Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Why Lawrence Arabia is as happy as Larry

James Milne aka Lawrence Arabia Photo / Hayden East
James Milne aka Lawrence Arabia Photo / Hayden East

The first thing you should know about Lawrence Arabia's new album, Absolute Truth, is that it's not a sad record.

It may be vulnerable and real, with the occasional dose of cynicism but James Milne (the man behind the moniker) is not sad.

"When I was reading an early draft of the press release, I was thinking, this sounds like a sad record, or quite bittersweet perhaps. And I wrote back [to my publicist] and said, 'I'm worried that people are going to perceive this as a sad, nostalgic record that's kind of world-weary and tired. To me I see this record as being quite a joyful statement'," he explains.

"It's got lots of little sceptical, jaded quips and stuff, but essentially it's actually a really loving record, and I hope people can hear that. I guess I don't want people coming at it with this idea that it's a mid-life crisis record, because I think it is really quite joyous."

And so it should be - Milne has multiple accolades to his name, including the Taite Prize, Silver Scroll Award, NZ Music Award for Best Male Artist, critical acclaim from international publications, and many beloved albums released, both in his solo career, and as part of The Reduction Agents, BARB, and Fabulous Arabia.

But it's also joyous because he began writing this album just after his daughter was born. He describes it as "written amidst a hazy post-partum exhaustion".

"I wrote Another Century in the birth care unit, maybe not all of it, but I seem to remember writing a lot of it there. I think it was a little bit of a way out of feeling trapped in some regard but also I tend to be quite creative when I'm tired, or lacking some kind of block or filter. I think when you're tired you don't consider what you're saying as much and little words and phrases just appear in your mind and condense without explanation.

"You're not so conscious, which I think is often quite good for songwriting."

Becoming a father was of course a life-changing experience but it didn't specifically cause Milne any kind of creative epiphany -- it changed things in a more practical sense, which had a flow-on effect.

"It changed my relationship to my art I guess, and specially the first year. It was the first time I'd ever really looked at music as a job, in the sense that I actually had to make every decision based on money because I had to be a breadwinner for a family.

"But it was also kind of liberating in a way, to have to accept jobs and take opportunities wherever they appeared because of the necessity of earning money."

Those jobs included writing scores for The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium, which is a serialised fantasy-adventure podcast created by Jemaine Clement and writer/director Duncan Sarkies, and working on an exotic new soundtrack for the NZ International Film Festival's silent film screening of Lonesome last year.

"I think sometimes being forced into writing music for something, when you have a deadline, that might generate ideas that otherwise would never have come up. It can break down a block that you might've been suffering from, so I think in that respect it can be really helpful in maintaining a flow of creativity over a long period of time."

It was written almost entirely at home in Newton, Auckland, with Milne popping into his bedroom to lay down ideas in between looking after his daughter, but was recorded in the rather more odd setting of the basement of a gyroplastics warehouse in the Hutt Valley, where Mike Fabulous, a long-time friend and collaborator of Milne's had set up a studio.

Listen to Another Century, a track off the new album

"It was pretty feral," Milne says, laughing. "I mean Mike had set it up well but the whole atmosphere of the neighbourhood, well, it was a very masculine area, it was just all heavy industry. There were big steel factories, and there was a brothel up the street, and there was some meth addict guy who would drive past Mike and just pull the fingers at him. It was an unsavoury part of town."

The plastic factory above the studio was noisy during the mornings, with heavy boots stomping around and workers smashing bits of plastic, so they'd usually start working mid-afternoon, and keep going until 2 or 3am.

"We were keeping weird hours and didn't see other people. I was staying with a friend in Petone but I'd be coming in at three in the morning, so it felt like a bit of a weird, isolated existence where we only hung out with each other for a few weeks."

Despite the utilitarian elements around them, the pair tapped into the more surreal aspect of their recording situation, and, taking cues from Milne's demos, created tracks lush with sounds from horns to synths, from nostalgia to exotica, from drama to satire.

"With The Sparrow I specifically eliminated whole elements of possibility [when it came to the instrumentation], and with this I basically just added them back in again, because I could," he says with a smile.

Listen to A Lake, a track off the new album

Of course his signature strings and layered vocal harmonies are still present.

"I'll always like the idea of strings. There's just something about the timbre of them that you can't get from other instruments. I've always been a chronic Beatles fan and I've always loved the way they used strings in pop music, so I don't think I'll ever escape that. And I always like harmonies, and that whole Californian scene in the 70s with lots of thick, three-part harmonies."

The result is a personal album -- perhaps his most clearly personal, with song titles like Sweet Dissatisfaction, I Waste My Time, Mask of Maturity, and What Became Of That Angry Young Man?

"I guess across my records, I always thought I was this kind of ironic writer who wrote story songs, but the more I sing my songs, the more I realise they're totally autobiographical on some level. But this record ... almost all of the songs are fairly directly about my own experiences. I think it's kind of like a mini memoir record, like kind of a fragmented memoir. But in a skewed way -- it's not just a big personal moan or vent, it's definitely not a straight autobiography. It goes through some sort of kaleidoscope.

"I think wherever possible it all comes from my personal experience but wherever that personal experience is lacking, then I have to draw on somebody else's, or I have to fabricate things, and create an element of fiction."

As always, he managed to balance the romance of his songs, with a slightly more cynical world view -- some of them may be love songs but they're written through the lens of real life.

"It's probably more the case that I'm just terrible at being a pure romantic, I have to ruin it with mundane realism

"Just at the moment I was about to say something beautiful, I have to ruin it," he explains with a wry smile.

But that's not true -- it's a great artistic trait rather than a ruinous one, and is a key reason Milne has become one of New Zealand's most admired and successful songwriters.

Who: Lawrence Arabia aka James Milne

What: New album Absolute Truth, out tomorrow, July 8

Where and when: Touring the country starting on Wednesday, July 13, and performing a special show the Crystal Palace in Auckland on Friday, July 29

- TimeOut

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