby to becoming a professional musician?

I think it’s always kind of been there, kind of when I was doing sixth form because we couldn’t do music as a GCSE or A Level at my school, so it was like, I wanted to do it, but there was always the issue that you couldn’t study it or develop it as a career choice. I’d talk to the careers people and they’d be like “yeah, but what do you want to do for a proper job?” and you’d get all that sort of thing. But there was always the fact that I wanted to be a musician but it was really hard to get into it through education, so I ended up doing A levels in English, so at one point I did just think maybe I should just go and do a degree in English and become an English teacher like everybody else, but I realised after about five minutes that no, I’d just be so bored and… no, sod that! Let’s do music. So that’s what I ended up doing. So that’s how I ended up going down the academic route, so I did a couple of years at Music College and I got a BTEC rather than A level music, because they didn’t run it, and that’s how I got to go and do my degree and that’s how it went.

It’s surprisingly difficult to convince schools and educators that you want to take music seriously isn’t it?

Oh I still have that problem. The other week I was at my grandma’s and she was asking – “what do you want to do… for your job?” and I tried to explain that this was my job but she said “yes, but when you’re older, what do you want to do for your proper job?” [groans] I’m banging my head against a brick wall with this one [laughs]

One thing that interested me in an older interview that you did, was that you said, I think, that when you did your degree, you did some recordings and they ended up being the property of the university?

Yeah, it’s kind of a thing that Universities do. I assume most universities do it like Art College which is that anything you do at their establishment is their copyright. So I had to be very, very careful while I was there that anything I wrote was for the degree and not, in any way, used in a career way which was a bit of a pain because it was three years when I could have been writing, making albums and doing my own thing, but that’s just how it is and I had to get used to it.

Nonetheless, it must be hard because your songs are something, even if you’re trying to write something from a commercial or educational perspective, they’re still part of you and it must be hard to leave them behind?

Yeah, it is. The thing is that writing music is a very personal thing and you want to convey your emotions in songs so to say that you need to separate form that and write something as educational… I think it has influenced how I write now, because now I sort of write to order in some ways. So, for example, this album was written in ten weeks and I gave myself ten weeks to write ten songs –that’s one song a week, so that helped me to structure my time and you become very structured with it, which is probably how I was working at uni, I suppose.

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So when you left uni, you more or less had to start over when you started work on ‘like no other’?

Yeah… well, some of the songs on ‘like no other ‘ were written before I even went to uni, so that was kind of a collection of songs, because I was gigging. Throughout uni I was gigging and doing covers and that, so throughout uni I was doing maybe a couple of hundred gigs a year which was quite insane [laughs] and I was doing a degree as well. But we were doing covers, things like Joe Bonamassa and that sort of thing, but I did do some songs before uni and so we bought them out and I thought “OK, let’s record these and bring them up to date” and that sort of thing, and I also wrote some things after uni, so that was a kind of mish-mash album of all the things that I’d written before and after uni rather than a cohesive, structured album.

That’s predicted my next question because ‘lose control’ has a very coherent theme to it whereas ‘like no other’…

Is a bit of everything, yeah! That’s kind of how it was!

 I was also surprised because ‘lose control’ is grittier and heavier…

Well there is that rock thing. I think the difference I, when I went in to do the first album I wasn’t confident and I took advice form everybody else and not really put my own ideas forward and put my foot down with things. Whereas with this one I was very clear on what I wanted and what I wanted it to be. It’s like the demos, it’s like they are on the album, only with midi instruments, and I went in with a very clear view of how I wanted to sound and references for where I wanted different types of production and this that and the other. It was great to be able to go in and do that. And now, because I’ve got older I suppose – in four years you can learn a lot – and that’s why it sounds so heavy, because I’ve always enjoyed the heavy side of things with the live set and it’s probably because this time round I had the guts to say “I want it heavy this time!”

With ‘like no other’ you had a huge amount of success within the blues community, but this album, I think, will see you gain wider acceptance. But do you think there’ll be an adverse reaction to the changes within your more established fan base?

Well so far everyone’s been really positive, because we’ve been playing a lot of these songs in the set as well, so they’ve heard a lot of sneak previews of the tracks (not the recorded ones, obviously) and everyone’s really into them. They seem to be really lovely, my audience, because they want to see me grow and see me develop and whatever music that I seem to be doing, most of them  seem to enjoy it and move with it, which is really kind of them to be so accepting. So, fingers crossed, hopefully they’ll like it.

