ALEX Lahey is hungover.
It’s one of the first things she tells me when we meet in a Melbourne cafe the morning after a big night out at local institution The Evelyn Hotel. She was there in support of a single launch for Dhana Bhutan, featuring her former bandmates in seven-piece pop collective Animaux.
“We used to play there all the fucking time,” she says, sipping a batch brew coffee. “I think we did over 100 gigs there or something.”
Alex has since graduated to much bigger venues. Her next Melbourne show will be at the 2000-capacity The Forum Theatre, while her hard-touring ethic has seen her gradually climb up festival bills such as Groovin The Moo, Splendour In The Grass, and Falls.
But the size of her now-global fanbase isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the two years between Alex’s ARIA-nominated debut album I Love You Like a Brother and the recently released The Best of Luck Club.
“From doing I Love You Like A Brother, I found this immense interest in recording music and taught myself how to do it,” she explains.
Co-produced by Melbourne-born, London-based producer Catherine Marks (Wolf Alice, The Wombats), The Best of Luck Club is classic Alex Lahey; unreserved lyricism that speaks to friends, relationships, and young adult pressures, but this time accompanied by even catchier riffs and a single saxophone solo (played by Alex herself).
It was mostly written alone in Nashville, which is where Alex stumbled on the album’s dive bar concept. “[The Best Of Luck Club] is the world’s least secret, secret society and anyone can join,” she explains, “it’s just a matter of knowing when and how to open the door.”
Similarly, there’s an ethos of acceptance at the heart of her own club. “It preaches acceptance and an open door, which is sort of like what the Alex Lahey project is.”
In person, Alex has an unfiltered presence that makes it feel like we go way back. When I ask about the way the emotion of a song transforms from the studio to the stage, she reveals an epiphany she had earlier that morning.
“‘I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself’ is about letting yourself go within a relationship and [how] that’s unhealthy for you, but I was in the shower today feeling super hungover and I’m like, “Oh maybe this is what the song is about!”, and it sort of changes meaning for you…
“With ‘Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself’, a lot of people think it’s a very introspective song, like I’ve written it for myself. I kind of didn’t. It’s interesting, the way that it’s interpreted, and I don’t hold that against anyone.”
"I feel like people need to give themselves more credit for actually being able to connect with me, as opposed to me connecting with them."
When people attach meaning to your music that’s different to the feelings you had while writing it, are you cool with that?
Yeah I’m cool with that, I’m so fine with it. A word that gets thrown around with my music a lot is “relatable”, which is great. It’s really lovely, but I also think that people need to give themselves more credit to interpreting things their own way. I love that, and I appreciate it, and I take it as a compliment. But also the fact that you – as an individual, as a listener – can empathise, that’s a beautiful thing. I feel like people need to give themselves more credit for actually being able to connect with me, as opposed to me connecting with them, and that’s about that cycle. It’s about the give and take.
Is that something you strive for when you write? To be relatable?
Absolutely not, I’m just telling my story. If someone’s like, “Alex is just like me, just like us!” I’m like, “You’re just like me as well!” It’s not this sort of thing where I’m going out of my way to connect with people. If you care about other people, you’re gonna connect. If you’re a good person, and you’re kind and accepting of others, and exercise tolerance, patience and all these values, then you are going to connect with people. That’s the value in treating people good.
Do you feel like people have put you on a pedestal a little bit in not realising that element of humanity, that because you can just talk from honest experiences that it’s about that connection? Maybe artists that don’t have that relatability aren’t that humble.
I don’t feel like I’ve been put on a pedestal. I think the thing is that I’m a very direct communicator, I enjoy communicating and I value communicating. I actually don’t enjoy being cryptic. The fact that I would have to think about it so much would make me feel like I’m being contrived. Some people are really good at it and that’s great…
Bon Iver is a good example of that – so cryptic, and people find this meaning in it and it speaks to them. I kind of don’t know how to do that, and so I’m just going to be upfront. I don’t think it’s a matter of me being put on a pedestal because I’m trying to relate to people, it’s just that I don’t know how to communicate otherwise. Whether it’s through song or in a chat or whatever, I’m pretty straight up. To the point that even my mum’s like, “You need to get better with bullshit, you need to learn how to bullshit”, and I don’t really know how to do it. Luckily it hasn’t gotten me in trouble, yet. But I’m just going to be very honest.
"You can’t always be giving yourself over to everyone all the time. I need to have my own life, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing songs."
Does your mum mean that you don’t tiptoe around things?
Yeah, and I think that sometimes she feels I can be a little bit impatient. There is value in indulging, but for me that’s something I need to work on probably.
