Lawrence Arabia, aka James Milne, is back with his new record The Sparrow – a gorgeously spacious and unashamed slice of chamber-pop. If you can imagine Serge Gainsbourg arranging a Ray Davies record you’ll be moving in the right circles -and yeah they’re pretty good circles to be moving in. Of course it was time Bowlegs caught up with Mr Milne to talk about the new album and other such things.
Bowlegs: How did you want The Sparrow to differ from Chant Darling? Is a new album a chance for an artist to perfect what’s gone before? Or do you see it as a new beginning each time?
Milne: I wanted it to be looser, less uptight. More performance, less thought process. There’s definitely a sense of developing methods between albums, of learning from my mistakes. It is a progression rather than tear the whole thing down and start again. That said though, it did feel like a reasonably drastic shift for me.
Bowlegs: The basic tracks were laid down in Surrey, any particular reason for the choice of venue? Connan Mockasin played on the record – you both seem to have a unique vision of pop, how do you work together?
Milne: I’d been thinking about the idea of recording in a house for a while. I wanted a room that had a sound of its own, not that perfect neutrality of a recording studio. Combined with the playing of Connan and Elroy Finn, I knew that this could potentially colour the record in a really interesting way. Connan and I have been friends for about five or so years. I helped him with engineering the early sessions of his album Forever Dolphin Love and I loved his bass playing on that record, so I got him to return the favour here.
Bowlegs: The opening track, Travelling Shoes, opens with a real 60s chamber-pop vibe? What artists have influenced the record? How is working with a string section, must be exciting to hear it being put down on top of your compositions?
Milne: There’s the usual suspects there still, you know, The Zombies, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Turtles… But leading up to the recording, I got particularly into the sounds of Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg records around the 69-72 period. Also Kevin Ayers and Broadcast. These records were certainly a muse for me, not so much in songwriting, but in the sound of them, the sense of atmosphere and the recording techniques. Hearing the string arrangements come together from the original demos, which were just me impersonating the sound of violins with my voice, was pretty special.
Bowlegs: Tell us about The Bisexual, it has a great narrative and some excellent brass. How did that track come about?
Milne: We were round at the house where Connan and Elroy were living in London, having a small dinner party kind of thing and the following day I was going to be heading into a rehearsal room to do some writing on a piano. I asked the guests for topic assignments for potential songs, just to get some kind of lyrical focus or starting point. Elroy suggested “snake in the grass” as a topic, which the next day produced this slightly sensual boss nova thingy and the lyrics about an erotically confusing dinner party.
Bowlegs: Many of these songs started life in 2010 when you were on tour and writing? Do you write most of your material on the road? After being banded around for two years how different is a song from its conception to its final recording?
Milne: Even though the record’s taken a couple of years from conception to album release, the recordings were done very much at the conception of the songs. We’d never played the songs when we started recording, so were were recording rehearsals and first attempts at feels. Some of the songs were only sketches, or half songs. The main difference in the final product is the addition of the string and horn parts, which filled the spaces which were left for them in the initial recording.
Bowlegs: The 03 has lines like “you’ll never make it out there”, did you hear those words whilst growing up? Is this a response to the doubters?
Milne: More of a projection of my own doubt really. The song is a hypothetical scenario of admitting defeat, acknowledging the failure of my childhood dreams. It’s a humorous parable of warning to myself rather than describing a genuine soul-shuddering fear.
Bowlegs: The bright production and the performances on The Sparrow feel refreshing being that so many artists are currently opting for a lo-fi persona. How do you feel about recording techniques, the basics were recorded live right? Are you a perfectionist in the studio?
Milne: In some degree, it was a reaction to some of that studied murkiness that is so popular at the moment. Recording live and retaining some of the imperfection, capturing the exploratory creative processes of musicians approaching a song instinctively couldn’t really be more different to the home-studio musician layering tracks with delay and compression, and editing things heavily, which tends to mystify the process and remove much of the sense of actual humans performing. If anything, with this recording, I was trying to be the opposite of a perfectionist. I wanted it to sound really cool, and I was quite specific about that, but I wanted the performances to be real, not perfect.
Bowlegs: What is the plan for the remainder of 2012? When you finish a record do you feel a sense of relief or start considering what you might write or work on next?
Milne: The plan is to be based in New York and Europe and see what happens. It’s difficult to jump onto interesting opportunities when you’re based in New Zealand cos you’ve got to uproot people from their lives and stump up $15000 in airfares. So, the opportunity to release a record worldwide and tour and travel with it is enormously liberating.
Bowlegs: Finally tell us an album that you’ve been listening to a lot in 2012?
Milne: Something that just came out recently over here was Opossom’s Electric Hawaii. Opossom is Kody Nielson, who’s the brother of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson. It’s sort of in the same ballpark, but more unashamedly poppy – serious bubblegum earworm catchiness like Tommy James or The Zombies but slathered with distortion, delay, vocoder and compression.