Laura Jean: “I was asking myself: ‘Why do you run from the fruits of your success?’ It’s about going deeper and deeper”

The sixth album from the acclaimed singer-songwriter (and art law scholar) critiques commodification and anti-intellectualism – but it’s also suffused with humour, love and “lush beauty”

“It’s brave because it’s confusing and jarring,” begins Laura Jean. She’s explaining her intentions behind the album cover for her sixth album, ‘Amateurs’, which you could describe as a charmingly crude portrait of the singer-songwriter. “It walks the line of being terrible and amazing. That’s the point.”

Laura Jean Englert is chopping vegetables for a “biiig salad”, frequently dropping an affectionate “darlin’” while she chats to NME from her home in Sydney, where she moved to for a bunch of reasons, chief among them to be close to her mother – a regular subject in her kitchen-sink lyrics. Englert left her position as high priestess of the Melbourne indie cognoscenti in 2019, right as her career went up a notch with the album ‘Devotion’.

“I was thinking: ‘You’ve released ‘Devotion’, it’s going really well, why don’t you stick around and be Melbourne-famous for a year?’” she says, casually inventing a new term.

That record broke new ground while retaining and expanding the fanbase she’d begun building in 2006 with ‘Our Swan Song’, her debut album of bare, erudite folk. 2011’s heavy, dustier and more forthright ‘A Fool Who’ll’ showed her as an auteur; someone who knew how to pull the levers and bend music to her will.

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Three years later came her self-titled album, which was produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey) and shortlisted for The Australian Music Prize. From there she embraced a ’90s Kawai keyboard, breathy Belinda Carlisle pop (in underground hit ‘Girls On The TV’) and received an unexpected co-sign from Lorde who called album track ‘Touchstone’ “maybe the sharpest communication of the spooky, all-consuming nature of feminine love”.

“You do feel like a silly bugger being in the arts at times”

And then, to everyone’s surprise, the towering talent headed north to warmer climes. Chatting to Englert, it’s clear her intuition has served her well. She has a sharp, geographically removed perspective on the rolling shitshow of 2019 onwards (pandemics, war, climate change’s effect on the environment and music festival business, you name it).

“I was asking myself: ‘Why do you run away from the fruits of your success? Why are you going off with no money to get into law school?’ Well, it wasn’t enough. It’s about going deeper and deeper,” she says. “I needed something more stimulating, more pragmatic.”

Englert is well into an Arts Law Degree at University of New South Wales and hopes to turn pro in the next 18 months. “I love it. It’s really hard but really rewarding. Also, I don’t wanna put pressure on music to support me. I always knew I’d need a proper day job, one with more meaning. I’d done so many call centre and cafe jobs for 20 years.”

Should we now call her musical career a side hustle? This is exactly one of the questions ‘Amateurs’ explores. “You do feel like a silly bugger being in the arts at times,” Englert shrugs. “The album cover is to emphasise this naivete.”

“It walks the line of being terrible and amazing”: The album art of Laura Jean’s ‘Amateurs’

Recorded with producer Tim Bruniges between the quietly lacerating lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, ‘Amateurs’ is touted by its press release it as a record about anti-art and anti-intellectual culture in Australia and the western world. “I guess I was writing this when the Morrison government was in,” Englert says. “Arts degrees doubled [in cost], law degrees doubled; I was lucky I started mine before then.”

Englert vividly remembers another instance where Scott Morrison sought to undermine arts practitioners. “There was a government press conference held at the time of the [Mad Max:] Furiosa announcement where Scott Morrison stood on a podium and emphasised how the film would give tradies work. It was a quick filmed cutaway on the news,” she recalls.

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“I thought it was interesting that he felt he needed to justify film funding with this statement. He did not talk about the artists that work on films, like writers, designers etc. As though it’s not real work. ‘Arts people are wankers, we all know this’: I was hearing this rhetoric.”

“People have to really tune into the lyrics to get a reward. I wanted to make it fun”

Englert’s passionate stance on the arts also informs the title track ‘Amateurs’, which takes the sly bonhomie of Sufjan Stevens and adds guitars that shimmer and dissolve. “I was describing what I was seeing,” she says, “a reality TV star getting to play a fucking song for a few fucking minutes on TV? Why not have RVG, HTRK, Sui Zhen, Grand Salvo? Why don’t we get the best practitioners and show them to mainstream Australia?

“It felt to me we’d lost songwriters in this country, the ones that actually talk about Australian issues… We’ve got to find a way to get artists in front of mainstream people.”

Englert examines both the micro and the macro of Australia’s socio-economic hierarchy. In ‘Market on the Sand’ – a tune about the “commodification of community exchange” – she sings about hobbyists selling jam on the weekend. “That thing you do, darlin’ for fun / Why don’t you turn it into income?” goes the lyric, then later, in the most unexpectedly moving moment on the album, she rolls this hand grenade into the room: “Don’t give yourself away for nothing.

The effect is like eavesdropping on an artist’s dying words to themselves. Englert knew these weighty themes needed an aural counterpoint: lots of strings, arranged by Erkki Veltheim and recorded by longtime Melbourne collaborator John Lee.

“A song [called and] about a ‘Folk Festival’ is not a classic pop song subject. I knew I had to give the listener something for staying on the journey with me: I wanted to give them lush beauty and luxury,” she explains.

“I was thinking of the ’70s, that period of the golden age of the songwriter. The moment in the Neil Young record ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ when this huge orchestra comes out of nowhere,” she says, laughing hard, “just because he could. People have to really tune into the lyrics to get a reward. I wanted to make it fun.”

“I know I’ve made something beautiful once I’ve made myself cry or laugh”

Englert offsets the hand grenades with violins and cellos, sure, but also humour and cheek. She enlists star-crossed former lovers Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams to sing on jangly album opener ‘Teenager Again’ and gets them to recreate the chorus to Noiseworks’ ’80s hit ‘Touch’. It’s a real, prayer-circle memory of when she was learning reiki as a teen, trying to heal herself. “A teenager is an amateur adult if you think about it,” she proffers.

And the record, too, is steeped in an intense, palpable love. Englert stops dicing veggies for a moment.

“I’ve never been asked about that. I’m very lucky with my boyfriend Warwick, I’m free to chase these ideas. He’s an artist too and we go into our own worlds but keep each other safe. Someone is holding you while you walk around singing one line to yourself that you’re obsessed with.”

She adds: “To be honest, Warwick isn’t a major character in this album like he has been in the past. He is there on the periphery but ultimately this is about me reckoning with my identity as an artist and a woman, separate to my relationship. I use some of his stories in the album to sketch characters that might sound like a boyfriend character but the relationship I am creating in the song is used to illustrate an idea and not actually true to my life.” See: the posh boy she dates in ‘Rock n Roll Holiday’. “That’s not actually happening in real life.”

Laura Jean is getting ready to launch ‘Amateurs’ with a new string section in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, with a view to getting on festival bills after this run. She emails later: “I am going to be supporting a massive pop star in a far off Australian city who is a big fan! I am so honoured… announcement very soon.” Sounds like the concept she knifed in the side earlier: success.

“I don’t like the word success. It’s like an end point. I know when I’ve made something beautiful once I’ve made myself cry or laugh or giggle or get excited,” she says. “That’s where it ends.”

Laura Jean’s ‘Amateurs’ is out now on through Chapter Music

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