Charming the world, one hook at a time: Getting to know Alex Lahey
It seems like more than a few people had a good 2017 in terms of their musical careers and ALEX LAHEY, with a cheeky grin on her face, is certainly one of them. Between the release of her highly-anticipated debut album, I Love You Like A Brother, her two top 50 entries in Triple J’s Hottest 100, reaching number 6 on Triple J listeners’ album poll and booking an absolute smorgasbord of local and international festival spots – including the debut run of Sydney City Limits – Alex Lahey is sitting comfortably on a rocketship that shows no signs of slowing down.
Her brutally honest and self-reflective music is cloaked in hooks and clever lyrics, and she’s slowly but surely made the whole world fall in love with her. We caught up with the Melbourne superstar to chat about how important self-reflection is, her monstrous rise to stardom and the cruciality of outspoken artists in our current political climate.
First, I just wanted to congratulate you on having one of the best 2017s possible. You absolutely killed it last year, from the debut album to the Hottest 100. You had two songs in the top 50 – how did that feel?
Well, first of all, thank you very much – that’s extremely kind of you. It felt great! I was at a barbecue at my manager’s house, not really expecting anything. I don’t like to get competitive about making music or things that come from that. It was just really nice. I thought maybe one song might get in, and if it was in the top 50 that’d be beyond belief. But, then, to have two in there was such a nice surprise. There’s a whole team that goes on behind what I do. I obviously write and play the songs but there’s a whole bunch of people involved in actually getting them out into the world. It was really lovely to share that with all the people involved.
If we look back at 2016 with ‘You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me’ to now, Alex Lahey is no longer just a name that a few Melbournians knew – it’s a name that has blown up all over the world. How have you adjusted to that whirlwind, because that’s a lot of attention to have thrust on yourself in a relatively small space of time?
It’s kind of funny. I remember talking to someone about it, who’s also a musician, and we were just having a conversation of like, “When was the moment you realised it was all legit?” It’s a funny thing to experience. I don’t really know when that moment was for me. Things were just happening and you just don’t know what the outcome of that is going to be until you make something of it. Moments like touring overseas and playing Splendour and all those tangible experiences that were direct outcomes of those opportunities were the moments where I was thinking, “Oh, wow, this is actually happening.” I think things like your Pitchfork review and being played on the radio – those are the things that create the opportunities and from then you have to decide to take it or leave it. A lot of people leave it, which is great and there’s totally merit in that, but for me it wasn’t until those opportunities came into direct fruition and I was experiencing them [that] I really felt it. It wasn’t until the start of last year, when we started doing extensive touring, that it all felt very, very, very real.
I did wanna touch on something with you. From what I’ve noticed, there’s some notable filmic references in your work. Does film come into your work a lot, if it does at all? The themes of an Alex Lahey song are often super relatable, but you have this whimsical and fantastical way of describing it.
I’m not a film buff, by any means. But what I do find when I sit down to watch a movie, which is not that often to be honest, I find that I’m constantly writing things down on my phone. I feel like I’m taking cues from the movie and I find I come out with a lot of lyric ideas. So, I think I draw a lot from them when I watch, but it’s not something I do all the time. But it’s funny that you mention that because I just wrote a song for my next record that has film references to two different movies and I remember thinking, “Shit, I talk a lot about films, don’t I?” But I like to think that my lyrics paint a picture, and that I draw an aesthetic in my writing, and there’s an intrinsic link between that and film. So maybe there’s a more present influence than what I’ve considered before.
You talk about painting a picture, and I think that’s interesting because you’ve sort of mastered this bizarre juxtaposition of ‘happy/sad’. If we take ‘I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself’ for example, it’s an upbeat, dance-able song but the lyrical content is pretty bleak. Is it a conscious reaction to you when you write less-than-joyous lyrical content to combat it with poppy, upbeat melodies?
I think when I’m in the studio I always make sure the music connects to the song, but I’m not sure if that’s to do with mood. There is something cool about those happy/sad moments in music and I really love irony so that’s a huge part of it as well. But, you do have to draw the line somewhere. My M.O. is that the song is the bottom line and if you can’t hear the song – like really hear it – then I need to go back to the drawing board. I do like to express the happy/sad irony of the music that I make but, at the same time, it could go a lot further and I choose that it doesn’t.
On top of that, there’s an honesty and a sometimes brutal self-reflection that can be seen in your work. It’s a route that some people are afraid to go down, even just in their personal lives. Was conceiving the concept for tracks like IHBTCOM a draining process for you?
I mean, the concept for that song in particular came up because my mum, kind of back-handedly, said to me, “I just really hope you’re taking care of yourself,” in a period of my life where I was, perhaps, taking advantage of too many freedoms available to me. Being the great mother that she is, she didn’t say something like, “You’re fucking up your life!” and this and that. Instead, she was sort of encouraging me to reflect which is definitely what took place when I wrote the song. There used to be this building down the road from my house and I remember walking past it one day, looking in the window and thinking, “Oh, fuck! I’ve put on so much weight,” you know? It’s just things like drinking every day – which isn’t a good thing to do in any sort of moderation – so that reflection was really the catalyst for that. It’s really interesting because I was involved with a person at the time who was the catalyst for those activities, and we were still involved when the song was written. It was a moment of, “You’re not good for me,” which was such a huge unpacking of that relationship which in turn made me realise a lot of things. It was a pretty important song on a personal level. In a way, some people think it’s like a party anthem and encouraging to not take care of yourself, but for me it was very much an “…oh no.”
