10:51 am Aug. 14, 2012
If you’re going to go by an alias, make it an outlandish one.
Just ask James Milne, the Christchurch, New Zealand, indie-pop singer-songwriter who does business as—yes—Lawrence Arabia.
It’s an attention-getting name—and an off-putting one. It makes him sound ha-ha annoying. That’s hardly the case, though. Milne is one of the sharpest writers and arrangers in his field, and while the music is airy by design—because that’s what indie-pop is—Milne’s arrangements have real presence. On 2010’s Chant Darling, he moved swiftly and easily through a loving grab bag of received pop styles: lilting ’70s soft-rock harmonies on “The Undesirables,” Beach Boys jaunt on “Apple Pie Bed,” the cheeky march of “Eye A.”
Lawrence Arabia’s new album, his third, The Sparrow (Bella Union), plays as more of a piece. Compact (nine songs in under 35 minutes) and finely etched, every guitar fleck, each arcing string sweep, is tightly controlled, but the music is expansive and graceful, not knotty: A perfect example is the way the bell-like keyboard part and the pert, nearly invisible handclaps linger at the outer edges of the chorus to “The 03.” (New York fans have a chance to hear the new songs tonight, August 14, at Mercury Lounge.)
Wanderlust is The Sparrow’s main recurring theme. “The light grows dimmer if it’s never replaced,” he sings in “Lick Your Wounds.” “Traveling Shoes” is about a boy who needs to leave his hometown, pronto: “He’s been yearning for a while . . . He gazes at the sky/ And a departure passes by.” Aforementioned “The 03,” named for the Christchurch area code, takes the obverse view—its narrator comes home after a failed attempt at freedom, “with my tail between my legs.”
Milne has done plenty of moving around himself—from Christchurch to London to his current temporary home, Brooklyn. It’s enough to make you wonder if he ever feels at home in any particular place.
“I definitely try and feel comfortable being at home in New Zealand,” he said over the phone late last week. “But after a while, I definitely find it really difficult to be satisfied with the place. There’s a thing about New Zealanders: They always seem to be totally obsessed with getting away and proving themselves. I mean, it’s understandable, with the sense of isolation we have. It’s natural that you want to test yourself elsewhere. I’ve tried to base myself in New Zealand, but eventually, the reality is that going [back and forth] has become really expensive and frustrating. You’ve got friends doing all sorts of interesting things in New Zealand, and you feel weirdly magnetized toward the bottom of the earth. At some point, it becomes necessary to get out of there. [The Sparrow] definitely doesn’t feel like a New Zealand album. I certainly wasn’t touring a lot in New Zealand when I came up with this record.”
Increasingly, the task of making Lawrence Arabia a success, apart from the ways in which Milne's musical persona and his musical approach have become tied to the United States and the U.K., keeps Milne away from home anyway.
“I’ve been in Greenpoint for about a week,” he said. “I’m living here temporarily. I’ll be here to the end of the year, probably. If I was just sitting there with my band in New Zealand, [I’d] have to think about raising money and planning things. Whereas, if there’s just a little cool gig that came somewhere in New York and you’re in New York, you can do it. That’s the kind of thing I crave doing, rather than living in New Zealand and feeling totally isolated. It’s just easier. A lot of New Zealanders live here at the moment—not necessarily in Greenpoint, but around this part of Brooklyn. I’ve got quite close friends that are living here. It was a slight motivation for particularly going to New York rather than, say, London.”
Having a pseudonym, however cheeky it might be, certainly goes some way to legitimizing Milne's reinvention and relocation. Yet one always wonders what the cheekily pseudonymic artist's parents must think.
“I think I might have been avoiding them after I had done it,” he said with a laugh. “We never actually discussed the topic. Maybe there was a slight tinge of insult: ‘Isn’t your given name good enough for you?’ But [it] had been a lot in line with how I had been as a child. I was exuberant. I liked fantastical things, weird British comedy and stuff like that. [So] this wasn’t a shock to them."
Milne's talent for arranging, and the breadth of sounds on his albums speaks to a youth spent immersed in music. It turns out that in his case the lion's share of that music was vocal.
“I think I sang from as soon as I could talk, really,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to grow up to a virtuoso singer or soloist in the choir or anything. But I was always in choirs and could sing in tune and could read music. I went to Anglican Boys Schools in Christchurch—all-boys private schools—and I learned a lot of harmonies. My parents were middle-class. I was an only child; they were giving up a lot of things trying to give me the best possible education they could give me. You see the aspirations of a lot kids at private school. The sky is the limit, really. Maybe it subconsciously influenced my sense of grand ambition.
“I’ve always felt slightly an observer more than a participant in my life. Maybe it’s something as an only child—I always found myself commentating on my own games in the backyard because there was no one to play with. I wasn’t a total loner, but I came up with a little internal monologue. I was definitely not a rebellious kid in the traditional sense. I think I have always been a little bit of a rule-keeper—a line-toer, really.”
That’s not terribly surprising: Milne’s a literary type as much as a musical one. He’s dabbled with scripts for stage, screen, and radio, and was working on a post-grad degree in politics a decade ago when he joined a band called the Brunettes: “We started touring. It seemed a lot more exciting than what I was doing at the politics faculty,” he said. He dropped out: “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just going to do this.’ I have had a couple of little part-time jobs, but seem to have been somehow making a living off music for about 10 years.”
Making that living in New York, however temporarily, allows him certain creature comforts. For example, there’s a bar night for ex-pats of just about every variety in this town. Has he found one of his own?
“I imagine there’s probably an Australian and New Zealand bar of some description somewhere, but I don’t imagine that it’s the sort of place that I’d like to spend my time—unless there’s a rugby match on.” Milne laughed softly.
“I miss a lot about Christchurch. Since the earthquakes happened there, I almost miss my whole sense of my childhood, in a way, because so much of it has been destroyed. At the moment I miss the fact that I couldn’t imagine myself living there, because it is too much in a state of disrepair. You have to give too much of your life to a city that’s really struggling for life at the moment. I couldn’t have the career I have and also be living in Christchurch at the moment. It’s a beautiful place—but yeah, it’s got its problems.”