Ladyhawke: 'You have no idea what I have been through'
She hated physical contact, shunned company and once locked herself in her house for three months. Then, two years ago, Pip Brown was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. So how is she coping with life as Ladyhawke, the next big thing in pop?
Sunday 16 November 2008
When New Zealand-born singer-songwriter Ladyhawke was beamed down into the music scene earlier this year, it was difficult not to be a little cynical. There was something too perfect, too Shoreditch-cool about her Stevie Nicks hair, her angelic face, those detached blue eyes and the 1980s revivalism of her music. Before long, Kylie Minogue's people were calling Ladyhawke's people to tell them that Kylie loved her – as does Canadian electro superstar Peaches and grunge crackpot Courtney Love. Her self-titled debut album of big, blustery pop songs was released to widespread acclaim in September – but who was the elusive young woman behind it?
Ambling into her PR's east-London office, Pip Brown – as she is known to her parents – cuts a striking figure. Tall and resplendent in stripey trousers and Dr Martens boots, her kohl-lined eyes framed by that voluminous blonde mane, she's quite the gangly, glamorous tomboy as she shakes my hand shyly and coos at the office kittens. The singer admits to being a little wary around journalists, and with good reason: recently, she revealed to a British newspaper that she has Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism) which suddenly shifted media interest from her music to her autism. Among other traits, the syndrome manifests itself typically in social communication difficulties and, according to the National Autistic Society, "limitations in imagination". Hardly the stuff of showbusiness legend, and entertainers with Asperger's are few and far between: the actress Daryl Hannah (diagnosed borderline autistic in childhood) is one; Craig Nicholls, frontman of Australian rock group The Vines, is another. Still, everyone loves an against-all-odds story, and here was Brown's.
But it's not the story that the singer wants to be defined by. "I really regret talking about it," she says. "There's a kid with Asperger's who wrote to me on MySpace, saying I was a liar. It was really hurtful. I was like, you have no idea what I've been through. Yeah, I'm a bit weird. I do weird things. I've been really wary since then." Not that it shows. Brown is chatty, warm and sincere; in many ways, the opposite of the autistic stereotype – which goes to show how far the stereotype is from reality, and how far she has come. Slouched on a sofa, she talks breezily, in her thick Kiwi accent, about her overwhelming and exciting year as a rising star.
"It's been very up and down," she admits. "The ups are the touring and playing with other bands, and the way people have received me. That's been amazing. The down is the constant exhaustion." Then there's the small matter of having moved from sunny Sydney – where she had been living – to the smog and grind of London. "Missing my family and friends has been really hard," she admits. "When I arrived in London, I was living in Soho. I hate huge crowds of people and that's what Soho is about. It was horrible. I haven't made many friends since I've been here, but since I moved to Brick Lane, I find myself just walking up to the pub and meeting heaps of people."
The curry-scented streets of Brown's east-London neighbourhood are a far cry from her beginnings in New Zealand. The singer was born 28 years ago in Masterton, a small town near Wellington. "Growing up there was amazing," she enthuses. "I love suburbia. We're lucky in New Zealand because there's a lot of space and not many people. It was always sunny. I have great memories of growing up there." But her undiagnosed Asperger's created all sorts of problems. "I wouldn't go to school when I was younger, and when I did, I would just stare out the window. I didn't like anyone touching me and I didn't like people coming near me." Even so, she excelled at art and music from an early age, thanks to her parents' encouragement – her mother sings, and her step-father is a jazz drummer. "I started playing piano when I was eight. It came quite naturally, but I was just bored," she says. "So I took up drums when I was 11 and that was it for me. I loved it. After that, I picked up lots of instruments instinctively."
Brown has been almost famous on a couple of occasions. The first time, it was in the early Noughties as the lead guitarist of the New Zealand rock group Two Lane Blacktop, which she formed while studying design and photography at university. "It was a rock'n'roll band, like the Clash crossed with Iggy Pop," says Brown. "It was so much fun playing in that band. It was me and three guys and we were great friends. We started to get a lot of attention and we were about to sign a deal in the states with Roadrunner Records when the band broke up. The singer didn't want to do it. I was really angry at him. I hated him!" She laughs, before adding, "But then I got over it and we became friends again. When I was in that band it was the first moment when I thought, actually, I could do this."
After the band broke up, Brown moved to Australia – first to Melbourne, then Sydney – where she pulled pints, DJed at sleazy nightclubs and ran gig nights with her best friend Sarah, who now designs all of her artwork. There, she had another stab at pop stardom when she formed the art-rock duo Teenager with Aussie musician Nick Littlemore (now one half of the dance-music double-act Pnau). Teenager were name-checked in the NME, somehow managed to achieve the indie-rock dream of working with two members of Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley) and then died a quick death. "I started calling myself Ladyhawke around 2004 or 2005, just out of frustration," says Brown. "I just wanted to do my own style of music without somebody in the band saying, 'I don't know, maybe we should do this instead.' I was so sick of that."
