Lawrence Arabia: song-writing dare pays off

2019-03-30 20:59:23

First of all, why? What possessed you?

And secondly – are you mad?

These were my first questions for James Milne, who records under the marvellous moniker of Lawrence Arabia.

As if life wasn't stressful enough, why give yourself the punishing deadline of writing, arranging, recording, mixing and releasing one new single per month for an entire year?

"It was pretty demanding," admits Milne, who has just collated all twelve singles released throughout 2018 into an album with the splendid lonely-person dating-site title of Singles Club.

"It was a tough project, but I wanted to put more pressure on myself to do things courageously and fast," he tells me from his Auckland home, just back from the school run with his eldest child blathering excitedly in the background.

"One setback of making music in your home studio is that you can spend years endlessly polishing something, and sometimes your opinion on the songs changes over that time, or you run out of energy and end up scrapping the whole thing."

Milne also realised that he produced really good work whenever someone else was depending on him for a soundtrack, podcast or other musical project and gave him tight deadlines.

"There's something to be said for applying some time constraints. In the old days, you'd go into a professional studio and it was so expensive, you had to do things fast or you'd get in horrendous debt. You had to have a strong idea and commit to it. I wanted to get back to that, I guess."

It was a "ruthless process", he says, in which Milne would either revisit old demos or simply choose whatever recent music idea he thought was "least bad" and really go to town on it.

"I just tried to be fearless. I couldn't second-guess myself too much because I didn't have time. I had to grab hold of an idea then boldly blaze on."

Why should we care? Because Milne is one of our best and brightest song-writers: a wizard, a true star.

He won the 2009 APRA Silver Scroll for Apple Pie Bed, co-written with Phoenix Foundation's Luke Buda, and the 2010 Taite Music Prize for his Chant Darling album.

He took home Best Male Solo and Best Alternative Album gongs at the NZ Music Award in 2013 and 2016 for the albums The Sparrow and Absolute Truth.

He is a team player par excellence, having made a racket in the Reduction Agents, BARB, The Brunettes, Fabulous Arabia and The Ruby Suns, and touring the States as bass player for American band, Okkervil River.

Milne even features in a masked Paul McCartney tribute band – with Jonathan Bree, Princess Chelsea and Ryan McPhun from the Ruby Suns – called Disciples Of Macca.

But last year he swerved sideways, spending 12 months semi-solo, slinging out singles at a punishing rate.

Launched with the help of Kickstarter funding, Lawrence Arabia's Singles Club saw 368 backers pledge NZ$ 23,710 to help bring the project to life.

Milne's promise to his crowd-funders was that he would have a spanking new digital single ready to email out to them by midnight on the last day of each month.

"I only blew it once, and not by much. I was away singing with Neil Finn on his Out Of Silence shows in Australia, and missed my deadline by about ten minutes 'cos I was in a tour van. But I'm gonna give myself a pass on that one. At least I sent it out before I went to bed."

I'm delighted to report that the new album hangs together very well, despite – or perhaps, because of – the strange, high-pressure way in which it was made.

Indeed, if we needed a musical manifesto for out troubled times, perhaps Singles Club is it.

There are songs about consumerism, narcissism, bigotry, social media dishonesty, phone addiction, the fear of missing out.

There are plangent ditties about sex and power and shopping malls. There are elegant ballads concerning drugs, democracy, loneliness, mortality and love.

Insight and wit are in abundant supply.

January's single Solitary Men imagines a world where "women, tired of our lame come-ons, have all decamped to some other star system where things are much better, leaving hetero men to pleasure themselves pathetically in disgusting student flats."

Gift-wrapped in an ornate orchestral arrangement by celebrated American composer/ songwriter Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys, The Byrds, Rufus Wainwright, U2, Joanna Newsom, The Chills), December's closing single Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep) ponders the dark thoughts that keep us awake in the middle of the night.

Between those two poles, it's quite a journey.

March single One Unique Creature ponders a dysfunctional relationship temporarily enhanced by hallucinogens.

Brought on by a bout of melancholy self-reflection in Milne's chilly studio in the depths of winter, July's Meaningless Words is a deeply meta song about song-writing itself.

People Are Alright arrived in August, a month when life got even more complicated following the birth of Milne's second child.

The song walks a shaky tightrope between misanthropy and optimism, suggesting that it's useful to cling to the notion that there's an innate goodness in most people, despite numerous daily signs to the contrary.

"These songs have been pretty directly responding to the current moment, in terms of politics and technology," says Milne.

"I don't know if it's just the narcissism of our times, but it just seems too significant to ignore whatever madness has overtaken the world right now. I wasn't intending it to turn into any sort of concept album, but that has happened regardless."

Milne sent out very funny and eloquent messages to Singles Club subscribers upon the release of each single, relating the motivations behind each song and the challenges encountered along the way.

The message that came with May's song Everybody Wants Something was a doozy, with Milne pondering a series of "privately disastrous failures and personal humiliations" as he'd attempt something wildly experimental – a bracing collision of Berlin-era Bowie and classical composer Ligeti, for example – only to have it crash and burn, then find himself releasing a "shamelessly enjoyable piece of 60s pop fluff" that recalled George Harrison instead.