I feel in some spaces there’s that constant apologising like, “Sorry for my opinion”, or prefacing a mild rant with, “I’m not doing this to be a bitch.”
You shouldn’t have to say that, and all this being said, I’m not some sort of hard person. It’s really important to also be sensitive and to be sensitive to others. You gotta read the situation. It’s not just about saying whatever comes to into your head the first time you think it through. I actually very rarely write a song about something as it’s happening. I take a lot of time to process and synthesise and then apply, which is an interesting thing. There is so much value in sensitivity. It’s great to be direct and that’s a really great way to maintain relationships in some capacity, but then it’s also really important to know if it’s better off not to say something.
How do you go about maintaining that element of sensitivity if you’ve written a song about someone?
There’s sort of stuff on the album that’s a bit like that [and] that’s actually been difficult. It’s hard in interviews because I don’t want to go throwing people under [the bus], you know. I think there’s a huge element of respecting people’s privacy, so that’s an interesting thing to juggle … ‘I Don’t Get Invited To Parties Anymore’ is sort of about a friend of mine, who I was hanging out with last night actually. You go to high school together, you’re really close, and then you sort of see each other more sporadically than you used to. Just adjusting to that. I felt like “Oh shit, I don’t want to talk about this too directly because I don’t want her to catch wind of it.” Something like that is fine and not a bad thing to talk about, but there are other things that are a bit more sensitive.
I feel like there is a responsibility to myself, especially when you have a project that’s your name … You can’t always be giving yourself over to everyone all the time. I need to have my own life, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing songs. I need to have that space away from being Alex Lahey, and that’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Where do you draw the line? Where do you say, “I’m only going to give you this much, here’s a song”, and that’s it. I think Mac DeMarco is really good at doing that. He’s very much his own person as an artist, but he also draws the line.
Public persona vs private?
Yeah and especially, [when] your public persona is your private persona. It’s an interesting thing to juggle, and know when you need to let yourself live your life.
A lot of The Best Of Luck Club seems to be touching on early adulthood experiences and “millennial ennui”. How you feel like the album grows from I Love You Like A Brother?
I think that every first album for an artist is like, you take stock of what you’ve done to that point in your career and you go, “That song, that song, that song, that song”, and you put it in an album. This circumstance where you have the opportunity to make an album, you just do it. Or at least that’s what it was like for me, and I had the best time.
It was funny, even though I’d played in bands before, I had never been involved in making an album. It’s a very one-of-a-kind process, and the only way you find that out is by making an album. So that’s what I Love You Like A Brother was for me. I was learning what it actually meant to make an album. When I was doing it, I remember thinking, “Fuck, this is why people do it for the rest of their lives. This is why people are so passionate about this format.” It’s such an opportunity. You can do anything you want, it’s amazing. It’s this beautiful opportunity to express yourself, or not express yourself, or do whatever the fuck you want. It’s incredible.
You can be so creative and you can explore so many things, and I remember coming out of that record being so excited to make the next one. I feel like regardless of what your job is, if you come out of one project looking forward to doing the next one, that means that that project was a success, to some degree. So going into the Best Of Luck Club, I kind of knew what it meant to record [an album], and I felt really empowered, and I was like “I can do this!”.
It’s sort of funny, people sometimes ask me “Do you ever wish you didn’t know how to play music so you can just get lost in it?” and I always say, “Yes, but not really.” There’s other things in my life I could get lost in. When I go to the cinema, it’s just magic, and I’m really happy to accept that. It’s something I have no idea about and I can’t analyse, and I love getting lost in that. I feel like recording music was like that for a while, it was this magic that just happens, and you need someone to be the gatekeeper of that magic. Like an engineer or someone to help open those doors and cast those spells for you. Oscar Dawson who did I Love You Like A Brother, has been one of my greatest teachers. He’s taught me so much and has been so patient with me for so many years and I’ve learnt so much from him. One of the things that I learnt from him is, “You can do it.”
From doing I Love You Like A Brother, I found this immense interest in recording music and taught myself how to do it. When we were going into the record, Catherine and I had connected, we’d agreed that we were gonna work on the project together. I had all of these recordings, and a lot of those recordings are now in the record. All the vocal takes are demo vocals that I did, every single one except for ‘Misery Guts’, I think.
From [writing/recording in] Nashville?
Well, parts of it. It’s such an empowering thing. Further to that, I learnt how to do those things, but then working with Catherine, [who was] fresh ears to my project, was really pushing me to get out of my comfort zone. Get out of my “templates” as we were calling them, and pushing beyond that. After we had that conversation about templates, I went and wrote ‘Parties’ [‘I Don’t Get Invited To Parties Anymore’], which is a song of two parts that I’d never really done before. So it was such a wonderful time for me creatively to take all these wonderful things that I’d learned from the I Love You Like A Brother chapter, use that to formulate The Best Of Luck Club chapter and then extend it further. I’m so passionate about learning and making records, there’s just so much learning to be done and it’s infinite.
