Whatever happens from here, there's one vision Alex Lahey will cherish forever. It was backstage at Kings Park, Perth, on her last night opening for Blondie and Cyndi Lauper in April. "I was hovering around catering," she remembers over poached eggs in her favourite Melbourne cafe. "Debbie Harry's dressing room was adjacent and the door slightly ajar so I could see her inside.
"There's nobody else around and she's just standing there, totally in her own world, and there's a mannequin's head in front of her and she's combing her wig. She's, like, 72, and she's just combing this blonde wig.
"I thought, 'If that's the one thing that I have that no one else has, I'm totally fine with that.' It was a beautiful moment."
Lahey may have just begun, but the notion of legacy isn't lost on the 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Albert Park. Between her jazz-infused past with Animaux and her raw, pop-rock solo album, I Love You Like a Brother, she's already covered enough ground to know where she stands.
"The big change for women in music is that one, there's multiple. During Blondie or Cyndi Lauper's time, from what I could gather, there was only room for one and if that meant climbing, you fucking climbed. Now there's room. It's more like 'Let's do this together.' Girls to the front. We want representation. That's where the discussion has shifted, which is awesome."
It hasn't stopped overseas media, particularly, from facile Courtney Barnett comparisons. Lahey rolls her eyes, but she gets it. The absence of wigs and makeup is an unforced metaphor for how they approach their craft: no image, no pretence, no compromise. "We like to be comfortable, we're both gay, and it's awesome that that's not really a part of our narrative," she says. "We write songs and we let that do the talking."
Even as a young teenager, one ear on Missy Higgins' Melbourne suburban confessionals and one on the shiny imported pop-rock of the Killers, her songs were always unapologetically real. "They were very wordy back then. I had to learn the power of being concise," she laughs, "but they were always about things that I knew. I wasn't one of those [songwriters] who made up fake boyfriends so I could write a love song."
B-Grade University, Lahey's first EP of last year, laid out vivid snapshots of sharehouse relationships and arts studies filtered with as much humour as frustration. She's acutely aware of the good fortune of her upbringing, and the worldly influence — musical and otherwise — of her immigrant parents' Greek-Egyptian and British heritage. "You don't like sports and I don't like dresses/Luckily for us our parents got the message," she sings on the title track of I Love You Like a Brother.
"I've always been into rock music, but there was all kinds in our house: Greek, French, world music, lots of Motown... I ended up studying jazz because of the school system. It's either classical or jazz and I went the more contemporary route. In hindsight I'm glad, but you don't need to study music to be a musician."
Animaux taught her plenty about the realities of a working musician's life, though the creative democracy began to feel a little stifling, she says, as her own path came into sharper focus. "The more conscious I became of my own songwriting, the less I wanted to compromise. I'm no lone wolf. I love collaborating. But you've got to be really sure about what the project is, and articulate that directly and fairly."
In the last year, Lahey has led her band to the US and UK, the latter as support to Tegan and Sara, another experience she'll remember for as long as that fleeting encounter with Debbie Harry and her wig.
"One thing Sara said to me is that if you act the way you believe the norm should be, then the norm will follow. If I was to contribute to a legacy, sure, gender representation is one thing; gig safety awareness… but being socially conscious generally, and being yourself and not feel you have to censor yourself for the purpose of being pigeonholed... that's what I'd like to be part of."
From issue #792 (November, 2017), available now.
Topics: Alex Lahey