Ladyhawke: Asperger's and the anxious pop sensation
The synth pop songstress tells Elisa Bray that her new album reflects a struggle to reconcile success and syndrome
Pip Brown, better known as Ladyhawke, is still buzzing from her gig four nights ago. It was the culmination of a comeback tour which saw the New Zealander's first UK performances in two years, and the London show had sold out in five minutes. "It was mind-blowing," she enthuses over a pint at an east London pub near where she lives, producing a picture of the ecstatic crowd, arms aloft, on her iPhone. "I had to take a picture on stage because I couldn't believe it."
Perhaps the four-year lull between her debut album and this comeback has made her forget the hype that greeted her arrival. When Brown, now 32, first appeared with her catchy synth-pop songs that recalled Kim Wilde, she was showered with attention, as well as endorsements from Courtney Love and Kylie. But Brown had, deep down, always been a rock chick. The first bands she played in, as a drummer and guitarist, were rock-oriented, before she moved to Sydney and joined the band Teenager.
"People were saying things that weren't me at all, like 'girl electro synth-pop'," she recalls. "They called me 'the Cyndi Lauper of the American Apparel generation' and I've always been the rock girl." With its focus on electric guitar, her new album Anxiety reveals an inkling of those rock roots.
"I didn't want to make my first album all over again," she explains. "I wanted to do something a bit rockier, still pop because I love pop music, and experiment with different guitar, bass and drum sounds." After the success of her exhilarating debut album, which took her from an unknown to a pop star, more than a modicum of pressure came with the making of the album, which was initially set for release in March.
"With the debut, I had no label, no management, no one telling me what to do, I was just on my own. There was no pressure. The success of the first one came as a surprise for me so I was dealing with that, and knowing that people who bought the first album and became fans might be expecting the same sort of thing, when I knew that I was never going to deliver that album again..." She needn't have worried: Anxiety is bursting with pop hooks and melodies.
When Brown quietly set up a MySpace for her solo project under the name of Ladyhawke, she wasn't expecting it to be heard by anyone, let alone make her famous. It took her bandmate in Teenager, Nick Littlemore, to persuade the shy musician to step into the role of frontwoman. She recalls singing one of her songs and Littlemore running in to ask what it was before rushing her off to record in a studio. "That was the big stepping stone for me, him telling me I was good enough – I think that's all I needed to hear. When I was first doing Ladyhawke I was half expecting to get someone else to front it. I kept thinking, 'I'm not brave enough to do this'. But here I am, the face of it," she laughs. "It's taken me this long to get confident."
Brown was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome a few years ago, a condition which hardly made the transition to frontwoman easy. The title-track of Anxiety begins: "I take a pill to help me through the day/ I stay inside until I feel okay." It's her most autobiographical song to date.
"I remember writing that line thinking, 'people are going to ask me about this for sure'. And I thought, 'I have to do it' – it was like therapy. I was completely dependent on taking an anti-anxiety pill to even be able to walk out of the house or sit in the car. I just couldn't do it. I'd feel sick and freak out and I'd just hate it. I can't go on the Tube, not even now. I'll always think of what could happen," she says, her sunny demeanour momentarily vanishing as she drops her eyes downwards.
"But I'm much better now. A lot of people say, 'why do you do this if you're so anxious and it's so hard for you?' Because I love it so much, making the music. The other stuff that comes with it is a small hurdle in the grand scheme of things. If I was a different person I wouldn't be Ladyhawke."
Drawing attention to herself is the last thing she wants – even her tall 5 ft 10in frame she has self-consciously tried to mask by hunching over in an effort to make herself less noticeable. But with her striking appearance – a thick mane of blonde hair, and a hip rock-chick combo of skinny trousers, T-shirt and leather jacket – being noticed can't be avoided.
You wonder what made her leave both Sydney and the peaceful, under-populated, surroundings of New Zealand for one of the world's busiest cities. "I've always thrust myself into situations that go completely against what everyone thinks I'll do, but I like a challenge and I'm really quite ambitious and don't like being defeated, so I wanted to not be scared of London. It's still a scary place, but I love it."
Brown's anxiety can only diminish – her comeback is here to stay.
The album 'Anxiety' is released on 4 June
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