October 2014

Arts & Letters

Kelpie blues

By Anwen Crawford
Laura Jean’s ‘Laura Jean’ finds the Melbourne singer-songwriter finally feeling at home

The opening song on Laura Jean is called ‘June’, and is set at Penders Park in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury. “My kelpie doesn’t tire as easily / As in the summer months down by the sea,” sings Laura Jean. “Spurred on by the icy cold / He runs until his heart explodes / In Melbourne when the days start to turn cold.” There’s a black and tan kelpie on the album’s cover, held aloft in the arms of its owner, and the same dog greets me, skittish with enthusiasm, when I knock on the door of Jean’s house on a rainy weekday morning to talk with her about her fourth, self-titled album.

Laura Jean was recorded in Bristol, England, with the producer John Parish, who is best known for his work with PJ Harvey. In musical terms it’s a simple, unadorned album – restricted mainly to steel and nylon-string acoustic guitars, autoharp and vocals. Lyrically it’s more complicated: a collection of stories that explore the tensions of domestic life and relationships between lovers, parents and siblings. A kelpie keeps turning up – sometimes a passing presence, sometimes a central character, threading its way between the human participants of the songs. There’s even a short instrumental called ‘Kelpie Blues’.

The kelpie standing in front of me in Jean’s living room is named Dusty, and Laura Jean is dedicated to him. “He was a little guide through the album, a touchstone, almost,” Jean explains. Dusty arrived in her life about five years ago, when Jean spotted a “Free to good home” advertisement on a wall of the Palais, a popular music venue in the rural Victorian town of Hepburn Springs. It was the day before she moved back to Melbourne after a year in the country, and the then six-month-old pup ended up accompanying her. “There was something about him that got me on a level I don’t really understand. Caring for him changed my life, because he was pretty wild.”

Now well trained – he settles onto a blanket on command – Dusty has become a companion to, and an observer of, Jean’s songwriting. “Often I’ll look at him and he’ll look at me as I’m playing [guitar], so he’s worked his way in there as I write.” A six-minute song called ‘When I First Brought Him Home’ is the centrepiece of Laura Jean, and, as Jean explains, the narrative is a heightened account of her own experience with Dusty. A man brings home an undisciplined kelpie that his wife doesn’t like, and which makes his children “pale and sad”. He takes the dog out bush to train, and realises that he wants to stay there, beyond the constraints of marriage and domesticity, companion to a disorderly and impulsive animal. “One week turned into four / I just wanted to walk and walk,” sings Jean, in the guise of her narrator.

“The thought of walking across country and not stopping is very strong in me,” Jean says, and she wonders how to reconcile this nomadic impulse with the obligations of ordinary life, like holding down a job and living in the one place. She traces this tension back to her own childhood, when she spent time couch-surfing with her mother and sister, living in other people’s homes. Both her parents moved a lot, and restlessness is in her character. “Despite the care I’ve had in my life / I’ve felt more like an accident than a surprise,” she sings on ‘A Mirror on the Earth’, which tells a version of her parents’ story.

But her present life in Melbourne’s northern suburbs feels settled. “Being here I really feel like I’m at home, and I haven’t felt that for a long time.” This is where she wrote many of the songs that appear on Laura Jean – a process that took more than three years. Several songs were conceived as instrumentals, to which she began adding words at the suggestion of The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, whom Jean had originally intended to produce the album. It was an inversion of her normal practice; usually, she explains, the music is secondary to the lyrics. “It’s got to go with the [lyrical] idea – it doesn’t have to be the most amazing guitar line you’ve ever heard, it just has to feel right for the idea, and then the birth of the song happens.”

Jean’s writing is highly crafted. Though the finished songs sound like spontaneous confessions, she draws a careful distinction between herself, Laura Jean Englert, and the Laura Jean of her music. “Laura Jean is separate from my everyday person,” she says, “but I had to learn that — I had to learn it to protect myself.” We talk about the biographical fallacy so often applied to women artists; a presumption that creative work is drawn directly from life, free of editing or embellishment. “I use what I’ve learnt in my life,” Jean says of her songs, “but I’m using those experiences to express a complex idea, and a lot of people miss out on that because I’m a woman and I sing in a high voice, and I’m a folkie.”

The boundary between her personal and musical selves is most tested in live performance, where, Jean admits, “I feel like I’m going into battle. It feels exposing.” Jean and her band will tour the new album nationally this month, and she acknowledges contradictory impulses as a performer: on the one hand, a desire to connect with her audience on an emotionally truthful level, and, on the other hand, a self-preserving instinct that prevents her from taking on anyone else’s problems as her own. “People think that I can help them,” she says.

Laura Jean is closest in atmosphere to Jean’s second album, Eden Land (2008), while her third, A fool who’ll (2011), had a more country-rock feel, with prominent electric guitar. Jean does not regard her back catalogue as a continuous project – with each record, she pretends to herself that she is starting out. “Every time I finish an album I don’t presume that I’ll make another, and I don’t presume that I’ll write again.” She thinks of Laura Jean as being “more intuitive” than her previous recordings. Working with Parish, and with Norwegian musician Jenny Hval on backing vocals, Jean completed recording in just two weeks.

Hval, who also recently released an intriguing, experimental collaboration called Meshes of Voice with her compatriot Susanna Wallumrød, is a long-time friend of Jean’s. The texture of Hval’s vocals on Laura Jean was inspired, Jean says, by the prominent backing harmonies of pop music and R&B. Though folk music is Jean’s chosen form of musical expression, she doesn’t listen to much of it, and names Lana Del Rey, Solange, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean as influences on her current work, though you wouldn’t guess it from her sparse, acoustic arrangements. “I like good songwriting, but that doesn’t have to present itself as folk [music]. Good songwriting can happen anywhere.”

On ‘How Will I Know When I’m Home?’, Laura Jean’s second track, the narrator disavows the centrality of music to her life in a way that will resonate with any listener who has, when embarrassed, denied what is most important to them. “I still have some passions and some dreams / But, for now, music’s just my hobby,” Jean sings. The woman sitting here today – who tells me how, as a child, she made books of her own poetry as presents for family members – recognises that songwriting is “how I process my world, and it’s a part of what I have to do to live”. ‘How Will I Know When I’m Home?’ was written in this house, and the kelpie puts in an appearance. It is this quiet urgency that makes Laura Jean compelling. These songs might be homely, but they matter.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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