7 Jun 2016

Ladyhawke on her new album: 'I really wanted to make positive music'

10:33 am on 7 June 2016

Pip Brown, better known as Ladyhawke, is in a good place right now. She talks to Kirsten Johnstone about what got her there.

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Photo: Supplied

Masterton, sometime in the late '80s. Pip Brown is seated on the floor of her tiny Catholic school library. A nun is reading the notices for assembly, but Pip is daydreaming, as she often does. “I was imagining myself with the bandanna, the jeans and the denim jacket, and a guitar - rocking out in front of thousands of people.” She calls it her “Bruce Springsteen phase”. It’s a vivid memory for Pip, and one that has become a reality - but it hasn’t been easy at times.

The teenage guitar shredder escaped to Wellington in the early 2000s, where her band Two Lane Blacktop quickly gained a following. Rock was big business again, after years of club culture hogging the mainstream, and by 2003 the band had a million dollar international publishing and record deal lined up. But the pressure proved too much for the young band. On the eve of extensive tours of the US and Australia, Pip says “everything f**ked up. It was the last date of our tour with Shihad, and there were bad vibes, everyone had been fighting. Matt [Harrop] smashed his MG up at the end of the show. It was a shame – it was a nice guitar”.

Pip took the booked flight to Melbourne. “I sat with the empty seats beside me where the guys were supposed to be sitting. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, I was so sad. That band was my life.” She was struck down by glandular fever almost as soon as she arrived, and didn’t play music for a year. 

Nick Littlemore of Sydney electro outfit Pnau was looking for a new band, and convinced Pip to join. They recruited a couple of New Zealanders to play rhythm, and Teenager was born. Their 2006 debut featured contributions from members of Sonic Youth and Sleepy Jackson, and a cameo from Rowland S Howard. Pip was playing in front of crowds of thousands - again.

Encouraged by Littlemore, she started to sing - something she says her 16-year-old self would never have thought possible. By 2007, the demo version of her debut as Ladyhawke Back Of The Van was a bonafide B-net hit here in New Zealand. Taking musical cues from Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks, and looking like a long lost member of The Runaways, she was quickly signed to Modular Records. London - and international fame - beckoned.

“I was a wide-eyed naive kid when I got to London. I was meeting all these people and feeling so vulnerable - I didn’t want to be ripped off or taken advantage of. There were people who tried things, who tried to change me. That really upset me. I had no management and no record label, but I got myself a lawyer.”

Behind the superhero moniker, impenetrable blue eyes, and confident pop songs, Pip suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks, and depression. She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 2006. Alcohol was a constant prop for those awkward industry parties and stadium performances, but its effects compounded problems for her.

Ladyhawke’s 2012 album Anxiety tackled her issues head on, a process she said was therapeutic. Sonically it returned to her rock roots, something that UK music critics weren’t impressed with.  

Fast forward another four years, and Wild Things, Ladyhawke’s third album, is here. Her hooks are barbed, her synthpop sparkling, and her lyrics are positive affirmations.

PODCAST: Ladyhawke sits down with Kirsten Johnstone.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy. Faced with a collection of demos reflecting the dark space she was in, she decided to throw them out and start over. “It didn’t feel like me. I didn’t want the next Ladyhawke record to be dark. I was sick of feeling dark, it’s horrible.”

She quit drinking, a process she says was “the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life”. She didn’t leave the house in months, but her friends and family supported her in the decision, and she’s been sober now for two years.

She’s living in Los Angeles - a Melrose Place style apartment in the Hollywood Hills - with her wife, actor Madeleine Sami. She’s put down roots.

“This is the longest I’ve ever lived in a house.  Since I was a kid. I like now that I can wake up in the morning, make a coffee and clean. I like that - it’s a little sense of ritual that I need.”

She’s excited to tour this record, excited to have a band around her again. She thinks she knows how to tackle that lingering anxiety onstage. “I need to be rehearsed. I used to get so wound up about shows, I’d be too nervous to rehearse at rehearsals. There’s new clarity - I feel excited to play live now.”

She reflects on past performances: “I know people knew I was nervous onstage, and I would really rock out. Like, sometimes the music wasn’t rocky. I was just nervous, and that was my way of dealing with it.”

“Now, the person that you see on stage is most likely the person you’ll meet after the show.”

And you know she’ll be wearing her favourite denim and bandanna.