When visitors to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame enter its museum in Cleveland, they don’t just encounter exhibits on periods in rock history, but on their geographic cradles as well. The Cities and Sounds exhibition is one of the most revealing experiences that any museum has put together on musical culture. In it, Motown is explained through the larger context of Detroit. Examining regional life in Memphis shows how the diverging roots of rockabilly and the blues would eventually lead to artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Fats Domino. Heavy metal would not have developed as it did, states the museum, if not for the creative cross-pollination of cities like London and New York. And then…they get to LA.
Online listener reviews of the recently-released album Wild Things (Polyvinyl Records) by New Zealand artist Ladyhawke have largely glowed. Professional critics have been positive, but some have reserved disappointment in their reviews for the album’s cheerful pop sound following Ladyhawke’s previously darker (2012) and rougher (2008) album releases. The negatives have focused on a dislike of personal taste regarding the happiness of the album, its smart and smooth production, and the simple lyric structure found in commercially successful pop songs. These critics almost all allude to the purer days of music spawned by the electroclash movement – the experimental genre peaking in the early 2000’s that would help give rise to Ladyhawke. But, perhaps these critics are too young to remember that while we all loved electroclash at the time (myself included), we also all agreed that most of its music sucked.
Ladyhawke (aka Pip Brown) is not an electroclash artist (although few electroclash artists ever did admit that they were). But, Ladyhawke is one of the few acts – along with Peaches, the Scissor Sisters, and Goldfrapp – to take the influences of electroclash and develop it into something more substantial. That promise of taking the components of electroclash and building something else was always the best part the genre. It was one of its intents. Fulfilling that promise is what Ladyhawke has done with Wild Things.
The album’s brilliance is not in keeping static the dark edge of London synthpop or the strain of New York lyrical heartache. Wild Things’ artfulness is in Ladyhawke deciding to put those things on a leash and take take it through a long dog run in Runyon Canyon, and then down the Hollywood Hills to just sit and let it chill the fuck out in the curbside grass beside a taco truck. Yes, this is a slick, happy album. But Wild Things isn’t pre-fab manufactured pop produced by the citywide industry of LA. It’s good pop inspired by the actual city of LA. It’s synthpop shaped by California sunshine. It’s electroclash grown up. It’s the type of genre evolution and artist innovation that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame wants each of its visitors to see.
We spoke with Ladyhawke ahead of her show this Saturday (June 25) at U Street Music Hall in Washington, DC on topics like Los Angeles, hangovers, her new album, and the very real way that Xena: Warrior Princess changed her life forever.
Brightest Young Things: You’ve got a new album.
Ladyhawke: Wild Things, yeah. It’s my third record. It came after what, I guess, a lot of people think is a long time between albums. It was needed for me. I went through a lot to get the album finished. I actually went through a lot to even get the album started.
BYT: I don’t want to go into a cliché, but this album feels a bit LA. It feels very California; almost like you can sense the sunshine while you listen to this. I hate myself for saying that, but places do influence albums and you can hear that influence. You’ve been based in Los Angeles for about three years now, and you collaborated with LA-based producer Tommy English on this. It’s a bit different feeling than your last two albums. What was that process that you went through to create this?
Ladyhawke: It is definitely quite different. It’s like the Sun and the Moon. With the first record (2008’s Ladyhawke) I was quite naïve, but very excited and happy. With that album, I think that listeners can hear that as well. With the second record (2012’s Anxiety), I was quite jaded, and exhausted, and tired. With this third record, I feel that I’ve come full circle. I had gotten to the absolute pinnacle of how bad someone could feel. And, I tried to fix it and make it better – to make myself better. I got to a happier point and then started making a record. I don’t mind at all that it sounds like LA, because LA was integral to me feeling better. Seeing the sunshine and all that other sorts of stuff was definitely a huge part in why the album sounds like it sounds.
BYT: You can definitely hear that happiness when you listen to the album Wild Things. You do, though, have one kind of morose line hidden in the song ‘Wild Things’ itself. It’s where you write “When you’re always almost lonely, you forget to take it slowly.”
Ladyhawke: I think I’ve got a lot of dark lines in this record that I’ve hidden quite nicely among the nice things. (laughs) That’s something that I’ve really always liked doing. Because, as good as I feel, there’s still all the bad stuff that has happened and all of the crazy shit. That line for me is about when you spend a lot of time alone – it’s quite specific to my experience touring and being a musician that’s out on the road. You can be surrounded by people all the time, but you feel so alone. I think that’s when you can lose perspective and lose control of what you’re doing. It’s almost as if you have no fear and you don’t really care about what happens to yourself.
