Alex Lahey interview: "Love takes shape in many ways, but everything else is low stakes compared to the love that you have for yourself."
Alex Lahey rocketed into blog readers’ consciousnesses last year with the thunderbolt that was her 5-track EP B-Grade University, which comfortably and casually danced about topics from sex to academic expectation to Wes Anderson, all delivered as effervescent indie punk songs. Unsurprisingly, she was snapped up by one of independent music’s most recognisable bastions of good taste, Dead Oceans, who re-released the EP to the wider world, and will now be releasing Lahey’s debut album I Love You Like A Brother this Friday.
We met up with Alex Lahey in the midst of a brief press trip around Europe. Despite the taxing requirements of such a commitment, she was bright, enthusiastic and deeply self-reflective throughout our chat. We talked about how she feels about being at this point, the people and turmoil that inspired the songs, and where she’d like to take the project in the future.
You're travelling by yourself for this press trip around Europe; what have you been doing to entertain yourself on the journey?
My friend made me a couple of really good playlists. One of them is like really good ambient, which I don't really listen to, but she does and that's like the music she makes herself, and it literally puts me straight to sleep. It's awesome! So I just whack that on and pass out. It's really good. It's a lot of Jonsi & Alex and Olafur Arnalds and Jon Hopkins and that sort of thing, which is stuff that I don't really engage with at all, but she's super into it. It puts me to sleep - I don't know if that was her intention, but it's really good!
Any reading or movies?
I've been reading Meet Me In The Bathroom, and I'm trying to finish the latest season of Orange Is The New Black, but I've been getting distracted.
What do you think about Meet Me In The Bathroom? I loved it but was also a bit shocked by it; I always thought the stereotype of rock stars doing loads of drugs was just an exaggeration, but judging from the stories told in that book it's not an exaggeration at all!
Yeah, it seems like there are a lot of times where people genuinely can't remember certain things.
That's all the music that I grew up with, it almost makes you feel a bit old, when you realise it's history now. It's kinda creepy. But I think it's really cool, I'm such a nerd for that era. And I like how all-encompassing it is; they tap into The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Regina Spektor - it's really cool.
This is the first time you've done a big press trip, how does it feel to be at this point?
It's weird. There's always those waves of impostor syndrome, but it's very cool. It also feels strange because the record isn't out yet, but when I speak to people like you who have heard the record it's like our little secret, it's funny.
It's the first time I'm really, really excited to put out the record and not nervous. Before I've been going in waves of being super nervous and super excited, but now I'm just like "let's just get it out."
It's been about a year since you quit your day job, how does that feel?
Yeah, pretty much a year to the week. It feels good. I remember when I quit I was like "what am I doing? This is stupid," and one of my colleagues was like "treat it like a gap year, and at the end of it if nothing's happening go back to work." But now more than ever I can't! I'm actually really proud of myself that it was the right decision to make, let alone sustaining it. The idea of going back to work for someone else now depresses me.
What did you want to achieve with this album that you hadn't done on the EP?
I think that I wanted to commit to the record; I wanted to commit to doing it. Because I feel that when a woman artist that I love has a record out I commit to them, that's what I wanted. I think to me this record kind of signals my own arrival as an artist, both within myself, but maybe potentially in the grander scheme of things too. So I guess that's what I wanted to do more than what the EP did. Putting out an EP is kind of like a given these days, but an album now it's a pretty serious commitment to be like "I'm going to make a record." From the writing of it, to recording, to getting all the collateral together, to being here doing the press thing, then putting it out and touring it and playing those songs for potentially the rest of your career… Yeah, it's a commitment. I think that's what it is: it's me committing to you and you committing to me.
Did you record the EP in a studio, or was this the first time in a studio?
