Pip Brown on comeback album Time Flies, pandemical collaborations, anxiety and depression, motherhood and video games
‘Time flies!’ is the phrase that comes to mind when we realise that nearly a decade has passed since we last spoke to Ladyhawke, aka New Zealand singer-songwriter Pip Brown. That phrase just happens to be the title of her fourth album, into which she has poured a wide variety of recent life experiences. For in recent years Brown has become a mother, experienced a severe bout of post-natal depression, which she has shared with refreshing candour, and battled a skin cancer diagnosis. Along the way there has also been the small matter of a pandemic to navigate. Hooking up via Zoom, Pip is deep into the New Zealand evening while daylight has only just arrived for us.
The new Ladyhawke music appears to be hitting the groove with the same impact of her previous albums, her songs planting musical and lyrical seeds that become embedded in the brain over time. “I would probably compare this most to my first record,” she says. “I collaborated with quite a few different people, and it was a really enjoyable experience, getting different things out of different people I’ve worked with. I did just over half the record with Tommy English – we did the song Wild Things together – and I did Mixed Emotions with Jono Sloan and Empire Of The Sun’s Nick Littlemore, who are old friends of mine from Sydney. I did Take It Easy Mama with Chris Stracey, who’s in an Australian band called Bag Raiders, and for the last four tracks to finish the record I worked with Josh Fountain, who has worked with a New Zealand singer called Benee. It wasn’t always going to be like that, but the pandemic changed things a little bit.”
While the coronavirus outbreak was obviously a terrible thing, does she feel it brought out the best in some creative people? “Yeah, and I think the big thing is that there were no distractions, nothing to tear me away from a task, besides my daughter banging on the door. There was that feeling that all my peers in the music industry are going through the same thing, and everyone’s having to navigate this together at the same time. There was some comfort in that, as opposed to when you feel like you’re being held back with something that’s specific to you.”
Was it ultimately good for songwriting? “I think it helped me with the listening side of things on the production, and the mixing. We were lucky in New Zealand last year, because by the time it came for me to work with Josh Fountain we were able to do that in person. By the time it came to mix the record I could sit in the studio and really take it in. Those weeks I had in my studio on lockdown, sharing screens with Tommy and going over all the production, really helped. I felt really focused, and I loved being here by myself and still having that connection. By the time it came to mix I was there for every step, listening very carefully. I definitely feel it’s changed my process.”
“I love… keeping people guessing if I can. The best songs do that, and you can interpret them any way you want as well.” – Pip Brown
Lyrically, Ladyhawke songs work on several levels. They can be danced to in a carefree manner, but other meanings bubble just beneath the surface. “I like having two sides of a coin when it comes to a song,” Pip explains. “It can be dancey and happy, but then you can get into the lyrics and think ‘Actually, what’s this about? Is this sad, negative or dark?’ I love being fooled like that, it’s always something I’ve enjoyed doing.” Guilty Love is a prime example. “Yeah, it’s a big rock track that’s about catholic girls, and not being able to be yourself. It’s a serious song, that one, and I wanted it to be ballsy, to have guts behind it.”
She has had enthusiastic feedback on the album so far. “I’m really blown away. I’d stopped caring – not in a negative sense, but in a freeing sense. I felt so lucky to be making music, and I had no plan whatsoever for it. I didn’t know what it was going to sound like, and I had no themes in mind, I just wanted to go in and have fun. The thing I did want to do – what’s new?! – was to mess around with some vintage synths, and drum machines and stuff. Besides that, it was just anything goes.”
Is it hard as an established artist to switch off and find your own voice when there are so many suggestions around? “It can be really hard, and if you don’t live up to people’s expectations, or your own, it can be brutal,” she says. “I can be my own worst enemy at the best of times, so it was a great feeling coming into this record.” Some ideas take a longer period to make their mark. “They are the best ones, the growers.”
The album does not shy away from addressing the issues Pip has had to face over the last few years. “Yeah, you could say. There’s been a lot going on in my life, and it was hard to hide that from the music. I snuck it in there, and I prettied it up with some beats, you know?” The songs reveal more as the listener revisits them, the true lyrical meanings emerging even on the third or fourth listen. “I love that, with different layers, keeping people guessing if I can. The best songs do that, and you can interpret them any way you want as well.”
Anticipation is growing for playing the songs live at some point in the future. “I was supposed to be touring Australia and New Zealand,” she says regretfully, “and then we’ve both had Delta outbreaks. My shows have been pushed back, and so I’m hoping for the end of the year. You’ve just got to hope for the best, but there’s a part of me that can’t get my hopes up yet. With this last outbreak we had one case that came forward and everything shut down. It’s great but it does mean everything that’s planned just goes out the window. I try not to get my hopes up, but we have to have something to look forward to – otherwise, what is there?”
Pip has been candid in her approach to touring before, and the dangers of overindulgence. Is her approach likely to be different this time around? “Yeah. It’s a different world we’re entering now. Right back when I started touring, I was always a person with the little hand sanitiser! Now I’m like, ‘See?!’ But I don’t really know what to expect. My daughter’s about to turn four, and I’m approaching things a bit differently. How long am I going to be away? If it’s a long time, she’s coming with me. There are a lot a lot more factors than there used to be when I was on my own and could do what I wanted.”