Featuring guest vocals from Tiny Ruins' Hollie Fullbrook, February single Everything's Minimal is a sort of "Instagram brag rap", says Milne, about the modern tendency to upload pictures of one's painfully cute children behaving themselves against a backdrop of brainy bookshelves, manicured gardens and Danish furniture when the reality is considerably more messy and chaotic.

"I'm just really struck by people endlessly mediating their lives through Instagram and how depressing that is, for everyone involved. It's eminently possible for someone to be posting a beautiful picture on Instagram and at the same time having a miserable life. People are misrepresenting what's really going on and creating this big feedback loop of envy."

A video has been made for Everything's Minimal, directed by writer/actress Loren Taylor (Eagle Vs Shark, Lovely Rita, Existence).

It is, as they say "Not Safe For Work", with all manner of fevered sexual activity played out against austere architectural interiors, the whole shebang leaving the viewer feeling a tad queasy.

Taylor has said that Milne's lyrics spoke to her about "the inherent hypocrisy of affluence" as some people endlessly filter, edit and curate images of "beautiful, harmonious, immaculate, hygienic living spaces where all our s... is made invisible to us."

Taylor "wanted to make something that showed what a filthy species we can be" instead. She also noted that "the rhythm of the song lent itself to comedy humping."

Comedy humping! Milne laughs when I mention it.

"We made that a while ago, but it just hasn't seemed like the right time to release a video with lots of people shagging in it. But the way Loren's video mixed beauty and disgust struck me as very subversive, and it expanded out nicely from the themes of that song, which is that people should be more honest. People think they're sharing joy when they post these Instagram brags, but really, they're just feeding into some weird competitive impulse that makes our world a little more sad."

Speaking of sadness, some of these songs, though recorded last year, couldn't be more apt to the political climate right now, just two weeks after the horrific shootings in Christchurch, where Milne grew up.

April's A Little Hate ponders the rise of internet trolls and others who seek to inflict their bigotry on the rest of us via poorly-considered online rants.

"Yeah, that song is from the perspective of some bile-spewing idiot on an on-line forum. Sometimes you can just ignore those things and write them off as just another racist idiot with a pseudonym, but these days on Facebook you'll often have a friend or the friend of a friend writing something that's a bit odious and repellent and hateful, and you start to question how well you really know anyone."

The realisation such bigotry flourished so close to home left Milne quite sad, he says.

"I became more aware of this endless stream of hot takes that weren't very well thought out. There was a lot of anger out there, and not much compassion or careful analysis. I think it behoves everyone to consider their own ignorance a lot more often and pause a little before they unleash their half-formed reckons on the rest of us."

Hear, hear. We could also do with a whole lot more strings and woodwinds and gorgeous stately pianos in our lives, just to take the edge off things.

All the above are in generous abundance on the album's closing song, Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep), made in collaboration with one of Milne's abiding musical heroes, American composer Van Dyke Parks.

"A lot of the Kickstarter cash went towards that one song," admits Milne.

"It wasn't cheap, but I was amazed he was prepared to do it, so I wasn't going to turn it down. Our emails rapidly progressed from my fan mail to him offering to do it, then I was scrambling around, calling my publishing company and borrowing money off my mum. She's in her 70s, but she agreed when I told her he'd previously worked with the Beach Boys."

Just Sleep was written three years ago, as part of podcast series The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium, a collaboration with writer/director Duncan Sarkies and Flight Of The Conchords singer/actor, Jemaine Clement, among others.

"In the podcast, I sung it as a duet with Jemaine, like a funny little lullaby, but I always had designs on doing something more with it, so I sent it to Van Dyke Parks and he cut loose on it. It's a song that lends itself to a lot of drama, I think – it's about anxiety and insomnia, and how you often think about difficult things at the worst possible time of the night."

There are many other notable collaborators. Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins sings on the album, as does Eliza-Jane Barnes, daughter of Jimmy, and Heather Mansfield from The Brunettes.

Liam Finn, Ryan McPhun and Alistair Deverick play drums, Will Ricketts adds percussion and Mike Hall contributes double bass. Jeff Henderson and Hopetoun Brown's Tim Stewart honked horns, and assorted other gifted souls added strings.

But mostly, Singles Club is testament to 12 months of Milne slaving away solo, beset by devilish deadlines.

"Yeah, it was pretty much me most of the time, but I didn't mind that. I was trying to rely on my first instincts as I made the songs, and there was generally no none else to distract me from that, so Singles Club probably gives a stronger sense of my own musical DNA than some things I've done in the past. I also thought really hard about how the songs would follow one another as I made them. I was like the world's most lethargic DJ, putting together a slow-motion DJ set, or maybe someone trying to consider the right moods for a mix tape."

That musical mix-tape is going on the road this coming week. Milne is looking forward rattling around the nation's cities and towns throughout April with a full band, playing these songs live.

"It's exciting to take such an un-band-y record and translate it into live shows. Most of these songs were recorded with me playing most or all the parts, so now they'll get a great burst of dynamic energy from other people playing them live. And after so much time on my own, it'll be nice to be stuck in a tour van again, inflicting my crap dad-jokes on other musicians."

* Lawrence Arabia's Singles Club album was released on Friday via Honorary Bedouin Records. His Singles Club tour kicks off at Blue Smoke in Christchurch on April 3. Full tour details at

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