The A-Grade Alex Lahey

It’s post 5pm, we’ve both just finished up at our day jobs and commuted into Collingwood. Alex Lahey meets me outside a co-operative creative space, before navigating us both past multiple locks and an endless array of doors. We ascend a steep staircase with an ever shrinking roof clearance and converge on a studio adorned with op-shop fancy vintage rugs and furniture.

A venture between members of Frida, The Cactus Channel and Plastic alongside other friends in the Melbourne music community, they set out for the space to be a rehearsal and recording base for each of the bands. 

It’s here that Alex and I chat about the insane year she’s had, including (but definitely not limited to) her set at Splendour In The Grass and debut EP B Grade University on own label Nicky Boy Records, all while reflecting on her growth as a musician whilst fronting Animaux and being involved with The Push.

You worked with Oscar Dawson on each single and the B Grade University EP. What was that process like, and how did it come about?

With our managers being mates, it just kind of came together. I shouldn’t say by chance, because I don’t think either of our managers would of suggested we work together if they didn’t think that it’d work. There were a couple of other people in the mix in terms of feeling out who might be a good fit for this project in terms of engineering and potentially producing. I had a meeting with him and it turned out that we really clicked on a conversational level – we actually went to the same high school, but 10 years apart. We also went to the same uni and started but didn’t finish the same degree. It was weird, like we were living these parallels lives and now all the sudden we’re making pop music together.

From there we started with pre-production. Demoing tracks like ‘Air Mail’ – which was the very first single I released, and another track called ‘Wes Anderson’ which never actually got put out as a single but is on the EP. I asked how he felt about doing an EP with me, and and he agreed. Now I’m asking “how do you feel about doing more with me?” Hopefully it will be a long and fruitful relationship. Working with Oscar is great, he’s a brilliant guitar player, a brilliant producer and a great friend. When I say he’s a brilliant producer, he understands the relationship with an artist – because it is a very delicate balance. He’s very good at negotiating that relationship and making sure my voice is heard, while also making the end product as good as it could possibly be. I’m a better musician for working with him.

Had you ever worked with a producer before in Animaux?

Only once, but we worked with a great producer – two actually, John Castle who co-produced the Vale Street EP with another guy called Ross Irwin. It was a bit of a foray into the world of working with a producer. That was a totally different experience though, because it’s so different now to have this one-on-one experience with someone creatively. It kind of suits be to be honest. Those experiences with producers have both been very positive and very different.

The title B-Grade University has a pretty clear concept to it. How’d you decide on it?

I had a few things knocking about for the EP title. I was thinking about calling it Nicky Boy which ended up being my record label’s name. I think what happened is that we finished the EP, I listened back to it and thought that all of the songs were really reflective of someone in their early 20’s. Someone who has gone and done an arts degree, someone who’s stuffed around, gone out and made silly choices only to wake up the next day and be fine with it. Because you know, you’re young. Someone who’s been rejected, someone who’s been in love and thought it was the best thing ever. Someone who’s dealing with breaking up and navigating through that experience. I feel like all of those things are quintessential early 20’s type stuff that everyone in some way has touched on. I felt like I needed to have something that resonated with that accidental concept. “B Grade University” was a line in ‘Ivy League’ and it was probably the most reflective thing on the EP. Capturing the sentiment of being in your early 20’s and having this tongue in cheek disenfranchisement with that age. You know, having no money, living at home and hating uni. But, it’s the best because you effectively have no responsibility. I think being cynical for the sake of it is something we all do in a very tongue in cheek way.

What inspired the choice to release your EP on your own label and do things your own way?

Myself and my team weren’t interested in signing anything worldwide. There’s a number of reasons why, but intuitively we didn’t think it was a good idea. We figured that for an Australian release, myself or any artist is well resourced to put out a record locally and get the same response as a release on a label… Potentially, I don’t know. For us, knowing the resources that we have at this point, I’m comfortable with what’s come of it. It’s always been a thing I’ve wanted to do – releasing something on a label with a business I’ve created. Although Alex Lahey is effectively my business, it’s also my name. So it’s nice to separate the two to some degree.

Nicky Boy records is named after my grandfather. I think it’s it’s a bit of an umbrella term for all the people involved with the record, as it gets away from the idea that it’s just me. Because it’s not just me, I just write the songs but there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it. From a business perspective, we wanted to take on the challenge of doing it ourselves, and from there it was an opportunity to formalise it.

On the note of independence, how do you feel it is to be an independent musician in our current musical climate?

I think the strength of being an independent artist does live up to the strength of being with a label as well. It all depends on the deal that you’re offered and it it suits the artist. By the process of elimination, the right route for us was to go independent. And I don’t think we’re missing out on any opportunities or resources because of doing that. I think it also differs from artist to artist. I don’t think that just because someone signs a record deal, they should be seen as having compromised themselves, or something like that. They both have their merits and challenges.

I think record labels are amazing organisations, and amazing businesses – and they do it because they have a genuine passion to put out music. They want to put out good music that they believe in, and they have their place. It’s just a matter of whether as an artist, you think it’s going to benefit you and your career. I can see why so many people want to start labels and support artists. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I wanted to put a name on the method I release music. Maybe down the track I’ll want to help put out other artist’s music.

