"The face of rock is changing." This conversation with Alex Lahey about her music, her favourite women in music, and rock music will make you fall in love with her even more.
Alex Lahey is about to release her brand new album I Love You Like A Brother next week, and it's shaping up to be very well received indeed. Alex has been playing music her whole life, and her talent along with a commitment to learn, be better and collaborate with others has made for a very successful road so far. As she crosses over from having an ambition to having a career in music while working a day job, to actually having a career in music, Alex is capturing attention both here in Australia and abroad.
Last year, a notification on her phone saying that music guru publication Pitchfork named You Don't Think You Like People Like Me best new track blew her mind, and Alex realised she had been catapulted into a brand new world filled with opportunities. After the successful release of her EP B-Grade University, Alex toured overseas and wrote the aforementioned full length album. In this candid conversation with Julie Kerr, Alex talks about the fact that perhaps she could have capitalised on the Pitchfork momentum more. That was a few weeks ago now, but actually, there is no need to worry. Just days out from the new release, Alex has had another international endorsement. This time from the New York Times pop critics, who, at the beginning of September added Lotto In Reverse (this song is super cool) from her new yet-to-be-released album to their weekly playlist which included, oh, you know U2 and Pharrell Williams. And just this morning, Alex Lahey got a Twitter shoutout from long time Californian rock sensation Smashmouth. And then Pitchfork mentioned Lotto In Reverse in the most flattering of ways just a few days ago. So things are looking pretty dang sunny.
Alex was considering doing a law degree if things didn't work out with music, but it's safe to say that she is on her way to a long and steady career in music, and the books can stay on their shelves for a while yet. Maybe forever.
Enjoy this conversation where Alex talks about her musical pathway so far, her favourite women in music, rock music, long song titles, and the making of I Love You Like A Brother. Oh, and while you wait for the album's release, check out her new single I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself.
JK: Well, your single Everyday's the Weekend taken from the upcoming album [out next Friday 6 October] I Love You Like A Brother? I love it.
AL: Thank you.
JK: Did you feel pressured when writing new material, because You Don't Think You Like People like Me, in 2016, that just blew up everywhere was so well received?
AL: No. Not as much maybe I thought I would. I don't know why that is. I think I just didn't want to psyche myself out. Also, I mean, the songs have all been written in the same way. I write songs because I like writing songs not just because I want them to blow up or whatever. I mean You Don't Think You Like People like Me did quite well last year. And I just wrote it 'cause I wanted to and literally put it on the internet and, then, all of a sudden, it was on the radio. I feel that that ethos has kind of just carried on in the way that I write. I don't write for any other purpose other than just to sort of express myself. But, it's awesome that it's been received so well thus far.
JK: Having said that, though, growing up, you obviously were getting ready to have a career in music.So, how was it before then?
AL: Yeah, I was. I've been playing music my whole life and I've been playing in bands for a long time. My first band that I started gigging with was called Animaux in Melbourne. I was playing in that band for five years before I started doing a solo project. I honestly don't think that I would be here if it wasn't for all that time in that band. It was really awesome to sort of get my head around, I guess, the way that things work and, also, get my songwriting chops up and that sort of thing and, in a way, it allowed me to hit the ground running with this project. But, again, I started the Alex Lahey project because I wasn't a band and I was like, I want to try doing something by myself. I just want to give it a go. Then, it became my focus. But I honestly don't think that this would have happened without those formative years
JK: Let's talk about rock music and indie rock, in particular. At the beginning of this year, the outgoing music editor at The Guardian in the UK - a guy named Michael Hann - wrote this piece about everything he's learned about the music industry, as he was leaving his job as editor. One of the things that he said is rock is in its new jazz phase. It was quite depressing, he was saying we have reached the pinnacle, there's not much more anyone can do with it. I thought that was really interesting because I've seen a bit of an explosion, especially in women in rock, you know? But what do you think about rock music in 2017 amidst a whole bunch of electronica and lots of indie pop and everything?
AL: I reckon electronica's out.
AL: I reckon rock's back. Me and my producer have this joke that we're gonna make guitars cool again, but, then, he went to a guitar convention the other day and he was like, "Oh f**k, it's so not cool yet."
JK: Well, it is cool, but maybe not in that context.
