When she called and I explained to my son that I had to interview an artist he asked, “What’s an artist?” So I thought that would be a good question to start the interview with.
Her press materials describe her as full of wisdom earned through years of traveling, busking, hitchhiking, touring and old time religion. Based on our call I would agree. She has amassed a good deal of experience despite her age, as well as a focused education in music from CalArts and her own studies.
Her debut EP, “Righteous Girl,” releases March 4th.
Nick: What is an artist?
Laura Jean: It’s a creator. Creating music or art or something more abstract. Somebody who is pulling from life and using it as a creative tool.
N: Your debut EP is called “Righteous Girl”. What does the word “righteous” mean to you?
LJ: The album named after title track. Righteous has to do with a personal journey and growing up in a religious environment. It’s this idea of how religion can affect a human being. The idea is that it’s a religious experience to deal with personal struggle.
Righteousness is the process of questioning what you’re born with and the world around you. We all should be questioning all the time, whether you grew up in a conservative environment like me or if you grew up in a very liberal, open environment. Questioning can be a positive thing, regardless of your upbringing.
N: What church did you go to growing up?
I definitely think there was good and bad. A specific thing I took from it were old church hymns and singing them with a large group of people. That’s powerful for anyone, whether or not you’re religious. The act of singing with 100 people is so beautiful.
N: I’ve read that you choose your lyrics very carefully. Can you talk more about what your songwriting process is like?
LJ: I’m one of those people where every song is very different. There’s no process. I start with an idea of and song and then let the lyrics flow without dissecting them. Words are really potent.
After a song is 90% done I go through the lyrics. If I can’t look at myself in the mirror and believe in the words, then I get rid of them.
The lyrics have to be honest. Even if I don’t like what I discover inside myself, if it’s still honest then I’ll use it.
So I start with the flow of lyrics, then go back and dissect.
N: You have a very powerful, distinctive voice. Your PR material compares you to Joplin, but your voice is much smoother. Maybe like a young Dolly Parton or Wanda Jackson. Who is your biggest influence or inspiration as a singer?
LJ: We’re in a collage era where we have so many influences and genres. Wanda Jackson and Elvis were a huge influence. At a younger age I was influenced by all the 60s and 70s folk revival crew like Dylan and Neil Young. Definitely Janis Joplin. With her it’s less of a vocal thing and more of just pure emotion. She just puts it all out there.
My influences are really wide. During the time of writing the EP I was really into alehouse music from the 1920s and 1930s. Offshoots of Bessie Smith, Lil Johnson. Lil Johnson wasn’t really well known, she just did this saloon music that was so amazing. She was a spitfire woman who sang this really raunchy music for the time. But she was like, “Whatever, I’m just going for it.”
Victoria Spivey was another singer from that time.
N: Olympia is a beautiful town. What do you miss most about living in Washington State?
LJ: Oh man. I just miss the land up there. The trees and the mountains. Especially Mount Rainier. I’ve spent so much time hiking there. Being on a 14,000 ft mountain is insane.
There’s this feeling of freedom up there. Down here in LA there is nature, but there are all these codes and rules. There’s real wilderness up there. I could walk out my front door and go off into the woods and no one would tell me whether I can set up my tent or not.
I miss that a lot.
N: Your time at CalArts sounds like fun! What was your most memorable experience there?
LJ: Oh there are so many. It was honestly full. Especially coming there as an 18 year old. It was a super avant-garde school.
The most memorable thing was that the community that got created there immediately is still the community I have now. It’s crazy to think about. The songwriters and musicians I was surrounded by are still people I make music with. It felt like Laurel Canyon or something. There were only a group of 10 of us, but somehow we were all on the same wavelength.
I was never really around that before.
We learned how to write songs with each other.
It was magical.
N: What took you down to Peru?
I just wanted to travel. Found a cheap ticket to Ecuador or and just went for it. I was either really brave or really stupid.
I initially found a farm to work at. I was really into agriculture and alternative farming techniques back then. But there was just a weird vibe at that first farm. Very heavy. I wanted a different experience, so went to another farm a week later. Met a bunch of people who were doing the whole traveller thing.
I didn’t realize when I bought the ticket how close I was to Peru. The other travelers were going down there, so I was like, “Oh. I’ll go to Peru. Maybe I’ll go south and see some ruins.”
Ended up in Huaraz, a mountain town at the base of the Andes. The main reason people go there is to hike in the Andes. I was there for about a week, then my money got stolen. There was no way I was going to call my family about it though because they would freak out.
I had brought my guitar and started busking in the marketplace. And it was just like the universe aligning. The town was usually not busy, but it happened to be Peruvian Independence Day so there were all these Peruvian tourists from Lima.
I was there for awhile saving up money.
I got to the airport and had like $1.08 in my pocket. The only food I could afford was McDonalds french fries, but it was the best food in the world right then.
It was a spiritual experience. If I could make it out of this situation with just music, then I really had to take music seriously.
N: How did you connect to Theo Karon?
LJ: He went to CalArts for a moment. We connected because we were both really into Neil Young and his album “On The Beach”. It’s a weird record. The opposite of “After The Gold Rush”. All over the place, but has some songs that just rip you apart. And he and I were just like, “That’s it, that’s the best Neil Young album ever.”
We made a couple records together and different projects. We always vibed on the same thing. We made a record that was 10 songs recorded with a 10 piece band. We tracked from 2 am until 8 am. Very traditional sounding. It’s very specific, not very accessible.
It was a music vision to take 10 songs and create one long song with horns and a saloony-industrial vibe. It was an idea of chaos. There are specific songs, though. I guess even in my chaos things are still organized.
N: What is your favorite song from the 1960s or 1970s?
LJ: “I used to be a king” by Graham Nash. Came out on a solo record.
It’s totally a cheesy anthem which strikes a chord with me (laughs). That song hit me at the right place at the right time.