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Giving up the day job for a guitar

Laura Cantrell
Cantrell: "I never thought of being a musician as a proper career."
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Global Office

LONDON, England (CNN) -- With Nashville stamped on her birth certificate, Laura Cantrell always had the right credentials to make it in the world of country music.

And with two critically-acclaimed albums to her name, 2000's "Not The Tremblin' Kind" and 2002's "When The Roses Bloom Again", the singer-songwriter, now based in New York, has made it big at the cutting edge of the alt-country scene.

Yet Cantrell's story is not that of the stereotypical southern girl, armed with a guitar and a box of Dolly Parton records, singing her way to stardom.

Before giving it all up last year, Cantrell was a vice president and business manager in the equity research department at the Bank of America, having spent 11 years working on Wall Street.

"I never thought of being a musician as a proper career for whatever reason," says Cantrell.

"But I always really loved to sing and I felt like I should try to figure out a way to have more time for that in my life. It ended up being a career but I never anticipated that several years ago."

Cantrell admits falling into her first career more by accident than design after the end of her studies at Columbia University.

"It was a means to an end and I actually told myself the fib that I would be there for six months and then I'd figure out then what I really wanted to do," she recalls.

"And what I realized when I got there was that it was a very good steady position, it was an environment where there were a lot of very smart people and I liked the people I worked with and the means to an end was more long term than six months."

At the same time however, Cantrell was presenting a weekend country show "The Radio Thrift Shop" on New Jersey's WFMU station and slowly building her own reputation as a musician with occasional gigs and low-key releases.

It was not until 2000, when Cantrell was offered the chance to support Elvis Costello on a 17-date tour, that her musical ambitions started to interfere with her business career. Fortunately her employers were accommodating.

Elvis Costello fan

"I was so lucky that the head of my department was an Elvis Costello fan," says Cantrell.

"He said, 'that's incredible that you've got this opportunity so you have to follow your dream and we'll give you the time to do it.' The price for me was I also had to work, so I took a laptop and a phone and I just worked on the road and then checked in with the office every day."

Despite the ongoing support of her colleagues, however, musical success forced Cantrell into a tough career choice she had hitherto avoided.

"It certainly marked a turning point for my working life," she says.

"I realized that we might get other chances to play music on that level and to be that committed to it and that it was going to be mutually exclusive with having a full time job. So it did make me realize that I couldn't do both."

Nor was the decision to abandon her job for a carefree life of musical stardom as straightforward as it seems.

"I realized that if I was going to be serious about making a good exit from the bank that I had to prepare myself for it. I couldn't just walk out on them and walk out on my own financial situation. I had to work it out so it took a few more months of planning.

"It was a little bit scary just thinking about the financial part of it: how was I going to pay my mortgage and what would we do for healthcare. But the overall benefits of pursuing something that I had really wanted to do for a long time was more attractive in the end than staying at a place where I had been and risen through the ranks.

Corporate environment

"I felt if it didn't work out my experience in the corporate environment wasn't going to go away and that I could go back to it if I needed to. That was my last encouragement to myself that it would be all right "

For several months until she finally quit, Cantrell balanced her day job with a growing schedule of rehearsals, gigs, recordings and publicity. On the day she appeared on the Conan O'Brien show she was at her desk until lunchtime.

And while life as a professional musician is a dream come true, Cantrell still looks back with fondness on more than a decade on Wall Street.

"I kind of miss the big office building sometimes," she admits, "especially having my own office and the security of the environment. But it's also interesting how much of what I did at Bank of America I still do for myself: managing people, logistics and travel arrangements. A lot of that experience is certainly not wasted in what I'm doing now."

"I came into Wall Street with a very typical kind of stereotype that it was all going to be people just obsessed with money. What I found was that there were just loads of interesting people who were a lot like myself, just doing it as a job and who had lives that were full of other things.

"So I miss some of the contact with people I met. Ironically it was a very supportive environment for me as an artist."

-- See Global Office's interview with Laura Cantrell on Tuesday July 20 (2230 CET, 1630 ET).

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