Blues talent Chantel McGregor talks to Dave Woodhall.
Chantel McGregor is one of the brightest talents on the flourishing blues scene. Her debut album Like No Other led to comparisons with some of the great names and since then she has been a regular on the live circuit throughout Europe as well as winning categories in the British Blues Awards for the past two years.
From picking up her first guitar at the age of three then becoming the youngest-ever Rockschool graduate at eight, Chantel must have been destined for a career in music. Was this how it was mapped out?
“At first I was going to be an English teacher. I did my A levels with that in mind then when I got to 18 I thought ‘What do I want to do? Do I want enjoyment or to have a career.’ I let my heart rule my head and I did a music degree. By now I was touring, doing two or three gigs a week, which meant I never had any real student life. My mates would ask me if I was going out on a Friday night and I’d be gigging.”
Growing up in the nineties, when music was very laddish-orientated with Oasis and Blur leading the way and the only visible women seemed to be in girl bands, the pressure must have been great to conform and get away from the blues.
“I never really had any pressure on me while I was growing up because I never told anyone what I was doing. I’d be out gigging from when I was 12, doing jam sessions in pubs, so I’d get to school next morning bleary eyed in my maths lesson but I’d never tell anybody so they didn’t say anything.”
Blues seems to go in cycles. Every fifteen years or so a new generation of musicians arrives and the current names seem to be taking the music in a different direction and less wedded to the originals.
“Blues has definitely come round again. There are bands such as the Black Keys playing to a younger audience, showing that you don’t have to be older to love the music. It’s difficult for me to say the best new names because I don’t always listen to blues. I try to be diverse in what I listen to as well as what I play, I’m really into Porcupine Tree right now but they’re not blues or young. For me it’s hard to sing a miserable song about cotton picking as I’ve never done that. Cotton picking to me is going into M&S for a new dress. Modern blues has moved away from that style into songs about going out, relationships, those sort of themes.”
You’ve been playing the festival circuit recently. That must be difficult with the weather we’ve been having.
“Luckily the promoters have got wise to the fact that weather can affect their audiences so the last couple I’ve played have been indoors. That’s much better. I’m not too bothered about festivals, in fact I’ve never been to one if I wasn’t playing. Places like Glastonbury are more about fashion and being seen than the music.”
Your father’s also your tour manager. How does that work while you’re on the road?
“It’s really good. It’s hard to trust people in the music industry so at least I know he’s not going to screw me over. I co-manage myself and we make all the decisions together. My dad’s a chartered accountant so he has a good business brain, we’ve had some experiences but so far we’ve managed to avoid a real nightmare.”
The night before we spoke, Chantel had been with one of her great influences, the legendary Bonnie Raitt.
“She’s an absolutely lovely lady. She’d been playing the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and we met backstage. I met her ten years ago and she gave me some advice I’ve stuck to so this was like a catch-up. She’s a lovely woman, so friendly and genuine. There are so many egos in the blues, as there are in all genres of music, but I can’t understand that. We’re all doing the same thing, we want to make music, to get by and to enjoy ourselves. Some people don’t get that but Bonnie, and also Joe Bonnamassa, they’re so nice to everyone.”
In 2011 you won Best Young Artist at the British Blues Awards and last year you were voted Best Female Vocalist. What are you going to win this time?
“I’d like to win both the categories I’ve been nominated for, but there’s going to be some competition. I’m the first woman ever to be nominated in the best guitarist and I’m up for female vocalist as well. The voting ends at the end of the month so fingers crossed.”
And finally, which direction do you see your music moving in the future?
“My first album wasn’t strictly blues. I can’t do just one thing – I’d get bored. Of the latest three songs I’ve written one’s acoustic, one’s a pop/rock number a bit like Beyonce and the other is a country song that’s a Bonnie Raitt type. So I can’t say which direction I’ll go in because I’ll go in more than one.
“As soon as you get bored that’s when you should stop. If you go on stage and just go through the motions that’s when you’ve had it. But it doesn’t matter how old you are, keep going as long as you enjoy it.”
Chantel McGregor plays the Robin 2 on July 3rd.