Third album from Lawrence Arabia
Vicki Anderson talks to James Milne about new album The Sparrow, writing letters to the editor and growing older malevolently.
The songs of the tiny garden sparrow are unremarkable. The songs on The Sparrow are remarkable.
James Milne's third solo album under the pseudonym Lawrence Arabia sees Canterbury's prodigal musical son return triumphant.
It is a more minimalist effort, following on from the harmony- laden Taite Music Prize/Silver Scroll-winning Chant Darling, which took its name from a covers band, the Chant Darlings, that Milne was once in with two members of the Heavy Jones.
Milne confesses he's wary of pigeonholing his Sparrow.
Although the songs within it are as fragile as the small bird, there's an atmosphere of malevolence. The small creature is the guiding image for the album's aesthetic and themes around the angst of approaching 30.
He created a quote he hopes will add mystique to the title. It reads: As one man findeth shelter under the eaves of his neighbour's wife, so shall he be plagued by the sparrow. And lo, where fields of wheat once grew lush upon the soil, lies now the infernal desert of the pestilential sparrow.
"I'm interested in the nonsense of biblical verse," Milne says.
"I was trying to create a mythology for the idea of The Sparrow, I find it difficult to describe. It's just one of those things, it just is, it does have an impact on the album and it does suit the album but it is very difficult to put into words."
Where Chant Darling oozed classic pop production and dense pop songs, The Sparrow flutters towards such descriptions as "minimalist" and "serious". Its music is more sparse, songs are delicately framed and allowed to breathe. The effect is enticing.
"I've used the word minimalist myself but I don't think it is too minimalist. In my mind it was minimalist but it's almost architectural or something.
"There's also definitely an underlying tone of malevolence underscored with malaise. I thought it was totally miserable when I was making it but I don't think it really is."
Milne became "enamoured" with the mystique and aesthetic limitations of late 1960s and early 1970s records, particularly the symphonic work of Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg, where space in the arrangements allowed the opportunity to luxuriate in the sounds of individual instruments.
Touring with his band The Prime Ministers in support of Chant Darling in 2010 saw a bored Milne turn to his notebook often to jot notes.
Images like the "crude moustache, exposed brains" seen on a poster of Zac Efron in the New York subway, the jaded conversation with the Tom Tom on a rainy British motorway, "the last breaths" of a London house party that dragged on just a little too long, inspired "poetry and couplets" that became the nine songs on The Sparrow.
"It was a case of boredom. Touring is quite a monotonous experience, although I'm loathe to complain about it, it is one of the most amazing things you can do for a job," Milne explains.
"But there's something about the rhythm of it that is definitely repetitive. After a while the novelty wears off a bit. I was hungering for a different form of creativity. I just started writing, poetry and couplets in the back of the van, and that's where it stemmed from."
In October 2010, with Elroy Finn and Connan Mockasin, he recorded the basic tracks for these new songs, live, at a large house in Surrey that became known as the Japanese Academy. Strings and horn overdubs were added during 2011 in a couple of sessions at Auckland's Roundhead Studios.
Also featured on the album are trumpet lines from Fat Freddy's Drop's Toby Laing, alongside guest spots from Elroy Finn, Andrew Keoghan, Daniel Yeabsley, Mahuia Bridgman- Cooper, Rachel Wells and band mates Tom Watson and Hayden Eastmond-Mein. Milne produced and mixed it himself.
Album opener Travelling Shoes is the most beautifully expounded melancholic song I have ever heard.
Milne sounds angelic as he sings of a young man who is feeling old and of the provincial town he's from, a town of "perfect isolation" and the magical boots, his travelling shoes, with which to go away and ply his unique style.
Raised in Christchurch, Milne turned 31 this week and admits he has wrestled with the ups and downs of "ageing". Indeed, when asked to sum up The Sparrow in one word, "ageing" is the word he chooses.
"I had a hard time with 29 more than 30. It's not dwelling on mortality, it's just one of the main themes, little petty fears about ageing and the way you're perceived."
Christchurch is Milne's hometown and his song The 03 talks about "getting punched on High Street mall, getting drunk at the high school ball".
Elsewhere he muses about writing a letter to the editor.
"That is specifically a Christchurch song. I always enjoy the level of rage and, especially pre-earthquake, the kind of indignant rage that was going on in the letters column. I just imagined myself becoming one of those pompous people who just gets so incensed by the smallest things but who writes it in terms of as if they're descending humanity into freedom. Really it's just about some drainage thing but it's being defended as if it's a matter of constitutional law," Milne says, laughing.
"There's something about the psyche of those people ..."
The song was written while he was in London and he felt as if "the wheels were coming off" his life.
He describes the balancing bird-on-a-wire act to keep five people on the road and travelling all around the world as stressful. In the song, Milne considers what would happen if he had a breakdown, "went crazy" and had to come home to Christchurch to live with his mother.
"It suddenly seemed like I was sliding into a gorge of despair or panic. It was a hypothetical musing about my life if I had this breakdown and had to come home and live with my mum in Christchurch and admit failure," Milne says softly.
"It could be a hypothetical song about anyone's life who attempted to do something out of their reach and ended up breaking themselves along the way."
Milne's parents, Sheila and Ross, are fierce supporters of their son's musical endeavours.
There's always a home here, if the wheels ever do come off or even slightly askew.
For his coming Christchurch concert, Sheila Milne confesses she's moving out of her home to give the band somewhere to stay.
"That reminds me, I better warn the neighbours, they might get a bit of a fright when they see music types going up the drive."
When we speak she has been humming his new song Bicycle Riding for days, she confesses.
A booklet inside the album with the headline Honorary Bedouin, The Sparrow, contains a fantastic, olde-worlde short story of a bicycle-riding chap named Henry Fredericks who finds himself hyper-sensitive to the sounds of a sparrow and tells his tailor J H Tyldesley so.
Sheila always thought her son would be a music journalist or a writer.
"He was always good at writing and that shows through in his songs, of course," she says. "I first remember him singing Dexys Midnight Runners song Come On Eileen when he was 4 or so and thinking he had a nice voice but then I guess all mothers think that.
"Before that we bought him Michael Jackson's Thriller album, he loved that. He was in the choir at Medbury and Christ's College so I should have had some clue."
Milne agrees she is his No 1 fan and says he is grateful for his family's unerring support.
On the album credit, he thanks everyone from Kim Dotcom, to friends who have shared the blood of Christ with him.
At the end of this New Zealand tour, he will spend six months overseas, touring around Europe. He and his girlfriend will base themselves in New York.
His New Zealand tour features some of his most ambitious live shows to date. "As well as the band, there's a nine-piece orchestra playing on stage including strings and string quartet.
"It's a much bigger, more ambitious show than anything I've ever done, exciting but a bit nerve-racking.
"It's good that I'm so busy at the moment - I don't get too much time to dwell on how big an undertaking it is."
The reason for the new, bigger, approach comes from Milne's musings on new ways to present his music.
"I was worried about just existing as a musician and never really doing anything different and being part of the pack. I wanted to turn it into a performance in some way, I didn't want it to just be just another black box on the stage in a corner.
"I thought it could be turned into a performance, it could be more natural to be performed in theatres to attract people other than those who drink at rock shows. Some people think of music as just the background to their evening, I wanted this to be about listening."
Lawrence Arabia at St Michaels and All Angels Church, Friday, July 13.
WIN WIN WIN
A copy of Lawrence Arabia's new album and tickets to his Christchurch show.