Laura Cannell: “I take my instruments and I drive off to a church and, if it’s empty, I just sneak in and play” | Songlines
Thursday, May 9, 2024

Laura Cannell: “I take my instruments and I drive off to a church and, if it’s empty, I just sneak in and play”

By Olivia Cheves

Olivia Cheves speaks to composer and musician Laura Cannell about her compulsion to make music, why she had to find her own traditions and why she’d love to record an album in an aircraft hangar

Laura Cannell Forest

Laura Cannell (photo: Lily Monsey)

“I’ve always been majorly aware of my own taste,” says Laura Cannell. “There’s lots of people that can do amazing traditional music really, really well. And even though I can play a lot of traditional music, it doesn’t always speak to me. I really needed to find my own tradition.”

The composer, recorder player, violinist and label owner is certainly singular in her artistic approach. Her music eludes easy categorisation, sitting at the confluence of early and medieval styles, Baroque, European folk and modern experimentalism. She records most of her music in one improvised swoop, attuned to and in collaboration with the space around her, whether it be the vaulted interior of an East Anglian church ruin (2017’s HUNTER HUNTRESS HAWKER), the cavernous expanse of the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station (2020’s The Earth with Her Crowns) or the resonant shell of the Southwold Lighthouse (2016’s Simultaneous Flight Movement).

“The way that I record and make music is often ritualistic,” Cannell explains, “in the sense that I take my instruments and I drive off to a church and, if it’s empty, I just sneak in and play. That’s part of my ritual for making myself better at what I do and pushing myself, it’s to keep giving myself new spaces and new landscapes.” She adds that she currently has her heart set on an aircraft hangar.

Cannell has been prolific with releases since her 2014 solo debut Quick Sparrows Over the Black Earth – prior to that she was part of the innovative early-folk outfit Horses Brawl. A quick look at the Bandcamp page of her label, Brawl Records, unveils 30+ albums, EPs, collaborations, remixes, concept projects, field recordings and live sessions. “I feel like I’m holding myself back if I don’t let myself write as much music as I want to,” says Cannell.

She’s currently in the midst of a 12-part series, Year of Lore, where she’ll record and release a new EP for every month of 2024. It’s the second time Cannell has attempted such a challenge – in 2021 she teamed up with cellist and Crash Ensemble artistic director Kate Ellis for These Feral Lands – A Year Documented in Sound and Art, a sonic diary series responding to the changing months of a unique year. This latest run sees Cannell working solo, interpreting ancient found fragments and the lores of nature, soundtracking her own speculative history of Doggerland – a now-sunken stretch of Pleistocene land beneath the North Sea that once connected the UK to mainland Europe. “I’m not recording them ahead of time, because I want them to be kind of instant. You can get a little instalment of how I’m feeling and where the music’s going.”

When we speak, Cannell is also preparing for three shows at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival where she is this year’s Artist in Residence. The first of the three festival shows will see Cannell performing her 2022 album Antiphony of the Trees in Norwich Cathedral – one of her favourite buildings in the city, and one that, until now, she’s never had the opportunity to collaborate with. She’s also working with the Norfolk Folklore Society as a live accompanist for their storytelling experience exploring the grisly history of Norwich’s former gothic jail: the Guildhall.

The third show will see the revival of Modern Ritual – Cannell’s own performance series that she has helmed since 2017. Each show sees a line-up of musicians, writers, actors and makers as they investigate personal and artistic rituals through music, words and, in this iteration, live pottery throwing. For Cannell, it’s a concept that lets artists play in the space between their performer identity and their personal one. “Everybody has funny rituals, and ideas and patterns in their work,” says Cannell. “I like to explore the humanness of playing and the nature of never playing the same thing twice in the same way. And I think it gives you confidence, because it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being present, and being in the room.”

The residency marks a seminal moment for the musician, who was born and raised in Norwich, and whose family history in the area dates back 11 generations. “It’s funny,” she muses. “You can go all around the world, but in your own town you don’t always get that recognition usually. So it feels really nice to be wholly doing the music that I am making and collaborating with other people, but in the place that really started it all off.”

Cannell is a self-taught traditional fiddler with an extensive education in classical recorder playing, but it wasn’t the folk legacies of her hometown that lit the musical spark in her. “Being from Norfolk, there are traditions here, but they didn’t really speak to me – like shanties,” she concedes. Instead, Cannell looked further back, at European traditions, alighting on medieval minstrels like French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut, and German abbess Hildegard Von Bingen. “What I wanted to do is bring all of those things together to make my own voice,” she says. “I would study and study and study, and play and play all the repertoire and music by those people. But the best way for me to find myself was to do that, and then cast it all aside, and see what was there.”

What was there was the sound that has since become Cannell’s calling card: rugged, raw and technically complex, built on imagination, improvisation, intuition and the many facets of genre, art, architecture and history that fuel them.

“It’s like when you’re little and you start playing – you don’t realise how much music is going in all the time, into your head and under your fingers. You’ve got all this mechanical muscle memory, you’ve got the feeling of the music, you’ve got all this harmony already inside you. I wanted to find a way of trusting that I had something to say. And not feeling like because I don’t fit into one tradition, I’m not a traditional musician.”

Laura Cannell will be performing three times at Norfolk & Norwich Festival (May 10-26)

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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