ON fifth studio album Devotion, Laura Jean has presented a Madonna-level reinvention of her musical persona.
The beds of synths and the spiralling grooves found on the record are a world away from Laura’s alt-folk origins – and yet you’re able to find a through-line across each of her albums that carries distinctive traits of the artist herself.
“What connects each of my albums is a complete and utter commitment to songwriting,” says Laura, speaking to us from her home in Melbourne as she watches the trains go by on a Monday afternoon.
“I’ve never been one to follow trends – I’ve kind of been in my own world this whole time. I loved the bands surrounding me and the bands I got to play in and play with, but when it came to my own music it was all about my own vision. Each album has a strong understanding of what it is. That might sound up myself, but I’m really confident and I’m really proud of what I’ve done.”
To commemorate a landmark release in a multi-faceted career, we’re going to take an in-depth look at one song from each of Laura’s five albums. Across these songs you’ll find tightly-wound metaphor, stark introspection and a greater understanding of one of Australia’s great songwriters.
How old were you when you wrote this song?
I was 20. I started writing songs when I was 16, and I was just learning how to do it for a year or two.
What kind of songs were you writing before Our Swan Song?
It was pretty musical. I was writing intricate, guitar-picking stuff. I taught myself how to play guitar at 15 – I didn’t have lessons. I just taught myself by ear. I put my fingers where I felt they should be, so it was a lot more jazzy. My singing was, too. I listened to a lot of jazz in my teens, and I played saxophone as well. I was inspired by Tori Amos – someone who wrote very musical, intricate songs. Looking back, I feel like ‘I’m a Rabbit’ was my first real pop song.
Was there anything in particular that inspired that direction?
I was starting to listen to Gillian Welch and Will Oldham, all those American folk songwriters. I was trying to combine that with the jazzy stuff I’d been doing. Classical music, too – I was really into that. Russian composers, especially. There’s a woodwind trio on that song with an arrangement that Wally Gunn composed. I met Wally through a friend, and he just loved my music so he offered to orchestrate it for me. I had a vision for that song, in particular – I wanted to give it a real Peter & The Wolf vibe. I was very lucky in that regard – I was surrounding by a lot of great people that wanted to help me out.
Tell us a bit about the meaning of the song.
It’s about moving to Melbourne, basically. I moved when I was 19, and I didn’t know anybody. It’s about feeling invisible. I had something to give and I had something to say, but no one to share it with. It’s about feeling like I had a secret.
You feel that in some of the more devastating lines: “There’s something very, very sad about a girl/Who wants to put on all her fur/Alone, forever.”
I was processing a lot. I had a complicated childhood, and I was in a very intense relationship from ages 18 to 24. It was about the fight in me where one side wanted to close off and shut down when the other half wanted to open up and tell my story. I wrote that song in a big old church house in North Melbourne, where I was living with some friends I’d met in Lismore. I remember writing that verse, in particular:
Nesting in roots
Losing my sight
I don’t need that now
Other senses grow
Other senses change
I’m not hearing things
It’s very emotional, even saying those words now. Just thinking about it. Even back then, I was really trying to make sense to my audience. I was really trying to exercise craftsmanship to get my message across. It wasn’t just about me – I was trying to communicate something. In that respect, I feel like I did really well in that song.
You went on a 10-year anniversary tour for this album, Our Swan Song, where you played the album in full. How did that affect your relationship with the music itself?
It was amazing. It was my way of letting go of that time in my life while also respecting the amount of work I did. I worked really hard on that record. I put together a chamber orchestra at 22 years old. I got an arts grant, which is how I was able to pay people. Doing that whole album again was really healing. As a female artist, it’s hard to be taken seriously. To this day, despite my body of work, I’m still treated like an emerging artist. I figured no one would commemorate this milestone, this anniversary – so I felt like I had to do it myself. I had to make a big deal of it, and respect and honour the work.
I looked back on myself as a young artist. I saw someone who was already so committed to the art of songwriting. She was intent. She had a vision. She’s gone now, but she did a good job. I’m so proud of her.
