Going to a Laura Jean Anderson show can feel like stumbling into a New Orleans nightclub from the 1960s. The soulful singer with the old-school, rock & roll voice appears to be entranced by her own melodies. Her music is a mysterious concoction that sounds as if it's from another era.
Anderson comes from the Pacific Northwest town of Olympia, Washington, about 60 miles south of Seattle. She says being a musician was just seen as a hobby where she grew up, despite her hometown's renown as the onetime home of Kurt Cobain. “In the Northwest, there were zero people in my life who ever did art or music as a profession,” she says.
That changed when she went to the California Institute of the Arts — or, more precisely, while she was taking a break from the school. Anderson took a year off to travel in South America, and one day in a small town in Peru, all of her money was stolen.
She couldn't even call home for help without any money, so she decided to busk in the town for a week. Luckily it was Peru's independence week, and she got a decent amount of money from the many visiting tourists. That experience helped her realize that she could make some kind of basic living on her music.
From Peru, Anderson traveled up and down the West Coast of the United States, busking for a living until she returned to CalArts to finish her studies. She said she learned a lot about traditional American music during that time, and it influenced the music she made after school.
Anderson's debut EP, Righteous Girl, definitely displays some of those traditional Americana flavors. Jangly guitars and smooth drum are laid over emotive vocals, mixing a rural aesthetic with city sensibilities. She says the record's songs are like lullabies for her, because although they were written during a very emotional time as she was coming out of college, they're about telling yourself there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
Anderson said her least favorite thing in life is probably apathy. “Nothing grows out of apathy. It's just complete death, in a way,” she says. “There's no action, there's no movement, there's nothing. There's no optimism to make anything better.” She says at least with an emotion that's seen as mostly negative, such as anger, you can do something with it and create.
The Los Angeles music industry can be highly competitive and very career-oriented, a fact Anderson finds by turns both inspiring and depressing. She says she hates when people talk about music with no emotion, as if it's just a business tool.
“I don't write music because of music's sake. I really like music. I listen to a lot of music, but I write music because of life and because it's my way of saying it,” she says. “If I was a painter, that'd be my medium for what I'm experiencing in life. Music for music's sake just feels gross.”
She plans to live-track (and videotape) another EP in the studio, to be released as soon as May. “It's going to be a lot more guitar-heavy, and the sound and themes and ideas will be more reminiscent of the Northwest,” she says, pointing to the region's grunge history and her desire to lose some of the twang that she can only attribute to having a lot of family from rural parts of Idaho. After that EP, she's looking to put together a full-length album.
“I think my goal for the past couple years has been to shed whatever my influences are,” she says, “and make it more about what is the most natural thing that could come out of me.”
Laura Jean Anderson performs at the Bootleg Theater bar stage on Monday, March 28, as part of the Fell Runner monthly Monday night residency. Also with Superet and Emerson Star. More info.