You’d be forgiven for raising an eyebrow if I said I spent Wednesday night reviewing a gig for little-known artist Laura Doggett at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall. Forget the stuffiness and pretension of the main arena: guests for this debut headline event were ushered into the establishment’s suavely-lit basement venue, complete with ‘20s style bar and leather sofas. I couldn’t help feeling as I took a seat on a high barstool that this was a joint designed solely for Scotch-addled jazz, but the punters seemed suitably impressed with the undeniable ambience of the place as they idled between the islands of coffee tables and assorted chairs.
Whatever it was, the occasion didn’t share quite the same laidback feel as its surroundings. The compere from The Society of the Golden Slippers (Cockney slang, tippers), who played host for the evening, informed us that these gigs were all about acts set to make it big – “we’re not wasting your time”, she seemed to say, and expectation and chances for disappointment shot up from that point on. The Society does have some big names associated with it; past protégés include the likes of Dry The River, Jake Bugg and Lucy Rose, so despite the slightly forced excitement, the audience had good reason to watch with anticipation as warmup act, Seafret took to the stage.
This slightly awkward northern duo didn’t disappoint when it came to talent: a solid set of acoustic tracks got a good reaction from those watching, with songs, ‘Give Me Something’ and ‘Explosion’, as standout numbers for their unique inclusion of string harmonics and bends, more commonly flirted with by crunching metal guitarists, intent on making it difficult for aspiring learners to pick up their riffs. It doesn’t always work: final song, ‘Be There’ dabbles with clunky chord progressions which, whilst intriguing, don’t quite match up to the solid melodies that came before it. That aside, these guys are sure to pull some attention away from showier acts with their enigmatic stage presence: they don’t move much, but they draw you in enough to care, and that’s really where the secret to performance charisma lies.
By the time the headline act took to the stage, people had come round to the format the night would take; the mismatch between forced informality and a desperate need for attention wouldn’t ultimately get in the way of the music, and perhaps with that in mind Laura Doggett took to the stage without a second introduction from the compere: she just started singing. In the little that I’d heard of her before attending, I’d discovered that some of her greatest influences included the likes of Annie Lennox, Kate Bush and her all-time idol, Tracy Chapman. With the latter firmly to one side, the opening number was pure ‘80s pop, ringing out with electric drums and heavy vocal reverb. It was interesting to hear the singer declare in an online interview that she admires performers such as Lennox, who, in her words, use their voices “like instruments”, and it certainly rings true in her own lucid style. She’ll smoothly curl her way up an octave, before exploding into staccato bursts at the end of sentences, but not so much so that it becomes distracting or gimmicky.
Suitably impressed, I listened attentively to the second and third tracks, ‘Into the Glass’ and ‘Part-Time Friend’ and tried to remember the last time I’d seen someone play a cello, as one accomplished member of her band frequently did between the more common bass guitar at his feet. There were wobbles here, whether through nerves or slight over-compensations in sound levels, the bass notes in her voice were being drowned out by the three-piece musicians sat at the back, but it’s still worth noting that finding someone with her style and low-frequency range is rare in an age where people repeatedly plump for nasal falsettos.
Between songs, Doggett’s address to her audience was at once bashful and charming. Originally from the West Country, it’s clear that London hasn’t stamped out her country-bred love and connection with music, as she would repeatedly explain the contexts that led her to write each track: ‘Old Faces’, about her hometown, contains the lyrics, “I’m just trying to find a way to shut them out” (bit stifling in Somerset, is it?), and slightly diffuses the energy from some of the more rounded tones of ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Lizard Lady’, which happen to be among the few tracks with genuine radio potential.
Just at the point where my attention started meandering out of focus to wonder at the mechanics of the electronic drums (how do they get it to sound like the man thumping the pad is sitting in a cave?), we were on the last song and Doggett herself was pondering aloud how things had gone so quickly. This, however, was the highlight of the show. ‘Moonshine’, the latest single, shows the true potential behind this interesting new talent. The song may have its roots firmly hunkered down in pop, but the background instrumentals are pure electro – so much so that it wouldn’t be unbelievable if someone claimed Bonobo had been a collaborator. The song twists along another echoey drum track and a fair sprinkling of the now-familiar piano and synth, but this time the components really come together to form something comprehensive, and I felt, as I sat there, that this was where Laura Doggett should be concentrating her efforts. Again, there’s a slightly mismatched bridge that deflects the beguiling strength of the verse before it, but overall this is a great track and one that will undoubtedly find its fair share of media attention in the near future: the official video, we are told, is out next week.
It took me a while to drum up my overriding impression of the evening, but there’s no denying the other onlookers seemed to see the same thing I did: a big, if invisible, sign above the lady’s head, flashing the words “COMING SOON” in fluorescent light – and since her songs seem so fond of referencing pathways of one kind or another, it will be interesting to see what road she takes.