By Philip Runco.
On the recent single “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself”, Alex Lahey is a mess.
She’s drinking too much. Her hands are stained red with wine or blood. She’s putting on weight, and her complexion is a disaster. “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in good health,” she rues on the chorus.
When I connect with Lahey a few days ago, the Aussie singer-songwriter still feels like shit, but this time it’s not her fault. She has a cold.
“We’ve had a couple of days off, and you know how your body is: As soon as it feels a little break, it’s like, ‘Alright I’m gonna get sick,'” she shares with a knowing laugh. “But it probably means that I won’t get sick for the rest of the run.”
The 25 year old touched down in the States the evening before, crossing the Atlantic after a handful of European shows (and a lap around Australia before that). She’ll be here for a month, criss-crossing the country, playing almost every night, and hopefully taking better care of herself.
Lahey’s tour is in support of I Love You Like a Brother, her debut LP. The record follows on the heels of this June’s winning B-Grade University – an EP that came out a year earlier in Australia, where it quickly propelled her to radio airwaves and festival gigs.
Here or abroad, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of her music: It’s hooky, hard-charging pop rock with decided honesty and a keen eye for detail.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but there should be bigger, better things – namely, stages – in Lahey’s immediate future.
And if her body’s not cooperating, the levelheaded musician has a healthy outlook on it all.
“My strategy is just really to be in the moment and take everything one day at a time,” Lahey tells me, chatting on a recently procured American burner phone. “It’s easy to get caught up and find yourself thinking that it’s all a bit too much when it’s actually quite manageable when you break it down.”
Something that’s striking about your songwriting is the honest, personal details sprinkled amongst a broader emotional picture. It’s not often you hear someone acknowledge breaking out and gaining weight from drinking too much booze in a rock song. Where does that come from?
I think that my songs are very much a reflection of the way that I experience and see the world. I don’t tend to get too caught up on things, like in my everyday kind of life, and I like to take things for what they are.
Something like breaking out is an observation that I make about myself. It’s like “Oh, I’m not feeling too great. I’m feeling tired, I’m drinking too much, and this is the outcome.” There’s something kind of like black and white about that.
At the same time, one of the beautiful things about songwriting is you can be as direct as you want to be about something, but there’s always nuance. Saying your skin’s breaking out can only mean so much in such a direct kind of way. I think that there’s something really cool about writing and communicating things in such a direct manner. It takes time, but it’s something that I go out and do.
A lot of people listen to “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” and tell me they really feel like it’s a reflection of their mental health. It’s something that they go back and reflect on, and they see it their own way. But when I wrote the song, it was more about how I was putting myself second in a relationship. That was what it was about for me.
So, to me, the most satisfying thing about writing music and writing songs is that you express yourself in a certain way and then people can express themselves within it in their own way. And it’s this sort of endless possibility – I really love that.
Is that something that you’ve encountered with other songs?
I actually have. Even reading reviews of songs and how people interpret them is really great.
A good one is the title of the record. That’s the reason why I called the record I Love You Like a Brother: There are many possible meanings to that line and so many ways that it could make someone feel when they say it or when they hear it from someone else. I really enjoyed the complexity of it , even though my intention when I was writing it was just to tell my brother that I love him, and I think that that’s really cool.
The last thing you think of when you hear “I love you like a brother” is saying to your brother, “I love you the way that I should.” That’s why I really liked it, that’s why I carried it through to the album title, because I felt it represented a lot of things in the record. It’s insanely direct, but maybe there’s more too it. Or maybe there’s less to it.
What was your brother’s reaction?
I actually haven’t seen him since it came out. I’m seeing him on Thursday. He lives in New York now, and he’s gonna be at the show and working with us all day, but when I told him the album title, he was really charmed.
I honestly think he was probably surprised by the nature of it. Because you would think that if I’m gonna write a song about my family and how much I love my brother, it would be some sort of like heartfelt ballad-y situation. Whereas, in fact, this is like a two-minute-ten, Ramones three-chord balls-to-the-wall kind of thing, which is me writing a song that I thought he would like to listen to. That’s the type of music that he likes, and so I would think that maybe he would be surprised that it’s actually like that kind of like that.
But all in all, I did get a very nice email when he did listen to the record, and he was just, like, you know, full of love and pride, and that made my heart feel full. I was really excited to give that to him.
Inverting styles is something you seem to be fond of. There are often heartfelt expressions in the guise of a hard-charging pop song.
It’s not something that I go out and consciously do. One of my friends refers to the “happy-sad” nature of some of my songs, which I think is pretty reflective of what you’re saying, but it’s not something that I like go out of my way to do.
