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Lawrence Arabia reveals the reason behind his song-a-month album project

Lawrence Arabia. Photo/Supplied
Lawrence Arabia’s scheme to release 12 tracks in 12 months finished with something of a flourish – and the revelation that the entire scheme was built around this opportunity to work with one of his heroes.

On Christmas Day, the final song in Lawrence Arabia’s 2018 Singles Club landed in the inboxes of club members, who crowdfunded the year-long project (non-members can access it on January 16). And with its lush orchestration Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep) makes for a grand finale.

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The arrangement, which brings elements of classic Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook to a whimsical lullaby for an overbearing parent, is the work of US production genius and cult hero Van Dyke Parks, who’s best known as the co-writer on The Beach Boys’ unfinished album Smile.

The 76-year-old’s style is most associated with the likes of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, but his vast career has included playing alongside The Byrds and Frank Zappa, arranging The Jungle Book’s The Bare Necessities in 1967, teaming up with the hermit-like Brian Wilson for the album Orange Crate Art in the early 90s and collaborations with artists as various as Skrillex, U2, The Esso Trinidad Steel Band, Bob Dylan, Aussie rockers Silverchair, The Chills and Kimbra.

Van Dyke Parks: produced a 12-part orchestral arrangement. Photo/Supplied

Christchurch-raised Arabia – aka James Milne – says the producer first appeared on his radar when he was in The Brunettes and “everyone in that band was obsessed with The Beach Boys and we all had bootlegs of the Smile sessions”. But it was Parks’ work with Brit folk singer Joanna Newsom on her album Ys that convinced Milne he should track him down.

“I just loved it. It was just so imaginative, with this crazy string arrangement, so I got this whim that I would get him to arrange a song for me. It eventually got to me thinking about it all the time.”

Despite the initial panic of how to contact Parks, Milne discovered the wry-humoured producer tended to slip his business cards into CDs adorned with the comment: “Mr Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behaviour on the night of _____ and sincerely regrets any damage or inconvenience he may have caused.”

“One of the cards I had in the studio also had an email address on it, so I emailed to ask, ‘Would you condescend to arrange a song for me?’ He wrote back quickly asking me to send a song.”

Just Sleep was originally written for the comedy podcast The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, created by author, screenwriter and stand-up comedian Duncan Sarkies, in which Arabia wrote the music and played the sidekick to Jemaine Clement’s Joseph Banks. The song’s offbeat humour and simplicity provided an ideal subject for a Parks makeover. Three weeks after Milne sent a simple piano-and-vocals demo across the Pacific, it was returned, complete with a 12-piece orchestral arrangement.

These things don’t come cheap, however, and Milne knew he couldn’t ask his fans to crowdfund a single song – no matter how important a name would appear in the credits. And so, the Kickstarter campaign for Lawrence Arabia’s 2018 Singles Club was born: a dozen monthly deadlines for a dozen singles, to be crowned by Just Sleep and the chance for those who donated cash up front to hear the music first.

He raised $23,710 and set about the year-long project. And didn’t breathe a word about his Parks finale.

Now that the experiment is over and the album can be seen as a whole, it is a surprisingly cohesive piece of work. Standouts such as the Beatles-esque woodwind-and-brass-infused Meaningless Words and the bouncing indie guitars of A Little Hate show that Milne has grown beyond his proclamation, a year ago, that he’s “New Zealand’s pre-eminent chronicler of 21st-century bourgeois dilemmas” to having created what he now views as a “more multi-faceted deconstruction of the current worrying state of the world”.

It’s no surprise that the one-time Silver Scroll winner’s lyrics are again outstanding – the rhyming of “flavoured vapes” with “racial hate” on People Are Alright is inspired. Elsewhere, cameos from artists such as Tiny Ruins, Liam Finn and fellow former Brunette Heather Mansfield, combined with the spontaneous feeling of many of the tracks, mark Lawrence Arabia’s 2018 Singles Club as a truly wonderful year’s work.

All 12 tracks will be available for download from January 16, and a vinyl release is expected by the end of March. Lawrence Arabia will be touring his Singles Club from April.

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.