Lawrence Arabia: ‘I’ve Never Felt Happy Repeating Myself’

We catch up with James Milne to discuss the difference a debut makes.

With Lawrence Arabia’s sophomore album, ‘The Sparrow’, hitting the shelves this week, we catch up with James Milne to discuss the difference a debut makes, relegating the writing process to the road and how many hands can make light work, particularly when they belong to good friends of yours.

The new album ‘The Sparrow’ sees a shift away from the poppy production style of your last full length - what prompted the change?
I was just ready for a change. I’ve never felt happy repeating myself, so was keen to do something that changed the techniques I was using and the style of the music that I was producing.

‘Chant Darling’ was a great success, winning awards and achieving rave reviews - how did you move past that when beginning to write ‘The Sparrow’? Was there ever a temptation to stick to a formula you know works?
By the time of spending a couple of years touring ‘Chant Darling’ on and off, I’d well and truly found the limitations of that particular body of work. Also added to that feeling was that I had been working on ‘Chant Darling’ for most of two years before that. Even if I’d felt it was necessary for my career to stick to that formula, I would have gone mad doing the same kind of stuff again. The thing is, while it got a couple of awards back home and got some good reviews, it never took off in a massive fashion so it wasn’t like I had a huge global fanbase I was terrified to alienate. It was still just a small niche whom I was sure could handle the change.

Am I right in thinking that you chose to write in character or about characters rather than autobiographically? What made you opt for more of a story telling approach?
Possibly just the difference in the circumstances around the writing. The previous album had been accumulated through moments of boredom over a few years. This one was written in quite a short period of time, mainly while between tours in London, so it was a more forced and compressed period of writing. I think that was probably one of the factors that led to more specific narrative stuff somehow. There’s still a pretty similar balance between fiction and autobiography, or altered autobiography. ‘Travelling Shoes’, ‘The Listening Times’ and ‘The 03’ are all at least partially autobiographical, while containing a few elements that could be transplanted onto hypothetical characters.

How much did writing on the road impact the outcome of the record? Do you think you’d have a completely different album if you’d been at home whilst working on it?
Quite possibly. As I mentioned previously, the bulk of writing process was quite focussed because of the time pressures I had. Almost a 9 to 5 scenario. Though actually more 11 to 2 really. Definitely different to the kind of blank bohemian canvas I normally work from, drinking coffee and hoping to be somehow creative in an abstract sense sometime before the sun sets.

You produced and mixed the album yourself too - how important is it for you to retain complete control?
It’s not massively important to me. My working in this way was more to save money really – I was able to work with talented engineers and other musicians who were able to do the things that I can’t do so well. But essentially I ran out of budget paying for the studio time, musicians and engineers, and had to do the mixing myself. I feel quite comfortable with the task of production though. Establishing an aesthetic, arranging, and working towards achieving the idea I have in my head is a satisfying process. Well, it certainly was in the case of this album at least.

Did you consider working with other people initially or were you always set on doing everything yourself?
I went into this album with the intention of being as collaborative as possible, while maintaining a producerly control over the overall sound and direction of the album.

Connan Mockasin was involved in some of the recording process. You’ve worked together in the past. Was it important to you to go into the album with people you know well?
Definitely with Elroy Finn, who played drums, and Connan, I knew that I could let them use their own natural musical skills to help create the basic architecture of the record. I trusted their instincts so it took a lot of pressure off me. They’re great friends as well so it made the experience pretty enjoyable.

What was the studio set up like?
It was in a house in Surrey where we were also staying. The gear was set up in the lounge – drums, Steinway grand and bass. Joe Gubay the engineer had set up a bunch of his magnificent collection of vintage studio equipment, so we had this lovely residential situation with top quality studio gear. It was idyllic.

You’re not performing much in the UK this summer. What other plans do you have? Are you touring elsewhere?
We’ll be looking to play more in the UK before the year is through, and hopefully expand the band till we’re back next summer with an enormous band and string quartet. Softly, softly, catchy monkey…

Lawrence Arabia’s new album ‘The Sparrow’ is out now via Bella Union.