Dutch-born alt-pop singer-songwriter Laura Jansen followed her muse from Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands to Boston’s Berklee College of Music to Nashville to L.A. on her quest to find herself and her music. Her U.S. debut album Bells was released this March, and the track “Single Girls” has become a viral hit. Bells also contains her dreamy, piano ballad version of of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.”
The video for “Single Girls” has over 1 million views. How did that happen? Was it quick, or gradual?
“Single Girls” definitely grew gradually online. It was a video made on a shoestring budget with friends who wanted to showcase all of their skills. So we worked on it for weeks. Brooke Hanson is one of my favorite video directors and we’ve worked together now on two videos. The idea behind this video was to explore the space left behind when someone you love, leaves. We filmed it over the course of two days with an extremely talented crew. The post production took a few more weeks and then we were able to put it online. It has definitely made the rounds and I feel as though it holds its own alongside bigger budget videos. Making videos is one of my favorite things to do because it’s such an opportunity to play around. Being able to do this with friends who are so talented is the best part of the job.
The song was once described as a sort of anti-Valentine’s Day anthem. Are you anti-Valentine’s Day?
Not at all! Half the songs on the radio are about the glory of love and the other half are about the absence of it. I’ve written songs about both as I’ve gone through the ups and downs of my own life. “Single Girls” was such a special song for me because it really did come out two weeks after a devastating breakup. I wasn’t writing it for a record or for an audience. I was writing it to get myself through another week. The best advise I’ve ever been given is ‘to write what you know’. When I’m stuck behind my piano and my feelings are bubbling over, but nothing is coming out, I remember that. I just sat there with this list of all the things I had tried and was being told to try to “get over” my broken heart. I just sang the list and this song created itself. It’s been incredible to get feedback on the song and to realize how common all those things are for all of us. I’m less alone when I’m able to connect with someone else’s experience and that song has connected me to a lot of girls with crooked bangs and healing hearts.
What led you to cover Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody?” What kind of feedback did you get from it?
I’ve been a fan of the band for years. I think they’re dark and brooding and totally rock and roll. I was playing a radio show in Holland where the format is that artists play covers from the current charts. I knew ‘Use Somebody’ was on the list, but thought it was almost too scary to touch. I sat at my piano and played the bare bones of the song and realized it was connecting to a feeling that needed to come out. That’s my criteria for covering a song, it has to express something I can’t put into my own words. ‘Use Somebody’ is a classic song about isolation, loneliness and reaching out to connect to someone. I was feeling that very strongly at that moment in my life and just dove head first into the song. I never expected to put it on my album but it fit so well within the story of the record and became an integral part of the live show. As the song went online it also grew and started leading its own life. Very quickly it became the song that introduced new audiences to my music. I’m so grateful to have had such a beautiful song be a vehicle for that and still adore playing it every night. It’s a song that touches people and I hope the Kings of Leon forgive me for having removed all semblance of rock and roll from my version of the song.
It seems like covering a popular song, with a different arrangement, can be a smart career move for an emerging artist. Do you agree?
Like I said before, I think you should only cover a song if it connects to you personally and if you make it your own. I don’t know if it’s a smart career move, but I love seeing what some of my favorite artists have done to cover songs. It shows a creative side of that artist. Weren’t all jazz songs actually covers? Singers would interpret them in their own styles and release albums that way. Emmylou Harris built her brilliant career on her uncanny ability to tell and retell a story from her perspective. It’s a way to pay tribute to songs you love and to share that excitement with your audience. I try to build two or three covers into every live set I do. It’s fun for me, exciting to try new songs and to add to the story I’m trying to tell from the stage.
How was studying at Berklee?
Berklee was amazing. I came to Berklee after starting my musical studies at the Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands. At that time, the Conservatory was a heavily jazz and performance based education and I was looking to learn about studio technique, music business and songwriting. Berklee offered a broad spectrum of courses that I could cater to my needs. I focused on song writing and business and soaked up as much as I could. Berklee had a spring break trip to Nashville every year that introduced the students to anyone you could think of in Nashville. Writers, producers, performers, label folks… they were all at our disposal. Because of those trips, I fell in love with Nashville and decided to move there right out of school.
After graduating, you moved to Nashville. How was that experience? Did you really wait on Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin? Where at?
