One of New Zealand’s finest songwriters, Lawrence Arabia delivers wry observations of contemporary life in deftly arranged pop vignettes.
Born in the “Garden City” of Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1981 (the year the Springbok tour divided the country, and that The Clean debuted with the single Tally Ho!), a youthful James Milne served an illustrious indie-rock apprenticeship touring the US as bassist for Auckland-based pop group The Brunettes, and as drummer for Ryan McPhun’s Ruby Suns.
And then, as Reginald Dwight made way for the musical entity that was Elton John, and David Jones blossomed into David Bowie, so plain old James Milne ceded to the Übermensch that has become one of New Zealand’s finest contemporary songwriters and performers – the celebrated singer of songs that is Lawrence Arabia.
Forming spiky, 60’s-influenced pop combo The Reduction Agents as a vehicle for his own blossoming songwriting, and simultaneously releasing The Dance Reduction Agents with the eponymous Lawrence Arabia in 2006, it became clear that a significant new talent had been unearthed.
Channelling the pop sensibilities of the Kinks’ Ray Davies, and combining them with classic West Coast sunshine pop, together with something altogether more offbeat, the two records were like different sides of the same coin – the former more conventional, the latter more eclectic, setting the tone for a musical career filled with intriguing diversions and dualities.
Decamping to the musical mecca of London in late 2006, and earning his touring stripes in Europe supporting Okkervil River and Feist, Lawrence recorded his second album, Chant Darling, in London and Sweden. It brought further accolades upon his return to New Zealand, including the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll (with co-writer, The Phoenix Foundation’s Lukasz Buda) for the song Apple Pie Bed, the inaugural Taite Music Prize, and a record deal with renowned UK independent Bella Union.
Inbetween Arabia’s own second and third albums came two separate collaborative records; the first a self-titled album by Barb (2010), a quasi -“supergroup” formed with Liam Finn and Connan Mockasin, and Fabulous/Arabia’s Unlimited Buffet (2011), which juxtaposed Arabia’s pop smarts and wry lyrical observations with Mike Fab’s funk and soul-based grooves for an unusual, and warmly received album that carried shades of David Bowie’s white soul period.
The third Lawrence Arabia album The Sparrow was written while touring Chant Darling in 2010, and recorded with drummer Elroy Finn and bassist Connan Mockasin (whose Forever Dolphin Love debut he shared production duties on) in Surrey, before adding finishing touches, including the album’s distinctive string arrangements, back in New Zealand. It was released worldwide in 2012, and was greeted with glowing praise for its uncompromisingly dark, sparse feel and themes – including a four star review in UK magazine Mojo. The album won a Tui (New Zealand Music Award) for Best Male Solo Album in 2013.
Which brings us to the present day, and to the imminent release of the fourth Lawrence Arabia album, Absolute Truth; this time, fittingly, via the iconic Flying Nun label that released their first music in the year of his birth.
Recorded primarily in late night sessions in the unglamorous Hutt Valley industrial suburb of Gracefield, again with Mike Fabulous, the album is full of the sparkling pop melodies that have delighted an ever-expanding audience, and some distinctly sonic flourishes, adding to an already richly satisfying songbook, and providing another chapter in the story of this unique and cherished artist.