Unless you’d seen her performing in her native Melbourne in the last couple of years, you’d have been forgiven for assuming that Laura Jean’s fourth album was likely to tread a similar path to the high quality trio that came before it. Intimate, delicate folk that catches your attention and rags you into its world has long been her forte, which makes the sultry, slinky 80s pop of ‘Touchstone’ that heralded her move towards a new musical direction all the more of a pleasant surprise. It’s little wonder that Lorde gave it an unequivocal seal of approval, declaring it “maybe the sharpest communication of the spooky, all-consuming nature of feminine love I’ve ever seen” to her eight million Twitter followers.
Coming four years after Jean’s last album (the intervening time has been filled with, among other things, a regular life advice feature in the Laura Imbruglia-helmed webseries Amateur Hour – sample suggestions including dog weightlifting and riding your bike with your eyes closed), Devotion is a record that acts as a bridge between her adult self and her adolescent formative years. Touching upon such intense teenage feelings as obsession (the aforementioned ‘Touchstone’) pop culture escapism (‘Girls On The TV’ and yearning (‘Take Me There’), it also manages to call back to the regional coastal Australia of her past without ever mentioning it thanks to a deep and quasi-nostalgic sound that instantly conjours up hazy beachside afternoons and grainy family home movies. By reconciling her own past Jean has made an album capable of transporting the listener to a past they’ve never had and to place they’ve never been and leave them longing to go back again. This is the story of how she made it, in her own words.
With the new album being such a large departure sonically from your previous records, can you describe the process that led to the development of that sound? Was there a catalytic moment that led to that direction or was it a process of gradual refinement?
For my birthday in 2014 my friend and collaborator Simon Grounds gave me a keyboard he found on the street, a Kuwai X120. He thought I could use it as a basic keypad to compose and work stuff out. I started exploring the inbuilt sounds and rhythms. It reminded me of the toy keyboards I played with when I was a kid. Something about the naivety of the sounds made me have these fun, direct, unselfconscious ideas. I wrote to the inbuilt rhythms using some of the synth pads. I performed the songs like that in venues around Melbourne for a year or two, slowly refining them lyrically and structurally. Then I took the songs to John Lee at Phaedra studios. We were stuck on how to get the songs off the keyboard into a broader sonic world. I left John alone for a couple of days and he got stoned and put a lot of delay guitar and bass on it. He wanted to be clever but he decided to give in to the inherent adolescent fervour in the songs. We had our sound and then we just built on it carefully.
Recently you’ve been undertaking various non-musical projects such as Amateur Hour – do you think that doing them allowed you to have the degree of space needed to fully reflect on where you wanted this record to go?
My skits for Amateur Hour took up about 6 hours of my time – the crew came to my house and I improvised the whole thing. But yes, non-musical stuff takes up lots of time, and it all feeds back into song writing. I have been studying at University for the last year, a mix of psychology, criminology and Indigenous studies. I work in a café, and I was also teaching song writing at Melbourne Polytechnic for a couple of years. I got the idea for the album name from a customer at the café. The particular way she said the word ‘Devotion’ really got me. I find having life outside of music very inspiring. Generally, I don’t like hanging out in music scenes. I prefer to mainly reside in worlds where I can observe and listen to people freely without them knowing my music work.
“I am fascinated by being Australian, and the many levels of complexity, sadness, and hope in our culture.”
It’s a record that seems to have a really strong, underlying sense of place – was that something you intentionally built into the songwriting or more of an element that occurred naturally?
All my albums except my second one have referenced Australia, and the feel of different places here. I am fascinated by being Australian, and the many levels of complexity, sadness, and hope in our culture. I do intentionally build a sense of place in my song writing because I believe a story needs a setting. If it doesn’t have a setting, it floats off like a balloon and is not tied anywhere. You don’t have to do it by mentioning place names, you can do it by honouring your surroundings and writing about what you know.
Devotion is a record that seems to act as a bridge between your adult self and your formative years. Is that a description you’d agree with and do you think making it has changed the way you view your own past?
That’s a perfect description. I often write about memories but not always accurately. I make a lot of stuff up to service the song. Song writing has helped me process and transcend my past. The songs encourage me to view my perceived past with a poetic lens, which helps me find the profundity in my tiny ordinary life. I like trying to create something fantastical with basic tools, it’s fun.
There’s a noticeable vein of hazy reflection running through the record – was that a callback to the dreamlike fluidity of time at the album’s core or purely a by-product of the musical direction you’ve taken?
I think it happened accidentally with the subject matter and the synth pads I was using, but then I noticed it and cultivated it to become a strong theme in the album. I respond to chords and tones and basic subconscious word ideas lyrically, then the chords and tones respond to the lyrics and so on.
“I am actually deeply feminine and on this album I got to express the teen femininity I missed out on.”
A lot of the emotions explored at the heart of the record are ones of great intensity that we often feel when growing up but rarely do in adulthood. With that in mind, how was the experience of revisiting them during the writing process?
It was wonderful and cathartic. Because I am queer and slightly androgynous I was not considered female by my schoolmates as a teenager in that surf culture of the 80s and 90s. My nickname was Lawrence for a time. I am actually deeply feminine and on this album I got to express the teen femininity I missed out on. I think I opened a wormhole to my adolescent self in Christmas 2015 when I was visiting Mum. I walked down to a bridge over a lagoon in Terrigal that I used to hide under and daydream about crushes. I sat under there and remembered that feeling. That’s when the song Press Play came to me. That sickening, hopeful feeling sat on the sand with sounds of waves in the background. The smell of sunscreen and buying hot chips at the beach tuck shop in the late 80s. They never had proper lighting in there, the one at Avoca, and it was a dark, wooden square space that smelled of fish. I have very good sensory recall. I think that helps my song writing.
With ‘Touchstone’ receiving public praise from Lorde, does receiving such praise matter as much to you as it did when it first started, or are you at a stage in your career where you’re content to follow your own instinct and do your own thing?
I have always appreciated kind words from songwriters I respect. That is a strong marker of success for me. I respect Lorde very much as a songwriter and I love her music. I’ve been lucky enough to be noticed by some amazing songwriters in my time and it always makes me feel like I am on the right track and that I should keep going. That said, when I am writing I completely go into my own world and the only thing I am concerned about is if it is working for me and my purpose for the song. Usually my purpose is to make my sister dance and cry at the same time.
With the benefit of hindsight, do you feel you’ve made the album you initially set out to, and if not where do you think it differs from the initial ideas that you had?
I didn’t have a clear idea of how this album would sound, only the feeling I wanted it to give me – romance, space to daydream, nostalgia. I think when I started I thought it would sound more cool and influenced by modern R & B but it has ended up sounding like a late 80s adult contemporary pop album which is perfect.
If you could pick one thing above all else – be it a sensation, emotion or message – that people take away from Devotion what would you hope that would be?
That’s a tough one. The point of music for me is to express something I can’t in words, and the answer to this question is a good example of that.