I’ve not seen you live, unfortunately, but the clips I’ve seen seem to show a much more visceral side to your music

Well you should come to a gig and see!

You’re touring quite extensively towards the end of this year aren’t you?

Yeah, absolutely, I think from next week up to Christmas, it’s all a bit crazy – eye bags for Christmas!

In terms of writing, you said you did the demos and from what I understand you do the bulk of the writing yourself rather than jam on it as a group.

This sounds really megalomaniac-y, but I don’t take it to the band really, I just say “this is what I want you to play!” I literally write it in the she – I’ve got a shed in the garden – I sit in there and write it and record all the drum parts and the bass parts and then I go into pre-production and rehearsal with the band and I say “this is the feel of the song, and I want this part here and this drum fill there…” and they kind of do their thing on it, which is brilliant, but it is basically me being a bit of a control freak with the writing.

It’s so cool that you’re able to do that because just 20 years ago it would have been working on a four track tape recorder and now the technology is just there for you to do all that stuff on your own…

Oh absolutely, I love that side of it. There’s nothing better than, in the morning, walking into your shed with nothing and then in the evening you can say “I made a song!” and it’s got fifty tracks of cello on it or a xylophone on it… well, maybe not a xylophone… but it’s that ability to create something from nothing and the technology nowadays is just phenomenal to be able to do that as well. I use Logic Pro and it’s so complex, I don’t even know how to use most of it. It’s that deep, I mean, where do you stop?

You started writing this album since about half way through last year, is that right?

Yeah, well, I started writing in May and finished it in August, ten weeks later because I’d booked a holiday in Spain. The crux of it was, I’d booked this holiday, so I realised I had ten weeks, a week per song, to get things right. So as long as everything was perfect it would be fine, so no pressure at all [laughs]. So that was the demo stage and then we came back and needed to do pre-production, so we did like a week of pre-production rehearsals. Then we started putting them in the set, so that happened October-ish and then we came back and recorded the album and that was done after about a month of me and the band being down there, maybe a bit longer. Then it was mixing and stuff from January to March and then it kind of got finished in March, but it was always going to be me nagging at the producer because I wasn’t happy with stuff, so I’d be asking him to take out a breath at 32 seconds or whatever. So I was probably a bit pedantic about it…

So there’s an element of perfectionism in the recording process…

Oh god yeah! It’s awful!It’s one of them things. I think the producer absolutely hates me because I go through everything with a fine toothcomb, so I’m like “OK, you can hear me breathing at this point – it all needs to be taking out!” or “I kicked the mic stand at that point, so that has to be taken out.” So yeah, I am very perfectionist, but then you’ve got to be because you only get one shot at it. I don’t want to listen to that album in twenty years’ time and think “Oh god, why didn’t I take out that bit when I kicked the mic stand?!”

Some people really dig that live, in your face approach but, as you say, you only get that one chance to make everything as perfect as you can…

Exactly, my view is, if you want that live sound or whatever, come to a gig, you’ll get plenty of imperfections at a gig [laughs] you get loads of cock ups at gig!  But the thing is, to get that studio experience, for me it’s about perfectionism, and maybe I do take it to the nth degree, but that’s just who I am. Studio albums will always be a bit pedantic and perfected.

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But it’s really fun, too, the art of recording and, as you say, making something from nothing, so you have to take every opportunity I guess.

Exactly. So many bands… a lot of my friends, they go into the studio, play the songs as they’d do at a gig and… leave! That’s just… you can’t just leave at that point, that’s when you start thinking about overdubs and drop ins and how do we bring in a cello player at this point and how would that work. And that, for me, is where the studio has its place above live stuff, because it gives you the freedom to do so much more than what’s on stage and you know it’s there, why not use it?

All that said, you must be excited to be getting back out on the road and…

Rock out!

Yeah I love the live stuff, and to me, I love both equally but they’re so completely different. In so many interviews they ask the question of which I prefer, live or studio, and, you know, I love them both because  they’re so different. You can’t compare them because they’re both so intense – you’ve got the excitement and living on the edge of the live stuff but then you’ve got the creative growth that you have in the studio that you don’t get time on stage, and you don’t have the utility to do that without having a violin player sat next to you, so you know they’re both wonderful in totally different contexts.

You mentioned musically evolving, but your look has also shifted on this record

Yeah I put weight on [laughs]

Well I was going to say a darker image but we can go with that…

I went to Spain and put loads of weight on – I drank loads of beer and Sangria and that’s what happened [laughs].

