Artist To Watch: Alex Lahey
Calling from America to Australia involves a massive timezone leap, so when I dial up Alex Lahey at the end of my workday, she’s waking up the next morning at her partner’s place. “I had a fun night over at a friend’s house last night,” she tells me, “but not too fun, so [you shouldn’t] feel too shit.”
Both the low-key carousing and the understated wit are hallmarks of B-Grade University, Lahey’s new EP for Dead Oceans. It’s one of the most impressive indie rock introductions in recent memory, five super-catchy guitar-driven tracks that paint quarter-life malaise in charming, relatable, and ultimately hopeful strokes.
Given the slacker vibe and Lahey’s Melbourne address, you might imagine a Courtney Barnett clone. But where Barnett’s music swaggers lackadaisically, Lahey charges full-speed ahead into explorations of post-collegiate career anxiety (“Ivy League”), blissful romantic fixation (“Wes Anderson”), and youthful indiscretions (“Let’s Go Out”) among other adventures. Her songs gleam with a polish befitting a music-school dropout, someone who understands the power of a strong arrangement but values a great song over fancy instrumental flourishes. She’s the full package, fully realized upon arrival.
Speaking of arrival: Lahey is launching her first North American tour this weekend. Check out the dates below, where you can also hear B-Grade University and read my conversation with Lahey.
STEREOGUM: Your EP title alludes to university, so let’s start there. You went to school for saxophone and ended up not liking it very much, right?
ALEX LAHEY: I went to uni and studied jazz — a jazz course on alto sax, which is really the only instrument that I know how to play, or really the only instrument that I’ve been taught how to play. I went into that course after high school, playing in big bands and having all the conversations there, probably being a big fish in a small pond in some ways. I went to uni and didn’t enjoy it. I found it creatively stifling. It was very much about paying homage to these jazz greats without finding your own identity. I found it hard to go from this high school where my high school band leader was this Coach Bombay character who brought the best out of his students. All his students worked really hard for him. And then to go into this sterile uni environment was sort of strange.
Ironically I dropped out of that degree and now I’m a full-time musician. There’s something to be said about that, I guess. This whole time since I’ve been playing saxophone, pretty much parallel to learning how to play saxophone, I’ve been teaching myself how to play guitar. I wasn’t taught. I was just making it up. And a big part of making it up was writing songs and learning how to play guitar by writing songs and imitating other writers and using the chords that I used from that imitation to shape my own writing. So guitar playing and songwriting was a more holistic thing parallel to my saxophone playing that I wouldn’t say surpassed it, but it became my main focus.
STEREOGUM: Was your saxophone playing how you ended up in Animaux?
LAHEY: Yeah. So Animaux is a band that — well, it’s technically not over yet — but it’s a band that I’ve been in since I was 18 years old. As soon as high school was about to finish, my best friend Ollie and I — we both played sax in the big band together. He played tenor and I played alto. We both were like, “We don’t want high school to be the end of us playing together, let’s start a band.” So we recruited a few kids from high school and started this band. It was a seven-piece sort of pop band with horns sort of thing, very white funk at times. [laughs]
We were doing that for years and years and years and gigging really hard around Melbourne like 100-plus gigs a year for three or four years, which was an awesome foundation for what I am doing now. There’s no doubt that if I wasn’t doing the Animaux thing for so long that I wouldn’t be here. Animaux was an incredible foundational experience for my songwriting and figuring out what works. And I think working collaboratively is a great way to learn what works for you on an individual level. Practicing and playing gigs is a really important thing for any musician and I got that through playing with Animaux. We had our first trips to Sydney and playing outside of town, even though it was a very low scale sort of thing. But also we played residency after residency in Melbourne and got to develop this amazing network of musicians and was a real grassroots foundation for what I do now.
STEREOGUM: Did that experience prepare you for being at the center of the stage with the spotlight on you? How much of a leap was that when you started being the singer-songwriter?
