Chantel McGregor is a young British blues-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Bradford, West Yorkshire, in Northern England. At seven years of age she started taking guitar lessons. At the grand old age of eight she became the youngest person in the U.K. to pass a “Rock school” grade exam. In her teens, McGregor was told by major labels that she had a “great voice, but girls don’t play guitar like that.” Ignoring that advice, she enrolled with the renowned Leeds College of Music U.K., and she became the first student at the college to achieve a 100% pass mark.
In later years, McGregor’s name continued to grow as she was voted “Young Artist of the Year” in 2011 and then “Best Female Vocalist” in 2012 at the British Blues Awards. Also in 2011, (the centenary year of Robert Johnson’s birth), she was invited to contribute to a compilation of classic blues tracks. Her track appears alongside songs from blues greats, such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King and Muddy Waters on 100 Years Of The Blues (Universal Records). Rounding out the spectrum of her career, McGregor has also made an appearance in front of the screen; she joined Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Albert Lee in a documentary film celebrating 60 years of the Fender Telecaster, called “The Original Twang” (McGregor herself plays a Fender Stratocaster).
The musician released her debut album Like No Other in 2011. She currently tours with her rock/blues trio, The Chantel McGregor Band, who THE BOMBER JACKET saw perform live at Blackburn Blues Festival last year. TBJ recently met with the musician in Bilston, Wolverhampton to discuss her career and what’s to come.
TBJ: Hello Chantel. What’s exciting you at the moment?
Chantel McGregor: I’m excited about writing the next album!
And how are you getting on with that?
It’s going okay, I’m working on it. It’s a work in progress. Because it’s good fun, I don’t rush. I kinda let it, you know, ride its course, and I let it evolve.
I’ve got a few questions about your songwriting process. About how songs come to you…
Songwriting is weird for me because I don’t have a process. I don’t have a set thing that works for me. It is not that I write the music first or I write the lyrics first. It’s just how it comes out. For me it can be, you know, I sat here in a pub, or wherever, just writing lyrics. Or it can be, you know, something that will make me think hard about something else–and so I’d write a lyric about it, sitting at home just jamming about on my guitar.
A lot of singer/songwriters (for example folk musicians) tend to write stuff as they jam along with their bands. Do you jam with your band as well? Does stuff come out that way?
Em, we don’t really get much time to jam [laughs].
So, you produce a song and they have to start working with you on it?
Yeah, it’s weird ‘cos I have always kinda worked that way. I write the songs. It may be that I’ve written songs with my producer, or I’ve written songs at home on my own, and then recorded them, and got them off to demo standard. I then do them for a recording, or whatever. And only then do they sort of evolve with the band. That way works for me. It’s because, for me, writing is very, very, personal.
I don’t particularly like co-writing because I like my lyrics to mean something to me –and I don’t really like putting my feelings out there generally. That’s how I am. I put things in boxes [laughs].
And when the completed work’s finished, is it very personal?
Yeah, I feel like I have put it in an envelope and sent it out…
When did you first pick up a guitar?
When I was three. Guitar was my first interest.
Can you remember the first music you heard?
I think it was Free, or it might have been Fleetwood Mac.
So you had blues in your life, straight away?
Yeah, blues. But it was the Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac type of blues though…
And when did you first hear Jimi Hendrix? The reason I ask is because everybody’s interested in the fact that you play guitar almost as if you are Jimi Hendrix reincarnated…
Oh, I don’t feel I was re-incarnated, everybody seems to think that I am though… It’s a bit strange. It has just kinda of always been there. My mom and dad were never mega Hendrix fans or anything like that, but I just remember listening to him, going “Yeah, this is right.”
But I’ve never really sat down and analyzed Hendrix or listened to him that much. It’s always been something that–when it comes on–it’s like, “Yeah, this is it,” and I somehow connect. It’s like I start a connection. It’s a bit weird.
Everybody knows you for your guitar, but you won a recent award for your vocals.
Yeah, I think that’s the thing–you’ve got to be a strong vocalist. I mean it’s great being good at guitar, but without strong vocals you’re not a front person.
What’s it like being on the road with the band? (Chantel tours with Keith McPartling/Andy Mapplebeck on drums and Richard Ritchie on bass.)