That’s what you should do when you go Spain isn’t it?

Well yes! Well, I’ve lost that weight anyway now… that look – I’ve always been into the dark and gothic. There are videos from a few years back when I was wearing corsets and stuff, so it’s always been there but I think because the album is such a cohesive thing, I’ve tied that in more with how I look on stage, the heavy eye liner and stuff.

What is the main aim now for you – are you hoping to travel outside of Europe?

Well, that would be awesome. It would be great to do America and things like that and I’d love to Japan as well which is… a long way in the future, but they’re big dreams and you’ve got to kind of look at it on a little scale, so promote the album in Europe, hopefully make it grow a bit more and write another album, get in the studio again and do that and to… keep evolving really and keep pushing the music and my song writing – that’s a big step for me next – more writing.

Do you enjoy the writing as much as the playing?

I, eeerrr, well, when I’m doing it I really enjoy it but when I’m not doing it, it’s a bit of a bind, like “oh man, I can’t write a song!” Every time I do write a song I get really giddy about it and I’m like “I’ve written a song, it’s dead good, yay!” and then afterwards I lose all confidence in it and have to start again and build that confidence again, so I’ll have to start all that again this year I suppose.

With that, was there a sense of pressure in trying to create a follow up to what was a very successful album?

Well, it’s weird actually, everyone was nagging me for a new one. They were nagging me for four years, because I put out the last one and they were like “we love it, do another!” and I just wanted to get over the first one first! So that took a while and then we were touring so extensively that I just had no time to sit and write. Because when do you get time to sit and write? You’re sat in a van, with the band and you cannot get inspired sitting in a van with a band talking and singing daft songs at you and you’ve got no room to write anyway, so how could ? So that’s why it needed to be the ten week thing and really structured. You know, locking myself away really helped because it’s hard to write when you have a million other things going on. But you know everybody wanted a new album, so I did that structured thing, so it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t like everybody was… everyone talks about the “difficult second album” but to me, this is like the first album – this is more me and more of a stamp of what I wanted to put on it, so this is more like the first one and I’m worried now about the second one! [laughs]

What about the lyrics? I know they’re very personal to you, what inspires you to write?

I tend to take them from weird things. I don’t know if you’ve seen the press release stuff on the album but it’s all very… I used a lot of very Southern gothic themes for the album. So I was reading lots of different things like Mark Twain and then looking at lots of different artists and photography on Pinterest and using that for inspiration. And listening to lots of other music too, because there was a lot of… with the southern gothic thing you’ve got deep south / Louisiana type themes and stuff, but there’s a lot of other people writing which is also interest, so taking inspiration from that and twisting it and making it your own, so I did a lot of that. Also I did a lot of watching TV, which seems like a right cop out, but I have these things I call sponge days which were one or two days a week watching southern gothic films or shows like True Blood or True detective and making mind maps about them and the struggles and themes of the characters within the programmes, so I did that a lot and drew a lot of inspiration from that and made it personal.

And that fed in to creating this very cohesive album which is ‘lose control’.

Yes, and that, for me, was very important. Making a cohesive, connected album where the songs made sense with each other. Because the first album really was a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album and on this one I wanted all the songs to tie in together and all the themes and topics to work together… I wanted it to flow really. Which hopefully it succeeds.

I’m very much a fan of the album  as a concept and a lot of artists say that sequencing the album into a coherent flow is almost as hard as writing the songs in the first place.

Absolutely. That was kind of one of the things that no one ever thinks about – what order to put them in – it is a daft thing, because you never think about it and as a listener you don’t even think about why they did it in a certain way. But when you are trying to create an album, you need to think about how each song flows into the next topic wise, theme wise and, of course, sonically. There is a difference in the songs, for example ‘your fever’ is a lot metallier and heavier than ‘burn your anger’ which is next to it and which is a more British sort of sound. And it was the idea that it had to flow sonically, and it took effort to make it work and it was difficult and we did have to think carefully when we were programming the track order.

I think that’s all the questions I’ve got, but thank you and it’s been really interesting talking to you.

Thank you so much.