For the EP we worked in what is considered a studio now; my producer has a small room in a complex sort of thing and we did the whole EP in that tiny room, we recorded things live, drums live in this teeny tiny room. But this time around we decided "OK let's do the beds in a proper room and then we can go back to that little space and top it up." Which was really fun, and makes it feel so much more legit - even though it wasn't some fuck off studio. It's nice to shake things up and change your environments and adjust to that, especially when time is money that kind of helps.
Do you see yourself as part of a wave of artists right now who are happy to talk about their insecurities and low bank balances? My colleague Kieran called it "millennialwave.”
"Millennialwave"? I hate that word "millennial" - it's so silly. I don't know, I just think that I'm an individual. I never thought about it, so then by default wouldn't that make me an individual? I'm just myself and I think that that's what baffles me so much; we were talking about impostor syndrome - it baffles me that I haven't tried to be some persona. As much as Alex Lahey is like a project, it's me, to the point where if I was going to write about things that don't touch me directly then I should probably do it under another name - or someone else should sing it. I think it's definitely an individual thing. Again people say about my music "you're so direct" or "do you feel weird talking about your own shit?" but it's like no; I talk to my friends about it. I think I'm a pretty reflective person as an individual, so I think it comes across in the music. Maybe it's too much information; I don't know. I do tend to overshare a little.
Do you ever stop and think about when someone hears some of your lyrics they might be put off, or do you not think that far ahead?
I can never think of anything that I would put in a song that there wouldn't be one other person who's like "I know what you're talking about." Because we're only human, and I'm very normal, and most people are as well. I don't overthink it too much. But sometimes I surprise myself with things that I feel comfortable about putting in songs.
Let's talk about the title track 'I Love You Like A Brother', which is actually about your real brother; what made you decide to write it?
I always wanted to write a song for him. That's something for years I've wanted to do. Because obviously every relationship is unique, and especially between siblings, and they can come in so many shapes and forms. I feel like Will and I have had a pretty classic relationship, where you'll play around when you're kids, then you become adolescents and you're a but adverse to each other, and then you come back around and you become mates. I've spoken to a number of other friends who have younger brothers of the same sort of age difference and they were like "yeah one day he woke up and he wasn't a dick anymore." I don't know if that's a hormonal thing or they have a group meeting or discuss it or something... But that happened with my brother - I'm sure my behaviour probably changed too - but I remember when that happened and we became friends for the first time, and it was so special. It was really meaningful. I realised I have a friend in this person; no one understands where I come from more than this person because that's where they come from too, and that's such a unique relationship to have. I remember thinking that and realising it's pretty special and significant, and it seems a lot of people have been through that with their brother or sister when they reach the early stages of adult life.
What was his reaction when he heard the song?
He hasn't heard the song yet! I don't know how to show him [laughs]. I don't know if I should leave it until the record comes out and let him do it for himself, or if I should be like "here's a song" and wait for him to respond to it. He knows that the record is called what it is, and he knows that there is a song about him on it. But he also lives in New York, so I can't show him easily. I was there recently so I should have just shown him, but I was a bit nervous. But yeah I'd love to see his response to it.
Does he like the kind of music you make?
I actually don't know if he likes it, but I know he's very proud and supportive. With that song specifically I consciously wrote music that I knew is his taste in music; the song itself sounds like something he'd listen to. So whether or not he'll like it I don't know, but it is tailored to him sonically, which is kind of fun.
Tell me about the other people who pop up on the album.
There's a few people in it. It's really weird, the one person who's in the record a lot - there's like 5 songs about this one person - it's really funny because it's probably the least significant relationship I've been involved in in my life, but sometimes it's these brief things that end really abruptly that really make you reflect on yourself, and I think this was one of those things. There's something so different about that than being with someone for years and then it peters out. I had this very fleeting relationship with someone and it ended because... I don't know... it wasn't meant to be and that's totally fine. But it really made me reflect on myself for some reason, and I got a lot of songs out of it. It's funny, there's a certain irony in that.
