“I’m forever the new girl,” Laura Jean Anderson says. The local singer-guitarist is talking about her regular appearances over the past two years with retro-jazz combo The Hi Fi Honeydrops, but she could just as easily be describing the ways she has reinvented herself in both her personal life and in her ever-evolving solo career.
The easygoing Wednesday-night gigs with The Hi Fi Honeydrops at the bar 1642 in Filipinotown offer Anderson a chance to let down her hair and belt out swing standards from the 1930s and ’40s, taking a lighthearted break from the often-intense original songs she writes and performs under her own name. Earlier this month, the Eagle Rock–based vocalist released Lonesome No More (B3Sci Records), a seven-song EP of soulful R&B balladry and stirring statements of identity. The EP works as a bold announcement of Anderson’s arrival on the music scene, except that she self-released a debut four-song EP, Righteous Girl, two years ago.
“I took Righteous Girl down recently because I don’t connect with it anymore,” Anderson, 28, explains by phone while parked by the side of the road in Filipinotown. The evocatively dreamy, rambling interludes on Righteous Girl nonetheless set the stage for the more fully realized and emotionally fulfilling tracks on Lonesome No More. Anderson’s big, warm vocals suffuse such deeply romantic idylls as the rueful, grandly melodramatic “Call It What It Is” and the inescapably heartbreaking potential hit “Love You Most” with an intuitive, empathetic grace. The moodily surreal video for the latter song, in which Anderson walks like an unseen ghost amid a group of happily embracing lovers, was premiered in August by L.A. Weekly.
But she also steps away from her engaging love songs with “Silence Won’t Help Me Now,” a provocative declaration of her evolution as a woman and an individual. “I ain’t a child of your God,” Anderson murmurs solemnly before launching into a triumphant, anthemic chorus.
“That song was a big moment for me and my family,” says Anderson, who was born and raised as a conservative Mormon in liberal Olympia, Washington. “The song opened up a dialogue. For my close family and siblings, it definitely was a positive thing, but not for my other family members. … It wasn’t positive throughout the whole process. It’s something that doesn’t really get talked about in Mormonism. You’re either a Mormon or you’re not. It can feel really isolating when you don’t feel like you belong there.
“It’s one of the reasons I started music. I wanted an outlet,” she continues. “There are my secrets. … [Being religious] is not how I live. My path is different. What happens if you just want to be you and not be defined by these religious organizations? It is still a sensitive thing. For years, I didn’t mention [my lack of faith] to anybody. I want to be cautious about how I speak about it … out of respect to my family. I’m one of the really lucky ones to have parents who are supportive of my life.
“I can’t deny the influence of my upbringing,” she adds. “This is my experience, this is what I’ve struggled with. … What can we do as humans and not be so separated? … I’m just frustrated with this idea of right and wrong, Democrats and Republicans.”
Anderson hasn’t rejected her past entirely. “There is a kind of traditional side to my music because I grew up singing hymns,” she says. “I love hymns but I also love rock & roll and that music that’s considered the devil’s music.”
Anderson got much of her musical inspiration from her dad, who is a fan of ’70s classic rock, and began teaching herself to play guitar when she was about 16. “I studied classical vocal music — that was the only outlet, the whole choir thing,” she recalls. “So I was a weirdo in that sense … but I really just wanted to play guitar. I have memories of being alone in my room and spilling out my heart on guitar. I remember the first song I wrote. It was called ‘Willow.’ I’m sure it was so bad. I lived next to a forest growing up. I wrote and sang about escaping and talking to a willow tree.
“I had a big Bob Dylan phase when I was 16,” Anderson continues. “Neko Case grew up near where I grew up, so I really connected with her lyrics. … In Olympia when I was growing up, it was only punk, grunge, metal and doom,” she says, so she had to create her own kind of music in isolation at first until a friend recorded her early songs on Garageband. “I was thinking about how to get my feelings across now that I’m in full music-nerd [mode], that beauty of not knowing what you’re doing.
“I feel very passionate about my own music,” Anderson says. “There’s no separation between my music and my life. … I love the idea of when you combine your modern story, these elements, with tradition.” These days, Anderson is often backed onstage by Bird Concerns bassist Marcus Buser, drummer Darla Hawn and a revolving group of keyboardists, including Tyler Chester, who produced Lonesome No More. “I perform solo much more often than with the band,” Anderson says. “The past year, I’ve been a little more low-key about the solo stuff. I tend to put the attention more to the band. When I’m playing solo, I tend to try more things out.
“A lot of times, I write in this place, tapping into emotions about multiple people,” she says about the new record. “‘Call It What It Is’ is the flip side of ‘Silence Won’t Help Me Now,’ living in that frustration of being a woman, this feeling of right and wrong: ‘You are a sexually active person; we’re going to call you a slut,’” Anderson says. “There’s no way of judging good and bad. Is there room to say sorry, is there room to be?”
Discussing the austere country-pop piano lullaby “Who Am I to You,” the closing track on Lonesome No More, she says, “It’s kind of a reflection of being judged.” Anderson says the song was inspired by a close childhood friend who went off in a different spiritual and family direction after leaving home. “They’re counting all my wrongs — who does that make me?” she says. Anderson muses about “this crazy dream state that we put ourselves in. Now when I play it live, it feels very empowering — how we look at the people around us.”
“Thinkin’ ’Bout You,” meanwhile, is a straight-up love song about missing someone, as Anderson croons airily over an icy sweep of strings and keyboards. “These songs are so heartbreaking,” she admits. “I swear I have happiness in me, I promise!”