Anxiety is the fizzy new Modular sophomore set from Ladyhawke, the nom de plume of one quirky New Zealand keyboardist/guitarist named Pip Brown. And the 10-track album opens with the synth-buttressed title track, and her warm, aqueous vocals cascading over the stark verse “I take a pill to help me through the day/ I stay inside until I feel okay/ I’ve always been so cautious/ But I’m sick of feeling nauseous.” And it is, without a doubt, the singer’s boldest, most cathartic statement, to date. “That song is true,” she sighs. “And I’ve never put my emotions on the line so much before, so it felt scary, but really good, to write it.”
Brown, 32, is a lovable eccentric who collects cameras, skateboards and vintage video-game consoles. The Kiwi relocated to Australia after the breakup of her first punk combo Two Lane Blacktop, expanded her creative horizons with synthesizer, and created the persona—and one-woman-band—Ladyhawke, which combined all the best elements of E.L.O., Fleetwood Mac and classic New Wave. She even had an illustrator best friend, Sarah Larnach, depict her surreal animal-inhabited world in the album art of her eponymous 2008 debut; The pair would also design a limited-edition label for Beck’s beer a year later.
Medically speaking, however, Brown has had a very odd life. A sickly child who was often hospitalized, she once caught a rare affliction called erysipeloid and—due to her allergies to penicillin and other antibiotics—she nearly slipped into a coma. “People don’t usually get it, because it’s a disease commonly found in seagulls,” she relates. “And they don’t actually know how I got it, but one of the theories is—because I grew up near the beach—one weekend I was on the beach with my cousins, bouncing on a trampoline, and the trampoline had bird shit all over it. Seagull shit. But every time I was sick, I took it on the chin—when you’re 10, you don’t register that you’re sick, and you don’t really care. You just want to go out and play.”
So naturally, when this honest-to-a-fault performer sings about experiencing anxiety, she’s not just whistling “Dixie.” It’s a condition she’s battled for years, she says. She resides in London now and has it fairly under control. But there was a time while she was living in Melbourne when it was so overpowering, it controlled every aspect of her daily existence. “I couldn’t even leave the house without taking an anxiety pill,” she recalls with a shudder. One particular day springs to mind as a nasty nadir, too. “I hadn’t left the house for months, and I felt physically paralyzed. It was the worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever had.
“And there are trams in Melbourne, and the tram literally stopped at the bottom of my street—I was so close to a tram if I wanted to get to town,” she continues. Could she do it? Actually leave home and make it to public transportation? That day, cabin fever propelled her out the door. “And it took every ounce of my strength to do it,” she recalls. “It sounds so corny to people who’ve never had anxiety, but I got on the tram, and I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt so sick, and I was shaking and sweaty, but I was still really stoked that I was doing. But then the tram stopped, and these two junkies jumped on, and one just threw up everywhere. And I was like ‘Fuck this, man!’ and I jumped off the tram and ran back home!”
That’s where the track “Anxiety” comes in. Vulnerable, yes, but with a sense of triumph as Brown celebrates the fact that she no longer requires those pills. Now, she says, “I can go out and not rely on taking anxiety medication. Which so many people do, and it’s a real bad trap to fall into. Because it can feel like a wonder drug, even a miracle, when you take it, because you suddenly feel like a normal person. But then it’s like you can’t survive without it, and that’s bad. So I got completely off the medicine and just dealt with walking outside and taking in what was around me. I just tried to be stronger as a person, you know?”
So there’s a swelling sense of relief that wafts through the rest of Ladyhawke’s latest, which she recorded with her longtime producer/collaborator, Pascal Gabriel. She penned much of the material on bass, usually while idling in Gabriel’s studio. “The distance between where I was living—in New Zealand—and where I recorded the album was huge,” she says. “So I had to record it in spurts—I’d go to the south of France, do a month there and just chill out, write a couple of songs, then have a couple of months at home, and then go back to France again. So I spread it out. I took my own sweet time, basically.”
There’s no discernible tension in tracks like the elephantine-drumbeat “Cellophane,” a clickety-clacking “Vaccine” or the delicate-noted “Sunday Drive.” “Blue Eyes” chugs along on a galloping rhythm that graduates into a huge R&B chorus, and “The Quick & The Dead” is a funky stomper that conjures up the spirit of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” No deep emotional message in “Quick,” either, Brown snickers. “That’s basically an ode to zombies—I’m literally singing about a zombie apocalypse. I’m seeing them coming in the middle of the night, and they are zombies!”
Ditto, the lady says, for the blipping, bleeping New Wave extravaganza “Black White & Blue”: “That’s about me looking up at the sky and seeing the colors black, white and blue. Looking up at the stars, they look white, and the Milky Way looks blue. I guess it’s also me sort of telling myself to buck up and stand on my own two feet and not feel sorry for myself. And looking up at the stars is quite a reminder, quite a reality check sometimes—it really puts all your problems in perspective.”
Brown is glad that she’s gotten “Anxiety”—the album and confessional song—out of her system. She swears it felt like an oppressive weight had finally been lifted off her shoulders. And she’s learned endorphin-releasing techniques to counteract the stress, like pinching the skin between her thumb and forefinger when she’s feeling nervous. But onstage sometimes, she confesses, “I still freak out—my hands are shaking and I’ll look down at the set list and just be waiting for it to get to the last song. And then other times, I go on and come off after the show, and I think ‘Wow! Who was that person? I want them to be around more often!’”