‘The defining cultural difference about New Zealand,” explains Lawrence Arabia, real name James Milne, “is that it has become unreasonably proud of itself; Britain seems to be terminally self-loathing… which I think is quite an admirable characteristic, really.”
Tea, self-deprecation and Shoreditch’s narcissistic locals (“They don’t seem like they have any purpose but to be beautiful”) are three things that James has taken away with him about the English following the two years he spent in London. The move came in 2006 following the release of his eponymous debut under the name of Lawrence Arabia, and is a move that had its ups, downs and eye-opening moments of the singer-songwriter.
Supporting Feist on tour around the UK was a highlight for the 27-year-old, however, trying to write and record new material between New Zealand and here had its problems. “There were certain difficulties in the change of pace and culture shock,” James explains of his move: “You kind of feel that you are always auditioning and trying to grab people’s attention along with a thousand bands who are trying to get the big deal.”
In New Zealand, things work differently in the music industry if you hadn’t of already gathered from the Flight of the Conchords: “No one is tying to get signed in New Zealand because everyone does it themselves, promoting shows and releasing records – there is no hanging around waiting for a big [record company] handout like there is in London,” he explains.
Now based in his hometown of Christchurch, the time is 8:30am: his answers are slow, sleepily polite, and witty; his voice characteristically lacks any emotional intonation upon the punch line. When asked to describe his debut Lawrence Arabia which was released on his Honorary Bedouin label, he explains in a deadpan-manner that it was “hamstrung by its own ambition” and full of “cast-offs and esoteric dead ends”.
However, his new album Chant Darlin/ is an enthused pastiche of classic British pop from the sixties, swirling with Beatlemania melodies and wistful Kinks harmonies to create something that is anachronistic in spirit, but wholeheartedly original in sentiment and creativity.
“I really got stuck on trying to make the album sound like Hunky Dory which I completely failed to do,” James quips, “But I wanted to make this a well crafted pop record… Hopefully it differentiates itself from you general, mundane pop.”
Already out in New Zealand, Chant Darling isn’t released in the UK until January 4 on Bella Union, and will be followed by a UK tour towards the end of the month. With a Single of the Year award already under its belt for ‘Apple Pie Bed’, how has the album been received in his home country?
“It’s been really good actually,” explains James, still giving nothing away in his tone of voice as to whether he is genuinely happy by this. “I released it myself which is good and bad: it hasn’t been sucked up into the realms of hype and I don’t have to do any odious commercial promotions. It’s picked up a load of momentum over the last year and it’s basically snowballed despite my hopeless business acumen.”