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June/July 2016

by Amanda Mills

Ladyhawke: Hunt For The Wilder Things

by Amanda Mills

Ladyhawke: Hunt For The Wilder Things

While Pip Brown has been regularly seen out and about around Auckland, and certainly came to celebrity page attention in January with her wedding to actress Madeleine Sami, it’s fair to say we really haven’t seen or heard much of her artist-self, Ladyhawke, since the media wave following her 2012 sophomore album ‘Anxiety’. Back home in NZ in March to do some advance promotion ahead of her third album, as well as to play the new Auckland City Limits festival, she found some time to talk with fan girl Amanda Mills.

Photo by Jackson Perry

Pip Brown began her solo career as Ladyhawke in Australia back in 2006, releasing a highly regarded eponymous debut synth-pop album the following year. She supported the album with a two-year tour – one thing she would change if she had that time again.

“I toured for too long, and it just ruined me. I was too exhausted after that to think straight… If I was in my shoes now, I would have kicked up a fuss.”

Exhaustion and anxiety led to her a deeper, darker second album. 2012’s ‘Anxiety’ saw a shift in her sound, and with it her fan-base. Although the album enjoyed far less success and burnt some of her early adopters, it is something she holds no regrets about.

“A lot of the pop fans were like ‘this isn’t a pop record, we can’t get behind it’, but I just got some amazing new fans as well… I always said I want every record to stand alone, and to be its own thing.

“I always use Bowie as a gauge and an inspiration, because he was a different person on every album, and that’s what I’ve aspired musically to be like. You don’t have to do the same thing every time.”

Brown remains fiercely proud of ‘Anxiety’, which was recorded both in Auckland and the south of France. 

“I’ve often said I’m prouder of [it] than I am of my first record, because it was harder to make. I had almost like an obsessive tunnel vision… I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound before I even started making it. I was like, ‘I have to go dark, I’m in a dark place.’

“I wanted the grungiest guitar pedal I could possibly find. I wanted all the tremolo, and delay pedal. I thought…  I’m going to make it a rock record, I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks of it,” she laughs.

True to her word, the latest Ladyhawke album, ‘Wild Things’, is different again, if not flat out contrary. It presents a happy, optimistic and upbeat side to Brown, one that has been encouraged to surface by improving her health and getting married last year to fellow Kiwi artist Madeleine Sami. A newly settled, happier life is clearly reflected in some of her new songs.

“I was feeling very optimistic, and happy… you can’t really hide the way you are feeling when you are making music,” she smiles. “The sound, the artwork, everything – you can tell what mood I’m in by the album I’ve made.”

Work on ‘Wild Things’ started in 2014 and was finished in 2015, but not before Brown recorded and discarded an album’s worth of demo material. She says that the recording’s initial tone was way too dark, reflecting a state of disillusionment and depression that  she realised had to be changed.

A fresh diet of walking and healthy eating, combined with swearing off alcohol, which had exacerbated her depressive spells, worked wonders. That and marriage to actress and sometime musician Sami of course.

The time between completion and release of the album has been readily filled with the mundane realities of an international artist record release.

“I just had a long time of that usual sort of boring stuff people don’t normally hear about, like the label stuff, negotiations, technical stuff,” she half-heartedly explains. “Halfway through the year, I sort of let go… of everything, and I just didn’t even care anymore. I’m just so happy, so proud of the album. The second I let go of everything, I felt so much better, and stuff started happening.”

The second-time around album clearly reflects where Brown is currently at in her life, personally and professionally, including her move to reside in the City of Angels.

“A lot of people don’t get L.A., and they think it’s this fake, plastic place that’s just a concrete jungle with cars everywhere – which it is. But, there’s this whole other side to it.

“I moved there for the lifestyle and the sun… It’s really beautiful, a good place to get your health in order if you’re not healthy, which I wasn’t – feeling crap, and drinking too much, and tired, and just over it. L.A. was the place where I was like, ‘I can actually get my career back on track if I really care enough about my own health.’ That’s what I did.”

Pascal Gabriel was credited as co-writer, engineer and producer of her eponymous 2008 debut, and similarly with ‘Anxiety’ the London-based Frenchman had a hand in the music, engineering production, keys, programming and mixing. He’s clearly been a collaborator that she relied heavily upon, as she told Jeremy Toy in NZM’s June/July 2012 issue.