Album: Eden Land (2008)
As the title suggests, Eden Land really feels as though it’s inextricably connected to place and all of the songs, by proxy, revolve around that sense of place.
That album was conceptualised when I was working in a call centre full-time. This was my life: I had a boyfriend of six years and a full-time job in Richmond. The only time I felt connected to nature in this big-city life was in my commute along Epsom Road in Kensington. There’s a row of really old trees on that street, near the corner of Macauley Road, and I used to get so much from them for those five minutes a day I walked through them. I listened to them. I listened to the wind. I felt them. I extracted so much energy from them, because I needed it so badly.
What did you need the energy for specifically?
At that time, I started to realise I was queer. My relationship ended and I fell in love with a woman. I woke up to my queerness, but I still had to reconcile the fact that I wasn’t what I thought queer was. I was born in ’81, and I grew up in the ’90s. Back then, there was a particular energy to queer culture and lesbian culture. I didn’t fit into that – I was very soft, feminine and very romantic. I had to try and figure out how to make my own space within queer culture in my own way.
Eden Land is romantic, medieval, otherworldly and ethereal – all the things I love. ‘Yellow Moon’ is about queerness and self-realisation. It’s about waking up to this other side of me that I hadn’t paid much attention to. It’s about the male and female, the feminine and masculine within yourself. It’s a coming-of-age album – I went from being a child to a young adult. It was a joy. It excited me so much.
"With female songwriters, people really concentrate on every song being like a diary entry ... It’s not actually like that a lot of the time. We’re just so good at it that you don’t know when it’s true or not."
Does the album document the start of your next relationship, or is it more focused towards the end of the previous one?
I made up the whole album before I met her – I was writing the album at the end of the relationship. I was frustrated – I was reaching for nature, reaching for something mysterious that I didn’t quite understand. She was my partner, as well as a part of my band – she played on this album as well as my third album [A fool who’ll]. When I met her, I wrote the songs ‘Eve’ and ‘Adam’.
What does the imagery of the yellow moon evoke for you within the context of Eden Land?
The symbolism isn’t thought through. It’s a very simple song of desperation. It doesn’t even make sense. “I see your face in the light…” What light? [Laughs] It’s not a crafted song. It’s a tribute to the things that got me through – the moon and the trees. For an artist to work full-time in a call centre, it’s not a fun time. I had to tune into the energy so deeply in order to survive. The moon represents emotion. The trees represent being grounded. It was about me using that energy to go into another world, away from my life.
My life was not good. It was boring. I was about to give up music, go into full-time life and become a zombie. I was trying to hold onto something when I was walking home from the train. The moon through the trees, the wind … it was something magic. It’s not a well thought-out song – in a lot of ways, it’s very primitive.
Where do you find yourself at the outset of this record?
I had a really bad time with the second album as far as the music industry was concerned. I was signed by V2 overseas on the strength of that record, but I went through all these legal problems where my first label wanted to sue them. I had a lot of anxiety and panic attacks. I was very sick for a while. All these promises were made to me by the label, but then they got bought out by Universal and I was dropped. At the time, it felt like a real death of a dream. I needed to get out of Melbourne, out of the city. It’s a hard time to talk about … I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet.
You left Melbourne. Where did you end up?
Daylesford [in Victoria]. I won the APRA Professional Development award, so I could live off music for a little bit. My partner and I were working on new songs out in Daylesford, and I was writing on acoustic guitar. It just wasn’t working, though. That’s where the new guitar came in. As a part of the award, I was given a pale yellow Gibson SG. I thought it was weird, but when I transferred the songs onto it they became alive. We worked out the songs as a trio: me on electric guitar; my partner on drums; and Biddy Connor, who played on Eden Land, doing all the string arrangements.
It’s fitting that you brought up the industry and label bullshit. ‘Australia’ feels like a real indictment of artists in this country.
