Laura Cox doesn't know how to not rock out. You can see it in her performance at the 2021 Hellfest. There she is, onstage at the largest rock festival in her native France. Her fingers are sliding all over her Gibson Les Paul, cranking out an impressive array of bluesy, AC/DC-esque riffs, her vocal delivery is impeccable, she’s running between band members and just selling the hell out of her stage presence.
Before her, there is an empty field. There’s no-one there. The show must go on, but the audience is sheltering at home, watching on computers and wondering when the damn pandemic is going to end so they can sweat and guzzle overpriced beer as the music gods intended.
But Cox’s unique career path has prepared her for these moments. As a teenager, she did what thousands of others did: started a YouTube channel, learning how to play to the cameras with an audience of none. But even then, as she posted videos of note-perfect covers of songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dire Straits and Guns N’ Roses, her talent was undeniable. Looking back, it seems inevitable she would begin climbing the ladder toward her own rock stardom.
Now, with the release of her third album, Head Above Water, Cox is poised for a big breakout. While the album is filled with catchy riffing, soloing and vocal hooks, Cox also branched out to explore new sonic territory with banjo and organ playing more roles.
“I really wanted to explore a bit more because I’ve always been really interested in bluegrass,” she says. “For this album, I really wanted to not limit myself to the guitar, and I wanted to create new textures.”
Written largely while Cox was escaping lockdown in Paris by windsurfing in Portugal, leaving voice memos for herself with song ideas, Head Above Water has a relaxed vibe that belies the effort it took to combine the old sounds with the new.
“It was a bit hard because I wanted to release an album that’s coherent. The more we were recording and thinking about the songs, the more I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I really like the songs that should be more on the harder side. But I really want to also add some that are softer, and we have to find a way to link those,” she says.
While the softer songs offer a new path for Cox, there’s still plenty of old-school, down-and-dirty bluesy sleeze on offer. Within those confines, songs can live and die by the riff and in a genre that’s been around as long as rock ’n’ roll, finding a way to keep things fresh can be a major challenge. Cox’s dabbling in new genres helped her find ways to take an original approach to the classic genre she’s known for.
“I’m not saying I’m going to create the revolution in rock ’n’ roll, but I think for me, that’s what inspires me a lot,” she says. “Whenever I feel like, okay, I’m stuck, I’m never going to write something original, something new. I think that if I’m playing banjo or even listening to electronic music, I’m just opening myself more to everything that’s happening.
“For example, during the lockdown, I started playing drums. And now I’m starting to see guitars in a way I didn’t before, like my right hand should be like if I was playing drums. It’s my rhythm and I’ve always neglected this. So I’m spending more time rediscovering the guitar, by several means. And that’s helping me to have more inspiration.”
The album doesn’t just capture Cox’s musical growth, but also her growth as a person – one who has to make decisions that can alter her career. That sense of new comfort with responsibility is captured on the song Wiser.
“I realized I should be taking my career into control because I used to say yes to everybody and follow the leader, follow everybody and say, yes, yes, everything is okay for me,” she says.
“And I think this past month, I really learned how to say no to a lot of people and take my career a bit more in my hands, take control. And that’s a good feeling. I think that’s kind of what this song is about, realizing life is passing by, and I’m really, really happy with what’s going on in my career, but I know I can do better.”
Having that sort of new power over her career shows how far Cox has come from being a teenager in her bedroom, playing along to the greats. The platform gave her her start, and she’s still posting videos, but it’s opened up a future far bigger than another cover of Sultans of Swing.
“Music is my life, and I can live from this. And that’s a really, really big change. Because at the time, when I started posting videos on YouTube, I was still studying. I didn’t think at all that my life could be music – I was just doing this for fun. And I’m still doing this for fun.
“But YouTube was a really good starting point. It opened me to another world. At the time, I was really introverted, and a bit shy and just comfortable at home shooting videos. And more and more I started being stronger, I created the band and we are touring. So there’s been real evolution.”
- Head Above Water is out now via earMUSIC.