A well-trodden path to pop fame was never likely for Laurel. Strong-willed is one way to describe the Southampton-born, east London-based singer who writes, plays, produces and mixes her own music. Free-spirited might be more apt.
From the first time she stepped on stage, aged 14 and already confident enough to perform her own songs solo, Laurel Arnell-Cullen has refused to play by the rules.
Calling herself Under The Laurels, she started gigging around Southampton and pressed hundreds of EPs and sold them at shows and online.
At college, she skipped classes to work with local producer Shadow Child, then a night-time Radio 1 DJ. He wanted her to sing on dance track, but instead she persuaded him to record one of her own songs – the hauntingly beautiful Next Time. Uploaded to Soundcloud one night, by the next morning several labels had made Laurel offers.
For two years, the teenager was sent around the world to work with a host of A-list writers and producers. “The plan was to turn me in to a glossy pop star, but it was never going to work. My reaction to that was to swing the opposite way. I haven’t written with anyone since.”
For the next six months, Laurel lived alone in a flat in west London, teaching herself programming and trying to work out her sound.
“While I was co-writing, I’d watched how the producers worked,” she says. “I’d get them to show me how to use software and to put drums on my laptop so I could play around with them. Those years were my education. I left able to make my own music and with lots of live experience.”
There was an avalanche of online love for a handful of singles and two self-released EPs, all of which topped the Hype Machine charts and, after featuring in fashion publications including Vogue, began modeling to fund her music.
In 2015, aged just 20, Laurel returned to guitar for the first time in two years and, in 2016, re-emerged with a rougher, rockier new sound. Her self-released single Life Worth Living won her acclaim everywhere from Radio 1 to Spotify to The New York Times. Apple chose Laurel as its first ever Artist of the Month, supporting follow-up single San Francisco.
Last year, between selling out her own shows, supporting Oh Wonder on tour and finding new fans on the festival circuit, she released the stunning Park EP, which surpassed half a million plays in under a month and drew comparisons to everyone from Lorde and Lana Del Rey to Fleetwood Mac and Florence and the Machine.
Laurel’s long-awaited debut album, Dogviolet, was completed in early 2018 and its twelve tracks set the singer’s raw, riveting vocals to bewitching, sensual songs as rooted in rock as they are reliant on electronics.
“Mostly, it was recorded at home, where I have lots of guitars, a mini keyboard and a laptop,” says Laurel. “For the first time, I also used a studio, recording everything to tape so it sounded cooler and adding live drums to give the songs some swing. It was quite a lengthy process that took me some time to figure out. Back at home, I layered the real drums with electronic drums.”
The result is an album that’s rich and resonant, but still unsettlingly stripped back, with Laurel’s captivating vocals always to the fore. As for the lyrics, you can hear she’s been through a few upheavals…
Lead single Lovesick sets the tone, describing the mania of being in love, but feeling trapped by your own emotions. The spine-chilling, PJ Harveyesque Same Mistakes deals with the fall-out.
“Same Mistakes is about imagining your ex with someone else,” says Laurel. “Like the first Friday night you’re not together. Have they already moved on? Who are they with? Are they sleeping with them already? Even if you don’t want the person back, those thoughts can drive you mad.”
Sun King, a late addition to Dogviolet, is a bare-boned beauty that hints, at last, at a brighter future for Laurel’s love life.
“I’m hoping that’s me turning a corner,” laughs Laurel. “But you never know. You’ll have to wait for the next album to find out.”