Someone told me, when they heard Eden Land, that it was good I had a “neutral” accent. I won’t say who that was, but they were from Britain and they were thinking about connecting to an overseas audience. They told me it was really good that I didn’t have an Australian accent – and it hurt. As a woman – as an Australian woman – it made me feel like I couldn’t be taken seriously if I sang in my own accent, telling my own story. That’s what I felt like, especially after going overseas and coming back.
The energy here is so different. We’re not expansive in our arts scene – we have to do it all ourselves. We get no support from the government. If I tell people I’m a musician, they think that I sing songs at open mic nights. They still don’t get that we have a culture here. Everyday people don’t understand. I was so over it.
I started thinking about other aspects of being Australian, and the confusion that comes with it. I’m a settler – my family came over here at the start of convicts, somewhere between 1790 and 1890. There’s frustration and sadness that comes with the lack of truth in our history, what we’re taught…
[Laughs] Really, the whole song is having a big whinge. I was just trying to make it poetic.
It really sounds as though there was a real catharsis to writing this song.
There was. I wanted to get everything off my chest. At the time, I felt really lost. I had all this momentum from my first two albums which broke. All of a sudden, I was 28, lost and depressed. I decided to go to RMIT and study professional writing so I had a chance to get a better job. I had no skills. I’d given so much to music that the rest of my life was neglected. A lot of people spend their 20s establishing their skills. I spent it making albums. With all that said, I think A fool who’ll is probably my favourite album I’ve ever made. It’s full of absolute passion and boldness and dynamics … It’s really special.
Our Swan Song is made during your first relationship. Eden Land is made at the end of the first and the start of the second. A fool who’ll is made during the second…
…and then this one is at the end again. [laughs]
That’s literally what happened. My partner and I got married in New Zealand as a civil union. When it ended, I was fucking heartbroken. A few months later, though, I fell really deeply for a guy – someone I’m still with now, seven years later. It was confusing – I was heartbroken, but I was also in love. ‘First Love Song’ was me going over the first moments I had with this person. I was this forensic, moment-by-moment snapshot of how it happened. It was quite ordinary – we met somewhere and decided to hang out – but in those moments, my life changed.
Love can be so random – you can just decide to go somewhere, decide to talk to someone, and then you can’t stop talking to them. You’re in love. I had a moment one morning where I was just sitting there while he was still asleep, and it just kind of hit me. It was like, “Well, here we go again.” [Laughs] The song’s kind of cynical, in a way. That first love song … you don’t know if it’s going to be the first of many, or if it will be the only one. It’s too early to tell. It’s weird to kind of present it – “Here you are, mate. I’m gonna be writing about you a lot.” It’s this mixture of cynicism, being in love, and being resigned to fate.
This was the third time I’d been in love – some people never fall in love. Why does this keep happening to me? I just didn’t understand. I’ve never been single in my life. Why do I fall so deeply?
How do you navigate that as a songwriter? It’s one thing to say it’s a “first love song”, but you also have to take into consideration it’s your fourth album and you’ve been writing songs for over half your life at this stage.
It’s how I process my feelings. By the time I was writing ‘First Love Song’ and writing Laura Jean, I feel like I was really starting to master my craft in my own way. I really learned how to refine songs in a conscious way. I really worked on the songs and moulded it a lot more.
Because I started writing songs at about 15, I used songwriting to alleviate myself, to get perspective. I turned something boring and sad into something beautiful and transcendent. That’s been my goal ever since – to try and give these feelings shape so we can all share them and realise we all have them. They’re so everyday, but they’re also, in a way … they’re everything. [Laughs] I find the term extraordinary really fitting for that sort of thing. It’s ordinary, but it’s deep and it’s magical. That’s what I’m inspired by.
It’s safe to say this song is unlike anything you’ve done in the past…
Someone told me it was unrecognisable to the point where they genuinely wondered if there was another artist out there that also had the name Laura Jean. [laughs]
Did it seem like a more natural progression internally?
What’s funny is that the whole album was still written in the same old folky way I’ve always done. What happened was in 2016, my friend Simon gave me a keyboard for my birthday. He found it on the street, and he told me he could use it if I wanted to write songs on the piano and work out parts on it. It wasn’t a great keyboard, but it was workable.