AL: Yeah, I was like, "Dude, you went to like the Comic Con of guitars. Of course it wasn't cool." But, yeah. I think that the word "rock" has been totally redefined
AL: I think that a big reason for that is because the word "pop" has been redefined, as well. I mean, if you look at Haim ... If you're talking about women in music, this new Haim record that's just come out, it's a rock record, I would say, but the influences are clearly Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain. The harmonies are super poppy, but it's still rock. Since listening to that album, I've gone back and listened to early Sheryl Crow records and that sort of thing. It's f**king cool, you know? It's pretty rocking. I think that those barriers are being broken down and all of that sort of stuff. But, I mean, what's so wrong with new jazz, as well? I just think that people get too hung up on genres and say, "This is in and this is out," and "This is dead and this is not." I'm about songs and they just happen to sound the way that they do, but, at the end of the day, it's about the song and you can play that any way that you want. A good song will have life and meaning in whatever context that's in.
JK: That's right.
AL: So, I think to say that rock is dead or whatever is pretty short-sighted, but I think that music is always changing, as art's always changing and people in the world are always changing. I think that that's something to be celebrated. I mean, to say something like that ... I don't know. It just doesn't mean anything. But also, like you were saying, there are more women present in rock and roll music. The face of rock is changing.
JK: I recently interviewed Sarah McLeod -
AL: She's a rocker. Superjesus are f***ing awesome.
JK: Her new album's excellent. We talked about guitars and, then, I interviewed Jen-
AL: She's a rocker, too. She's the Australian Patti Smith.
JK: Yeah. she's great. Obviously, there's Courtney Barnett, and Ali Barter, and more. I'm like, hmm, I really am enjoying listening to bands at the moment. Now, tell me about your process in the studio. Do you record live or do you lay your tracks or how do you do it?
AL: So, for this record my band played on the record. We did some live tracking in Melbourne in a studio called Head Gap with Oscar Dawson who is also a part of the Ali Barter project, as well. We did the foundational tracking there. Then, Oz and I took those files and-
JK: Did you do the bass drums first and then layer it up?
AL: Yeah. We sort of did that first. We do it that way, but we do guide guitars, as well. 'Cause Oscar's a real guitar guy and then once the bass and the drums are were done, we really focused on the guitars. So, then, Oz and I went back to his studio and, either he or myself played all the guitars, basically. Then, vocals and the rest of it. My writing process includes pre-production basically, so I will come in with a fully-formulated arrangement of the song.
JK: That's cool and different and old school.
AL: Yeah. So I'll come with a fully-formed song and arrangement. We, then, basically do the good copy of it together.
JK: Do you feel vulnerable doing that? When you're preparing on your own and you're like, "I've got this arrangement," and then you've got to show someone and you're all, "Oh, I feel vulnerable."
AL: I used to. For sure. But now I'm getting better at it. I'm getting better with the software. On this record, I felt really accomplished because I did some programming in those demos that we literally just dropped into the final and that felt pretty cool.
JK: That's great!
AL: Yeah, that was really cool.
JK: In 2016, when Pitchfork made your song, You Don't Think [mind runs blank] sorry, your songs have really long titles.
AL: Yeah, sorry.
JK: Ha, that's okay.
AL: Get ready for the next single. It's gonna ... You're gonna hate me. Yeah. [I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself has since been released, and is the track Alex is referring to. And it's epic.]
JK: Actually, Sarah McLeod has a song called No-One Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye, that I kept referencing when I was chatting with her. I was trying to remember the name, and I was like, "No one, um...." and she was like, "Oh, it's such a long title." Ha, I like long titles, it's cool. Anyway, when that happened with Pitchfork, that was major endorsement.
JK: How did you feel?
JK: Of course you did
AL: I've been reading Pitchfork for many, many years, in high school and that sort of stuff. It kind of still is, to me, this sort of unattainable thing that only very few people get to sort of get the thumbs up.
JK: Was that confidence boosting, as well?
AL: It was a catalyst for a lot of things. It was pretty surreal. I remember waking up one morning, going to my then day job, and checking my phone. It read that Pitchfork had tagged you in a post. I was like, what? Because I knew the guy, the editor from Pitchfork, the founder and editor, he was on triple j the day before and he reviewed my track on air. I was like oh, cool. That's really nice of him he's probably just -
JK: You were thinking, how generous.
