For years as a teen, Laura Jean – one of Melbourne’s finest folk gems, though a bit of a rare cut – made a point to never miss a Saturday at Froggies, her local roller-skating rink in Gosford. “Shamefully, I rollerbladed,” she reflects. “I was really into it. And there was this rollerskater there called Lincoln.”
And Lincoln, he was the best.
“He was just like this little ratty kid with a shaved head who could jump over witches’ hats on his skates and I was obsessed with him for years. I never spoke to him – I just loved his energy,” she says. Saturday’s at Froggies filled her with a whimsical joy.
Watch the video for the new Laura Jean single ‘Girls On The TV’ here:
“Even though I never spoke to him, I think I had this weird bizarre relationship with him in my mind and it was probably much better than the real thing,” she says, her laughter ringing out over the phone. She’s sitting outside of a Melbourne café while her loyal kelpie-cross-blue heeler Dusty sits by her side.
Produced with John Lee (Beaches, Lost Animal) and featuring Augie March drummer David Williams, Jean’s newest album Devotion is filled with stories of her and her sisters’ youthful antics on in the Central Coast. Raised by young single parents, she says, “We were vulnerable to things that people that live in stable families aren’t vulnerable to.”
Originally composed on a cheap ’90s Kawai X120 keyboard, the record pays tribute to the pop artists she adores. The record was inspired by ’70s disco, in particular the intelligent, detailed arrangements of Chic’s album Risqueand the key changes and weird melodies of the Bee Gees. “Anything they wrote for Diana Ross,” she explains.
Moreover, Jean was stirred by the sophisticated sound production and the simple, yet clever phrasing of lyrics in ’90s and early 2000’s RnB, as well as the earnestness of ’80s contemporary pop acts like Fleetwood Mac and Australia artists Wendy Matthews and Jenny Morris. “[They were] songs where someone like a single mum like mine could just listen to and bliss out to it,” she explains.
We were vulnerable to things that people that live in stable families aren’t vulnerable to.
Despite these influences, folk’s storytelling proves the spine of the record. “I see myself as folk singer even though I’m using this different sound palette,” Jean says. Laconic and gentle, her songs are full narratives with morals to share with her listeners.
‘Press Play’ captures the boredom of youth when there’s no one to love and obsessive crushes turn to outlandish fantasies. “My crushes, I kind of used them in a weird way to inspire a world inside me that was exciting – really the person had nothing to with it,” says Jean. “It gave me a focal point for my energy, my teenage explorative energy.”
This slow-unwinding, soft beginning to Devotion sees her sitting on the bus having a make-believe conversation with the boy next to her. “It says a lot about feminism and emotional labour; it says something about the repression of my sexuality and my feminine self because I felt I didn’t fit into the constructs,” she explains.
A lesson Jean has learnt over the years is the importance of acknowledging how seemingly insignificant moments in a girl’s teenhood begin to cumulate. “All those tiny, tiny moments [in a girl’s life], really they’re like drops on a rock – eventually they shape the rock.”
Watch the video for the Laura Jean single ‘Touchstone’ here:
While growing up in an isolated surfer town in the ’90s, Jean navigated being romantically interested in women and men. “I think I was a bit more scared with boys than I was with girls. I always saw them as very magical and mysterious beings and I would wonder what kind of girl I would have to be to be in a relationship with them. Because as I was, I didn’t really see it happening,” she explains.
“The boys in my town were the surfers and they really liked what the media – what Quicksilver ads and Billabong ads – told them to like. And also, that culture’s very macho and girls are supposed to be quiet and pretty, and you know, ‘get me a chicko roll’ and all that stuff. That was still pretty prevalent in the ’90s,” she says. She describes her teen self as funny and confident, opinionated and tall. “I wasn’t the kind of girl who could have a romantic life in that culture.”
She moved to Lismore in the Northern Rivers at 18 to study music and a year later came to Melbourne to play at open mics and find a music community that suited her. “I developed my own voice here. It’s a place that welcomes experimentation. And there’s lots of venues where you can play to five people and try to start up,” she says.
I developed my own voice here.
She began playing shows with gentle folk acts like Grand Salvo and Ned Collette, and indie acts Pikelet, Teeth and Tongue, and Jack Ladder. “I guess for all of those people what they have in common is they are devoted songwriters,” she says.
Now 36, she’s had time to reflect on those years living on the coast. When asked if it was isolating, she says, “100 per cent. That’s the beauty of it too. As much as I felt misunderstood and that I didn’t fit in, that really helped me create a strong vivid inner world, an internal world that in turn has actually given me a lot of gifts as an adult.”
Devotion, the new album from Laura Jean, is out now.