Bells [December 2010]
For many of us, suffering a painful break-up means a journey through the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Laura Jansen learned this unpleasant lesson five years ago as she struggled to make sense of the implosion of a very stormy romantic relationship. “The end came on Christmas Day, which was pretty awesome,” she says jokingly before turning reflective. “I thought the pain might literally kill me, but it’s amazing the little things you start to do to save your own life. It’s fascinating.”
Jansen, a Dutch-born, Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and musician, chronicles those little things, like cutting her hair, buying pink floral sheets, and venturing out for a drink with the guy down the hall, on “Single Girls” — the deceptively simple, but emotionally devastating first single from Bells, Jansen’s upcoming debut album for Universal’s Decca Records. A dreamy collection of piano-driven alt-pop songs, Bells has already gone platinum in Jansen’s native Holland, propelled by “Single Girls” and a stunning cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” which has spent more than a year lodged in the Top 10 on the Dutch singles chart. In the U.S., Jansen is a fixture in the constellation of artists associated with Los Angeles nightclub The Hotel Café — a musical haven, creative incubator, and ultimately, national launching pad for such confessional-minded artists as Sara Bareilles, Priscilla Ahn, and Joshua Radin, whom Jansen toured with in 2008 and will hit the road with again in 2011.
Jansen connects by using the sweet clarity of her pristine voice to tell deeply relatable stories. The playful, ragtime-esque “Wicked World” urges listeners to uncurl from the fetal position, grab some friends, and go have some fun. “That song is about how it’s time to go out and meet some men. It’s time to do some drinking, because being depressed is getting old,’” Jansen says. “It came out of the realization that little girls are raised on fairy tales. We are expected by our female relatives to be married and have babies. Those rules do not apply where I live. L.A. is its own little circus.” On “The End” Jansen comes to terms with a relationship’s conclusion by realizing that there’s no blame to be placed. “It’s when you finally say, ‘We can’t fix this. We’re just going around in circles and I need peace,” she says. “I sing that song with a smile, because the turmoil is over.”
“I write and play music to work stuff out,” Jansen explains. “If you’re a performer, part of that is a public process, which is weird that there’s an exhibitionism to our therapy. But to me, that’s much more effective than popping some pills and talking to a shrink. It feels really good to get it out, and it feels even better to play the songs and look out at an audience and see someone whose face is saying, ‘I totally get it.’ That, in itself, is healing. I have had incredibly moving experiences while playing live. Some serious shit goes down at the shows. There’s laughing and dancing and lots of interaction, but the people I meet and the stories they tell me afterward are what make me feel less alone. I’m always hoping that somewhere in my über-personal story, I’m hitting on the universal.”
Perhaps it was her peripatetic childhood that drove Jansen to try to connect with people through music. Born in Breda, Holland, to a Dutch father and an American mother, Jansen began playing piano at age five while the family lived in Brussels, followed by Zurich and Connecticut. “Because of all the moving we did, the piano has always been my constant,” she says. Jansen fell in love with classical music, Queen, Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, and the Brazilian protest music her mother loved. In high school, she sang in the choir and performed in musicals. Passionate about politics, Jansen worked at the U.N. in Geneva and studied political science in college (“I wanted to be the first female Secretary General”), but backed away after a good friend, a human-rights activist, was killed in Africa. “It made me not want to return to that world because it felt futile,” she says, “and music was my solace; the place I went when I didn’t understand the world.”
Jansen spent two years at a music conservatory in Holland, and earned valuable performing experience as a wedding singer, before transferring to Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music with a scholarship. After graduating, she made good on a long-held fantasy of moving to Nashville to become a songwriter, but froze from intimidation once she got there. “I ended up working in retail and waiting on women like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin and wishing I could say something to them,” she says. “I couldn’t find my voice.”
It took Jansen’s difficult break-up to unlock her first song: “Bells.” “I was living in a house with a boy, a dog, and a yard, and things were good. Then suddenly they weren’t and I found myself in an empty house with just a piano and a computer,” she says. Inspired by the bells emanating from the church next door, Jansen wrote what would become her album’s yearning title track. “I would try to mimic the sound of the bells on the piano and the song just came out,” she says. “I didn’t know who I was writing it to or for, but I knew it was my voice, because I got goosebumps. I wasn’t trying to sound like a country singer or a soul singer, it was just me.” After that, the music came pouring out, including two spiritually meaningful songs, the reggae-influenced “Soljah” and the gospel-toned “Elijah,” which Jansen says is about letting go of strict beliefs and refusing to see life as a waiting room for something better.
Meanwhile, Jansen had been considering a move to the West Coast. “I was looking for a second chance to become a songwriter, and so many incredible artists were coming out of Los Angeles,” she says. After moving to L.A. in 2003, Jansen’s first call was to The Hotel Café. “I said, ‘What’s up? I’ve got five songs. Can I come play?’” she says with a laugh. “And the owner was like, ‘Absolutely, not. You need to be able to bring in this many people and play for this long and prove that you can draw a crowd in Los Angeles.’” Undeterred, Jansen hung out at the club most nights, enjoying the social support network of her fellow artists. She played open mic-nights at other venues and began to attract a following to her high-spirited live shows, after which she finally landed her first Hotel Café gig. “I think 15 people came,” she says. “It was kind of horrifying, but the owner said, ‘Great, so you’re playing again next month.’” Jansen began to perform monthly, as well as sit in with other artists.