When I say “when you’re always almost lonely, you forget to take it slowly,” I mean that you don’t always take care of yourself. You don’t say “Maybe I should go to bed early tonight” or do any of that stuff. It’s almost like you know you’re alone and you have to get through it by whatever means – distracting yourself. Because, the more alone time the worse, you know? So, it’s a bit of a dark line.
BYT: So, are you doing things differently on this tour? You’ve been very public about some things you have gone through. Are you able to change how you tour, or do you just have to keep experiencing touring in that exact same way?
Ladyhawke: No. I don’t drink anymore. That’s a huge – that’s a massive – difference in my life. It’s made a huge change in my touring. I’m in Boston right now, and I just finished my UK tour. That was my first proper tour without drinking. And, it’s crazy in just the difference it makes turning up to sound check without a hangover. (laughs) It’s amazing. Being clearheaded for a show, for starters. Not being reflux-y because of the amount of beer you’ve drunk. (laughs) Stupid things like that which I never took into consideration – that I never thought about before like “Oh, maybe I’m hindering my singing by drinking all this amount before I go on stage. Maybe it’s making me not project my voice properly.” Since I’ve stopped drinking I’m way better at singing. I can project my voice better. I can actually walk on stage and make eye contact with the audience, which I never used to know how to do in the past. So, it’s made a huge difference for me.
BYT: You did a couple interviews when Anxiety came out in 2008 mentioning challenges to touring as someone on the autism spectrum. You’ve got a bit more experience under your belt. How are you managing those challenges on this tour?
Ladyhawke: I still get a little bit too much inside my own head. I still have moments – like today even – I still have moments when I’m like “Why am I doing this? Why do I put myself through this?” because it’s really, really fucking stressful. But, I snap out of it way quicker than what I used to. A few people said to me on the UK tour ‘that feeling you’re feeling is natural. Everyone feels nerves. But, you’ve got to use that to your advantage. You’ve got to use that nervous energy and pull it into your performance’. And, I’d never thought of that before.
I have these thoughts. I think “What if the show doesn’t sell well? What if it’s a half-empty room?” These are the paranoia thoughts that go through my head on a day-by-day basis. But, I need to put those thoughts into perspective. It doesn’t matter. These things don’t matter. Those people who show up to your show, they’ve still bought a ticket. They’re still there because they want to see you. It doesn’t matter if there are 20, 40, 100, or 500 people there. It doesn’t matter how many people. You’ve got to perform to those people because they’ve come.
That’s always been my main anxiety – the people in the room. That’s my massive stress – thinking that these people in the room are judging me. And, this time around, I’ve been able to think a little bit more clearly about that. I’ve been able to think “Well, no. They’re here to enjoy a show,” and I want to give them that. I want to give them their money’s worth – for starters.
BYT: Ok, since we were talking about how you deal with anxieties around audiences, if it helps give you a bit of perspective on your D.C. show, I had a great conversation the other day with Shea Van Horn, who is a DJ here in Washington who also performs drag on the side.
Ladyhawke: (Laughs) Crazy!
BYT: He mentioned his dilemma in that he got booked as his drag alter ego Summer Camp, a drag queen, for a gay party at a club down the street immediately following your show at U Street Music Hall. He said “I can’t miss this show, but I don’t have time after the concert to get ready for my own performance. So, I’m just going to go to the Ladyhawke concert in full drag”.
Ladyhawke: Oh, my god. Yay! That’s awesome.
BYT: So, there will be at least one drag queen – an enthusiastic drag queen – in the audience.
Ladyhawke: That makes me happy. I would be happier if it were a full audience full of drag queens. It would be my dreams come true.
BYT: ls your wife (New Zealand actress/director Madeleine Sami) able to join you on this tour?
Ladyhawke: She was supposed to, but she got a job directing a TV show back in New Zealand that just happens to start the exact time as the start of my American tour and its length lasts the exact same amount of time. I think it’s a good thing, though. She’s really busy and I’m really busy. But, she finishes right around the same time that I land in Australia. I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to join me for my Australian tour. It’s my birthday as well while I’m in Australia. So, if we can make it work, that would be awesome.
BYT: I’m curious, because you both live in Los Angeles and you both are from New Zealand. Did you meet in L.A. or New Zealand, or somewhere else?
Ladyhawke: We met in New Zealand, but I wasn’t living in New Zealand. I was living in the U.K. I was back in New Zealand for the New Zealand Music Awards, which is like our annual New Zealand GRAMMYs.
She actually came along to the awards as Lucy Lawless’ plus-one. Lucy Lawless is an actress who is from New Zealand.
BYT: Not just an actress, she’s Xena!
Ladyhawke: Xena, yeah! (laughs) It’s kind of a hilarious, ridiculous story when I say it out loud. Lucy Lawless presented a couple of the awards. And, when I walked off the stage with her after one of them, she said “Oh, I want to introduce you to my friend Madeleine,” and that’s how I met Madeleine. (laughs) I realize that’s a ridiculous story.
