On February 22, 2019, Laura Rabell was in the studio working on background vocals for her disco-inflected Southern-noir anthem “Ride the Wolf” with friend and collaborator Kristen Cothron and producer Dave Coleman. But in the middle of wrapping up overdubs for her debut album, she found it difficult to focus—Rabell had just had a biopsy, and she was waiting on the results.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before the session, so I decided to get up and do something productive,” recalls the Nashville-based singer/songwriter and alt-country artist. “Dave had sent me rough mixes with a suggested tracklist, so I got everything in order and pressed play on the album for the first time. I was so excited to hear that it finally existed. All of my dreams were coming true. But as soon as the second song started playing, my heart sank. I thought, ‘Wait, this isn’t real life. No one gets to be this happy. I’m going to find out I have cancer today.’ And sure enough, 12 hours later, not long after I got home from the studio, the doctor called me with the news.”
Just three weeks before that fateful day, Rabell had proudly announced her debut record to fans, friends and family via email blast. The big reveal? The album would be called… Immortal. She laughs darkly at the recollection: “I guess you shouldn’t call the Titanic unsinkable. I guess you shouldn’t call your first album Immortal. You’re just asking for it.”
For Immortal, Rabell tapped producer/guitarist Coleman, whose band The Coal Men was championed by John Prine and Todd Snider, supporting albums via their respective labels, Oh Boy and Aimless. Immortal also features Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy (Johnny Cash, George Jones, Bob Dylan) on harmonica and vibraphone, as well as bassist Jeff Thorneycroft and drummer Pete Pulkrabek, current rhythm section for The Rembrandts.
In the midst of her very own tragicomedy, the former musical-theater student pressed on, mustering all the strength she could, finishing mixes for her album just in time to put it on the shelf where it would wait impatiently while she endured two surgeries and four rounds of chemo. Now, a year later, Rabell is cancer free and gearing up for Immortal’s release. “Stressful as that time was,” she says, “working on the record, and having the album launch to look forward to was absolutely my oxygen. Just knowing—I have work to do and music to put out into the world—helped me get through the darkest days of dealing with cancer.”
Pulkrabek wound up being Rabell’s entre into the East Nashville music scene, “rescuing” her from Music Row songwriter rounds and helping her along the path to becoming an artist. “Before I moved to Nashville, my friend Pete saw me play in a songwriter’s round with more happy and commercial songwriters who were trying to crank out radio hits. I was definitely the black sheep of that group. When he heard me play ‘In My Bones,’ a dark and twisty song of self-loathing, with all of the minor chords and a crazy chromatic descending melody, Pete found me after the show and staged an intervention. ‘These are not your people,’ he said. ‘You need to come with me.’” He soon helped her put a band together, and she discovered the true joy of collaborating with friends & fellow musicians to find the most authentic way to express each song.
Growing up in Florida, Laura Rabell’s childhood was filled with music. She sang in the Pensacola Children’s Chorus, took piano lessons and performed in musical-theater productions. But she never gave herself permission to pursue music as a career. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was an accountant. “It seemed like our whole life revolved around him, and how important his work was. And my mom—who struggled with depression and bipolar disorder—usually seemed pretty miserable. I think the subliminal message I got was, ‘Daddy’s work is important and Mommy’s work makes her sad.’ So I couldn’t wait—I was on the warpath to grow up, move out of the house, get a job and do important ‘business stuff.’”
Putting her passion for music on the back burner, Rabell ended up working a corporate gig in Charlotte, N.C., after college. She’d married while still in school, but a few years down the road, as the responsibilities of adult life settled in, something was missing. But everything changed when she started picking up a guitar that her husband, E.J., had received as a birthday gift. “He hadn’t been playing it, so I picked it up. It was a jumbo Ibanez starter-kit guitar, and it felt like clown pants, but it was enough to get me started writing & singing again. E.J. really encouraged me to keep writing my own songs, and I gradually realized how important that creative expression was to me—I was just beginning to develop my own voice and figure out what I had to say. But a major switch had flipped, and I started thinking, ‘How can I make my entire life about this?’ So after a few years of careful planning to make it all possible, we packed up and moved to Nashville.” Once there, Rabell finished writing the songs that became her first album.
Immortal is a satisfyingly shadowy alt-country affair, awash in minor keys, ringing spaghetti Western riffs and a healthy dose of existential dread—a sound the Nietzsche-quoting songwriter describes as Southern noir. “My songs can be a little cynical and fatalistic,” Rabell says. “I mean, I appreciate happy songs, and they have their place. But when I personally sit down to write, it’s just not what interests me. I’ve actually lost co-writers by saying bluntly, ‘I have no desire to finish that song—it’s way too saccharine.’ But I think I come by it honest. I mean, I grew up singing Patsy Cline, but I was also raised learning classical music like Beethoven’s 5th and Moonlight Sonata on the piano. The first song I ever remember writing—spoiler alert: it didn’t make the album—was a heavy-handed and melodramatic piano instrumental in C minor. I was probably only 10 years old at the time.”
While the songs that did make the cut for Immortal were written before Rabell’s breast cancer diagnosis, the album plays like a prognostication of her impending battle with the disease. Of course, her perspective on the lyrics she’d written—especially for the title track “Immortal” and “Simple Song”—shifted dramatically when facing her bleak new reality. “‘Immortal’ was about imagining a worst-case scenario where you lose someone you love, and it’s terrifying. The thought would come out of nowhere and make me cry. But when I wrote the song, it was still an exercise in fiction. It was me saying to my husband, ‘I never want to lose you.’ Just lie to me and say we’ll always be immortal. But last year, that fearful idle thought very quickly went from an exercise in theory to an exercise in reality. And it made the song much more real and vivid and meaningful to sing. Now when I tell my story and play that song, it impacts people more deeply because I feel it more deeply. I’ve really lived it.”
It was a similar situation with “Ride the Wolf,” originally written about conquering one’s fears, including “empowering #metoo commentary about overcoming being a victim” with “some sexual overtones” thrown in for good measure. “I never thought it would end up being this family-friendly cancer anthem,” Rabell says. To explain, her best friend helped kick things off by giving Rabell a little stuffed wolf pup for good luck before her first cancer surgery. Meanwhile, Rabell’s aunt—who was also undergoing chemo around the same time—listened to “Ride the Wolf” and had a trippy, chemo-induced fever dream about the song being some kind of Tom Pettyesque “Won’t Back Down”-style anthem. Everyone in the dream had stuffed wolf pups, and they were throwing them on stage while Rabell played. “So my aunt started buying wolf pups for her chemo buddies and sharing the song with them. Since then, fortunately and unfortunately, I’ve made lots of new friends who are undergoing cancer treatment. Whenever possible, I will give them a wolf pup and tell them about the song. It’s evolved into this unexpected empowerment anthem with a real-life wolfpack family. It’s a great example of how, once you put your song out into the world, you don’t get to decide what it means—other people get to decide what it means to them.”
Laura Rabell’s Immortal is out July 31, 2020.