I think that every single relationship you have, regardless of the nature of it, can be really special. There's a number of people mentioned in the record; my mum's in there a couple of times. You know, love takes shape in so many ways; whether it's for your friends or family or partner, and I think another thing that I touch on on the record is the love that you have for yourself, which is the most important. Everything else is low stakes compared to the love that you have for yourself.
Tell me about 'Backpack'; I like that song a lot.
I wrote that song for someone at the end of last year, and it's about someone who I was in a relationship with and they used to describe themselves as being really flighty, and they had a history of moving around a lot. I remember thinking on entering that relationship "one day this person will just leave," and kind of resigned myself to that, and they were really insistent that that would happen as well. They had this running joke that they were gonna die when they were 33, and that's like leaving too - not existing anymore.
I remember giving them a hug one time, and they always used to wear a backpack, and I was like "fucking take your fucking backpack off! I can't fucking hug you with your backpack on!" and I remember thinking there was a lot to be said in that. I remember being left with that image in my head and thinking it was very indicative about a lot of things about this person. So I wrote it for them.
There's brass in the end of that song, did you play it yourself?
I played the alto sax, and then my friend Ollie who I played in a band with before this played tenor sax, and then there's trumpet and trombone.
You've talked a lot about how you previously studied saxophone at uni; but what I want to know is why you decided to start sax in the first place?
I dunno, it was just like my calling for that time. When I was a small, small child I said to my mum "I want to play saxophone!" and she was like "How do you know what that is? And also, it's like as big as you." But to my mum's credit, as someone who isn't musical or has no clue about musical instruments, she must have done her research or asked around at school, but she started getting me recorder lessons, then I started playing the clarinet when I was 12, and then at 13 I finally started playing the saxophone and it was everything I ever wanted it to be. That was how I started playing in bands, even though it was like big bands and jazz groups, that was when I was like "this is what I want to do forever; I want to play music with other people. This is it." But then on a parallel trajectory I was teaching myself guitar for fun, and writing songs because I couldn't play anyone else's songs, so playing my own and singing along to that. And I think singing and playing sax are kind of the same. So when I actually started studying jazz properly I was like "I actually don't want to do this at all, I just want to write songs and play gigs to actual people." That's when the swap happened.
Were you listening to jazz as a teen?
Well that's the thing, I'm not convinced I actually connected to jazz that much. I think it's just because with schools and music education you either fall into classical or jazz, so I just fell into jazz, but I was not convinced that I was actually connecting to the music that much.
I also played sax as a teen, and I think I just chose it because I saw everyone around me learning guitar and I wanted to be different, even though I didn't actually listen to jazz. Then as the years wore on and I realised that I didn't really like that kind of music I realised that I wish I'd played guitar instead.
Yeah, there is a really deep, deep jazz tradition and it's increasingly rigid, and it's highly male-dominated as well. I just couldn't connect with it on many levels. It just wasn't for me.
There's kind of a tumultuous period on the album, where you go from 'Awkward Exchange' to 'I Want U' to 'Lotto In Reverse' - it's very up and down. Was that on purpose; did you think much about the sequencing?
Yeah I thought about it. I knew that 'Backpack' was track 5 - to me that's just a track 5 song. And 'There's No Money' was written as the last song, I purposefully wrote it as a last song. Thinking about the records I love and the way they flow, I did think about it a lot. 'Every Day's The Weekend' fell into being the first track because we plug the guitar in at the start and it feels very visceral, it's like "here we go." But there is a difference between the first half of the record and the second half of the record, and that wasn't particularly deliberate, but I can definitely feel it, and I hope it's ok! I think the second half of the record has more sonic depth, which is kind of interesting. I did think about it then, but now reflecting on it I'm like "hmm…" It's all very different thinking about it now.
Maybe the first half is like a continuation from the EP, and the second half is an expansion?
Yeah maybe. I definitely feel like the record finishes on a "who knows what's next?" level. I think it's funny, when you actually do the track listing, at that stage you’re thinking in terms of songs, and now that I have so much distance from making the record I think of it as a whole body of work and I look at it differently.
