“It’s brave because it’s confusing and shocking,” begins Laura Jean. She explains her intentions behind the cover of her sixth album, “Amateurs”, which could be described as a charming and crude portrayal of the singer-songwriter. “It goes along the lines of being terrible and amazing. That’s the point.”
Laura Jean Englert chops vegetables for a ‘biiig salad’, frequently dropping a loving ‘darling’ as she chats with NME from her home in Sydney, where she moved for a host of reasons, chief among them being close to her mother – a regular topic in her kitchen sink lyrics. Englert stepped down as High Priestess of Melbourne’s Indie Connoisseurs in 2019, just as her career took off with the album ‘Devotion’.
“I was thinking, ‘You released ‘Devotion’, it’s going really well, why don’t you stay there and be famous in Melbourne for a year?'” she said, nonchalantly coining a new term.
This record broke new ground while retaining and expanding the fan base she had begun to build in 2006 with “Our Swan Song,” her debut album of naked, erudite folk. 2011’s heavier, dustier and more direct ‘A Fool Who’ll’ showed her as an author; someone who knew how to pull the levers and bend the music to his liking.
Three years later came his self-titled album, produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey) and shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize. From there, she embraced a 90s Kawai keyboard, the breathy pop of Belinda Carlisle (in the underground hit “Girls On The TV”) and received an unexpected co-sign from Lorde who called the track the ‘Touchstone’ album ‘perhaps the sharpest communication of the spooky, all-consuming nature of female love’.
“You sometimes feel like a stupid idiot in the arts”
And then, to everyone’s surprise, the towering talent headed north to warmer climes. Talking to Englert, it’s clear that her intuition has served her well. She has a sharp, geographically distant perspective on the rolling shitshow from 2019 (pandemics, war, the effect of climate change on the environment and music festivals, etc.).
“I wondered, ‘Why are you running away from the fruits of your success? Why are you leaving with no money to go to law school? Well, that wasn’t enough. It’s about going deeper and deeper,” she says. “I needed something more stimulating, more pragmatic.”
Englert is a graduate in arts law at the University of New South Wales and hopes to turn professional within the next 18 months. “I love it. It’s really hard but really rewarding. Also, I don’t want to put pressure on the music to support me. I always knew I would need a real day job, a with more meaning. I had done so many jobs in call centers and cafes for 20 years.
Should we now qualify his musical career as a master key? This is exactly one of the questions ‘Amateurs’ explores. “You sometimes feel like a stupid idiot in the arts,” Englert shrugs. “The album cover is there to underline this naivety.”
Recorded with producer Tim Bruniges between the quietly lacerating lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, “Amateurs” is billed by its press release 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 power,” says Englert. “Arts degrees have doubled [in cost], law degrees have doubled; I was lucky to have started mine earlier.
Englert vividly recalls another instance where Scott Morrison sought to undermine practitioners of the arts. “There was a government press conference at the time of the [Mad Max:] Angry announcement where Scott Morrison took to a podium and pointed out how the film would give jobs to the trades. It was a quick filmed cut to the news,” she recalled.
“I thought it was interesting that he felt he needed to justify funding the film with that statement. He didn’t talk about artists who work on films, like writers, designers, etc. Like it ain’t real work ‘People in the arts are wankers, we everything know this: I heard that rhetoric. »
“People have to really listen to the lyrics to get a reward. I wanted to please”
Englert’s passionate stance on the arts also informs the title track “Amateurs,” which takes Sufjan Stevens’ sly bonhomie and adds shimmering, dissolving guitars. “I was describing what I was seeing,” she said, “a reality TV star playing 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 the general Australian public?
“I felt like we’ve lost songwriters in this country, the ones who actually talk about Australian issues… We need to find a way to get artists in front of the mainstream.”
Englert examines both the micro and the macro of Australia’s socio-economic hierarchy. In “Market on the Sand” – a piece about the “commodification of community exchange” – she talks about hobbyists selling jam on weekends. “That thing you do, honey for fun / Why don’t you turn it into income?goes the lyrics, then later, in the album’s most emotional moment, she rolls that hand grenade around the room:Don’t give yourself up for nothing.”
The effect is like eavesdropping on an artist’s last words to themselves. Englert knew that these important themes needed auditory counterpoint: a lot 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 topic. I knew I had to give the listener something to stay on the journey with me: I wanted to give them lush beauty and luxury,” she explains.
“I was thinking of the 70s, this period of the golden age of the songwriter. The moment in Neil Young’s ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ when that huge orchestra comes out of nowhere,” she laughs out loud, “just because he could. People have to really listen to the lyrics to get a reward. I wanted it to be fun.
“I know I’ve done something beautiful once I’ve made myself cry or laugh”
Englert compensates hand grenades with violins and cellos, yes, but also humor and breech. She enlists former star-crossed lovers Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams to sing on the jangly album opener “Teenager Again” and asks them to recreate the chorus from Noiseworks’ 80s hit “Touch.” It’s a real prayer circle memory of when she was learning reiki as a teenager, trying to heal herself. “A teenager is an amateur adult if you think about it,” she says.
And the disc, too, is imbued with an intense and palpable love. Englert stops dicing the vegetables for a moment.
“I was never questioned about it. I’m very lucky with my boyfriend Warwick, I’m free to chase these ideas. He’s also an artist and we go into our own worlds but let’s protect each other. Someone holds you while you walk around singing a line you’re obsessed with.
She adds, “To be honest, Warwick isn’t a major character on this album like he has been in the past. It’s there on the periphery but ultimately it’s about me taking into account my identity as an artist and as a woman, separated from 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 create in the song is used to illustrate an idea and isn’t really true to my life . See: the posh guy she’s dating in “Rock n Roll Holiday.” “That doesn’t really happen in real life.”
Laura Jean is set to launch ‘Amateurs’ with a new string section in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, with a view to appearing at festivals after this tour. She emails later: “I’m going to support a huge pop star in a faraway Australian town who’s a huge fan! I’m so honored… announcing very soon. Sounds like the concept she stabbed at earlier: the hit.
“I don’t like the word success. It’s like a full stop. I know when I’ve done something beautiful once I’ve made myself cry or laugh or laugh or get excited,” she says. “That’s where it ends.”
“Amateurs” by Laura Jean is now available via Chapter Music