I started playing with it, and the first thing I learned on it was a cover of
When I got home, I started to explore the sounds on the keyboards more. They were evoking all of these different things in me – nostalgia, spontaneity, teenage romance. That’s all it took – off I went. All I did was follow what the songs needed.
So ‘Girls On The TV’ started out as a solo keyboard song?
The same as every other song on the record. With that song, I didn’t know what direction we were going to take it for the album. John [Lee, producer] and I were stumped. We recorded it the way that I’d been playing it – just by myself on the keyboard – but we didn’t know how or if it would work like that. I left it with John, who ended up just getting stoned by himself for a couple of days and adding all this guitar and bass to it. I didn’t expect it – I thought it was going to be more of a ’90s R&B song, but it ended up sounding more like
Sort of like Tango in the Night?
Yeah, exactly. That album was a big reference point. It’s funny … when I play that song by myself, it’s a really sad song. It’s very mournful. On the album, it sounds a lot more fun – which was kind of shocking to anyone who heard me play it before the album came out. All I ever do is follow what the song needs, and sometimes that takes me to weird places. The song decides what it needs and I just try and listen to that. I don’t consciously decide what to do. I just follow. It’s exciting for me – I just don’t know what will inspire me or what direction a song will take. It can be a little scary at times, but it’s the way that I like to work.
All five of these songs are autobiographical in their own way. The difference between the other four and ‘Girls On The TV’ though, seems to be that each of those songs are reflections on you in the present of when it was written. ‘Girls On The TV’ seems more nostalgic, referring to the past and to people other than yourself.
I’d written a couple of very nostalgic songs for Laura Jean. One of them was a song called ‘A Mirror on the Earth’, where I started to explore deep memory and thinking about stories that may or may not be true and working into stories you can tell people. It’s about the way we tell stories about ourselves. Who knows how true they actually are? We just decide on a story and we tell everyone.
With ‘Girls On The TV’, I was telling a version of my sister’s story. It’s about how two people can grow up next to one another and yet still have completely different life experiences. When I was a young person, I made a video of my sister – a portrait in video form, this little short video about her. My family are my muses – all the songs I write are for them. For my mum, my dad, my sister or my partner. It’s all for them.
‘Girls on the TV’ is about me and my sister, but it’s also an every-girl story. I won’t say what’s true or not true in the song. I’m a songwriter – I make things up. With female songwriters, people really concentrate on every song being like a diary entry; that everything is true. It’s not actually like that a lot of the time. We’re just so good at it that you don’t know when it’s true or not. [Laughs]
I know a lot of male songwriters who people say are very philosophical, on the other hand. I actually know them, and I know that their lyrics are completely autobiographical. Male artists use their lives all the time, but it’s not as focused on for whatever reason. I think we’re still getting comfortable with the idea of female writers being fully able to make stuff up – people that can craft and write. We’re more comfortable with the idea of a woman being like, “Whoops, my diary became a song.” It’s not how it works.
It seems like ‘Girls On The TV’ had one of the longer creative processes out of all the songs we’ve discussed.
It took me three years to write ‘Girls On The TV’. I worked on it constantly. I thought about it every day. I workshopped it with a lot of people. Most of the songs on Devotion took a long time to write – one of the reasons I called the album that is because I wanted to reflect on my devotion to songwriting. Looking back, I’ve always been devoted to it. Devotion takes sacrifice and heartache and loneliness. It’s a spiritual path – and songwriting is my path. It’s not easy – it hurts – but it’s something that’s to be celebrated.
Is there a contrast in your mind between the effort put into the songs and the way that Devotion sounds effortless in its own way?
Definitely. I created an album that’s a bit more fun to play. My last four albums have been fucking painful to play live. [Laughs] This one’s going to be way more fun to tour. It’s kind of like a present to myself for sticking with it for so long. We’re playing the whole album on this tour with a band. I don’t want to play any of my old songs for this tour – I just want to play Devotion. We’re creating an energy in the room that’s going to be really fun and nostalgic.