I have some exciting news. Lawrence Arabia will play a series of shows around New Zealand in December. You can catch him (with five-piece band) in Wellington, at The San Francisco Bathhouse, Thursday, December 10; Christchurch, Friday, December 11, at Repertory Theatre; Dunedin, Saturday, December 12, Chicks Hotel; and Auckland, Tuesday December 22, Monte Cristo Room.
But when it comes to Lawrence Arabia there is a lot of exciting news. So, luckily, I was able to chat to him a couple of days ago; I should I say, I was lucky to chat to James Milne, the down-to-earth New Zealand artist/musician/renaissance man who plays (as) Lawrence Arabia; writing and recording music under that name.
Before I could get to Lawrence Arabia, James Milne had to finish the dishes. I asked if it was a good time to chat, my usual thing to ask when I am putting in the call rather than receiving it. His answer was a first for any interview I have ever had: "um...yeah...it is; er, we had a few people over for dinner last night though, so I've got a heap of dishes here, would it be all right if...um...I dunno, can you give us 20 minutes?"
And so I do.
And then I call back. "Hello?" Is this James? "Yes it is." Is now a good time to talk? Did you get those dishes done? "Er, haha, yeah...yeah..."
So we talk about this tour; it's the third time New Zealand audiences have had the chance to catch Lawrence Arabia this year. Milne says, "this time it's the debut of a revamped band. We went on the road earlier in the year with the band basically being The Sneaks. Well some of those guys are staying on as part of the band, but Tom Watson from Cassette will also be coming on the road with us. And Hayden East [currently in Panther and the Zoo and a former member of The Brunettes] is joining us too. So, yeah, that's the band."
But there's another reason for this band to have a whip around the country. Or reasons. As Milne explains, "we first toured the country when the album [Chant Darling] was relatively new, the songs have been out there a while now and might be a bit more recognisable to some, so that's one reason." But, more important, "we are doing these shows as a warm-up before we head overseas to play in Europe and America".
Milne says it's a shame to be missing things like The Laneways Festival and Big Day Out but the reason for the shows overseas (in 2010) is to promote Chant Darling, which is being released "in England in January, and comes out in America just a little bit later on".
Milne has enjoyed the "slow build" behind this album, releasing it on his own label, Honorary Bedouin Records (distributed in New Zealand by Rhythmethod). It will be released internationally by UK indie label Bella Union (home to, among others, Dirty Three, Fleet Foxes, Beach House).
Milne believes it's "demoralising to repeat yourselves on tour" so hopes that the new lineup and the chance for the songs to have lived a little will be a breath of fresh air for both the audience and the performers on stage.
The focus is very much on the solo stuff right now; Milne says the support of the international label dictates that. He's happy to be promoting his work, but as a former member of The Brunettes, The Reduction Agents and a collaborator with many key musicians, including, most recently, Liam Finn, Connan Mockasin and EJ Barnes for the Having a Baby/BARB tour, he is keen to be part of a band once again.
"The idea, really, is to be involved with music and artistic pursuits and to continue to find ways to work at them full-time. I feel like I'm very lucky, or have been very lucky so far, to be able to do that. I have a few other projects on the go, including a short film at the moment which I am acting in, writing music for and helping with the script. So that's been a lot of fun."
He believes that "for most people, music as a career has a shelf-life. I plan to spread myself across lots of projects."
One of the other projects is with Mike Fabulous, and Milne describes it as "a vintage soul record"; he says "it's a lot of fun, so far, so we're working out what to do with that and when and how to release it".
Before there was Chant Darling, there was the album Lawrence Arabia, which arrived on the heels of The Dance Reduction Agents. Milne says they will continue to play some Reduction Agents songs in the new live sets ("because I like those songs, I think they were good pop songs, particularly from where I was at for that time") and in many ways he feels "the songs on the first solo album were, if anything, more together, tighter, than the work on Chant Darling".
But Chant Darling has of course spawned the song Apple Pie Bed, which was recently awarded the Silver Scroll.
"That was surprising. And delightful. And a helpful accolade." Milne pauses, "and one I probably didn't milk, from a marketing point of view". He laughs, then adds, "I didn't, you know, add stickers to the CD covers pointing out that it was a Silver Scroll winner; perhaps I should have?" It is almost as if he is asking himself a question, rather than answering anything I have said.
For Lawrence Arabia, in New Zealand, music reviews have largely been positive. Milne says he has been lucky and feels that the work has been good enough to warrant the praise. But he is not being falsely modest, or flippant. He adds, "there was one review, I think it was in the Wellington student magazine [Salient] where they were not really into it. And I thought, well, I can kinda understand where they're coming from". He's also sure that "being an independent artist" has helped him in receiving some positive reviews and album sales. "I think Kiwis are behind that at the moment, and that's very cool."
Being the act and the boss of the label does have its downsides though - and if the reviews have mostly been positive, there have still been interviews that have been a bit of a drag. "It's not a big deal, most of the time, and you have to see anything as an opportunity, within reason, to expand your profile, to find new fans, but there have definitely been some times when I have wondered about the questions being asked."
And beyond the interviewing process, the networking that is involved can cut both ways. "Occasionally I resent it; you know, I'd love to just be an artist, pure, but that's unrealistic. And I do enjoy it - the networking - a lot of the time. I certainly enjoy working with other musicians and collaborating." (He has also toured with Feist and Okkervil River).
But Milne is very clear that generally the writing comes from being alone, from working alone at an idea. It might be fleshed out in a jam, or even be inspired by jamming, but time alone to write is required. In that sense he believes that Chant Darling was a lot harder on him - and for him - than Lawrence Arabia.
I think both albums are brilliant; I've been thrashing Chant Darling - songs like The Beautiful Young Crew (check out the funny video) and I've Smoked Too Much could have been, perhaps in anyone else's hands, novelty songs. But because of the way the lyrics play both with and against the music, they are never going to be taken as something overtly earnest and sincere. (Milne says "it's important for me to present that type of humour in the lyrics").
Chant has sent me back to Lawrence Arabia, an album I loved when it was released; it reminded me of Ed Cake in many ways.
I think James Milne/Lawrence Arabia is one of our best songwriters now working in New Zealand.
And if you want to see him on his final 2009 tour of New Zealand then go to Under the Radar to get your tickets. They go on sale today.
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