After Making Waves with Righteous Girl, Laura Jean Anderson Makes the Personal Political on Forthcoming Debut Album

 Laura Jean Anderson. Courtesy of the artist.

Laura Jean Anderson. Courtesy of the artist.

“I grew up in Olympia, WA, which is grunge and super liberal, but then I was the weird minority in that town because I was in a super religious community,” says Laura Jean Anderson, the soulful songstress, impressive whistler, and professional music scene bouncer. “If you went downtown to see music it was grunge - but then I was singing hymns on Sunday.” She continues: “For a really long time it was a very painful thing to be like, ‘I don’t know! I don’t fit into anything!’ You know, teenage kind of vibes. But then I took this opportunity with music to dive into that duality and be like, ‘it’s okay to be both.’”

By way of Olympia, Anderson came to Los Angeles to study at CalArts in their classical vocal music program, a choice she laughingly reflects on as “super nerdy” - she had no idea what she was signing up for. “I’ve always loved singing, and it’s always been a huge part of my life - I sang in church growing up,” she says, “so I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m a singer! I’ll just go into the vocal program.’ And when I got there I was like ‘oh, does this mean I need to sing opera?’” As it turns out, she didn’t, and instead was able to study the style that would lay the groundwork for her future projects : New Orleans jazz. “I’ve always been a lover of old music and traditional music — whether that means jazz or folk music or soul and Mo-town — you know, music for the people,” says Anderson. “Part of that is how it gets made and learned, which is through people.”

As she lost sight of the value of soul searching in academia (and began feeling the pressure of her student loans), Anderson left the classical vocal music program at CalArts. She travelled to South America to serve as a volunteer farmer in Peru, and through a stroke of fate, became extremely ill, as well as lost all of her money — “I probably left my credit card in an ATM or something, it was definitely not a dramatic scenario where I’d been robbed or anything,’ she says with a laugh. “Basically I had no money, and I was stupid, and I was 21, and I was like, ‘well, I have a guitar.’” 

Against all odds, Anderson busked her way back to California, this time landing in Santa Cruz. Sharing a house with a bunch of artists, she fell in with a group of “old-time” players, “people who were learning old folk music, and old blues, and Carter family stuff,” she says. “Learning it from them and not from recordings was super cool. It kind of sparked this love for old music.”

Her debut EP, Righteous Girl (2016) basically shouts Anderson’s adoration for old-time folk music, New Orleans jazz and soul from the rooftops. Coming in at just four songs, the release is textured by diverse percussion, twangy acoustics, bellowing horns and Laura Jean’s vintage-jazz-with-a-touch-of-country vocal style. And, while her instrumentation wears its influence on its sleeve, her lyricism is without a blueprint — her songs tell stories that only Anderson can, because she’s the one who lived them. “I think my approach to music is super personal and explicit. I feel like the world is full of people trying to talk for other people in so many ways, so my approach is, ‘well, I cant speak for anybody but myself,’” she says. “Every song has its personality and they all get formed in different ways. The moments that I really try to focus on and try to cherish are those moments when you’re in the car or in the shower and a melody pops in your head. When a song starts that way, I feel like there’s something really honest about it.”

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“This process was really internal and personal, and it was very set on making sure that no moment in any song is doesn’t feel honest and doesn’t feel true, even if that’s an uncomfortable place to be.”

- Laura Jean Anderson

For her forthcoming full-length record (which is currently untitled, but set for release this Spring), Anderson aimed to hook into those cherished moments of honesty and take them as far as she possibly could. “I went really far down the road of ‘just feel it!,’” she says with a laugh. The writing and recording process took a grueling two years and completely shifted Anderson’s perspective on record-making — especially as she’s a fan of artists who churn out releases like there’s no tomorrow: “I love artists that just put out music as a constant. They’re not getting too heady about ‘how am I being perceived?’,” she says. “You think about Bob Dylan and how he would have multiple records in a year, just like, ‘Boom! Boom!’”

“Having a project that took almost two years was really intense, but I’m really happy that the process was like this. I went through a lot of drafts of thinking that the songs that I wanted to record were certain songs, and then realizing, ‘no, actually, I need to go deeper. I need to really figure out what I’m trying to say here and not skim the surface,’” she continues. “This process was really internal and personal, and it was very set on making sure that no moment in any song is doesn’t feel honest and doesn’t feel true, even if that’s an uncomfortable place to be.”

The album’s soon-to-be single, “Silence Won’t Help Me Now,” was written in the raw emotion of the days following Donald Trump’s election as president, something that both took her by surprise and even further highlighted the differences between herself and her right-leaning family. “It was one of those things that just came out of me, and I was just like, ‘okay, what are we doing as people?’” She continues: “But it doesn’t necessarily come across as super political in that way, it’s more kind of my story. I grew up in a very, very conservative, religious background — I think most of my music is in some way about my struggle with that. I just never connected to the idea of saying ‘fuck you’ to all of these people. Instead I’ve been like, how can I understand what this is and still have a relationship with my family, even though we’re on totally different planets?”

Other tracks on the album don’t dive in so directly to the current American political landscape — “I view the album like a season of the Twilight Zone, where every single song is like its own little vignette that dives into a very particular emotion...there’s songs that are just pure regret, or denial, or songs that are anger, and songs that are bliss and songs that are longing" —  yet, they remain political due to their purpose: to unabashedly display a range of raw emotion, something Anderson feels women are often maligned for. In the spirit of the rallying cry of second-wave feminism: “the personal is political.”

“Being extreme as a woman is like, ‘oh you’re crazy, you’re hysterical, you’re a bitch, you’re this you’re that’,” she says. “Being able to really allow myself to just dive in and not edit it, in hopes that is can inspire people to really be themselves — and especially with women, to be able to be extreme and speak your mind and be multifaceted.”   

Badass Bands and PLAG Presents bring you Laura Jean Anderson at the Hi Hat on Saturday, January 12.

Artemis Thomas-Hansard