And so Ladyhawke was born, named after a bizarre 1980s fantasy film about a pair of star-crossed lovers played ' by Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick (who are respectively cursed to take the form of a hawk by day and a wolf by night). "People always ask me why I call myself Ladyhawke – but why would I call myself Pip Brown? It's so boring. If I had a cool name like Engelbert Humperdinck, that would be OK." Ladyhawke suits her. It's an armour, of sorts, lending the singer a certain toughness. Moreover, Brown – like the characters in the film – is herself something of a chameleon. She struggles with her confidence, but knows what she wants; she's super-shy, but performs in front of hundreds of fans every night; she feels uneasy around people, but she's charming company.
More importantly, her music is fantastic. Brown's debut album as Ladyhawke exudes confidence and joy – pure pop with an indie heart. At times, it sounds like the lost soundtrack to Back to the Future and at others, just like the future. It's more ambitious than any of her previous projects, both in terms of the songs – which are, each and every one of them, solid gold tunes – and the influences, which teeter towards classic 1970s/1980s pop, such as ELO, Blondie, Bowie and Fleetwood Mac. Brown is tickled by comparisons to Fleetwood Mac's resident torch singer, Stevie Nicks, but remains unconvinced. "I always think it's just because of my hair," she says. "I don't sound anything like Stevie Nicks and I don't dress like her – I don't wear crushed velvet and heels on a daily basis."
Despite how far she's come, personally and creatively, Brown admits, "I have my weird moments when I revert back to my old ways."
Those "old ways" included locking herself up in her house in Melbourne for three months, after which, enough was enough. Two-and-a-half years ago, she went to a doctor and got her diagnosis – much to her relief, as it "explained so much". "When I moved to Sydney, it got to a point when I was so sick of feeling like everybody hated me," she admits. "So I went to a doctor who referred me on to somebody. I ended up having a few sessions with a psychologist and she told me, 'I have Asperger's as well.' It was really inspiring."
Live shows are still a bit tricky – partly due to the syndrome, partly due to nerves – and it hasn't gone unnoticed by the music press. But it's a love-hate thing. "It wasn't until I became a solo artist that I realised I had terrible stage fright. I get really shy and embarrassed and stupid and klutzy and I trip over. I'm a mess! But I love it." Luckily, her fans are behind her all the way. "When I played at the Roadhouse in Manchester, it was sold out. I was standing there shit-scared, so I said into the microphone, 'This is the most nervous I've ever been in my entire life.' And everyone cheered. I was like, OK. Is that a good thing? But I'm learning to be better on stage. When I know people are there to see me, I react differently because I can feel a better energy."
In reality, Brown's nervy honesty makes a refreshing change from the usual cocksure swagger of today's rock stars (both male and female). She has a certain vulnerability and self-contained strength that anyone can relate to, whether they share her condition or not. Unlike many of the singers who have dominated the indie music scene over the past few years, Brown does not take drugs (but she likes a drink) or start media wars against her fellow musicians – although she has come across her fair share of such people. "Being a musician doesn't make you better than anyone else," she ponders. "When you meet a band, there'll always be that arrogant, rock-star guy who has little tantrums and acts like a superstar. I'm so anti that. I feel like I'm really lucky because I'm doing the thing I love and I can survive off it – for now. When I meet an arrogant musician, I don't get it."
Instead, Brown seems to have a formidable control over her life, music and career. "I don't know if this is a cliché, but as a female musician it's really hard to maintain your credibility, because people often assume you don't write your own music. They also assume you can be moulded easily. I don't use a stylist any more, because I was sick of people trying to make me look feminine. I don't wear girly shit. I have my own weird thing going on." Plus, she's a little bit wiser about the greasy inner workings of the music industry. "I always thought I was pretty wise to it when I was younger, but you don't realise how everything works until things start to get serious for you. People build you up and you've just got to maintain a sense of self and keep your wits about you."
A few days after we meet, Ladyhawke is named the sixth coolest person in the world by the NME, a dubious honour that Brown is probably taking with her usual pinch of salt. Unlike many others on the list, Pip Brown is talented, gracious and she isn't one to ever rest on herlaurels. Sometimes, she even ponders going back to university to study composition – "so I can get my skills up as a writer and producer". And she dreams about owning a pub. "I love a beer," she giggles. "I'll be that old lady with 20 cats and a pub. I just love pulling a beer and sitting down and chatting to people."
In the meantime, Ladyhawke is touring Australia this winter, looking forward to seeing her friends and family at Christmas and writing her next album, which she promises will be entirely different to the first (which sold 3,500 copies in the UK in its first week of release). "I'm getting the hang of it," she says, "and I think next year will be better for me, because I'll know exactly where I am."
She may not know it yet, but she's already there.
Ladyhawke's single, 'My Delirium', is out on 8 December. The album, 'Ladyhawke', is out now
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