Laura Jean – Truth be told

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Rhythms, November 2008.

Laura Jean’s signpost Eden Land album is work of personal and creative revelation. By Dan Rule.

You wouldn’t describe Laura Jean as most reserved or reticent of people. Spending time with the 27-year-old songwriter – today sharing tea and story at an outdoor café in Melbourne’s inner north – isn’t unlike catching up with an old friend. Conversation flows easily; countless topics are breached and dissected. There’s laughter too, and lots of it. She giggles and bellows all manner of oddly hilarious noises; she buried her face in her hands.

It feels nothing like an interview, and in a way, it’s not. “I’ve got no agenda you know,” she says with a shrug of the shoulders. “When I’m having an interview with someone I’m just talking with someone. I know that they have the power to shift things around, but I really don’t care.”

“I honestly don’t care if people get the wrong idea about me. I’m going to be making music for a long time no matter what happens and I can’t help being myself you know.”

It says a lot about Jean – born Laura Jean Englert – who earlier this year released her incredibly poignant, self-exposing second album Eden Land. Charming, goofy, funny or no, there’s nothing about this young woman that even approaches affectation or pretext. But that’s not to say that she’s an easily read book.

Like the subtly ornate vignettes that weave and entwine their way throughout Eden Land, there is a genuine inscrutability to the young artist. The notion this affable, easy-going woman – who released her wondrous debut Our Swan Song as a mere 24-year-old in 2006 – being capable of such profound artistic rumination and sensitivity seems to rest in anomaly.

Surprisingly, it’s the same way for Jean herself. Even for it’s author, Eden Land is still a difficult concept to grasp. “I can’t remember writing Eden Land,” she says. “I don’t know how it came about and I think maybe I’m not allowed to remember how a lot of it happened. I know that sounds weird,” she admits.

“I feel like it was just this weird little glitch that just happened by its own accord and I didn’t have a lot to do with it. It sort of felt like it was effortless and like I just channelled it and there it was.”

“I purposely didn’t want to get too smart or analytical about these songs, because I felt my first album was a little too much like that. So I just made the decision that I’d just let them come out naturally and not be self-conscious about the simplicity of them and just really not worry about it.”

Music has always held a certain mystique for Jean and she likes it that way. Having grown up as part of a large extended family on the Central Coast of New South Wales, she remembers attending what describes as “rock ‘n’ roll church” and studies the saxophone from the age of 10. But by the time she was a mid-teen she had traded reed instruments for the guitar and was writing songs with her sister, later submitting them to demo competitions on Sydney community radio stations like 2SER. “I remember I was like 17 and we got selected to play as part of this gig after sending a demo into 2SER,” she recalls smilingly.

“My sister and I had never sung into a microphone before, so we were like ‘Wuuh, wuuh, wuuh’, into the mic and being all freaked out, not knowing what was happening,” she laughs. “We hid in the storeroom at The Globe in Newtown and we cried. We were like, ‘We have to runaway, let’s just run down the street and not do it’. But then I was just like, ‘No, we’ve got to do it’. And so we did.”

With a taste for music, she enrolled in a music degree at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium in Lismore, but it didn’t last. “I was only there for about six months, but I couldn’t handle it,” she says. “I was a bit arrogant, like ‘No one’s going to tell me how to write a song when I’m 18’. I just always had this innate idea that I would refine what I do naturally and in my own way.”

“I think it’s really important in your artistic development to be a bit of a dork for a while and not having adults telling you or touching what you do, especially when you’re a kid. You have to learn to create your own unique little vision.”

She did just that. By the time she 19 she had already moved to Melbourne and was immersing herself in the left-of-centre folk and indie scene, later discovering a kinship with artists like Grand Salvo, Oliver Mann and Kes.  Following an EP in 2003, her stunning, fanciful debut Our Swan Song was released through Unstable Ape in 2006, creating an immediate buzz amongst indie sorts with Jean’s incredible vocal hues and evocative lyrical sketches.

“I don’t always write within my capabilities,” Jean muses. “I might write a guitar line, but what I’m hearing in my head for the vocal isn’t always something I can sing yet, so I have to learn how to sing it. I have to do big jumps and they’re quite challenging, and I’ve actually been forced – because of my song writing sensibility – to learn how to sing like that. It’s sort of like ‘Deal with it voice!” she laughs.

Eden Land proves all the more masterful for it. Recorded with Chris Townend at Big Jesus Burger, the record glimmers with organic instrumental dynamics, wondrous minor key melodies and of course, Jean’s soaring, fluttering vocal. But it’s her song writing that really sets the record apart. Riddled with Biblical imagery and evocative metaphor, Eden Land follows a poignant tale of confusion, identity and ultimately, self-discovery.

“While I don’t know how I came up with the concept, I knew the songs belonged together and that they were from a world just like Earth, but not the same world,” she posits. “My vision was a world that was exactly like ours, but with these tiny little differences. It was almost like a parallel world to that reflected us, but there were just elements of bizarre difference and fantasy that wouldn’t happen here… Quite naturally the songs started referencing Eden concepts. I didn’t have to try; it just felt like they wanted to write themselves quite naturally to a theme.”

“I was in a really happy place when I wrote Eden Land and thought that I just had my shit sorted out,” she continues. “I just thought my life was great; I had a job and had all this stuff. But it was really a case that my life was great on the very surface. I was only 23 or 24 and I really don’t think I knew myself. So I thought I was happy but I didn’t really know what happiness was.”

“Because I got into a relationship when I was 18 and broke up with that person in the middle of writing Eden Land, or right at the end of writing it. So I was in a really weird headspace where there was a lot of shit bubbling in my subconscious that I had totally repressed. And I guess because something in me is just drawn towards truth, it just forced its way out in these little songs. And the songs just came like that,” she clicks her fingers. “I’d just come home and, bang, write it.”

Indeed, the tale of self-discovery may have come from the sub-conscious, but it was anything but fictional. Jean had fallen in love with a woman, her now band mate and wife Jen Sholakis (the two were married in a civil ceremony in New Zealand two years ago).  “For me it was a marker in time and the sense that my life was going in a different direction,” she says. It wasn’t just a commitment to Jen, but a real commitment to myself – it was a commitment to truth.”

“I think the reason it took me so long was because I had all this stuff inside me that I hadn’t dealt with, from being a Christian, and having been brought up to think that homosexuality was wrong. I remember being 13 and arguing with people at school, saying ‘Homosexuality is wrong!’ and my history teacher just going ‘Oh god, who is this kid?’,” she laughs, “all the while being in love with my best friend.”

“Somehow I managed to reconcile the two. That’s the amazing thing about the human mind really, you can really fool yourself and write off some feelings as bizarre glitches in your brain, like my feelings for girls. When I met Jen and we fell in love, I just felt like this whole half of my being that I didn’t know was there had arrived, and I just went ‘Oh, this is how I’m meant to feel’.”

But according to Jean, her new sense of personal clarity doesn’t necessarily translate to her music. To her, the meaning behind her sketches will always be fluid and indefinable. “I think songs keep on growing and taking on different meanings the more you live your life,” she muses. “So maybe next year I’ll decide that those songs were actually about something else.”

Eden Land is out through V2/Shock

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