AL: Yeah. I thought, that's very nice. Then, there was this notification - Pitchfork has tagged you in a post and I thought, oh it's probably an article saying that Ryan Schreiber was on air but it said "Alex Lahey named best new track". I literally just, put my hand in front of my mouth. Then, I yelled, "Muuuummmmm!" She was like, "What?" I was like, "This has happened!" She probably had no idea, but she said, "That's so amazing!" Yeah, and then I went to work.
AL: I was sitting at this desk and it was almost like it never happened and everything was happening at the same time, as well. I was getting all of these emails and, I mean, that was the real catalyst that allowed me, and has continued to allow me a shot at overseas markets and territories. It's enabled me to do a bit of travel already. My label overseas found me through it. It sort of put a bit of spotlight on what I was doing. But, at the same time, it was quite strange because it happens to very few people and they're usually pretty respected, established artists. So, to have this massive opportunity where the world was at our feet, but not ... We probably weren't in a position to maybe take all of the advantages that it gave us -
JK: Yeah, I see.
AL: Because it was an opportunity happening to this independent person with no EP and -
JK: Was there anything in the works at that stage?
AL: Yeah. The EP was ready, but it was almost like we were under-resourced for the opportunities that it gave us at the time. So, there was something frustrating about it, but at the same time, it has probably made me better resourced now and, hopefully, it will happen again, but, you know, you can't count on those things. But I'm so grateful and I think it's a real testament to Pitchfork that they were like, we really like this song and we want people to know about it. We don't care who this person is and that no-one else does either, but we want to give 'em a go. I think that that's a real credit to Pitchfork and I have even more respect for them now.
JK: Yeah, that's really cool. Now, your single, Every Day Is A Weekend ... The film clip's really cool.
AL: Thank you.
JK: I like how relatable it is. Everyone can look at it and just be like, oh, I know what it's like looking for odd jobs. What was the inspiration behind that? Have you had some funny odd jobs in your life?
AL: My first ever job, which will be funny if I ever have children. I worked at a video shop, which really don't exist anymore. That was really fun. I started when I was fifteen or something. All the other people working there were like eighteen, nineteen, you know, they were a little bit older. It was a good time. That was probably the weirdest job that I've had just 'cause it doesn't exist anymore.
JK: Yeah, that's crazy. Did you become a film buff?
AL: No. Some people, they'd be like, "Totally." But no, I definitely watched more movies being there, but I've never been one ... I know film buffs and I've never been close.
JK: If you weren't in music - this is such a boring standard question - but what would you do? I'm intrigued because of the film clip
AL: It's funny. When I went to uni, I started a music arts double degree and I dropped out of the music degree and finished the arts degree.
JK: What did you major in, in your arts degree?
AL: In communications. I was dating a law student at the time that I was thinking about doing the solo project. I was like, I'm gonna give this two years and if it doesn't go well, if I'm really struggling, I'm gonna start a law degree.
AL: But I probably would have never got in and, also, my day job was working in comms as this was kicking off, and so it's likely that I would have been maybe doing that and been super down on life. Yeah. I'd have been super strung out. Hmmmm, maybe a law degree, maybe just staying comms, but something like that. I would have loved to have been in the industry, but I just, I don know. To be honest, I probably would have just still been hacking away at the music thing. It's almost like it wasn't an option to stop.
JK: Yeah, that's cool. You created your singles and, obviously, you've done stuff with your band before. Then, you put an EP together. Now, you're putting out this full-length album together. When you were recording, were you thinking, is there gonna be flow? Am I gonna run out of material? Do I have enough? Do I have too much? How was that process? Full-length albums are a completely different thing, obviously.
AL: Yeah. It's a completely different thing and it's really funny because as I was doing it, I was like, I can see why people love making records. You really get in the zone and, so, the next record, because, obviously, given the circumstances that I was in, I was touring while making the record, and I'm like, next time, I just want to do the one thing and try that, and really immerse myself in it. But, as I was doing it, I was like, I can see why people love making albums. I think the one stress, or we're talking about flow, the one thing that I was maybe concerned about was that the EP, and this wasn't intentional, but sort of ended up being this really conceptual kind of body of work, which was just, basically, reflective of my university years. Now, that I'm out of that and the songs are obviously about my life, in the record, I was like, maybe, conceptually, it's not strong enough as a whole body of work. I was concerned about that, even though I wasn't consciously doing it in the EP either. But, now, reflecting on the album, I feel that there is a strong concept of relationships in all its forms. Whether it's a romantic relationship or with your friends or with your mum or with your brother or whatever. I think that what makes this album unique to me is that it touches on those things and isn't just, it's not like a break-up album. It's not a, I'm falling in love with you album, it's just about the people that we surround ourselves with and the way that we engage with them, and the way that those relationships are fluid, and embracing that.