There's a lot more backing vocals on the second half, on songs like 'I Want U' and 'Let's Call It A Day'. It makes it seem more classic pop, was that your intention?
No, I think it's really more of a result of me becoming more ingrained in the pre-production of the songs, because my writing now takes shape more holistically than ever. I think I'm becoming more aware of microphones and vocal harmonies and those sort of things. I think it's me flexing my muscles a little bit more and not being afraid of that sort of stuff, and also actually being able to go into the studio and not being there playing it on a guitar with one voice, I can use arrangements and put BVs in and stuff. It's one of those things where I'm sometimes thinking "maybe I should just leave it," but that's for the next record to figure out.
Does Oscar help you with that, or is it always your decision?
We advise each other; we have a good relationship in that regard. Oscar is an incredible person and friend and musician, and I think his greatest strength as a producer is that he doesn't let ego get in the way, and he can really listen to what an artist needs or wants or what they're trying to say in a song. So it's always a discussion, which is really awesome.
When you write a song like 'Lotto In Reverse' is a cathartic moment?
I don't really think about it. I think songwriting generally is cathartic. I was actually talking to a friend about it last night who's a song writer, and we were saying even if we weren't musicians by trade there is no way that we wouldn't be writing songs, it is a part of how we process things. So yeah I guess by that token it is highly cathartic.
Do you have to set aside time to write songs, or does it just happen?
I increasingly have to set aside time to write them. But this last month I've been off the road and just sitting down and trying to make the songs happen, which is something that I haven't done before and has been really fun. It's been fun to not have deadlines and be writing for the sake of writing.
Do you think you'll be frustrated by the touring you'll have to do that'll delay more writing?
Probably. I mean, the grass is always greener, but I have noticed that when I can't write I well up, and I'm like "fuck I just wanna do it." But that doesn’t necessarily translate into actually getting songs when you sit down to do it. It just happens when it happens.
You've had some pretty amazing support slots with the likes of Blondie and Cyndi Lauper. Did you get to talk to them at all?
Yeah I spoke to Cyndi Lauper a bit. She was a real character; she's exactly what you think she would be like, she's so across her craft. Watching her sound check she'll EQ her fold-back and she has obviously learned how to communicate exactly what she wants; she seems like she's quite a particular person, which is a strength. So that was really cool to see someone like that, an older artist who's played countless gigs, still being so engaged with what’s happening in that moment and is super, super present, which is cool.
Obviously Blondie it's like beyond music, meeting Debbie Harrie, you're interacting with a pop culture icon, and that was very, very cool when I met her. I imagine it would be akin to meeting Marilyn Monroe or Elvis or something, I think that's the sort of tier that someone like her occupies. So I feel very privileged to count that as a memory.
Did the crowds take to you on those tours?
Look, we were the first band on, and it was one of those things, it was like if you wanted to look at it from the perspective of the demographics we were playing to, it probably wasn't our target audience - but when Blondie comes knocking and asks you to open, you do it. But the tour was in a series of wineries around Australia, so it was really beautiful, it was a really nice tour to be a part of, and the people we played to were really just there for a day out, so that was really cool.
What's left on your bucket list?
Album two! I think there's so much ahead in this year that's bucket list stuff. It's a weird spot to be in because it's a combination of being really conscious about what's ahead while also allowing yourself to be in the moment. I just want to enjoy what's happening, I think that's my main thing at the moment; just enjoy it and be super present because it's so easy to get caught up in what's next - even though it is good to be mindful of it.
In terms of a bucket list thing - I wouldn't say no to a Grammy nomination, that'd be alright! [laughs] There's also a venue in Melbourne, a theatre called the Forum that I would one day love to have a show there. And I also would love to play Red Rocks, that's a bucket list thing. But I guess mostly just writing more songs and allowing this to be the beginning of something long and enjoyable and fulfilling.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 5th October 2017.