Yesterday, if Vernon Kay had asked me, as a representative of the Great British Public, to name Five Blues Guitarists, I’d probably have trotted out John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix and maybe Eric Clapton. In fact, with the exception of the token white bloke, they all would’ve been black and either old or dead, and they would all have been male.
Today that list is blown apart, and it’s all down to Chantel McGregor. Young, white, female and very much alive, Chantel first picked up a guitar at the age of three. Since then accolades and prizes have followed her like dolphins follow a bow wave. Youngest person ever to pass a Rockschool exam grade. First to score 100% in a BTEC at Leeds Music College. Winner of a 2006-7 Outstanding Musician prize. A First Class Honours degree in popular music. Voted Young Artist of the Year at 2011’s British Blues Awards.
Still in her mid-twenties, it’s as if her professional career is just beginning. In fact she’s already sold out prestigious venues, played coast to coast – Morecambe to Grimsby in two days straight – gigged as far afield as Poland and is a regular feature at blues festivals up and down the land. She’s even appeared in a documentary on the history of the Telecaster, along with fellow aficionados Keith Richards, Albert Lee and Jeff Beck.
Chantel first picked up a guitar at the age of three. Since then accolades and prizes have followed her like dolphins follow a bow wave.
From the cover shot of her 2011 album, Like No Other, which sees Chantel reclining on a pillow with her soul mate, a purple Fender ‘Bonnie Raitt’ Stratocaster, it’s hard to square the hint of rock chick glamour with the modest life of domestic normalcy that she still shares with her parents in the cosy provincial bosom of West Yorkshire. But it also signifies what I liked about her from the start, which is an unwillingness to be pigeonholed: the petite dolly in a party dress who thrives on real ale and takeaway curries; the smart young businesswoman who grew up in the ’90s but maintains links to musicians from the ’70s that most of her peers will never have heard of; the unreconstructed Bradford accent behind the star talent that anyone who watches five minutes of her on YouTube can see she possesses in spades.
She’s the brassy lass from the north ‘where we do what we want’, an Alice from Wonderland set down in the middle of a double-headed axe massacre. Somewhere in her past, some fool told her she should pack in the guitar because boys would be intimidated. Well so they damn well should be. Once she gets her dainty hands round the neck of a fret-board, she’s not afraid to take anybody on – Hendrix, Led Zep, Steve Vai, you name it – and look good doing it.
Chantel’s heritage, handed down from her musical father, reaches back to the pre-punk era, so if your idea of music begins and ends with the three-chord three-minute philosophy of The Pistols and The Fall, it’s probably best to look away now. The album is a reflection of this, with covers of songs by Sonny Boy Williamson, Fleetwood Mac and Robin Trower, but it also reaches forward to the present through her own compositions, which boast a beefed-up modern production courtesy of Livingstone Brown – who has worked with the likes of Nina Hagen, Maxi Priest and Kylie Minogue – and Chantel’s own vocals striking an impression somewhere between Kylie and Shania Twain. But it’s the astounding lead guitar work that stands out above all else, not least on her 14-minute rendition of Robin Trower’s ‘Daydream’.
it’s hard to square the hint of rock chick glamour with the modest life of domestic normalcy that she still shares with her parents in the cosy provincial bosom of West Yorkshire
When I interviewed her, she had just given a workshop as part of the BBC’s Introducing Musicians Masterclass, which also featured such well-knowns as Jamie Cullum and Trent Reznor, and was busy writing songs for a new album, which she hopes to bring out later this year.
JAL: Your last Facebook post was about what you were going to wear for the BBC Guitar Master Class. So what did you wear?
CM: I ended up wearing a lovely beige floral dress. It was a big dilemma – something feminine yet not too 'spangly'. I do love dressing up.
JAL: How did it go?
CM: The BBC Masterclass was great. I felt really honoured to be asked to be one of the 'experts' but dumfounded as to why they gave me that title. I met and worked with some really lovely people and I think it was a really informative day for everyone.
JAL: You’ve played guitar since an early age. Was that always going to be your career path or was there ever anything else you wanted to do?
CM: I started detuning my dad’s classic guitars as a toddler and he got fed up of me knocking dents in them, so my parents bought me a half-size guitar when I was three and I started lessons when I was seven. Because I started so young, it was always something that seemed quite natural to me. When I went to high school, they had no music GCSE course so I did my Grade Eight privately and ended up choosing GCSEs and ‘A’ levels that were nothing to do with music. At eighteen, I was toying with going to university to study English, but instead I realised I'd much rather do music, hence I went to Leeds College of Music and studied on a BTEC course (the equivalent of four ‘A’ levels), and then did a degree in Popular Music. Throughout my degree, I was gigging locally and building a following, so it's been a natural progression into music, with a bit of English thrown in.