JK: Nice. Do you like writing lyrics?
AL: I love writing lyrics. It's my favourite.
JK: Do you have a lyric book?
AL: Yeah, I do. It's actually in my bag over there. I go through those composition books with the hard cover. I've got five or six of them. They're all numbered at the front. Then, of course, I've got the iPhone Notes thing that everyone has. And voice memos..
JK: Who are your favourite women in music?
AL: At the moment, actually, there's a group of women in England who are just really cool and writing really cool songs. One of them is Marika Hackman who has just released a record called I'm Not Your Man. The record's really cool because it really plays with gender and sexuality and what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man. Masculinity, and all those sort of things, with really visceral references to the human body. There's something sort of really grotesque about it, but the music is so authentically 90s grunge, but not in the way that you think about 90s ... It's like Nirvana, but not like Smells Like Teen Spirit Nirvana. It's that really sort of angular, dissonant kind of thing. It's a really great record. The band that played in the studio with her is an awesome band called The Big Moon who are four girls from London. They have just released a record called Love In The Fourth Dimension.
JK: Kind of that dark, grunge thing again?
AL: No, it's actually really happy. Hippie, super melodic, awesome vocal harmonies, really cool songs. A tongue in cheek kind of record. The producer of that record is a woman called Catherine Marks who -
JK: I know her.
AL: Yeah, from Melbourne originally, but now living in the UK.
JK: She's epic.
AL: She's mixing Saint Vincent's record, actually. She's just this incredible producer. She started producing a few years ago or whatever, just out of nowhere.
JK: She learnt from Flood.
AL: Yeah, it's crazy. She's just making these sick records. The Big Moon record just got nominated for the Mercury, so they're my favourite women in music right now.
JK: Have you met Catherine?
AL: No, but I really want to.
JK: Yeah, she's cool. I put her in touch with Antonia-
AL: She's one of my favourites, as well. Antonia just did the new Bodytype single, which is sick. There are all these awesome women, behind the scenes and I feel like it's really, maybe it's just me, but I feel like it's really only in the last six months that, all of a sudden, these female producers are getting credit and are getting recognised. Catherine Marks is this quiet achiever. Like she engineered the last Foals record and stuff-
JK: I know!
AL: And no-one f**cking knew. It's unbelievable.
JK: I know. I found out about her through Laura Marling who has a podcast called Reversal of the Muse about women in the studio.
AL: Yeah, she did an episode with her. She did an episode with Marika, as well …. She did it with Marika and I think Shura came in too, who's an excellent producer, as well. I reckon Marika, Big Moon, and Catherine. They're my favourite women in music right now. They make me excited, they make me so excited about making music and it's great. I'm just a massive fan. They probably know, because I [stalk them] on social media.
AL: They're like, who's this b**ch?
JK: Yeah. It's cool. We started Music Love in November last year and every article I write - we do every genre, but also women behind the scenes - I always get exactly the same reaction as you, just like all warm and fuzzy, and I'm so excited. I'm so inspired.
AL: It's really exciting and inspires me to push myself and it makes me so much more aware of the possibilities, and I'm already doing it. So, imagine what it's like for a younger person who is thinking about giving it a go. That's what's exciting, you know?
JK: Yeah, it's cool.
AL: Yeah. It's sick.
JK: Thank you for your time.
AL: Thank you, my pleasure. This was cool
I Love You Like A Brother Tour
Wed Oct 4 – 48 Watt St Newcastle
Friday Oct 6 – Oxford Art Factoru, Sydney
Sat Oct 7 – The Zoo, Brisbane
Wed Oct 11 – Karova Lounge, Ballarat
Thurs Oct 12 – Workers Club, Geelong
Fri Oct 13 – Fat Controller, Adelaide
Saturday Oct 14 – Republic Bar, Hobart
Wed Oct 18 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Thurs Oct 19 – Rosemount, Perth
Friday Oct 20 – Mojos, Fremantle
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