And with that Chantel has gone. ‘Lose control’ is a remarkable album and is out on October 9th, don’t miss either the album or the live shows – the former is a stunning work of art whilst the latter are guaranteed to be electric. You can pre-order the album here

 All photos: Steve Howdle

Chantel McGregor On Tour 2015

Stockton, The Arc

Thursday 24th September 2015

Box Office:  01642 52519 / Tickets: £13.00 adv / £15.00 door

http://arconline.co.uk

Stockton Arts Centre, Dovecot Street, Stockton on Tees, TS18 1LL

Louth Riverhead Theatre

Friday 25th September 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £14.00

www.louthplaygoers.com

Victoria Road, Louth, Lincolnshire, LN11 0BX

Wrexham, Central Station

Saturday 26th September 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.centralstationvenue.com

15 – 17 Hill Street, Wrexham, LL11 1SN

Birmingham, The Institute, The Temple

Thursday 1st October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.theinstitutebirmingham.com

78 Digbeth High Street, Birmingham, B5 6DY

Ruislip, The Tropic

Friday 2nd October 2015

Box Office: 020 8707 2256 / Tickets: £14.00 adv / £15.00 door

www.tropicatruislip.co.uk

Grosvenor Vale, Ruislip, Middlesex, HA4 6JQ

Halifax, Playhouse

Friday 9th October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.halifaxplayhouse.org.uk

King Cross Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire HX1 2SH

Southport, The Atkinson Blues Festival

Saturday 10th October 2015

Box Office: 01704 533333 / Tickets: £15.00

www.theatkinson.co.uk

Lord Street, Southport, PR8 1DB

Doncaster, The Dome

Friday 16th October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.the-dome.co.uk

Doncaster Lakeside, Bawtry Road, Doncaster, South Yorkshire DN4 7PD

Retford, The Elms

Saturday 17th October 2015

Box Office: 07737 130534 /Tickets: £12.50 adv / £15.00 Door

London Road, Retford, Nottinghamshire, DN22 7DX

 

Sheffield, Greystones

Wednesday 21st October 2015

Box Office: 0114 266 5599 / Tickets: £13.00

www.mygreystones.co.uk

Greystones Road, Sheffield, S11 7BS

Edinburgh, The Caves

Thursday 22nd October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

8-12 Niddry Street South, Edinburgh, EH1 1NS

Glasgow, Nice N Sleazy

Friday 23rd October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.nicensleazy.com

421 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G2 3LG

Carlisle, The Venue

Saturday 24th October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.thevenuecarlisle.co.uk

English Gate Plaza, Carlisle, CA1 1RP

Salisbury, Arts Centre

Monday 26th October 2015

Box Office: 01722 321744 / Tickets: £15.50 adv / £18 door

www.salisburyartscentre.co.uk

Bedwin Street, Salisbury, SP1 3UT

Exeter, Phoenix

Tuesday 27th October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £14.00

www.exeterphoenix.org.uk

Gandy St, Exeter, Devon EX4 3LS

Bridport Arts Centre

Wednesday 28th October 2015

Box Office: 01308 427183 / Tickets: TBA

www.bridport-arts.com

South Street, Bridport, Dorset, DT6 3NR

Brighton, Komedia

Thursday 29th October 2015

Box Office: 0845 293 8480 / Tickets: £14.00

www.komedia.co.uk/brighton

44-47 Gardner Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1UN

Lincoln, Engine Shed

Saturday 31st October 2015

Box Office: 01472 349222 / Tickets: £13.00

www.engineshed.co.uk

University of Lincoln, Brayford Pool, Lincoln LN6 7TS

Ripley, Town Hall

Saturday 12th December 2015

Tickets: £15.00

http://ripleylive.com

Ripley Town Hall, Ripley, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG3 3AX

Newcastle, The Cluny

Sunday 13th December 2015

Box Office: 0191 230 4474

Tickets: £13.00

www.thecluny.com

36 Lime Street, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 2PQ

Morecambe, The Platform

Monday 14th December 2015

Box Office:  01472 349222

Tickets: £13.00

www.lancaster.gov.uk/platform/

Old Station Buildings, Marine Rd W, Morecambe LA4 4DB

Leeds, The Brudenell

Tuesday 15th December 2015

Box Office: 0113 245 5570

Tickets: £13.00

www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk

33 Queens Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS6 1NY

Bristol, The Tunnels

Wednesday 16th December 2015

Box Office: 0845 6050255

Tickets: £12.00

www.thetunnelsbristol.co.uk

Arches 31 & 32, Bristol & Exeter Mews, Lower Station Approach Road,
Temple Meads, Bristol, BS1 6QF

Derby, The Flowerpot

Thursday 17th December 2015

Box Office:  01332 834438

Tickets: £13.00

www.rawpromo.co.uk

25, King Street, Derby, DE1 3DZ

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