I think I became a bigger Ladyhawke fan after I found out we were on the same team. This is the only time I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing another Aspie, and it felt pretty fantastic to be able to discuss the creative process with her knowing that she’d probably had a lot of the same issues as me. It really lifted the mood and brought a lot of honesty to the interview, as well. She still had a lot of issues with her live show when I saw her the following month, but I understood them a lot more this time around. Anyway, Pip’s great. No idea what she’s up to these days. I hope she’s still being creative and embracing her Asperger’s.
– DJY, October 2014
It’s hard to pin down Pip Brown – not just because she is constantly on the road, but also in a musical and mental sense as well. The Wellington-via-Sydney-via-London musician best known as Ladyhawke has gone nearly four years between albums, touring incessantly and plotting a follow-up to her eponymous debut. The results have been, at times, drastically different to what has become expected of Brown – and the album Anxiety benefits significantly because of it.
“It’s almost like an inevitable curse that’s placed on every musician,” says Brown, in a London hotel following the conclusion of her U.K. tour. “When success comes with the first record, people will always tell them that they’re going to have trouble with the second one. Even if the album is awesome, some people will find it shit just because it’s a second album. The whole time I was making Anxiety, I was worried about that.” She recalls a particular encounter with a fan that enforced her fears more than she had expected it to. “I had someone come up to me in a shopping mall in New Zealand,” she says, “and they were just gushing – ‘Oh, Ladyhawke! When’s your new album coming out? Is it going to be electro?’ I was wondering why they’d think that; because it isn’t, y’know. That made me think that maybe people wanted me to make an electro record – but I didn’t want to do that. It’s hard to put all that mental stuff aside and just get my own creativity going.”
While Anxiety maintains a “more hooks than a bait shop” approach, its demeanour is suitably darker and occasionally more aggressive than its predecessor. Its inspiration lies in Brown’s desire to wipe the slate clean. There was no point in making Ladyhawke again – that album already exists. “It was just a time in my life when I had toured the first record for two years,” says Pip, “and when I finished, I realised that there was no part of me that wanted to make that album again. I knew that I didn’t want to make ‘Ladyhawke Mark II’ or whatever. I wanted to do something new that would inspire me and interest me in making songs again. I had this idea of trying out some really rocky, grungy sort of tracks. They were still poppy, but the tracks ended up making for a rockier album. Anxiety really just reflects my mindset at the time. I wanted to experiment with sounds that I hadn’t tried on the first album. You’ve got to keep it interesting for yourself.”
Discussion of songwriting continues, with Pip revealing a somewhat stubborn eccentricity in her constant rejection of song ideas – no matter how much potential they show, if she doesn’t have that certain feeling about them from the very start of the songwriting process they will be cut. “You tend to know when you start the song,” she affirms. “It’s all about the gut feeling. If I don’t have that feeling about the song, I have to trash it. It has to be gone. That’s one of the ways that I work.” Of course, this is a mindset that discomforts some of the people she has worked with, particularly her co-producer on Anxiety, Pascal Gabriel. “Some producers I’ve worked with are more practical and want to push through on those kind of songs,” she says, “but I feel like if I don’t have that feeling from the start then there is no point pursuing it. Even if I did push through and take the song to a finishing point, I would still feel like it was mediocre. I’d rather trash it and work on something that gives me a buzz. If I’m getting butterflies in my stomach from a bassline, then I’ll stop working on something mediocre on guitar and go towards that.”
“It’s so important that you’re excited about what you’re doing,” she continues emphatically. “You can’t be complacent. You really have to be excited about your own music. Otherwise, what’s the point?” A few listens through Anxiety will suggest that there is plenty to be excited about – from the sour honky-tonk piano of Sunday Drive to the booming bassline of Girl Like Me, it’s a confident and engaging record that explores the wider spectrum of pop music, as heavy on synthesizer as it is on guitar. Perhaps most notable of all is that every last note that you hear is entirely Brown’s vision. “All the instruments recorded on this album was me” she says. “My live band are still just that, they’re all session musicians who come on the road with me. I prefer it that way – that’s part of my process. It’s about picking up an instrument and playing, working a song out. It doesn’t make any sense in my brain to hand that over to someone else when I could do it myself.”
This peculiar drive and heavy investment into the sound of the record, sacrificing interaction with other musicians in order to get the album exactly right, might seem out of the ordinary for a lot of musicians. What’s worth considering, however, is that Brown’s very specific interests and aforementioned need to get rid of unsatisfying songs can be traced back to her Asperger’s. A form of Autism, Brown first spoke publicly about it in an interview with The Guardian in 2008. Although not something widely discussed in relation to Ladyhawke it’s something that Brown speaks passionately about in regards to how it affects her life – as well as how it can completely disorientate a live performance.
“It’s completely unpredictable,” says Brown, explaining what being an Aspergian can mean for a touring musician. “I can be really calm on stage sometimes, but there are others where I feel like I want to vomit. Those times I’ll look down at the setlist and realise that I’m only three songs into the set. It feels like ten years. There’ll be other times when you think you’re on a roll, having a great time, too. So I really can’t predict what’s going to happen, and it’s really annoying. It hasn’t changed, either. People often assume that with all the touring I do, it would just get better over time. It’s still exactly the same.”
It’s these assumptions that continue to frustrate Brown, 33 next month, who was only diagnosed with the syndrome in 2006. “Other people say to me that it just comes with what you do,” she says as our discussion on Asperger’s continues. “’Just deal with it,’ that kind of thing. I think that’s really not fair. As a young person loving music, you simply just sit in your room and you play. All you want to do is play music and play with your friends. You actually don’t even realise what that’s going to be like. You don’t sign up to become a musician for a lot of the things that go with it. You do it because you love music; because you love playing music. All of a sudden, you have to think about doing interviews, which can be quite hard; you have to meet loads of people that you really have no idea what to say to. We’re not actors, we’re musicians. People often lump the two into the same basket. Some of us are still really scared of the limelight, and just want to play music.”
She speaks intently and with an overwhelming vindication on the subject. Outside of discussing the creation of her music, it’s a topic that brings out the most fascinating responses in Pip. “It’s kind of hard to justify myself sometimes, just because I feel like I have to with some people,” she concludes. “I love playing music. I just can’t see myself doing anything else.”