From Darkness into the Light: Ladyhawke on Kicking Booze and Conquering Anxiety
After scrapping an entire LP in 2013, Ladyhawke spiraled into depression and alcoholism. Now she's sober and married and back with 'Wild Things.' Here's what happened.
Shot by Cybele Mylenowski.
Sitting in her publicist's office in New York, Ladyhawke looks the same as she did back when I first interviewed her in London eight years ago—Stevie Nicks-style wavy shag, slim limbs, ripped black jeans—but her demeanor is markedly different. Today her blue eyes aren’t afraid to hold gaze, she’s not hiding behind her bangs, she’s buoyant and primed but back in 2008, although she was friendly, she was also visibly restrained, skittish like Bambi on ice. At that point the Wellington, New Zealand-born singer was living in Shoreditch and riding the wave of her eponymous first album that came bearing songs which sparkle with nostalgia, and synths that stoke your desire to see the world refracted through the shards of a dozen disco balls. Her tunes bottled and served that first-touch thrill (“Back of the Van”), 20-something hedonism (“Dusk Till Dawn”), and a wide-eyed sense of discovery (“Paris Is Burning”).
But while her music made Ladyhawke—born Pip Brown—come across confident and cool, in fact Brown was anything but. Live shows induced cold sweats and the scrutiny of being spot-lit as the frontwoman was not a position she relished. By the time she penned her second album, this gnawing, niggling panic swelled to the point where Brown christened her sophomore collection Anxiety, with the title track picking apart her reliance on pills to calm her down and her frustration with her state of mind.
It’s not as if she was a newbie to the game either—before Ladyhawke blew up she was a member of Two Lane Blacktop and then Teenager (with Nick Littlemore, who later went on to form Empire of the Sun): Brown had lived longer with rock ‘n’ roll than without it, but while songwriting was an outlet, the cycle of promoting that art became an albatross. When touring commitments for Anxiety ceased at the end of 2012, she left London for Los Angeles. Fresh start, clean coastal living, but instead of taking a break to recalibrate she threw herself straight into her third record and the darkness revealed itself in every groove.
“Around August 2013 my mom and stepdad came over to visit, and my mom is my ultimate fan—she loves everything I do,” she recalls. “I played her those demos, and she was like, ‘Ooh, ok. It's a bit different’ and I started crying. I knew I had like, I knew instantly that I was doing the wrong thing and how I was feeling was coming out in my music. I had already gone through that with Anxiety—I was like, bleeding heart on that one, you know—I just felt so crap, and literally riddled with anxiety. And I didn't want to do that anymore, so I just canned it. And then, instead of starting straightaway on new stuff, I just basically binge-drank for a year."
She laughs nervously, but her smile is genuine. Below is a candid conversation where Brown discusses her struggles with alcoholism and depression and how she came back from the brink, returning sober and glowing with love (she’s married now).
On June 3 she releases Wild Things on via Polyvinyl. Produced by Tommy English (BØRNS) it’s a record imbued with Brown’s new mindset and offering some of the poppiest tunes she’s ever penned—from the 80s synths of “Love Song,” to the galloping, bass-funked pop of “Let It Roll” and the Moroder-esque “Dangerous.” Ladyhawke sounds like she's having fun.
Noisey: So after you scrapped the dark record you were just self-medicating?
Ladyhawke: Yeah. I was so depressed and the depression and drinking were chasing each other. And I didn't know what was causing what. Then it got to the point where I was canceling meeting and missing things, and sleeping in 'cause I had hangovers. I was like, missing full days. I just lived during the night. And I was like, can't do this anymore. So then I just gave up. I quit. And then I gave up sugar, and carbs. I did everything all at once.
What!? Way to make it hard for yourself!
Yeah, but it's crazy: it completely changed my body, I lost like 10kg. I had full alcohol bloat at that point as well, and I was looking really puffy and weird.
You just cold turkeyed it?
Yeah. It's almost like I snapped out of a weird mental state I'd been in, like where I couldn't see what I'd become. And all of a sudden I was like, ugh, I'm disgusting, I hate myself now, I just hated the way I looked. And I could tell I looked like someone who wasn't taking care of themselves. My hair looked unhealthy, it was dry. And I got bad eczema, so I was like, I have to cut out all the stuff. I'd watched the documentaries about sugar like The Sugar Film, so I knew it was bad. But yeah, the sugar withdrawals are crazy.
How long did it take before you started to level out?
It's a month of on and off headaches and mood swings. And then you're clear.
But was there a specific tipping point?
It was a weekend of a bender and I remember lying on the couch in my living room, I was the only one, I was all by myself, and the TV was on. I was sort of like, Jabba the Hutt. [Laughs.]