LAHEY: It’s interesting, when I first started doing this solo project it did take a lot of conscious effort to be the guide, the frontperson. It was more like mental preparation for that. It wasn’t like, I’m going to do this and that. It was like, You’re the person, and you need to step to the front, and that goes for off the stage as well — especially when you’re leading a band, which is the nature of this project. I remember my drummer once said to me — I was like, “Let’s jam on this song that I wrote,” and he’s like, “No, no, no, that’s not our job. You give us the parts.” And it was probably one of the best things that happened to me developmentally, him being like, You need to take the lead and take responsibility and have a vision. From then I’ve been writing everyone’s parts in the band, and it’s very much the way that it works.
I think that the time that I noticed, like, You’re actually fronting the band was last year when I played my first gig with Animaux in a while. I remember I was just about to go onstage and I was like, Shit, I’ve completely forgotten how to be in a band, allowing myself to be a part of that unit. Which is something that I try to foster in my band, in this project. But you can’t deny that it’s a different sort of style of performance when you’re playing within a band and not in that collaborative kind of atmosphere. It is different, but I think you can still have really good bands in a solo project setting, which is something that I strive to do, and the guys that I’m playing with are all awesome. They have that background as well. They’re not just session dudes that I’ve hired from some catalogue of shredders. They’re all friends and people that I’ve met through playing in other bands, which is cool.
STEREOGUM: A lot of the songs on your EP are about trying to figure out life after school, that period of quarter-life uncertainty. With the way your career is going, does life seem any more clicked into place now? Do you feel any of the initial tensions that were driving the first batch of songs have been resolved at all?
LAHEY: Uh, maybe. Some stuff still stands. I’m still young. Songs like “Let’s Go Out,” which is very much about being young and having a good time, still apply. Except that I’m working a lot more these days, but working in a setting that allows for a bit of fun here and there. It’s also important to maintain a bit of discipline along the way. “Wes Anderson” is definitely about enjoying the little things, which is something that is probably intrinsic to my personality. I like to look back at things, experience things and enjoy the subtleties of a particular experience.
“Ivy League” is a big one about really resenting having an undergrad arts degree and having zero job prospects. It’s a weird twist of fate that that song has been pretty instrumental in the success of this EP. It hasn’t been like a chart-topping blockbuster sort of thing, but the EP has been successful enough for me to leave my job and be a musician and to start touring the world and meet new people and all that sort of stuff. It’s really funny that that song was central to or catalytic to all that stuff happening. Those sort of worries aren’t there anymore, especially going to uni because I’m not there anymore. I think that there are certain things in the EP that are central to the type of person I am.
STEREOGUM: What’s the status of a full-length album at this point?
LAHEY: It is underway. That is the status. I have been working on it since the start of year, doing proper pre-production and actually recording beds and stuff. I’m heading back into the studio tomorrow to keep going. And it’s sort of being done in between tours. I was having this conversation with someone yesterday, like I actually think that’s a pretty standard practice for a first album recording for most people. Like you do an EP and you get an 1136 [a temporary employment form], and then you start touring, and then you’re sort of making this album in between tours because you still can’t afford to be like I’m going to take three months off and write, record an album.
You’re sort of just cramming it in in a way, but with a lot of pride and a lot of adrenaline, that exhilaration of doing your first record. It’s not like the process of Neil Diamond doing his 35th album or whatever, like Here’s another one. That’s exciting, to be doing it in this new life that I’m leading. It’s sort of an all-encompassing experience. I guess it’s about maybe 50% of the way done, but it’s definitely happening, and it kind of needs to be finished in the next couple of months. Pray for me.
STEREOGUM: You have a song called “Wes Anderson,” another song mentions Mulholland Drive, and you brought up The Mighty Ducks earlier in this interview. Seen any good movies lately?