With these revised circumstances in mind, the song Take It Easy Mama was a note to self. “Yeah, I was having a real moment when I wrote that song. I was going through post-natal depression which was quite a struggle. I was feeling all the things with being a mum and at the same time I was flying to the States to do these sessions, in October to November 2019. My mum got sick, which really freaked me out. She’s really hard working and not at all retiring – she works crazy hours in a bakery. I was putting all these experiences into that song, so it is an emotional one for me. I was thinking of my own mum, and mums out there that don’t cut themselves a break.”
Pip is much improved now. “Yeah, I’m really good, I’ve really come to a good place, which is awesome. I found an amazing therapist and some medication that worked for me. It’s completely sorted me out, so I feel very grateful for that. It’s a huge relief.” Her honesty reflects a much more positive approach to mental health artists have in music now. “Yeah, I think so too, and that’s why I’ve just been quite candid about it. I’m not ashamed of it, it’s something that has happened to me for a long time – depression and anxiety. After years of trying to manage it myself I have found something that works, so why not talk about it?” Despite her own struggles, she remains conscious of friends elsewhere. “I know it’s been really tough for everyone overseas, and we’ve been so lucky here. I think of all my friends living all over the world, how hard some of them have had it, living on their own. It’s brutal”.
The acclaim offered to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern for her dealings with the pandemic is not lost on Pip. “She was just, like, ‘We’ve got to get rid of it!’ The things on our side are the population, and being an island, so we can close our borders. This Delta has been a different beast though.”
“I try not to get my hopes up, but we have to have something to look forward to – otherwise, what is there?” – Pip Brown
Has her musical diet changed because of lockdown? “This time last year when it was all kicking off, I was listening to Dua Lipa non-stop. That record is so good. I listened to the Tame Impala album The Slow Rush too. A lot of the music I listen to is framed around what my daughter Billy Jean wants to listen to. Last year I was sorting all my records out, and they were piled up everywhere. They all toppled open to my Kiss records, and she grabbed one and ran in, shouting, ‘Mum! Who are these scary guys?!’ ‘This is a band called Kiss!’ I said. ‘Show me!’ So, I put YouTube on, and now she’s obsessed with Kiss. Every day she wants to watch Kiss videos, and every bedtime story she watches Star Man. ‘I want Star Man to invite Joan Jett over to a party at his house!’ she’ll say. Then she wants Katy Perry all day, or Taylor Swift. I was a lot like that as a kid, I loved heaps of old music and current pop music. I’m never gonna say a song isn’t cool, we’ll dance to it – I’ve embraced everything, even the Gangnam Style phase!”
Thankfully she’s a Ladyhawke fan too. “She loves it, and shouts ‘It’s mum, it’s mum!’ I played a festival earlier in the year my wife was holding her on stage, and she fell asleep while she was watching me! It was a night-time show and she tried so hard to stay awake but fell asleep amidst all the chaos and loud noise. That’s her review!”
Turning back to the music, we discuss Pip’s links with Nick Littlemore and Empire Of The Sun, with whom she goes back quite a distance. “I used to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band in New Zealand a really long time ago, and we toured Australia. We did some classic Aussie rock shows, but then we broke up and I moved to Melbourne. I’d only been living there a month when his manager called me. I think it was January 2004, a long time ago. He said they saw me play, and Nick wanted me to be in his band. They posted me some demos for Teenager, and then me and Nick met. We were like instant siblings; we clicked immediately. We had this crazy, wild creative relationship for a long time we weaved in and out of each other’s lives. There was a point in Sydney with me and him and Jono Sloan, we all lived in Kings Cross within walking distance of each other. That was our neighbourhood. When I did Mixed Emotions with him, that was the first time we had written together since then, and we were messing around in a studio in LA. It wasn’t for Ladyhawke, it was for another project he was doing, but we wrote Mixed Emotions and Nick said, ‘This is a Ladyhawke song,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ We had so much fun making that song, and we go back a long way. We’re really good friends.”
Pip commissioned several remixes of Mixed Emotions, a throwback to her early days on Modular when remixes were much more the order of the day. “It was a lot of fun getting those different artists’ takes. This time I got a few female artists to remix it for me and it was awesome. I miss that from the Modular days, I always loved a remix package.”
When gigs return, Pip knows who she wants to see first. “I would love to see Benee, I am a big fan of hers and how she has evolved over the last couple of years. She’s amazing and I feel inspired by her. I have to limit myself to New Zealand, I don’t know who else I could see. I would just love to go out. I’ve got to stop being so housebound and go to more gigs. Since having Billy Jean I’ve just used the parents excuse, staying home and playing video games, which is what I do every night! I think I need to get back out there and, you know, socialise.”
Video games are a passion for Pip. “It’s opened up a whole world for me. I started streaming my gaming on Twitch, and I’ve made this whole community online and some close friends. We get together online every night and figure out what we’re going to play and then we’ll have a couple of hours gaming.”
As we talk on Zoom, it is suddenly clear that just over Pip’s left shoulder sits a DeLorean, a pure piece of Back To The Future memorabilia. “It used to light up,” she says regretfully, “but my daughter’s been hammering the button too much!” While listening to Kiss? “Exactly. For her birthday she wants a Kiss cake and a Kiss-themed birthday. Wish me luck!” Somehow, we don’t think Pip will need too much persuasion.
Ladyhawke’s album Time Flies is out on 19 November 2021 through BMG. Tour dates and further information can be found at ladyhawkemusic.com