I mean, I prefer listening to upbeat music, so maybe that’s where the reflection is, but I don’t think that any of my songs are particularly, like, down. I don’t’ think I’ve experienced anything in my life that warrants that. I’ve had a pretty normal life. And some of it sucks. When you get broken up with, it initially sucks, but life goes along. Maybe that’s the ultimate message to what I do: everything’s gonna be alright. Maybe that’s why my music is caught up in the circumstances of what I write about.
“I Want U” goes off in a different direction musically. What’s that song’s story? Was it always lush and 60s tinged in your head?
Yeah, when I wrote the demo, it came out like that. It’s almost 100% what the demo was. There are a few songs on the album that my producer and I joked are our “grunge doo-wop” tracks – that one and “Let’s Call It a Day”. We sort of joked about that.
I kind of wanted to write a surf-poppy number. That’s where it came from. And I remember writing the song and sort of thinking, “It’s a B-side.” That was sort of my thoughts about it. But it was really funny because I think it’s a bit of a dark horse on this record, and there’s just something about it.
I remember a friend of mine who played drums for me once listened to the demo and referred to it as my Burt Bacharach number, and I thought that that was the ultimate compliment. I thought that was really lovely.
It really is just a blatant love song, and that’s something I find that you very rarely hear anymore. I’ve had these conversations with a couple of friends of mine in the past about, like, have we experienced the death of the love song? There are very few people doing it. And when they do do it, it ends up being massive because that’s something you want to hear, like Bruno Mars ballads and John Legend and “All of Me” and all that sort of shit. People fucking love it. But I feel like the reason people love it is because people are so scared to do it. They’re so scared to say, “I love you forever, and I’m consumed by you.” We live in a world where we have multiple partners and that sort of stuff, which is great, but there’s something great about the everlasting love, the concept of the everlasting love, which I feel like has been lost in music recently.
Ironically, there are songs like “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton that will stand the test of time because humans will forever have the feeling in them that if you can find the one, and you can get that eternal love forever. Sometimes it’s really nice to get caught up in it. Sometimes it’s really nice to put it in the song.
Your video for “Every Day’s The Weekend” depicts some less-than-desirable gigs. Was that influenced by anything in your life? Have you had any dead end jobs that would fit in amongst those?
None of the jobs in the video were directly inspired by jobs in my life. I mean, I’ve never worked in a pickle factory or sold organs. To be honest, I’ve been really lucky with the jobs I’ve had in my life. My first job was one of my favorite jobs: I used to work in a video store. That was heaps of fun. Even though I got paid, like, $8.00 an hour or something ridiculous. I worked fucking, like, 10 hours a week or some shit. But it was really fun, and it was like the best job ever. It was like this total fuckin’ paradise. I’d get to do all sorts of fun stuff with all the kids that worked there.
My worst job was probably working in a book shop, which followed pretty soon after. It was a pretty good job on paper, but I was very, very, very much at the bottom of the pecking order. And that was really shit keeping for a while.
Other than that, to be honest, I’ve been pretty lucky with jobs. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m allowed to laugh. I feel more able to laugh in watching people screw caps onto jars.
Going into recording I Love You Like a Brother, did the EP’s reception have any sort of effect on you?
I feel like this is one of those questions that I’ll get asked for the rest of my career. It’s always gonna be, you know, “How does it feel since you’ve released the last one?” Or something like that. But I think that making music is not about reflecting too much. It’s about looking forward and pushing yourself and growing and developing and exploring. You develop as a person and an artist.
I feel really fortunate that I think I’ve sort of kicked off with the right foot with not worrying too much about what’s happened beforehand. Because that’s done. And I’m just moving on to what’s next. It was really good to make the record and not feel too locked down into a particular style or into expectations and that sort of thing.
At the end of the day, it’s just an EP; it’s just five songs. If I was to get too caught up in that and start basing decisions of my songwriting off five songs, I’m probably not in the right job.
But, yeah, I was really stoked with how well the EP went and the fact that that enabled me to be able to go and do my own record. It gave me the confidence to do it. To be honest, though, I really feel like that was the only contributor that that played in the preparation of actually making an album.
In what ways do you feel like you grew and developed and explored?
I think, more generally, being a recording artist is something that I got better at – like, being more comfortable in the studio.
I also got more engaged in my demoing. I basically started demoing complete recordings prior to going into the studio, so I had a really good grasp of the language of recording music. And I felt far more well versed, to the point where I would also give a lot more direction that I was able to previously. That’s something that I was really into and felt great about.