BYT: That’s not a ridiculous story! Oh, OK. Well, it is a ridiculous story. But, it’s an amazing story.
Ladyhawke: Yeah. (laughs) Ridiculously good, yeah.
BYT: I was hoping to perhaps get out of you a cute story of, like, you suddenly overhearing a Kiwi accent somewhere in Los Angeles. But, that’s a way better story than what I could have hoped it would be.
Ladyhawke: I know! (laughs) You actually couldn’t get more lesbian than that. [Editorial Note: Lucy Lawless’ portrayal of Xena in the television show Xena: Warrior Princess is considered by lesbians to be one of the most preeminent lesbian icons of the modern age]
BYT: I’m so glad I asked that question. I wasn’t going to ask that, but I’m so glad that I did. I’ve also got two more questions about your just-released album Wild Things after listening to it. Listening to the song “Money to Burn,” I…um, well…it just seems…juicy. Is that about a particular event in your life? Lyrically you talk about a rich girl chasing after you.
Ladyhawke: (laughs) That’s really funny. People have really been asking me that hoping for details, (laughs) and I knew that they would be when I was writing it. I was laughing like “Oh. People are going to think that this is, like, a thing!”
“Money to Burn” is a fantasy. I mean, I would love for that to be a true story. Most of my songs are written in metaphors. (pauses) Well, maybe not most. I’d say that about 70% is based on fact and 30% is a bit of fantasy. And, that song is me being a fly on the wall in situations in LA. I mean, I’ve seen the way a lot of people operate and I’ve seen that sort of thing go down. There’s a lot of rich kids with a little bit of extra money.
The “money to burn” thing is something that has gone through my head a lot. It’s just that…I can’t imagine living like that. I can’t imagine having, literally of having, money to burn. So, it’s sort of a little notion that I entertain in my head. I wish I could tell you a juicy story! (laughs)
BYT: It still is! I started thinking of people that I knew right away when you mentioned that just now. It’s universal to a lot of places, including DC. So, your mention of the use of metaphors in your writing actually leads me to what I wanted to ask next.
You have two songs on Wild Things that seem different thematically from the others, and that seem a bit more metaphorical than the rest of the album. I’ve talked to listeners asking about them, and each person I’ve talked to has their own interpretations of the two. Could we talk about each of those? The first song is “Let it Roll.”
Ladyhawke: Hmm, ok. Sure. “Let is Roll” is like – well, it was like me thinking of a human being in its purest form. That form being a baby where there’s nothing there – well, unless I guess you believe that something comes along attached. It depends on what you believe. (laughs) But, for me, it’s like you go through life and you experience a whole lot of shit and how you choose to deal with it is up to you.
I want “let it roll” to be like “water off a duck’s back”. Shit comes flying at you. But, it’s up to you to just move on. So, in the chorus “let it roll like a new born soul” is another way of saying “just leave it in the past and move forward like a clean slate”. Writing that sort of made me try to (pauses) almost sort of ingrain it in my own head every time I sing it live as well. It’s like therapy. It’s like “Move on, Pip! Come on. You can do this! You can do this.”
BYT: Then there is also the song “The River.”
Ladyhawke: And then “The River” is also, yes, very metaphorical. Rivers are cleansing. As long as human beings have been on the Earth we’ve used rivers to cleanse ourselves. And, for me, the lyrics “something in the river,” I think is – well, the river is a metaphor for where I was at the time.
I was living in LA. It’s almost (pauses) I don’t want to say I drank the Kool-Aid because I’m definitely not religious and I don’t buy into any religion at all. I’m anti, because I don’t like anyone being discriminated against. But, I do think that I very much needed a sunny place for me to feel happier, and living in LA was almost like that sort of cleansing experience like I was being baptized in a river. (laughs) I don’t know how else to explain it without sounding crazy.
BYT: I’ve lost enough friends to California that I can get that.
Ladyhawke: Yeah! Well, I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve been lost to California. I’m still always a country girl from New Zealand. I’m just a small-town New Zealand girl. But, I do think it was incredibly necessary for me. Wild Things wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t have made some dramatic changes and that all happened in LA. (laughs) I wish it would have happened somewhere like Rome or, like, Paris. But, it happened in LA.
BYT: Thinking back to our earlier discussion of more somber lines, I can’t wait to go back and look for them hidden away in other songs in this album.
Ladyhawke: They’re everywhere. I feel like in every song I write, I always write a little darker bit. You can’t always be like ‘sunshine and roses’. I like a little bit of darkness in there too. I am a fan of the true crime and horror genres! So, I’ve got a dark side too.
Ladyhawke performs this Saturday, June 25 at U Street Music Hall. She will be joined by musician Psychic Twin. Doors at 7:00 p.m., all ages.