I can't even imagine you as Jabba the Hutt, but OK.
[Laughs.] In my mind I was. I was like what am I doing to myself? I've actually made my career come to a grinding halt because I'm not producing any music. I'm not doing anything active at all. It was this weird moment of just realizing everything at once. I had to take myself completely out of any social situation for about three months. I couldn't go out anywhere, 'cause the temptation was way too much. And you know from living in the UK how big part of the culture drinking is. It's like that in New Zealand and Australia as well. I was surprised, when I stopped drinking everyone was really supportive and good about it.
Well I feel like LA's probably the best place to do it. And also I read this article on i-D recently which was noting the shift of incorporating the sober person in popular culture. Like in TV shows like Love and Girls. I have tons of friends who are musicians who are sober—they've given up everything and now they just play a lot of tennis. Or soccer.
Well that's the thing in the music industry with musicians and artists: There's such a massive problem with depression and no one's really given the tools to cope with it. You basically get encouraged to drink and live this party lifestyle, and then when you hit rock bottom it’s almost glorified, and it's so shit. You hear stories about artists you love ODing and dying, and they're depressed, and they take their own lives. It's so shit because the suicide rate in the music industry is pretty high. Depression is just rife. There needs to be some kind of community support or something where everyone gets together for meetings and shares their feelings. [Laughs.]
Agreed. So when did you meet your wife in all of this?
It's kind of a funny story. I went back to New Zealand for the New Zealand Music Awards in 2009. And one of the awards I won, or two of the awards I won, were presented by Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. Xena Warrior Princess. I was walking offstage with her after one of the awards, and she was like, I want you to meet my friend Madeleine [Sami]. She had brought Madeleine as a plus one and that was how we met. [Laughs.]
What? That was ages ago and you got introduced by Xena. That’s the best.
Yeah, then I went on tour for ages. I'd been in a relationship at the time, and we broke up and we got together sort of at the end of 2009 and we got married January 2015.
So she was with you during all of this?
Yes, yeah, she was. She travels a lot though—she’s an actress—but she's like my voice of reason, like when I'm all thinking my crazy thoughts, and being depressed, and overthinking situations and reading people wrong, she's the one that's calmly talking to me and telling me exactly what's going on. I've never really had that before.
There’s that line on the title track where you sing, “When you're almost always lonely, you forget to take it slowly?” Love that line.
Yeah, that was referring to when you're on your own, you do reckless things. And that was my whole life, basically—feeling lonely and being reckless and getting drunk. And setting myself no limits, you know.
It must have been strange to feel lonely even though you were in a partnership.
Yeah, it's crazy. I know she went through it as well. And people don't get it—they think that you live a certain life and they don't realize the reality of what you do. I think there's such a misunderstanding of what people in the music industry do, like what singers and musicians do. You may be surrounded by lots of people all the time, but you can end up feeling really lonely and isolated. And when all the touring stops, then what, you know?
Now I have to try and create. What drives you to keep doing what you're doing?
I think I would feel worse if I wasn't doing it. I don't know what else I would do. I like creating something from nothing. There wasn't a Wild Things, and now there is. You know. All those songs didn't exist, and then I made them. It kind of blows my mind. I'm starting to warm more to the playing live thing.
Oh yeah, you really didn't like that for ages…
Yeah, I hated it. I especially hated it on my first record. I couldn't deal with it. But I'm actually quite excited about doing it for this album!
When you were thinking about the videos and the album as a complete package, were there any visual references that you were drawn to, or movies that you were inspired by?
Sara Larnach has always done all my album art—and for this one I said to her, I don't want to freak you out, but I don't want to do an animation or watercolor drawings this time, I want it to be a photo. So we sat down and we ended up just looking at heaps of old photos from the 70s of Debbie Harry. And she used to wear all these really cool, tight little t-shirts with cool things written on them. Like, there's this one real famous one that says “Camp Funtime.” She's always got this hair, always looking off into the distance, and I was like I want my album cover to be me wearing a t-shirt that says Wild Things, so it looks like I'm wearing the t-shirt of some cool band. I knew I wanted it to be colorful. Everything was on film and everyone was pushing for me to use one of the black and white images for the cover. And I was like, “No fucking way, I want it to be color!” And I'm so glad I did.
The brightness really suits the vibe of the album.
Ladyhawke Tour Dates
6/21: Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
6/24: New York, NY @ Rough Trade - SOLD OUT
6/25: Washington, DC @ U Street Music
6/26: Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
6/28: Chicago, IL @ Schubas
6/30: Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
7/1: Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
7/3: San Francisco, CA @ Independent
7/6: Los Angeles, CA @ The Roxy