Lawrence Arabia. Photo: Amelia Handscomb.

Lawrence Arabia on songwriting: ‘The more you do it, the less you know’

Throughout 2018, James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia) released a song a month to fans who’d supported him via a Kickstarter campaign. He took time out from his tour supporting the resulting album, Singles Club, to speak with Gareth Shute about the ups and downs of producing songs to a monthly schedule.

Two years ago, James Milne found himself with a pair of dilemmas. He was struggling to find the motivation to start on the next Lawrence Arabia album. At the same time, he had the opportunity to commission one of his favourite musicians, Van Dyke Parks, to write and record string parts for his song, ‘Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep)’. It was an exciting prospect, but also a very expensive one.

Milne solved both issues by setting up a Kickstarter campaign for the new album that saw him committing to release a new song every month to anyone who contributed. He teased his collaboration with Parks by saying the funds would allow him to “work with dream collaborators”. The only problem he had now was actually coming up with enough songs to meet the monthly schedule.

Milne has found his pace of songwriting slowing over the years – not because of any decline in his excitement around the process, but simply due to his strain of breaking old habits enough to come up with fresh ideas.

“When I was starting out, I didn’t find it hard to write songs because every time I picked up a guitar it was a surprise. … I think some people can just write to a template where the lyrics change each time while the song sounds roughly the same but for me it’s so much based in harmony and melody that I couldn’t do that.”

Lawrence Arabia in the studio.

Rather than going into the studio each day, he tried to first get the initial idea for a song.

“The best times to be inspired are moments when your id is awake, but your ego hasn’t kicked in, so that’s usually when you’re distracted or tired. Even though I had all this time and the potential to do a 9-to-5 routine, it would inevitably be at very inopportune moments that I’d have these moments of epiphany. I’d be at lunch with my girlfriend’s sister and then have idea running through my head, so I’d have to sneak off to the bathroom to record it. That’s how I came up with the chorus of ‘Everybody Wants Something.’ But my songwriting was ultimately successful because I was open to it throughout the year.”

Nonetheless, Milne did find that the process of actively seeking out song ideas did occasionally send him down fruitless rabbit holes. He spent time making experimental noise patterns that he thought might produce melody ideas and had a long free-form session on a grand piano, but neither approach produced anything worthwhile. Even when he did have an idea, it was no guarantee it would lead to a successful song.

“There were a few songs that I finished that I ended up hating. At one point, I attempted to write a song that was so romantic that it wasn’t actually romantic any more. I liked that one long enough to apply for an NZ On Air grant. Fortunately it was rejected, since I ended up abandoning it anyway.”

Milne developed his song ideas in his studio, which he’s built up in an office room he rents in the Dalmatian Cultural Society building in Eden Terrace. He tried to work quickly and not second-guess the ideas that came to him as he went through the recording process. Fortunately it wasn’t an entirely solitary pursuit since Milne had his longtime friend James Dansey working in the room next door and brought him in to help with mixing. He also drew in other collaborators when the opportunity arose: Liam Finn came by to pound some drums on the fast-paced ‘A Little Hate’ and a group of professional woodwind players completed the orchestration written by Van Dyke Parks.

One standout track is his duet with Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) on ‘Everything’s Minimal’, a song about the false impressions of someone’s life you might get via their social media accounts. This track has since been turned into a not-safe-for-work music video that shows a series of Instagram-able locations inhabited by humans who are expressing the animalistic side of themselves while behind closed doors.

Two of Milne’s collaborators on the album also ended up joining the Lawrence Arabia band for the current tour. He’d already known Heather Mansfield since their days in The Brunettes over a decade ago and she lends her striking vocals to ‘A Little Hate.’ In contrast, he first met cellist/pianist Claire Cowen when he went to her house last year to record on her harpsichord (which was organised through mutual friend, Ben King). His current live band also includes Anita Clark, who creates violin-soundscapes under the name MOTTE (also the tour’s support act).

Milne says he’s found it refreshing to mix these new faces in with long-term band members Tom Watson (guitars, trumpet), Alistair Deverick (drums), and Hayden East (bass). Before the tour, the band got ready by playing two private gigs at Wine Cellar in Auckland and inviting along a small audience of friends, which Milne found useful prep.

“There’s been so many times when we’ve started a tour and wished we’d had a chance to play together before the first official show to iron out any kinks. There’s so many things you only discover when you’re in front of an audience. You can just tell when a song is sucking the energy out of room or when people are getting genuinely excited by a performance. There was also a lot of material for the band to remember, so doing it in front of an audience helped focus the mind, because it brought in just a little bit of fear.”

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The early shows in the South Island have provided a chance for the new band members to be introduced tour traditions like the “baker’s dozen”, which is when a particular song is chosen and played 13 times in a row while driving from place to place. In the South Island, they tried this with ‘One Night In Bangkok’ and surprisingly Milne found it was “actually quite enjoyable.” The tour reaches its conclusion with a show at the Hollywood Cinema in Auckland on 27 April.

Now that the tour is underway and the album officially released, Milne has had time to reflect on the hectic 12 months of trying to complete the process (made more busier by the arrival of his new son into the world). After a year of giving himself more time than ever to focus on his songwriting, Milne admits that he’s just as baffled as ever by how it happens.

“I don’t think I’ve learnt anything. The paradox of songwriting is that the more you do it, the less you know. The deep frustration of it is that you can’t trick yourself into creating a song –  it has to be forced by circumstances or a complete accident. There’s no shortcut to make it any easier, that’s what I’ve found anyway. It will never cease to be an enigma, but part of the magic is never knowing how it works.”


This piece, as well as Lawrence Arabia’s album Singles Club, was made with support from NZ on Air.


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