For New Zealand songstress Pip Brown, her 2008 self-titled electro-pop debut propelled her to a level of international success and critical acclaim she’d never quite anticipated. For the new several years, she toured the world relentlessly, playing an exhausting schedule of back-to-back live shows all over the globe. So intense was her touring schedule that she often felt disoriented and unsure exactly where in the world she was.
Indeed, at the end of it all, she returned home and more-or-less collapsed, utterly sapped of all creative inspiration. She could neither make nor listen to music, the twin loves that had hitherto given her a sense of purpose and pulled her through grimly difficult times. Music was her safe haven, the tonic with which she comforted and steadied herself during emotionally turbulent times.
But, as she told Same Same in an interview last month: “There was a pretty long period there where music, even listening to other people’s music, just brought me no comfort whatsoever. It took me quite a long time to get back into thinking musically again. When I started writing Anxiety, I don’t think I was initially aware of how personal and how revealing it was going to end up being.”
Listeners who come to Brown’s much-delayed and much-anticipated sophomore effort, Anxiety, looking for a sequel to its predecessor may emerge from the experience of listening to it somewhat disappointed. Whereas many of the songs on Ladyhawke were characterised by the presence of the analogue synthesiser, Anxiety represents a marked shift in musical direction for its creator.
Though the songs are still on the edgier, rockier side of pop, this time around the electric guitar is the dominant instrumental presence and her lyrics are intensely personal. Brown did not initially set out to write such a self-revelatory album, but her willingness to bear her soul is admirable. After all, sharing the deepest, murkiest parts of your soul with a close friend is hard to do, so imagine the fortitude required to share those feelings and experiences with potentially hundreds of thousands of strangers.
Anxiety is a record on which it is obvious that its creator is journeying towards reaching a place of true self-acceptance. Still, these are songs shot through with melancholy, darkness, indecisiveness, fear, self-loathing and an often impossible to ignore lack of personal surety. Musically, the surety is there: Ladyhawke wants for nothing, lacks nothing, but in her private life, inside her head and her own self, Brown is often unsure of herself.
As such, lyrically, Anxiety deals with everything from the nitty-gritty of coming to terms with fame and the inevitable spotlight that shines on one’s life to the all-consuming anxiety Brown felt in the wake of the success of her debut, the increased interest in her as both a person and a musician that followed, and her coming to terms with being diagnosed with both Asperger’s Syndrome and clinical anxiety.
She has been open about the fact that she takes medication for both conditions and it’s something she writes about on the title track, a song shot through with self-criticism and weariness: ‘I take a pill to help me through the day / I stay inside until I feel okay / I’ve always been so cautious / I’m sick of feeling nauseous / It’s not that I am losing / This war of my own choosing / Take me on a ride / Show me how to hide the voice in my head / I walk alone, I stumble to the beat / My staggered drums are always on repeat / You never win when losing is a game / Inside your head there’s no one else to blame.’
Several of the songs also deal with romantic longing and discontent. Opening track ‘Girl Like Me’ boasts bursts of both electronica and distorted sounds over which she sings: ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea / I saw you dancing with a girl like me / I watched in silence as you held for her hand / Sold down the river for a girl like me, for a girl like me.’
There’s something about the words and the soundscape Brown creates on this album that, at its best, calls to mind the darker-edged works of Garbage or The Breeders – songs that marry artfully dark lyrics with a mélange of distorted sounds, dark pop hooks, lyrics that both reveal and slightly confound, and strong vocals.
Singles ‘Black, White & Blue’ and ‘Sunday Drive’ have the requisite pop melodies and mashed-up sounds of everything from guitars and drums to electronic keys and beats married with Brown’s vocals, by turns crisply annunciated and at other times breathier or breezier. These are songs in which she both reveals and questions herself and at times her fearfulness of doing so feels strangely palpable.
There’s something especially queasily unsettling about ‘Black, White & Blue,’ in which the heavy fuzz of distorted guitars echoes the hopelessness embodied by lyrics that allude to a world in which everything may well remain static and hopeless: ‘No communication / Wondering if you’ll ever feel alright / But this is real life / Oh no, you can’t fight it / Through the night and in the milky way / It’s black and white and blue for you / Now and then, when you cry, it will always be black, white and blue.’
Brown remains, as ever, an impressive multi-instrumentalist, playing everything from bass and acoustic guitar to drums, keyboards, omnichords and kaoscillators (a kind of synthesiser that produces more than 100 kinds of electronic sounds, in case you were wondering). But it’s electric guitar that rules the day on Anxiety, discernable on all of the songs, whether distorted to within an inch of its life, creating a claustrophobic wall of fuzzy sound, or utilised in a more straightforward manner.
On ‘Cellophane’ she sings of running away from the world and feeling disconnected, as though viewing it ‘through pink cellophane.’ The second-last track on the album, it hints at hope with Brown singing: ‘No sleep tonight, we’re on the night train, to anywhere but here / It takes us far into a fantasy where all the good things are / All those years we spent running away we never knew that it was meant to be / It was meant to be.’
Anxiety might not be upbeat electro-pop sequel to its predecessor that Ladyhawke devotees were expecting but only the most fair-weather fan would eschew this chance to know the woman behind the film-inspired moniker more intimately or to revel in its experimental diversity, melodic and lyrical honesty. It’s a soundscape largely characterised by Brown’s autobiographical lyrics and her use of bass, keys and quirky drumbeats to craft the melodies on which those lyrics hang.
It’s undeniable that this is a record that strays into far darker territory than its predecessor, but that seems wholly appropriate, given that it’s also a record into which Pip has poured her heart and soul. Creating it clearly tested her in myriad ways and one cannot help but admire the braveness with which she has put it out into the world. While that same need to create is clearly something that cannot be ignored, that doesn’t in any way diminish the struggles she faced in writing and making this album, as well as performing live.
As Brown herself observed: “A lot of people say, ‘Why do you do this if you’re so anxious? If the idea of getting up in front of people freaks you out and stresses you out?’ And all I can say is that I do it because I love it so much, making the music. The other stuff that comes with it is a small hurdle in the grand scheme of things and, really, without it, I wouldn’t be who I am, I wouldn’t be Ladyhawke.”
Anxiety is out now through Modular Recordings and Universal Music Australia.