For someone who’s just been graced with a dishevelled figure straight from a 35-hour flight from her homeland (and the herculean effort of hauling a phalanx of grossly overweight luggage from Heathrow to Shoreditch), Alex Lahey is performing an admirably stoic job of taking the somewhat unorthodox circumstances in her stride. Not that that should be especially surprising, with the affable Australian upstart appearing to be phased by very little in recent months as her stock has risen and her following has grown.
Indeed, throughout our geographical Freaky Friday she’s been supporting Canada’s finest, Tegan and Sara, and the Old Blue Last pub where we meet acts as Lahey’s own unfussy finale. It’s the latest chapter in a story that has seen both her and her B-Grade University EP raise more than a few eyebrows worldwide and firmly lodge themselves on the radars of the international community. In a running theme throughout our conversation, Lahey is the picture of humility as she talks about the record that has launched her career, one she describes as “a record we made in a tiny little room in Abbottsford in Melbourne and hardly any money went into it.”
“I don’t think it’s altered my perception of what I’m capable of, per se,” she adds, when asked whether its success has in any altered her own perceptions of her abilities and attainable goals “but it’s altered my perception of what anyone is capable of. If someone can make this record writing songs in their room and demoing them in GarageBand and then it get on the Triple J Hottest 100 and Best New Music on Pitchfork then it can happen to anyone. It dispels any myth and legend of someone playing a gig and then some big manager coming a long and saying ‘I’m going to take you to the top!’ and I think it says more about that than it does about me as an individual.”
For many of Lahey’s contemporaries, their first moves into international markets have come via industry showcases like The Aussie BBQ (an event which, for the first time in its history, expanded to a second day at this year’s SXSW) and CMJ, or through a slow-build cycle of support slots and headline tours. Lahey’s couldn’t have been more different, thrust firmly into the limelight via the aforementioned Tegan and Sara support slot. She’ll also find herself opening for both Cyndi Lauper and Blondie on her return to Australia.
She’s approached the new-found opportunities with a characteristic mix of professionalism and reality, admitting that “we’ve been so spoiled on this tour with an amazing production and working with an amazing team and amazing audiences – playing to 1500 people a night. It’s about being conscious of the fact that it’s not always going to be like that and it’s probably not going to be like that again for a while, if ever. We’re just trying to take every moment as it comes and be really appreciative while also trying to get the most from it.” For Lahey, taking the most out of the tour has arguably come not from the musical side, but rather from the experience of getting to see how the headliners conduct themselves first-hand. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the Tegan & Sara tour” she claims “has been that as someone who gets to go on stage and communicate with people for a living on a large scale like that at certain times – be it on social media, live or radio or whatever – artists have such a huge capacity to help facilitate social change and Tegan And Sara are just such good examples of that both in mainstream and independent circles. Courtney [Barnett] is a great example of that as well. I think that us as artists almost have a responsibility to be leaders and shake things up. I think there’s a real scope to make a difference on a broader scale.”
Clearly someone of their word, Lahey recently shared the transcript from fellow Melbourne songwriter Jen Cloher’s widely-praised keynote speech at the inaugural Women In Music breakfast, adding a comment of “Australian music is exceptionally lucky to have leaders like Jen Cloher”. During our time together she’ll turn a question about whether her ascension – like those of Julia Jacklin and Courtney Barnett – signals an upturn in overseas opportunities for female Australian musicians into a damning critique of the industry’s equality as a whole, irrespective of her own experiences. “You know what? I think we’ve such a long way to go before women are represented adequately within the music scene,” she attests. “Women are not represented equally on festival line-ups, we’re not paid the same, we don’t have the credibility in the public eye of our male counterparts…I think it’s great that we have so many super-talented female artists getting heard and getting into the public sphere but I think there’s a still a very long way to go. As I said earlier, when you’re in a position to reach more people there is a certain responsibility to speak out and not say ‘everything’s great because I’m doing well’ when it’s not. There’s a lot of scope globally for the music industry to be more inclusive and accepting of women.”
But despite having to battle ongoing gender inequality, Lahey has undoubtedly joined the ranks of the ongoing Australian invasion running amok internationally. Although wary to label it a something of a golden age in terms of opportunities (“I’m only 24 years old so I’ve only been a part of the scene for the last six years – for me it is a golden age because all the people doing well are my friends and all the people I’ve met around the traps and on tour”) she’s quick to point out that, in her experience at least, a select band of pioneers heading out and cracking the international markets and awakening their senses have only been to her benefit, to which she’s grateful. “I think a big part is because people like Courtney Barnett and Tame Impala have broken out of Australia and made it into this critically-acclaimed scene here [in the UK] and have paved the way for artists to step up to those avenues but also carve their own niche. I have so much respect for artists who’ve paved that way for people like myself or talented artists from Australia who can take on the world without having to rely on big business or having to relocate.”
“You know what? I think we’ve such a long way to go before women are represented adequately within the music scene.”
But if Barnett has opened the door for Lahey’s success it has come at a price, namely the seemingly endless stream of comparisons the media seem keen to push onto her. It hasn’t escaped Lahey, who views it at once as a compliment and something of a burdeon. “I get compared to Courtney a lot and it’s such a humbling thing because she’s such an amazing songwriter and one of my favourite artists,” she explains. “I can attest that she’s definitely been a part of my musical development in my younger years but the comparisons stop at our music! We both write songs and we both play guitar and probably both write songs on the guitar…and I don’t know,” she pauses to offer a wry smile and an eye-roll. “We both have brown hair and come from Melbourne?”
The forthcoming album will be Lahey’s chance to further carve out her own path as she moves on from B-Grade University, a record that joins the likes of The Goon Sax, Julia Jacklin and Fraser A Gorman in the current wave of Australian songwriters document the struggles of finding yourself in your twenties and which she summarises as “an accidental concept record about being in your early twenties and being unemployed and falling in love and breaking up and being broken up with…all the classic shit.” She laughs when asked about the current state of the album, due out later this year, as she confirms that “it’s longer, which is a relief!” Thematically it’s set to be different from its predecessor too, as she discloses that the album has been shaped by her life between her last release and her next. “A lot of new relationships have started, a lot of others have ended – and I’m not even talking in the romantic sense. All of a sudden my brother and I are really close, and that’s something I’ve written about. On the romantic side in the last twelve months I got dumped for the first time which is something I’ve really unpacked in my writing. That was a new thing I couldn’t tap into during the making of the EP simply because it wasn’t something that had really happened to me.”
While her previous EP has firmly put her on the map and appears to have something of a winning formula behind it, she says she doesn’t feel any obligation or pressure to create, as she puts it “B-Grade University redux or whatever.” That said, the experience of making B-Grade University has certainly shaped how she’s approached the forthcoming album. She’ll describe how working on it opened her eyes to the studio technicalities and how her input can have an effect on the end result. Confirming her new hands-on approach to the recording process, she adds: “I’ve arranged everything [on this record] and I write all the parts. I did that on some of the EP but not all of it. I think I’ve become more particular which is good in moderation. Hopefully I’ve struck a good balance and there’s more thought and consolidation…and good songs!”
“In the past it always used to be about touring and I never really enjoyed being in the studio as much until recently and now I’m making an album this is real bucket list shit and it’s been so exciting. Touring will always be there but a first album is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”