Ladyhawke Gets Stylishly Gritty

New Zealand singer uses dreamy style and sounds to conquer stress

Ladyhawke
Courtesy of Modular People
Ladyhawke
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New Zealand's pop dynamo Ladyhawke (real name Pip Brown) burst onto the international pop scene with a great debut record, just in time for 2008's renewed interest in massive hooks sung by introverted females obsessed with Eighties dance music. But top-shelf songs like "Paris Is Burning" and "My Delirium," while accidentally spearheading that movement, also proved that Brown was a nuanced musician with a restless sonic appetite. The moods of alpha females like Stevie Nicks, PJ Harvey and Shirley Manson cast an intensity on her performance just as much as Cars-worthy synths peppered her production.

On Anxiety, her introspective sophomore record, Brown explores her more serious side, proving pop is her best weapon to conquer personal demons. In doing so, her sonic style has hardened and shifted into something more mature. And, so, as Rolling Stone learned in a recent chat with the Kiwi singer, has her personal style.

For Anxiety, you worked exclusively with Pascal Gabriel, who produced some of your debut's best songs. What makes him an ideal collaborator?
Pascal and I have a really good friendship, even outside of music. Recording is a scenario when you'll be stuck for hours in a studio with a producer, and it takes a while for me to get comfortable working with someone. But Pascal and I had an instant connection. He just gets me. We can sit in the studio, drink beer and talk about music for hours. He's also introduced me to music I never would have known otherwise. I really need a dynamic like that in my life, so he was the perfect choice to do this record with. There was no one else who could understand what I was trying to do with this. He understood my new ideas right away, which gave me the confidence I needed to pursue them! I know most people expect me to make another glossy electronic pop record . . . 

So, what is the biggest stylistic shift away from that?
There's keyboards and organs, but it's more guitar-heavy. There's also bloopy bits that sound like synths but aren't; I used a Kaos pad and an Omnichord, which is like an autoharp. I wanted it to be more lo-fi – less clean, in a sense. I wanted to bring some distortion and fuzziness to the palette.

Does that grittier approach also reflect a similar change in lyrical mood?
Well, I think the lyrics are much more grim than the melodies. When you listen to it, it sounds upbeat and happy, but the lyrics are quite dark, and I like that. It lures you into a false sense of security.

"Life inside your head has come undone," from "Black, White and Blue" stands out as an example of that dichotomy.
That's just me. I go through messes – ups and downs, and when I hit the lows, I do literally feel like life has fallen apart, or that my head has come undone. Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped in my head, looking out at the world through a peephole. It's nice to get through it and write about it. It's good for me to get it out of my system.

Isn't putting it into a song that others will connect to also a way to validate that those feelings aren't crazy, that you aren't as alone as you think?
It hit me I was being pretty personal on this album. Sometimes that worries me, because I'm pretty private. And I also don't always connect to lyrics so much, but more to melodies people create. But I realized as I wrote this record that I had more on my mind, and that someone one out there would relate to what I was saying. Surely someone has been through the same thing. Universally, people connect to lyrics more than anything else, no matter what they are. I guess this time I had more to say, so lyrics came front and center. I was stressed out.

I assume that plays into why the album is called Anxiety?
I've been an anxious person forever, so I can make light of it now, though it can also be debilitating. One of my old friends shares that problem, and while I was enjoying some downtime before I started the new record, we were joking about our issues. We're at that point where making light of our demons is a way to control them. The stress of the early writing process ended up inspiring me to take that idea further and dedicate a record to anxiety itself.

Do you have stage fright still?
It's still there. Sometimes it's fine and sometimes it isn't. At a recent sold-out show at Shepherd's Bush Empire, I was sure I'd be so nervous, but I was actually very calm. But at another festival, I was shaking and nearly in tears; I thought people were heckling me in the front row. I literally threw my guitar on the ground and ran upstairs! And then everyone told me it was the best show, and that people were cheering me on. I felt like such an idiot.

Did extensive touring influence how you recorded Anxiety?
Touring is grueling. When you play the same songs over and over all the time, for a year, it really drains you. I stopped listening to music. I couldn't even watch music TV. I needed relief from all the noise, so I took six months off to clear my mind and relax. I wanted to get to the point where I was desperate to make music again, so I let myself get bored enough where that urge came back naturally.

Did any new influences hit you in that downtime?
All I did was watch movies, TV, play video games. I'm a visual person, so I think films may influence my own music more than any other force. It's the ultimate form of escapism, and I always think about what cool songs I could create based on a scene in a movie. What can I say – I'm a dreamer!

Your debut record cover portrays that well – you, in watercolors, as a cool, dreamy loner, surrounded by video games and music.
Yeah, and that was based on a real moment! My friend took a photo of me crouched over my video games and said, "This is will be your album cover someday." And so it was.

Has your style changed in the past few years?
I'll always be in variations of jeans and t-shirts [laughs]. I love oversized everything. I love hats, boots, Doc Martens. I'm getting into weird floral shirts. I guess that's the latest development.

How did growing up "Kiwi" influence your way of dressing? What was the local style scene like, and was it something you connected to?
I grew up in quite a small town, and there wasn't really a scene at all there as far as fashion went. We had to wear a uniform at my school, so worrying about what to wear each day wasn't really a problem for me – except on mufti days [non-uniform days when the kids can wear whatever they like]. I remember as a teenager wanting to wear the most psychedelic, trippy looking outfit I could find, so me and my friends would go to the local charity shop and get heaps of really hideous Seventies shirts and trousers, then I would just layer them up. I realize in hindsight I probably looked ridiculous, but I think this was a sign of me and my friends trying to obtain some sort of identity outside of the Catholic-school-uniformed boundaries we were in every day. Plus, we could never afford all the expensive stuff [laughs]. So making our own weird outfits out of thrift store clothes was a fun challenge.

What are your makeup priorities?
My eyes are really the only thing I prioritize. I have always been so bad at moisturizing and using foundation, it's just something I have never done myself. But I do like to wear eyeliner. I had to be shown, though, a couple of years ago how to do it, because I never knew.

Do you have any favorite vintage or unique clothing shops you've stumbled upon during your travels?
There's a store in Melbourne called the Chapel Street Bazaar that I try to visit whenever I'm there. It's amazing and seems to be like the TARDIS – it looks tiny on the outside but is giant on the inside! It's full of everything you can think of: vintage cameras, games, toys, clothes, records, furniture, literally anything you can think of.

What is the coolest item you've scored randomly?
I think the coolest thing I've scored lately was a vintage Spock T-shirt. It has a huge image on the front of the young Spock from the original TV series, and on the back it says "Live Long and Prosper." I've already worn it too much.

Do you have an item of clothing you could never throw away?
I think that would have to be my first leather jacket. I got it when I was 21. I saved up for it and everything. It's a really cool vintage biker jacket and was the start of my leather jacket obsession. I never wear it anymore, but I would never get rid of it – it has too many memories attached to it now.

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Album Review: Ladyhawke, 'Anxiety'