“Me and Pascal have musical common ground… in every aspect. The main thing with us is that we love all genres of music, basically, and Pascal’s really open to just a really well-written, cool song. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Spice Girls’ song or a Metallica song or whatever, he’s just open to a really well written pop song.”

This time however Brown decided to use a different collaborator, opting to work with Chicago-born rock musician-turned producer Tommy English. Now working from his own his own studio in Glendale, central LA, English has a strong electronic pop pedigree. He worked as engineer, programmer, and mixer for the likes of 5 Seconds of Summer, and more recently produced the highly acclaimed ‘Dopamine’ album for US act BØRNS.

Brown recalls meeting English through a friend, tattooist Kat Von D.

“She was making a record. She wanted me to do vocals on her album… I turned up and it’s Tom, and he’s just such a sweet guy, and we hit it off.”

She road-tested English’s skills by getting him to record her vocals for a 2014 Tiesto song, and from there the pair became friends. When Brown asked him to work with her on the next Ladyhawke album, he leapt at the chance, collaborating on the whole record. One song, Chills, is a co-write with Brown and Scott Hoffman (Babydaddy) from The Scissor Sisters.

‘Wild Things’ is sonically in a similar vein to Brown’s eponymous debut album, but takes the electronic pop sound further, eschewing guitars for samples and keys, and creating plenty of hook-filled melodies.

“My classic signature funky guitar that I always used to play… for this one I put it down, and relinquished control of it,” she admits.

“I felt so free not having the guitar. I always use it as a crutch, something to hide behind, and I completely put it down for this. It’s been good for me.”

Some sounds have been manipulated to create touches here and there to amplify the tone. A good example is Golden Girl where the sound of ukulele isn’t quite what it seems.

“That’s an acoustic guitar played and then sampled, so played up quite high,” she explains. “Tom sampled it, and then he cut it up, so it sounds like someone’s pressing a button, and going ching-ching-ching-ching.”

Brown’s satisfaction with her new album is evident.

“One of my favourite songs to listen to and perform when I’m rehearsing has been Let it Roll,” she enthuses. “I love that song. I love the way that sort of evolved… [starting] off with a weird funky beat, and then turned into this really fun, sort of ESG meets Tom Tom Club  thing. I love Sweet Fascination as well.”

That song deals with obsession, a subject she relishes.

“I love the idea of obsession, because I’m a very obsessive person… I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of how fans get so obsessed with the person they idolise, and they end up creating this world in their head where they think they know the person, and they think that the person’s writing about them.”

The album themes have both personal and universal elements, though her lyrics are full of oblique references.

“I definitely write in a lot of metaphors. A lot of it’s to do with how happy I was, you know, my song Hillside Avenue, that’s the name of the street I live on, and I was… living in this place where I would wake up and see sunshine,” she smiles. “For me, it’s always 50/50. I try and write a little bit in metaphor of what I’m going through, then I try and write it so that anyone can interpret it to their own experience.”

While a return-of-sorts to musical form, aesthetically, ‘Wild Things’ presents a break from her earlier albums, the cover showing a photograph of Brown, rather than the sketch artwork of long time collaborator, and friend, Sarah Larnach – though she was still involved with the design.

“She did the graphic design on the cover. And the t-shirt I’m wearing she designed that, so she drew that all by hand. I knew before I’d even written this record that I wanted a photo on the cover, and I wanted bright colours… I just had a vision,” she happily laughs.

UK and US tours in support of the album release were scheduled before returning to play some dates in NZ in July.

Almost a decade into her solo career, Pip Brown is still coming up against the misconception that Ladyhawke is more than just her, that she has a team of writers behind her. She puts it down to ignorance.

“Some people… they just don’t know! It’s just so common, other female musicians get this all the time. People assume there’s a huge team of writers behind them, they don’t write their own music, and I know for a fact that my male musician friends don’t get that line of questioning… Yeah, it’s different for women, and I may sound like a stuck record saying it, but it is.”

As her last album revealed, despite the global enthusiasm for her debut, it hasn’t necessarily been an easy road for Ladyhawke since. In the end, for Pip Brown it all comes down to a love of making music.

“I think it’s harder for me not to do this, than it is not to do it. As much as it stresses me out, I would be way worse off in my head if I wasn’t doing this. Just making the music… it’s the only thing that’s ever made me happy and interested in life. I see things in a different way, and I can hear things differently. I don’t know if I could survive if I wasn’t doing music!”