That element of self-reflection is present throughout all your work, and it’s like this nuanced interpretation of our inner monologues – it’s not so black and white – which also speaks to your ability as an artist and a songwriter. You write about these feelings or inner conflicts that everyone goes through that not everyone talks about or even is able to pick up on, so to hear it in sonic form is really comforting. Do you ever write a song, release it and then have that same song cause you to self-reflect post-release?
Hmm, not really post-release, not on a personal level anyway. The self-reflection really happens during the writing process. The thing that changes for me once a song comes out – and you have to remember there’s a long time between when a song is written and when it’s released – is when I start to play them live and the songs take on a life of their own. To me, that’s the most exciting thing about what I do: creating things, putting them out and letting go of all control.
Is that liberating?
Totally. It’s cathartic, it’s just beautiful. I always get a massive kick out of people seeing themselves in a song or consider something about themselves. As a music lover, when I hear a song that does that for me, you just get off.
If we talk about songs taking on a new meaning after they’re released, that’s probably not happened as literally as with your album closer, ‘There’s No Money’ with that lyric that touched everyone – “we can’t marry even if we want to” – and now of course, legally speaking, that’s no longer the case. That ties in with this revolution in the air of Australian artists, and particularly women, being politically outspoken in their work. If we think about artists like Camp Cope, Stella Donnelly and Alex The Astronaut, is it exciting for you to see all this unfold?
Yeah it’s exciting for the world, I think. I’ve grown up as a queer female my entire life. I’ve been in a unique position where I’ve always been raised in an environment where that was normal and I’ve never had to come out. I’m very fortunate that my family and friends don’t see that as a defining part of my identity because it doesn’t define me. My approach to life is that if you treat your life the way the norm should be, then the norm will follow. That’s kind of my mantra. I think it’s really wonderful that people are speaking up and speaking out about injustices and a lack of equality between certain groups of people of which I am affected by and a part of, and am very passionate about. I want to do my bit to make sure that we do reach justice and an understanding among all individuals.
But, I also think it’s the little things that we do in our every day lives and the way we treat the people closest to us that really makes the impact. I’m just speaking from my experience – there’s so much opportunities in our daily lives to bridge those distances and speak to, for example, a young man about consent. Consent isn’t something I ever heard about in sex education. It’s about opening up dialogues and having conversations, that at times are heated and fuelled by experience, but they can also be open, calm and eye-opening without being abrasive. There’s definitely a place for passion, because these things affect us all on a very deep level, but I think there’s also room for these conversations to be had just with the people around us and explaining things. Explaining that although I identify as a gay woman, it doesn’t mean that if you’re a girl who likes girls that you’re gay – or that you’re any one thing. There’s a lot of room for that and I think the internet is a great thing for it. Even if it’s just sending someone a link and letting them come to their own conclusions, there’s something to be said for that too. I think it’s wonderful that Stella, Alex, Camp Cope and all these strong, young women aren’t afraid to shield their identities and are putting this out there. But there’s also room for people who aren’t artists and who don’t have that platform to make change as well. It has the capacity for a massive impact, and I don’t think that should be underestimated.
And we still have so long to go.
Exactly. Like same sex marriage – it’s just the end of a chapter. We have to move on to the next thing.
So we were talking about your supportive family and friend group, which brings us back to the title of your record, I Love You Like A Brother. I love the duality of it – the multi-faceted meaning it has depending on who you say it to.
Yep, that’s exactly why it’s called that.
Yeah, I was gonna say – is that why?
Can confirm. Again, I really love the irony of it being multi-faceted but still using the very literal meaning.
You’re about to play the inaugural Sydney City Limits with a lineup to end all lineups. How’s it feel to play the first iteration of that festival?
Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s going to be great – it’s a real honour to be a part of its debut run and a memory that will always be there as it keeps going through the ages. Plus, some of the acts playing…I mean, Grace Jones. That’s just awesome! Her name almost looked like a typo or something. Festivals are a completely different type of gig that don’t come around as often, so there’ll always be that novelty – especially when it’s the first ever. It’s going to be an exciting time for everyone involved.
Catch Alex Lahey playing the inaugural Sydney City Limits. Tickets available here.
Also, catch Alex Lahey on the ‘Huge And True’ tour. Details below and tickets available here.
Saturday, 7 April – The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
Thursday, 12 April – Sooki Lounge, Belgrave VIC
Friday, 13 April – The Waratah Hotel, Hobart TAS
Saturday, 14 April – The Rosemount, Perth WA
Friday, 20 April – 170 Russell, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 21 April – Barwon Club, Geelong VIC
Also appearing at Groovin’ The Moo
Friday, 27th April
Adelaide Showground, Wayville
Tickets: Official Website
Saturday, 28th April
Maitland Showground, Maitland
Tickets: Official Website
Sunday, 29th April
University of Canberra, Canberra
Tickets: Official Website
Saturday, 5th May
Prince of Wales Showground, Bendigo
Tickets: Official Website
Sunday, 6th May
Townsville Cricket Grounds, Townsville
Tickets: Official Website
Saturday, 12th May
Hay Park, Bunbury
Tickets: Official Website
Image via AlexLahey.com.au
Words by JACKSON LANGFORD