Ha! You did your research. I really did! I worked at Pangaea in Hillsboro Village for a year. I would walk down to the shop from my house every day and probably waited on most of my musical heroes. It’s one of those stores that people visit when they’re touring in Nashville. I couldn’t say a word to Patty Griffin because I just couldn’t be another girl pouring out her heart to Patty about how her songs are the soundtrack to their life. Emmylou was different because she would come into the store to hang pet adoption posters up. She’s a huge dog lover and rescues many of them. I seriously considered adopting a dog just to be able to hang out with her more. Nashville is an incredible town and I think I’ll end up living there eventually. It’s a town that celebrates the writer and values normalcy and humility. I like when the focus lies on the content of the music vs. the flashier side. I love the diversity of the music scene there. Alongside the long tradition of country music, is an indie pop and rock scene that blows my mind. I’m good friends with the folks who put together Ten out of Tenn and most of the artists on that tour have prominent spots in my music collection.
You moved to LA to pursue becoming a songwriter. What were those early years like?
Moving to LA happened at the perfect moment in my life to explore songwriting. I had studied music my whole life, lived in Nashville to observe and learn and then moved to Los Angeles ready to write. It was an incredibly creative time for me because I wasn’t writing for an audience or a career or an album. I was writing because for the first time in my life the songs were coming out. I didn’t know what my style was or what direction I wanted to go in, but I knew I wanted to write. I was introduced to the Hotel Cafe community early on and just soaked it all up like a sponge. Suddenly there were all these incredible songwriters in my life who really motivated me to keep trying and start playing out. I remember my first gig in LA was on Christmas eve on Sunset Strip. Nothing more depressing but it was so exciting for me to finally be playing my own short set. I released two EP’s in three years and slowly built up the confidence to play regularly. I split my time between crappy day jobs and recording at night. The Hotel Cafe family gave me the confidence to start touring and performing more and more and my life very slowly transitioned into that of a full time musician. LA is a great city for that. Everyone there is highly ambitious and driven. It’s not a city that focuses on one particular style, so I was able to play around until I found my own voice. The best session players in the country live there and the combination of all those things really raised the bar for me to do the best possible work I could do.
What’s the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
I don’t have a title for it yet but it’s nearly done. I have a hard time writing on the road so my moments come during sound check. I was fooling around with the idea of a pedal base in the left hand and started playing this almost oriental melody in the right hand. It’s a small song about acts of faith and hope. I’m becoming more and more conscious of the fleeting nature of magical and special moments. I think it’s a combination of the speed of touring and how easily distracted I can become. I want to be more aware and present within moments and that’s what I’m writing about now. It’s been such a miraculous two years for me, but I’m afraid it’s going so fast that it all starts to blend together. I’m excited about the new music I’m writing because it is so heavily influenced by the experience of touring. When I wrote Bells I hadn’t played in a full band setting very much so everything I wrote was heavily piano and vocal. Now I hear the band in my head and love exploring grooves and bass lines. It’s a lot more free now. I still feel as though I’m a baby at this, so the learning curve is pretty huge. I’m playing catch up!
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
I guess I would have to say “The End.” It’s the last song I wrote for the album and we open the record with it. I wrote it in the studio on our last recording day and I think it encompasses all the things I hope to be doing. Lyrically it’s an important song to me, because it talks about the peaceful place I finally reached after a year of turmoil. I was so caught up in the analysis of my breakup, the why and how, the self doubt, that I let a whole year go by. When I was finally able to let that go and make peace with the way things had happened I wrote ‘The End’. Musically, I think the song is the best indicator of where the next record will go. It’s a full band song with acoustic and electronic elements and it’s also my favorite song to play live.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
The birds are directing the traffic below
in patterns, ignoring the light
In this motion I’m static
both hopeful and tragic
eyes up, eyes open and blind
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I hate the words moist, snuggle, hustle, and synergy. I love the words scythe, uvula, and moraine.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
If I had a method I would be so happy! I used to start with lyrics, then it shifted to just melodies. Now I tend to sit behind my keyboard and just play while humming fake words until something clicks. I definitely finish and edit lyrics after a structure and melody exist.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Oh no, it’s an ugly process. Sometimes writing a song can feel like a very violent process. I have so many internal editors that tell me everything I’m writing is terrible. I have to go to war with those voices just to get a song finished. Once that has happened I can really look at the thing and edit from a good place. I find I need permission to finish a song and that’s a real question of confidence. I don’t feel as though it comes easily to me. I work well under pressure. If I let myself languish in that self doubt state of mind, a song can stay unfinished for a long time. When I have a deadline, I’m forced to let go a lot faster.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Brian Wright… seriously. Do yourself a favor.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“Only Girl in The World” by Rihanna.