What are you most excited to take into your next record that you learnt from Catherine?
Catherine taught me to embrace imperfections, but don’t force them. She taught me that you don’t have to be orthodox. In an indirect sense, just by working with her, I learnt that you can be a creative engineer and you can record music creatively and the best way to do that is to not subscribe to the right way to do something. Not subscribe to, “Oh this mic might cost more money than that mic”, or “Steve Albini uses this pre-amp”. It’s just what makes you feel good. It’s also not all about music … A very common way to start a process [in the studio] is to gather references. And generally references are other songs that have an arrangement, or a sound, or a quality, or a tone, or whatever that you want to emulate or be inspired by, going into your own record.
Catherine demonstrated that references don’t just have to be music. You could talk about colours, or feelings or movies, or whatever. It goes so much broader than that. In a way, I reckon that’s what makes new music. That was a really valuable thing. Being focused, being thorough, just like giving a shit and giving yourself over to the process. I learnt so much from Catherine and I feel so lucky. Working with someone is the best way to learn stuff and I’m so lucky that all the people I’ve worked with thus far have taught me, and been open to teaching, I love that, and I’m fortunate.
What references did you bring to Best Of Luck Club when Catherine was pushing you to think differently about that?
We were talking about the dive bar concept that was alive long before we started recording. So that was one of things I wanted to do with this record that was was different to I Love You Like A Brother. I felt like ILYLAB was a collection of songs, as opposed to a conceptual narrative so to speak. To call TBOLC a concept album is probably a bit generous but it did come from a certain place and a certain ethos that brings the songs together, which is that “open the door” kind of thing. That sort of energy was always something that we took in with us, and being able to be those characters in the songs as well and treating it as such. I remember Catherine said it felt like we were playing dress ups, and so that was really valuable. But then there were other weird things that kept on coming up.
One of my big influences for the record, funnily enough, was young Elvis. Not necessarily in a sonic sense, like the aesthetic of that era was something that really spoke to me for some reason, going into this record. From there, there were certain sounds that we would refer to as being like that, even though they weren’t? They just made us feel connected to that image, and it was a really strange one. That was a big one, but again it wasn’t about music.
Like the aesthetic theme of it?
Yeah, which was weird. Also we had certain things in the studio that we would refer to as our “secret weapons”. There’s a guitar that I got given by my uncle – my uncle is alive – but the guitar is left for me in his will. It’s this 12-string Rickenbacker and I don’t know how the fuck he got it cause he doesn’t play guitar, nor did the person who he bought it off. It’s this mint condition, 1980’s Rickenbacker. It’s like a Roger McGuinn signature model. It’s a stunning guitar.
When I was going to do the album he was like, “Here, just have it, because you can use it now, and you don’t have to wait for me to kick the bucket to take it.” So I was like, “Alright! Sure, I’ll have it!” So that guitar we used a lot, cause it was just there. Catherine – she was in town the other day – and I was laughing with her how Catherine Marks, this big hot shot producer, walks into the studio and she literally has her handbag and like three pedals.
Of all things she could have bought from London with her, she had these three things. It was almost like Marie Kondo or some shit, and she was like, “This is all I need.” These were her secret weapons…
I’m really interested in your working with [artist/designer] Callum Preston, you’ve worked with him quite a bit in your career and he’s designed the artwork for this album. How did you approach him with the dive bar idea?
Yeah, so we spoke about it before I recorded the album. I went to his workshop and I went in with my demos and I was like, “This is the album, as it currently stands, and this is the concept.” We sat together and we spoke about like secret societies, basically, for ages, and we were talking about the idea of doing the membership thing, but how to make that not exclusive. That was the tricky thing about TBOLC. The whole thing is that it’s a secret society but anyone can join, and it’s just a matter of knowing where it is.
The phrase “self care” has come up a lot in interviews recently. I don’t quite know what self care is. I don’t feel like anyone has explained that to me, because I think it’s a lot broader than maybe using the Headspace app. So with TBOLC, I actually think now it is about, in a way, self care. It’s about the door that you open, figuratively speaking, that you step into to take stock and take a seat and reflect. That can be a dive bar, it can be a health retreat, it can be whatever, it’s different for everyone.
So for Cal, I was like TBOLC is the world’s least secret, secret society and anyone can join, and it’s just a matter of knowing when and how to open the door. We were sort of talking about the dive bar thing that I came up with, and Cal has a pretty deep background with the skate community.
