The sound of the Caribbean is now heard everywhere – via streaming and shared platforms, as well as in clubs and on radio stations worldwide. The current term for it is “Tropical Pop,” and even Ed Sheeran and Justin Beiber are doing it. The rhythms and melodies are irresistible, and some artists are blessed with them from birth. Like Rihanna, Laurell didn’t have to search far for inspiration. The twenty-five-year-old singer grew up in an area of West London that’s renowned for its cultural diversity. She’s lived and studied amongst people of different nations, faiths and customs from childhood and her music reflects this same inclusive worldview as she continues to draw upon her Caribbean heritage and reaches out to an international audience.
“My roots are there,” she says. “My father’s from Grenada and my mother’s Jamaican so I grew up immersed in the music and culture of the Caribbean. It’s where my heart is, because my mum sang in church and my dad knew a lot of musicians like Jay Kay and members of Soul II Soul. Jamiroquai used to rehearse at our house and my uncle, who was a bass player, was always practising there too.”
“I heard a lot of funk and Acid Jazz through them and then I inherited a heavy reggae influence from my mum, who used to play Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Luciano… you name it. I heard everything from hardcore dancehall to Bob Marley so I was lucky to have that experience.” Laurell excelled at music in school, passed all her exams and attended Hammersmith College in central London, where she studied composition and performance. Her time there proved inspiring and especially after her teacher – who liked heavy metal – recognised her versatility and encouraged her to interact with musicians from other genres.
“I was the R & B singer in the class who also liked pop and reggae yet he would put me with other rockers or maybe a jazz band… I took part in jam sessions, and that’s when I began to understand
what improvisation is all about. It was amazing. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I wasn’t just listening to different kinds of music – I was actually singing with people who specialised in them.”
Her musical tastes were already diverse, and encompassed artists old and new such as India Arie, Fela Kuti, Tina Turner and Beyonce, whom she credits with being a major influence.
“I really admire artists who have strong presence, and who say something in their music,” she points out, “but I started off singing other people’s songs and had friends writing things for me before realising that I actually had a lot to say for myself. I’d been thinking there was a special formula that allowed you to write, but then discovered I’m someone who can go in the studio and just write from whatever comes to mind, because I’m a vibes person really. I live in the moment and how I’m feeling is what I’m going to write about.”
This is undoubtedly why her music sounds so genuine and unfettered. There’s a lot of personal expression in her songs and yet it took a while for that confidence to shine through. After entering a few talent shows she came to the attention of producer Harmony “H” Samuels, who’d previously worked with the likes of Ariande Grande and Keyshia Cole. He introduced her to the world of professional recording and also produced her debut single, which received a lot of airplay. This experience whetted her appetite for success although rather than waiting on others to provide her with opportunities, she then funded her own recordings by working around the clock.
“I’d finish work at five, get to the studio for six; finish at five in the morning, go home, take a shower and go back to work… It was hard but I was hungry and very passionate about what I was doing. I knew what I wanted and being female in this male dominated industry, going into studios and meeting different producers on my own was difficult but it helped me to gain a better understanding of how the recording process worked, and that was invaluable.
“I feel proud of what I did because I didn’t wait around or rely on anyone else – I did it on my own. I built a team and tried to be the record label, the manager, the stylist and all these other roles before I realised it was time to step back a little. It was a useful experience because I learned the value of doing things professionally and after investing in myself like that, I was better prepared for the next stage.”
In 2015, a mutual friend introduced her to Clifton Dillon aka Specialist, who was in London working on tracks with Jamaican singer Omi, whose latest single Cheerleader was at No. 1 in the UK and also many other countries around the world. Laurell had come to the attention of one of the Caribbean’s most successful music producers, responsible for building the careers of artists like Omi, Shabba Ranks and Lady Patra, who’d all attained international success under his guidance.
“He’s a game-changer and that was all I ever wanted – to meet someone I could join forces with, and who could help me achieve my goals. I had the vision but I needed someone who could take me to the next level.” Citing Cheerleader as an example, Specialist encouraged her to revise her approach, and to write songs that a majority of people could relate to, but that had something different about them.
“I learnt than you can write intricate lyrics but for the most part, the listener wants something very simple,” she explains. “That’s when I realised what kind of music I wanted to do. I want to make music based around a simple melody and will catch your ear straightaway, so that people can sing along to it. Take Bob Marley’s One Love – the melody and the lyrics are so simple, and yet they mean so much. That to me is very important, because those songs will last forever.” Since signing with Specialist, Laurell has spent a fair amount of time in Jamaica, recording at Oufah’s studios in Kingston and Montego Bay. Creating new songs in this environment proved a revelation, and the hits would soon follow. Her first single for them was Crazy Love – a fun, uptempo dancehall song released in early 2017.
“That was from one of the best studio sessions I ever had… You can really feel the energy in that song! But the most important thing for me was to feel like I belong, and being in Jamaica was amazing. I felt completely at home, and everyday brings something new and inspiring. You feel energised just by being there, and I find that music just pours out of me…” Another song to result from those initial sessions at Oufah was Lie Guy. This track was not only exquisitely sang and produced, but revealed a lot about Laurell’s own personality. (And especially lines like, “at times you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in.”) There’s nothing manufactured about her or her music despite its’ lasting international appeal, and her follow-up single Lollipop is another perfect expression of today’s global Caribbean sound. Perfectly timed for the summer, it has exuberance, passion, wit and intelligence, just like the singer herself, who’s already been compared to a young Alicia Keys.
She’s currently working on her debut album, which she promises will “tell stories that paint a picture of who I am and my experiences, and to blend different genres without them being confusing in any way. I want to connect with people globally, and I like to think that my music has a message that can reach people all over the world. “As a young girl from West London it’s important to be the best that I can but then I’m very focussed, and I like to challenge myself wherever possible. It’s all about coming to a better understanding of ourselves and other people, and also what’s happening in the world around us. That’s my goal, and to express all of this musically is a dream for me.”