Roughly a decade ago, Australian super-vixen Clairy Browne—who now fronts a righteously rocking retro-soul outfit called Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes, which just reissued its “Baby Caught the Bus” debut Stateside via Vanguard—was making an entirely different kind of racket in San Francisco. And it was certainly an omen of the musical career to come. “I went there on holiday with my partner at the time, and I actually did a lot of karaoke,” recalls the voluptuous singer, who could have given Tura Satana a run for her go-go-booted money in Russ Meyer’s campy ‘60s classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! “I went to a couple of places, and they were really strict there—they were like ‘You can’t do more than one song’.” But she came up with an ingenious method for foiling club security.
And after a while, the bouncers had to do double takes. Wait a minute. That blonde with the gravelly Ann Peebles growl. Didn’t she sound suspiciously similar to the brunette who preceded her on karaoke stage? Yes, Browne cackles, the jig was eventually up. Admittedly, she says, “I was having many cocktails and being dragged around town by locals. So I used to take a bunch of wigs and get up and do as many songs as I could, in as many wigs as I had. I’d just go to the bathroom and slip another one on. But they caught me, and I was like ‘How could you tell?’ And they said ‘Because you didn’t change your sweater!’”
D’oh! The now-confident frontwoman laughs uproariously about this awkward incident today. But she wants to clarify one thing. “It wasn’t planned. I had the wigs with me anyway,” she says. “I often walk around with a bunch of wigs and stuff like that. It’s like I have this Mary Poppins bag of accessories.” And she isn’t suffering through some identity crisis—she knows exactly who she is, and why she’s ended up as one of 2013’s most promising new stars. Anyone unsure of her irresistible magnetism need look no further than that recent Heineken commercial, which featured her in the midst of one of the beer’s now-traditional wild soirees, belting out her signature Down Under hit “Love Letter.” The clip, dubbed “The Switch,” veritably crackles with R&B-generated electricity.
The Bangin’ Rackettes’ “Caged Heat”-ish video for “Love Letter” amps Browne’s image up to an almost John Waters/Polyester level. She’s a curvaceous kitten, and she isn’t trying to hide it. “I think embracing that sort of thing is really sexy, that whole Russ Meyer style of accentuated women,” she admits. “And I’m feeling the part, so why not? And I’m pretty visually inspired by quite a bit of film and art, so that trickles in to the way we present ourselves, as well. So our video was heaps of fun—the whole vibe of being in an institution, being stuck in a space that you can’t get out of, and how love can do that to you, as well. That’s what we tried to bring across, but also like a Prince-goes-to-jail glamour, an imprisoned-glamazon kind of feeling.”
Wigs aside, there are those in her native Melbourne who might know Browne by another alias: the author of a gender politics-themed blog called “My Name is Lena.” “My name is not Lena, it was a pseudonym,” she says. “And I wrote a fair bit of erotic fiction, stories, essays, think pieces and Judith Butler-style academic queer history sort of stuff. I’m just really interested in queer politics, and I was writing in a couple of local socialist magazines, as well. But that was a long time ago.” The article she is most proud of, in retrospect? The one she penned specifically about gay identity, she says. “And just how transgendered people were truly spirited people and gender warriors. I was kind of impressed by my own shit!”
Browne isn’t certain how many Lena followers she had. “But it wasn’t reaching a massive demographic. It was pretty underground,” she cedes. And yes, she says, she’s gay, with a longtime significant other. “He’s trans,” she says. And she hasn’t discussed her sexuality in previous interviews for one simple reason: “No one’s ever asked me —you’re the first,” she says. “So I’ve kind of been waiting to talk about it.”
Browne has some gay-culture beliefs that others might see as controversial. She thinks that issues like youth suicide and domestic violence don’t get enough attention, since they’re often eclipsed by more popular ones. “So I don’t see things like gay marriage as progressive, per se,” she opines. “I think that one of the cool things about being gay is that you didn’t have to get married, and I guess it was always in the name of resistance. So that there wasn’t always an ‘other,’ you know? I mean, society is always gonna make someone ‘the other,’ so if it’s not squeaky-clean gays who are getting married, then who is it?”
The activist reckons that we should be light years beyond the question of gay marriage. She sees some progress, but finds it discouraging that even feminism seems stalled, 20 years on after groundbreaking works by Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolff. “But I think feminism comes in waves, and like fashion, it reflects what’s going on at the time,” she says, puzzling over modern role models for young women like Snooki and the Kardashians. “But I guess we’re a little bit better-equipped now to understand that this generation is kind of missing out on the work that’s been done before them. And I think that’s really dangerous.”
It wasn’t until Browne met bassist Jules ‘Crazy Legs’ Pascoe that the pair arrived at the celebratory, roadhouse-smoky soul/blues/rockabilly amalgam that they would flesh out with the Bangin’ Rackettes (Baritone saxophonist Darcy McNulty, keyboardist Gabriel Strangio, guitarist Peter Bee, drummer Nick Martyn, and three doo-wop-sleek backing vocalists, Camilla McKewen, Ruby Jones and Loretta Miller). They polished their big-band sound during rehearsals in an old coffin factory in Melbourne, and—led by Browne’s truly powerhouse phraseology—soon conjured up vintage-feel originals like the fingerpopping “I’ll Be Fine,” a slinky, seductive “Yellow Bird,” and the sax-swivelled album title track, “Baby Caught the Bus.”
Currently, Browne is considering re-launching her journalism career. She’s got a few progressive-minded things to say that songs simply won’t contain. But she’s happy to lead the Bangin’ Rackettes, and pleased with leopard-print, stiletto-heeled, sexpot image she’s created accordingly. “What I’m trying to do in music is bring back tough women who front the band and aren’t afraid to say what they think,” she concludes. “Women who don’t really conform to any typical ideal of what femininity is. And the way my music’s written? And the way it’s performed? I think it can really accomplish quite a bit of change in that way….”
Wigs, of course, optional.