The alter-ego of Christchurch musician James Milne, Lawrence Arabia has produced two albums and is now collaborating with Mike Fabulous from The Black Seeds.
Facing the music
by Sara Bunny
In one sepia-toned photograph he is a stern schoolmaster, pointing comically to an old-fashioned map with a questioning stare. In another, he is a sailor battling a fierce tempest, the steely blue of the briny matching the colour of his eyes. In the next portrait he is clean shaven, swathed in white Arabian robes, a floating head peering between curtains.
These are just some of the many faces of Christchurch-born musician James Milne, who, under the pseudonym Lawrence Arabia, has produced two albums and earned international accolades for his quirky style of musical storytelling.
Judging by the pictures, you would imagine him to be extroverted, self-assured - a show pony. But beneath the costumes and characters is a shy, thoughtful soul, who speaks of getting nervous in certain social situations and being awkward and reserved as a child.
The alter ego began as a way of creating a barrier between himself and the audience, although he rarely gets anxious playing big gigs nowadays. "I get more nervous at a bar," he says. "I find it kind of exciting playing to a lot of people. You've got people's attention on stage. You're in a position of power."
Although he doesn't dress up as often as he used to, the Lawrence Arabia persona is here to stay. "I just decided one day in a vision that I would dress up in robes. I wasn't intending it to be a career name, but it just stuck. I hadn't seen the movie when I decided on the name."
After growing up in Russley, James has fond childhood memories of family trips to Porters Pass and tobogganing down the slopes. His parents encouraged his interest in music.
"Dad always had a guitar in the house."
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Canterbury University, James, then 21, moved to Auckland, where he played with pop band The Brunettes and later with The Reduction Agents.
In 2006, he struck out on his own, producing the album Lawrence Arabia.
Shortly after his debut release, James moved to London and wasted no time getting to work on his next album, titled Chant Darling. It was released in New Zealand and Australia in the summer of 2008/9.
The album won the Taite Music Prize, and was highly praised both here and overseas. The songs shine with witty, light-hearted lyrics, and the album's standout hit, Apple Pie Bed, bagged James a Silver Scroll Award.
Despite looking like the ultimate boho musician, James says writing a song can be a painstaking effort. "I note down turns of phrases that amuse me, images on the street. You kind of piece things together. It's grabbing little moments ... I can write a song in 20 minutes, or it could take six months."
"Working alone, you're not limited by communications. It can be quite exciting, like you're jamming with your subconscious."
On the other hand, being solely responsible for every decision can be exhausting, James says, and working predominantly solo on Chant Darling was difficult. "I had bursts of energy and bursts of self-loathing. It's hugely exhilarating when something's successful, and hugely disappointing when it's not."
James is now collaborating with Mike Fabulous from The Black Seeds on a project he calls Fabulous Arabia. So far, Mike has been picking the music, and James writes the melodies and lyrics over the top. The system is working well. "It takes away half the job," James says. "Sometimes I want to describe every single human emotion, and sum up the human condition in three and a half minutes. This way I don't feel as compelled to do that."
From a few whirlwind years of international touring, one gig in particular stands out for James. At the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by pictures of music legends such as Johnny Cash, he "felt awed by the heritage" of the place. Despite getting a bout of serious nerves and worrying the crowd would "think I'm a hack", the show was well received.
Now firmly ensconced in the Kiwi music scene, the self-described "shy nerdy kid" can't see himself doing anything else. "It's getting hard for me to imagine having another career ...but I never imagined I would do this."
See Lawrence Arabia live as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival, at 8pm on August 26 at the TelstraClear Club, Hagley Park. Check out artsfestival.co.nz for booking details.