LAHEY: I haven’t seen any of the new ones, like the Oscar ones. I haven’t actually been to the movies in forever, but I watched a few cool movies on the plane going to and from London. There’s one movie called Hell Or High Water, which I think is quite good. I think it’s all based in Texas. You’ve got these two guys who rob banks. My friend told me to watch it, and he’s actually spent quite a lot of time in Texas and says it’s a pretty amazing representation of some of the places of how it looks and how it’s filmed.
It was really funny, all four of us in my band, we all simultaneously watched the Eight Days A Week documentary, the one about the Beatles and their live history, which is really cool and really put into perspective how short of time they played live for. It was only like four years or something. I had no idea. I like the Beatles, but I’ve never been like a Beatles buff or known the history. They only played live for a split second, and then it seemed as soon as they were out of contract they were just no we’re just going to record and not do this anymore because they fucking hate it. And they were being super exploited on the road, so that was kind of a funny thing to watch going into our first international tour. And it’s just show after show after show. I don’t think we were nearly taken advantage of as much as the Beatles in the late ‘60s.
I really love documentaries. They’re the sort of movies that I gravitate towards. I just watched the Pussy Riot documentary as well, which is really cool. Or not cool — it was pretty horrifying — but it was really interesting. I’ve also been watching this series by Ellen Page. She’s been presenting and producing a series called Gaycation, which is about gay culture around the world. It’s really interesting and important as well. One of the most important things to learn about oppression other than to experience it yourself is to realize how lucky you are in certain areas. Even in Australia where gay marriage isn’t even legal, we’re doing a lot better than some other places, which is kind of scary but very eye-opening. Highly recommend.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you about your music videos. Even though they are not these big-budget affairs, they’re fun and engaging and nice to look at. It feels like you have a pretty cool understanding of the way a video can amplify the feel of a song. Is there a conscious continuity between your music and how it’s represented?
LAHEY: To be honest, I feel like it’s all been a bit of a fluke. People have been going on about the music videos and how much they enjoy them, which is awesome. I’m so glad they enjoy them and grateful for it. But I did not expect that at all.
The way that we do it is my friend Jam Nawaz does all the clips. He directs them and camera operates and everything. I just come up with these crooked little concepts and we just go for it. I guess maybe the consistency has come from that I am the brains from behind the conceptual ideas and also that we have never had any money, which is pretty consistent thing in my career. [laughs] And so from there we just go for it. We have time restrictions and all these boundaries that we have to work with. We just go for it, and maybe that works for us. Maybe we should go on a game show or something if that’s the way that we work.
But with the “Ivy League” one we needed to make a clip by next week and we only had one day to do it and no money, and the song is so short, so we can’t really tell a huge story. We’re talking about art school and all this sort of stuff, and then I remember my band and I had just gone on this trip to Regional Victoria. There was Netflix on the TV where we were staying, and Bob Ross has just been uploaded to Netflix. I was like Oh my god, Bob Ross, that’s so funny, and half the boys didn’t know what it was. One of the guys knew, and we’re like, We have to watch Bob Ross. So we watch a Bob Ross episode, and you know, it’s not as funny as you think it is, but Bob Ross as this enigma is hilarious. Then I ended up in this meeting talking about art school, and I’m just like, Why don’t I just be Bob Ross? Just do this painting but not actually do it. So Jam is actually the one painting the good painting in that clip. It was literally just him and I. We blacked out his living room and I think it took about four hours to actually make the clip. If you have those sort of restrictions, maybe it brings in this consistency, but I think at the end of the day it is just him and I making it and that’s where the consistency comes from.
B-Grade University is out now on Dead Oceans. Here are Lahey’s upcoming tour dates:
03/11 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
03/12 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
03/14-18 Austin, TX @ SXSW
03/20 Chicago, IL @ Schubas
03/22 Washington, DC @ DC9
03/23 Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
03/24 Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade NYC
03/25 New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
03/26 Boston, MA @ Great Scott