It’s fantastic. It’s good fun, yeah. It’s, um, exhausting because you are traveling so much. When we did Finland we did four gigs with two nights of sleep and for two nights we were traveling and flying from four different airports and just generally being in a van, or in an airplane. Or waiting in an airport. It is all very exhausting. You’re doing 48 hours, two gigs and no sleep…
But it’s part of the job, it’s what you do, and the couple of hours on stage makes it worthwhile.
What do you miss most when you’re away from home [North England]?
Em, my mom, my cats…
How many cats have you got?
[Laughs] I’ve got two cats, Sprinkles and Lucky, I miss them. What else do I miss? I miss real ale (we’ve got some good real ale pubs near us). What else do I miss? Not much really.
Is that because you take most of it with you?
Yeah, sometimes my mom comes with me on the road.
Who’s there for you, if you fall?
[Laughs] Depends on how drunk I am [laughs again even louder]. Generally my mom and dad. They always help me and I can talk it out with them and, you know, we’re a family and we’re very, very, close. So I don’t know–if I’ve got any problems I go to them and they help.
Once you said, after you’d done a busy weekend, that you fancied a bit of racing…
Oh I love car racing yeah, it’s one of my hobbies.
Do you get time to do that a lot?
Not as much as I’d like to. I’d like to do lots more racing and I’d very much like to run a better racing car, but I can’t afford one [just yet].
Who is your biggest enemy?
Oh, I don’t know. I think there’s so many people out there that you could class as an enemy. Everyone’s got an opinion and, you know, some people say [things like] “Oh she’s crap,” and “She’s a girl,” and even “She shouldn’t play guitar like that.”
It’s jealousy or whatever. And I just think, you know, I do what I do, they do what they do, and if they want to whine about me then that’s fine. Whatever, I’m not bothered. It doesn’t affect me, I just write a song and put it on an album.
Have you had any horrible reviews?
No, I’ve never had a bad review. But I’ve heard people say, you know on a forum, “Oh she only gets publicity because she’s a girl, if it were a man playing guitar like that they wouldn’t…”
Yeah, but they’re hiding behind the anonymity of the discussion board!
Yeah, they’ve sat behind a computer in their mom’s bedroom going “Ooh, I’ve got to vent on here because nobody will listen to me in real life.”
How do you prove people wrong?
Um, some people do, you know, stick silly messages on YouTube like, “ What you wearing a dress for? You know girls who play rock should wear leather?” And I think it’s like, well, why should I wear leather?
It is just a silly misconception that if you’re a girl, and you play guitar, then you’ve gotta wear leather pants and stilettos and a really, really sharp top. But for me, it’s like “No, I want to wear a floaty dress because I’m comfortable in that, and that’s what I will wear…”
Plus I like shopping. It means I get to go out shopping lots.
Are you happy with the your album Like No Other?
I’m overjoyed, it’s my baby.
Were you happy when it arrived?
Yeah. It was exactly what I wanted.
What do you think is the hardest thing about being a young female blues artist?
Emmm. I think there’s a hell of a lot of pressure in the role. It’s a full-time job, you know. And I love it one million percent.
But it’s a business…and it’s literally [all about] waking up early each morning, dealing with emails, dealing with contracts, sending out invoices and chasing things. You are constantly doing that and you literally put in a 15-hour day.
Even after work, you tend to favor a place where there’s free WiFi so you can catch up on your emails. So we sit, every night–even when we’re not gigging–going through the emails.
There’s no break? No time off?
No, it’s literally seven days a week, 24/7. That’s probably the hardest bit. It’s not having any Chantel time.
But I kinda save it up and go “Right I’m gonna go away for a couple of weeks in the summer” and that’ll be my Chantel time. And I’m not gonna think about music. But I know that I will. And I know that I will deal with the emails.
Do you like business side of music then?
I love the business side, yes. I’ve always had the business ethic.
We literally created our own label to put the album through, everything has been done through my own record label…it’s a total cottage industry. It’s me, my mom and dad, and a producer that we’ve known since I was 15. I surround myself with people I know, love and trust.
Do you think of yourself as a blues artist?
I actually don’t consider myself strictly as blues…my music is “Chantel music.” It’s a bit of pop, it’s a bit of rock, it’s a bit of blues. It’s even a bit of folk. It’s got everything, all mushed together.
For me it’s hard to write the blues. I write songs about television programs or books that I’ve read–because that’s when I’ve experienced the most pain. And, you know, it makes more sense to me [laughs]. Plus, nobody wants to hear songs about my cats… Apparently.