“I’m very open with my audience – it’s like a free form of therapy…”
Laura is checking over her gear ahead of a session in Spotify’s Amsterdam office when we reach her. The Netherlands-born daughter of a, “pretty cool mom”, was raised on a huge range of music, from “weird Brazilian protest stuff” to vintage Portuguese folk.
“But mostly,” she laughs, “it was Queen. I wore black for a week when Freddie Mercury died. I thought he was straight and I was in love with him…”
Now living in LA, Jansen’s wonderful new album, Elba features appearances from Keane’s Tom Chaplin and the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, Ed Harcourt.
What do you remember of that Brazilian and Portuguese music from your childhood?
More than anything, the sentiment. In Portuguese music they call it saudade, it translates to melancholy and longing, but it’s like you can feel it in your body. That’s a big part of why almost everything I do is sort of in that vein – I totally relate to that emotion, it’s quite sweeping and dramatic. I’m always longing for something that never was.
What was the first music that was all yours?
The Prodigy! I was a good little school girl until someone gave me a tape of theirs. I remember listening to that in art class while I was painting, and just going, “What is happening here and why am I so drawn to it?” That same year I got into Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam’s Ten. That combination of puberty and really good, angry music properly opened my brain up because right after that I found Portishead, which was super mind-blowing.
Do you think the perfect song exists?
I do, but I don’t think there’s just one – it could be something that I think is really crap, and you think it’s perfect. For me, the perfect music will forever be Kate Bush, she is my line through life. The Hounds of Love, Big Sky, The Man With the Child in his Eyes and Running up that Hill. Those four are basically perfect.
What was the last amazing record you heard?
James Blake’s Retrograde, that single. I’m really into Stromae too. He’s the first artist that I’ve come across in a long time where I had to like Google him and find out everything there was to know about him, I think what he’s doing is really exciting. Oh, and The National’s new one really struck a chord with me – that’s such a beautiful follow-up record.
If I could drop you into any band in history …
Oh yes! Could you arrange it for me to be a backing singer for Bob Marley? I’d want to be one of the three women that kind of goes through the whole touring experience with him, witnessing all the political upheaval. He seemed like a prophet in his message, that would be kind of fascinating.
Tell me about Elba. How did it begin?
Elba started as a conversation about sentences that are the same forwards and backwards – the first one I ever learned was “Able was I ere I saw Elba”. And it was credited to Napoleon. You know, when he was exiled after destroying Europe he landed on this little rock of a place called Elba where he crowned himself king, and imposed a tax system. He built a palace for his lover and designed a flag with little golden bees on it. I just thought that was a really great way to go about feeling like shit! Turn it around and make it awesome. I had just gone through quite a heavy break-up last year while I was writing this album – I was being kicked out of my old life – so I had to step into this new life with only my new record and my suitcase, and just kind of figure it all out. So I changed it up and said, OK, I’m going to crown myself the Queen of this little domain of mine, everything I’m left with, and make the best of it. Elba became a symbol for me of myself and everyone else as an island.
You’re telling me it’s a concept album?
I’m not!! Really the album is about exploring the place that you’re in right now.
Does it get easier or harder to share your most intimate feelings?
I’m used to it. All my music has been autobiographical, and I’m quite open with my audience because it’s like a free form of therapy, and it makes me feel less alone, like my dramas aren’t that unique.
What five artists couldn’t you exist without?
Kate Bush. Queen. Peter Gabriel. Joni Mitchell. James Blake and can I have one more? George Harrison – I was going to say The Beatles, but I think just George.
He was the most attractive! No, he just took the most chances lyrically, and approached songwriting from a really spiritual place without ever being preachy.
And he had great hair.
He really did! He had great hair! The women just loved him.
What song was playing in your head when you woke up this morning?
Oh, god, I’m so embarrassed I just bought The Best of the Backstreet Boys for a road trip – when you have more than two girls in a car, you have to play the Backstreet Boys – and I fell for Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely. That’s what I woke up to this morning.
Definitely a diamond in their catalogue.
How do you find new music?
Well, Spotify, for one! I like the social media aspect of it now. I’ve always been interested in making playlists and sharing mixtapes. Often I’ll post something online, like “OK, I need new music, I’ve got a 26 hour flight ahead of me, help!”, and then people will send me stuff. I’ve got 40 really trusted tastemakers kind that I follow and I constantly check what they’re listening to. I think I’ve discovered more music through Spotify than I have through traditional means. The last ones were Cashmere Cat, Disclosure and Caribou. Oh, and Timbre Timbre – their song Bad Ritual is brilliant.
Finally – crucially! – what’s your favourite noise?
The sound of wind blowing through sailboats in a harbour. That tinkling metal and the snapping of sails. But my second favourite noise is the squeaking of tulip fields – when they rub together, they squeak…
Such a Dutch answer!
What can I say?