It’s sort of funny how there’s been a lot of crossover with the punk community, which is funny given that it’s not really punk music. If you told The Ramones that my music was punk, they’d probably punch you in the face, and I fucking love The Ramones, you know. But I think it is an ethos thing, like especially with Australian punk music. It preaches acceptance and an open door, which is sort of like what the Alex Lahey project is – that’s the heart of it.
So with Cal, it’s interesting because he comes from that background. A big part of the punk community is skating, and so we were talking about in the States – in the ’90s, in particular – certain half-pipes or bowls or whatever, would have a membership card. There was this thing called Pipeline that we’d talk about a lot, and we were going into sort of like throwback skate culture to find the heart of the concept.
Then from there, the dive bar thing obviously informed what TBOLC looks like on the cover. That door – which Callum actually made and it’s a working door – he got it from hard rubbish. It’s a door that has been taken off a wall. It works and he’s done it up to look like that. It’s somewhere, I think it’s coming on tour with us, but it’s sort of funny how we were able to marry these different things to make the concept, I suppose, to make it congruous with itself.
With something like TBOLC we had to make so sure it wasn’t like, “Well, you’re saying this but it’s actually doing this.” We had to make sure it wasn’t Orwellian like, “More animals are equal than others” sort of thing. We had to make it fly. Callum has been involved in the record from before it was recorded, but we’ve been working together from before then as well.
Why do you like working with Cal?
He’s so fiercely creative, and he’s the most practically creative person I’ve ever encountered in my life. Practically creative. I feel like a big part of Callum’s creative identity is functionality and that really helps when you’re someone like me who needs to apply a creative concept to various mediums. So whether it’s an album cover or a stage set-up or merch or whatever, he’s really good at taking a concept and making it functional in that can be applied to various formats. That’s what I love about Callum the most, and he also takes so much pride in his work. He’s so excited to be doing what he does and that’s awesome.
‘Am I Doing It Right?’ seems to touch on the sentiment of what you just said. My interpretation is that general life feeling of, “I need to get my shit together!” but the big secret is that no one has their shit together.
Oh man! I was talking about this to someone the other day. I was really lucky to have a conversation with someone who does, or has had a history doing crew work for some of the biggest artists in the world. I sort of asked them, “Does so and so [do this]? Is it like a machine? Is it super sleek and regimented and everything falls into place?” And he was like, “Absolutely not!” No one has their shit together. Well, everyone does have their shit together in a way, but no one knows. If someone knew the right way to go about this industry or this job, then everyone would be successful, you know what I mean? It is just so much intuition and feeling your way through the dark and going with your gut and all of these sort of things…
[‘Am I Doing It Right?’] was actually a really difficult song to write. It’s not something that came naturally, which is interesting given the subject matter. I remember being there [in Nashville] and being like, “I’m touring the world, doing all the things that I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I’m so stressed out and tired. Is this the way it’s supposed to be?” Sort of being like, “Am I doing something wrong?” And you just feel like you’re making these mistakes, and on the outside people are like, “Hey legend, you’re killing it!” I fucking hate it when people say, “You’re killing it.” It just gives me the shits. Cause everyone’s killing it in their own way. It’s almost like smoke and mirrors…
Are you feeling hesitant about playing these new songs live?
Oh yeah, it scares the fucking shit out of me. It’s just because it’s a new thing, like I’m coming out of two years playing a set that’s just second nature cause we’ve played it so much. So it’s kinda the first time that it’s like, “Boom! Here’s a bunch of songs that you have to know.” We’d made a little documentary to go with the album and there was a part in it where Catherine and I are talking. We were sorta saying how funny it is that the recording process is somewhat ironically the most fleeting part of making a record. It’s done like that. It’s so fleeting and you have to live with what the record is and learn it all again, which is bizarre.
It’s hard not to get rudimentary about relearning it, but then it’s a cyclical thing. Writing the song is highly emotional, and recording is also an emotional experience, and then you have to learn it again. It’s just a very black-and-white thing that you have to do, and then you go back into the colour of feeling the songs again when you perform them. But I feel like the songs change, and the meaning of them changes as well…
I feel like the most emotional part of performing, and when you know you’re doing a good performance, there’s almost like a cyclical relationship between an artist and the audience. it’s not a linear, one way kind of thing where it’s like, “Here are the songs, here are the songs, here are the songs”, and the crowd’s inundated with it. It’s like a feedback cycle, it’s a give and take between the artist and the audience, and when that’s got great flow, that’s a great gig. That’s where the emotion really comes from.