For many of us, suffering a painful break-up means a journey through the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and 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 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 sh*t 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.”