"I felt really honoured to be asked to be one of the 'experts' but dumfounded as to why they gave me that title"
JAL: Who do you see as your target audience?
CM: I think of my target audience as friends rather than audiences, so many of the people who have been coming to my shows are now close friends. I see my core audience as anyone who likes good music. It's not an age group or a gender thing, as I have people aged between 5 and 80 coming to the shows, and there's as many women as men. At first the core audience was men aged between 35 and 65, a typical blues-rock audience, but the last couple of years have seen men and women of all ages coming to the shows. I think this is because I put on a family show, there's no swearing and masculine rock poses, it's about listening to good music and having a good time.
JAL: To most people, the typical profile of a blues guitarist is old, black and male. What advantages and disadvantages are there to being young, white and female?
CM: I think people's perception of ‘what is blues’ and the images associated with it are changing. Bands like The White Stripes, The Black Keys and Seasick Steve are pushing boundaries, making blues relevant to modern culture and changing the old connotations of picking cotton and what have you. I don't really see myself as looking bluesy, rocky, pop. I just see what I play as ‘Chantel Music' and how I look is just my image. There are disadvantages when you walk into a music shop and they ask my dad if he wants to try anything, and when he says 'My daughter does', they explain to me what a plectrum is. That’s a true story! But on the other hand, how I play juxtaposed with how I look surprises a lot of people and they like it.
JAL: Do your fans see you as a ‘sex symbol’? How aware or bothered are you about your image?
CM: Me, a sex symbol? I'm not sure anyone sees me as that. To me, my image is important, I want to look good. I like dressing up, looking girlie and going shopping, I'm a typical girlie girl. I love the whole long floaty dress look. Stevie Nicks is a big influence on my image – she had some gorgeous dresses.
JAL: What have been your career highs and lows so far?
CM: The BBC Masterclass was a high for me, as I met some lovely talented people. Any show where everyone has a fantastic time is another high, the more people there, the better too. I don't really acknowledge the lows. There aren't any major lows. Some days things go wrong and you have to deal with things, but I wouldn't class them as lows, just business and stressful, but the bad things that happen make the good things even better.
I think a lot of people go into music to be a 'famous rock star', but to me it's all a bit false.
JAL: What do you want to achieve? What are your musical and career goals?
CM: I think the main goal is to be happy doing whatever I'm doing. I'd like to be able to play my music to as many people as possible and for them to enjoy it. I really want to get my next album out this year and to just push it as far as I can.
JAL: How important to you are fame, money or a creative legacy?
CM: I think making a living is important to everyone, if you can't afford to put petrol in the van, you can't get to the shows. I'm lucky in that I still live at home with my parents and they help me as much as they can. I think success is something you should be proud of, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices, and it doesn't fall out of the sky, so it can never be taken for granted. I think a lot of people go into music to be a 'famous rock star', but to me it's all a bit false. I think things happen for you if you work at it. It's important to have a goal, but not to get above yourself.
JAL: The musicians you work with come from an older generation, associated with names going back to the 1970s like Robin Trower and the Climax Blues Band. What’s that like, musically and socially? Do you hang out with them, or with friends of your own generation?
CM: I worked with Robin's drummer, Chris, on my album and he's my live drummer at the moment too, he's fantastic. Livi, my producer, has worked with so many incredible musicians, some really famous people, so working with him is great. It's so important to work with a producer who you get on with and they can get the best from you. It's not enough to go into a studio and push the ‘record’ button, a producer’s job is to creatively draw everything from you and put it into the recording. It's great working with experienced musicians and industry people, you can learn a lot. Socially, it's wonderful too. My friends are people in the industry, who tend to be older than me rather than people my own age. I just get on better with people who are older than me.
JAL: Is there anyone you’d like to work with?
CM: I'd love to work with Lady Gaga, I think it's great how she does everything outside of the box. I think working with her would be great fun. I know she doesn't fit into the general conception of the style of music I play, but I think it’s good to try different things and experiment with what people don't expect you to do – take risks. Or else things get stagnant.
JAL: What would you be prepared to sacrifice for your music and what would you not?
CM: I wouldn't sacrifice my music for anything. I’ve sacrificed so much for my music throughout my life – playing out as a kid, going out on a Friday night as a teen, boyfriends for the last goodness knows how many years. But these sacrifices are the things that I’ve had to do to get to where I am, and there’ll be millions more sacrifices to make before I'm done.
The Chantel McGregor Band continues to tour across Britain and Europe throughout the year and will play in London at the 100 Club on 14 June.
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