One night, Joshua Radin was in the club and asked Jansen to audition for his touring band. She landed the gig, quit her day job, and spent six weeks on the road singing back-up vocals and playing piano, as well as opening for Radin in 2008. “That was amazing,” she says. “I’d never played outside of Los Angeles and he gave me a boost and a huge shot of confidence.” Following the Radin tour, Jansen was offered a slot on the national Hotel Café Tour alongside Ingrid Michaelson and Rachael Yamagata. Upon her return, she was invited to The Netherlands for a series of appearances, which led to her signing with Universal Music. Bells (composed of Jansen’s two previously released EP’s 2007’s Trauma and 2009’s Single Girls, plus “Use Somebody”), was released in Holland in September 2009, after which Jansen hit the road with her pal William Fitzsimmons as a member of his band as well as his support act.
Jansen recorded “Use Somebody” after performing it on a popular radio show that she describes as the Dutch equivalent to Howard Stern’s program. “They ask you to play a cover from the charts as well as one of your own songs, so I decided to learn ‘Use Somebody’ because it’s so beautiful,” she says. “I just did it my way, with a piano and voice, and the response was so overwhelming that the label asked me to record it.” Jansen recorded the track with Bill Lefler, who also produced Bells, and watched it take on a life of its own. “The Kings of Leon guys can buy more cars because of the amount of airplay it got,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Here’s your car. You’re welcome.’”
Now Jansen is hoping to recreate her success with the Stateside release of Bells in March 2011. “I chose that title because ‘Bells’ was the first song I wrote and because it’s about sending my music out into the world as church bells do. They call you to something. They also warn you about things. They are the ringing of belief.”
Elba [February 2013]
Most artists who enjoy success with a debut album are content to stick with the formula on their second for fear of alienating fans. Laura Jansen is not most artists. Charming and whip-smart, with a wicked sense of humor that balances out her insightful, introspective nature, the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and musician is exactly the type to stir things up. A fixture at Los Angeles’ creative musical haven The Hotel Café, Jansen released a collection of confessional, piano-based alt-pop songs in the form of her debut album Bells in 2009 and watched it become a best-seller in Europe, where her Dutch roots led to platinum sales in Jansen’s native Holland, sell-out tours across Germany, and even two tours of China. “We did five cities and they were sold-out, over-capacity, crazy fire-hazard-type shows with lots of kids,” Jansen recalls of her first Chinese club tour. “By the end of the week, people were singing along to all the songs and waiting for us outside. It was a huge thrill to play somewhere I’d never thought this record would take me.”
However Jansen was ready to step out of her musical comfort zone for her second album, Elba. In February 2012, after recovering from two years of touring with a month off at home in Los Angeles, Jansen traveled to London to co-write with other songwriters before returning to L.A. to begin work with British songwriter-producer Matt Hales (Lianne La Havas, Paloma Faith), whom she had befriended through the Hotel Café scene. “The first Aqualung record was very big in the singer-songwriter community,” Jansen says. “Matt is very self-deprecating, but I was always intimidated by him. He seemed out of my league as a producer, so I was thrilled when he asked to work with me. I don’t know how I could have made this record without him. He truly encouraged me to figure out my limits and grow beyond them. And when I didn’t know how to do it, he did. He took me from ‘Maybe I should just write a singer-songwriter record, I’m kind of feeling small,’ to stepping up like a queen on a unicorn. He let me go epic.”
The result of their collaboration is Elba, a sonically rich collection that remodels Jansen’s dreamy piano-pop sound with elegant, beat-driven production, while retaining the pristine clarity of her voice and emotional resonance of her deeply felt lyrics. “I knew I didn’t want to make a sad-girl acoustic piano record,” Jansen says. “We could have done that in our sleep. I wanted to push myself musically and have the new album reflect where I am now. I wanted it to sound modern. Having toured and knowing what feels good on stage, I wanted to work from a place of rhythm.” To that end, the pair began their days at the computer, searching for ideas and samples before Jansen moved to the piano to sing and write melodies that Hales would set to a spectrum of electronic and orchestral sounds. “Matt asked me what I was listening to and it was Miike Snow, Sigur Rós, and the Jónsi solo record,” Jansen says. “I’m also obsessed with Kate Bush, so she always shows up on my list. From those roots, we started thinking about production and combining acoustic piano with synthesizers. That’s the palate we used for the album.”
Jansen says that Bush’s literate and complex music also served as an inspiration when it came to writing lyrics for Elba. “This is such a personal record, but it’s not as lyrically direct as Bells,” she says. “I relied on symbolism more and some songs aren’t necessarily straightforward in what they’re about. I think Kate Bush’s music gave me the permission to do that. I felt a little braver this time around to be a bit more veiled about things.”
Elba was written during the hardest year of Jansen’s life, during which she ended a long-term relationship and came to terms with being a full-time touring musician. As a result, the album “is about exploring myself and my boundaries,” she says. “It’s this idea that I am an island and I’m figuring out what it looks like in-country instead of just the on the coast. Each song became a place on my island.” “Paper Boats” is a love song that describes Jansen’s fleeting realization that perfection does indeed exist in the world, while “Golden” is her way of locating the place in the heart that’s never dark. “I wrote it as a reminder to myself that there’s always this perfect place, even in the middle of your crappiest moments.”
British singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt co-wrote and sings on “Call To Arms,” which is about seeing warning signs in a relationship, and Keane’s Tom Chaplin guests on “Same Heart,” originally written as a charity single to raise money for the Red Cross in Holland. There’s also an inspired mash-up of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” and Fine Young Cannibals’ “Johnny Come Home,” the former a song about a boy being bullied and rejected by his family for being gay that Jansen feels is just as relevant as it was upon its release in the ’80s. “It’s the worst feeling in the world to be bullied,” she says. “I was bullied as a kid. I’ve heard from fans about their experiences with it. This was my way of telling them to hang in there; it’s going to be okay.”
Though not as straightforwardly confessional as Bells, Elba is still very intimate, Jansen says, citing “Around the Sun,” which is about “the idea that hopefully I get more one more chance to go around the sun and have love and be loved,” and “Pretty Me,” an older song about insecurity that Jansen felt was too close to home to record until now. “I’ve been playing it live and people were asking me to record it. I finally got enough distance and felt safe enough to put it on an album,” she says. And then there’s “Queen of Elba,” which Jansen describes as an empowerment song for herself.
“Being a traveling artist, the symbol of exile is a big one in my life right now,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been on a ship that visits the ports of places but doesn’t get to stay and get to know them. I’m choosing that consciously, but it does change the way you’re wired. When Napoleon landed on Elba, he crowned himself the King, which I think is super ballsy. He was like, ‘I’m going to change the roads. I’m going to design the flag. I’m going to build houses for my lovers.’ I totally related to that because here I am claiming this rocky island I’ve been left with. It’s a small place. It’s pretty weird. I’m getting to know what it looks like, but it’s mine. It’s kind of dysfunctional, but it’s working for me. Crowning myself the queen is about me making this shift from feeling sorry for myself to claiming my territory, so it was a very empowering song to write.” Whereas songwriting has served as Jansen’s therapy in the past, this time she says the process involved “writing songs about where I hope things go. Then hopefully I listen to them enough that the lesson sets in.”
* * * *
Born in Breda, Holland, to a Dutch father and an American mother, Laura Jansen began playing piano at age five while her family lived in Brussels, followed by Zurich and Connecticut. “Because of all the moving we did, the piano has always been my constant,” she says. Jansen fell in love with classical music, Queen, Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, and the Brazilian protest music her mother loved. In high school, she sang in the choir and performed in musicals. After spending two years at a music conservatory in Holland, Jansen transferred to Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music with a scholarship. After graduating, she made good on a long-held fantasy of moving to Nashville to become a songwriter, but froze from intimidation once she got there. “I ended up working in retail and waiting on women like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin and wishing I could say something to them,” she says. “I couldn’t find my voice.”
A difficult break-up unlocked her first song: “Bells,” which was inspired by the sound of the bells emanating from the church next door. After that, the songs that would make up her debut album came pouring out. Meanwhile, Jansen had been considering a move to the West Coast. “I was looking for a second chance to become a songwriter, and so many incredible artists were coming out of Los Angeles,” she says. After moving there in 2003, Jansen hung out at the club most nights, enjoying the social support network of her fellow artists. She played open mic-nights at other venues and began to attract a following to her high-spirited live shows. In 2008, Jansen spent six weeks on the road singing back-up vocals and playing piano, as well as opening for Joshua Radin, followed by a slot on the national Hotel Café Tour alongside Ingrid Michaelson and Rachael Yamagata. Upon her return, she was invited to The Netherlands for a series of appearances, which led to her signing with Universal Music. Bells (composed of Jansen’s two previously released EP’s 2007’s Trauma and 2009’s Single Girls, plus a cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” that spent more than six months lodged in the Top 25 on the Dutch singles chart) was released in Holland in September 2009. The album remained in the Dutch Top 100 for almost two years.
Now Jansen is gearing up for the worldwide release of Elba this spring and is looking forward to hitting the road and performing her new songs live. “This was the first record I’ve made after doing so much touring and it really helped my confidence,” she says. “I was able to step into the place that I’ve always wanted to be and not apologize for it; not be like, ‘Sorry I’m up here. Sorry I’m singing about my feelings, you guys. Just bear with me, it’s almost over.’ It’s crap to think like that. And I’m having catharses and breakthroughs and so much fun doing the thing I love to do the most, which is traveling and playing. It doesn’t get better than that.”