I want my songs to be heard. And if that means getting a grasp on the way that songs end up being heard, then I want to understand that. Even though, at the end of the day the biggest challenge is be writing good songs. And that’s a challenge I accept. I don’t want anyone to come away from this thinking ‘Alex is all about business’ or this and that. My one true love is writing songs, and I love it so much that I want to understand every part of the process. Of the way that it goes from my head into people’s ears. I think that’s an exciting process.

How has Animaux influenced you as a solo artist? The band is still together as you pursue your solo stuff, isn’t it?

Yeah, we haven’t broken up. It’s definitely on the back-burner I think. Creatively, it definitely is for me. That’s not necessarily a conscious thing, my time is being spent elsewhere at the moment. The guys all understand that, and I’m so lucky that I’ve had the privilege of working with such good quality people for so long. I think that that’s manifested itself with their support for this project, and the support that I have for any other project that they do. Also the fact that I still want to keep playing with them. I always say that I learnt more from the school of Animaux than I even did in any degree. I was also managing Animaux as well, and I just learnt a lot about the industry and how it works. When we started touring with this project, I knew exactly what to expect basically. Animaux taught me so much – about working collaboratively, about playing gigs and performing and writing songs. It also taught me about a lot of things not to do – which is just as valuable as learning what to do. It was some of the best years of my life. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Animaux. There’s no way that this project could of started, nor there’s any way we would of been releasing the songs that we are releasing if it wasn’t for Animaux. I learnt so much in that time.

This time last year you played your first solo show as part of Darebin’s Decigals. You’ve been a big advocate for their programs – how do you feel your involvement in them has helped you in music?

I think The Push is an amazing initiative. The fact that the government funds something like it is pretty amazing. Hopefully, they will always, because it’s such a valuable thing. I once summed it up as ‘a guide to being in an industry which there’s no handbook for.’ The people who work there are incredible, the values that they instil in these young people who get involved in their programs is life lesson kind of stuff. My involvement with The Push began through doing The Push battle of the bands with Animaux when we were 18, then from there we did our first EP with Decibels Records. It taught us how to put out a record and understand the steps right from pre-production all the way to launching. I think The Push is one of the best music organisations in the country – if not, the best. I hope it keeps going forever and that bands continue to get involved in it and support it. Because they’ll only keep producing significant figures in Australian music. Not that I am one, but there’s definitely a few. Just the talent that they foster is amazing and it’s so inclusive.

Your songwriting style is quite personal. Is performing a terrifying or cathartic experience?

It’s just really fun. I’ve actually had that thought recently. I remember thinking, you know people come to my gigs and hear a set where they end up finding out a lot about me. How do I actually feel about that? I feel totally fine with it – maybe it’s because I haven’t done anything that bad. It is personal, but it’s not terrifying. If terrifying was one end of the spectrum and being cathartic is the other end then I’m probably leaning more towards the cathartic side. More than anything it’s just really fun. It’s a really engaging experience for me and one of the few times in my day where I don’t have to think and just have a good time. Have this sort of interaction with a group of people. I really love it.

‘You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me’ is probably an example of such a track. So many people can relate to it – is that a really humbling thing to see?

I don’t know if it’s humbling. The way I think about it, is that I’m a really normal person. There is not much that has happened in my life that has made me particularly extraordinary or anything like that. Most other people are pretty normal as well – maybe that’s why people do relate to it?

I’m just a normal person writing about normal things. I’m just going to write about what I know. I remember I heard this Father John Misty interview where they were talking about how he’s a folk singer that doesn’t sing about folk singer things? And he was just like, ‘I fucking live in the city, why would I sing about mountains and forests and shit? I go to the supermarket and do shit people do when they live where I live.’ And I’m like, yep, that’s totally true. If art is a reflection of life, I’m going to be writing about shit that happens to me. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that it’s happened to a lot of other people as well. I think that’s one of the things that makes music such a beautiful thing.

triple J Unearthed gave you the opportunity to open Splendour In The Grass a matter of weeks ago. What was that experience like?

I’d been uploading tracks to triple J Unearthed for almost 12 months now. They’ve been really supportive and I’m so grateful for that support. They decided to give me the opportunity to open Splendour In The Grass, which was something that I never thought would ever happen. The best way to describe it all would be to say that it was very ‘new’. No one who was involved with the show had ever experienced anything close to that. Just that scale in terms of production, the stage size itself, the amount of people there, the expectations and responsibility. We had to turn into a professional band between the time that we got told we got the gig and the gig itself. In terms of gear or if something went wrong, that’s it. If your pedals die, you don’t have a guitar to play. You have to take responsibility for the fact that if something goes wrong, that’s the gig.

Putting that pressure on ourselves was really important in making sure that we were up to scratch and that we were prepared to take responsibility and deliver on the opportunity that was given. Step up to the plate, so to speak. It was awesome, and all the practice and preparation that we accounted for in the lead up to it really paid off. We were able to go up there, and not have to think about it. Which is the way you want it to be every time. I just want to do it again and again, they’ve created a monster. I’ve got a taste of it and now I can see why people want to do this all the time – I will never get sick of it. It was exhausting, the whole experience was physically and emotionally draining at times, but I’d do it a million times more. Not only did Triple J give me a slot at a festival, they handed me the responsibility to be a professional artist. Becoming a festival standard band, because we had to do it.

You do have another performance coming up in September, BIGSOUND. How do you think a showcase set will compare to your normal set?

It’ll probably be different as I’ll have to force myself to be on. I’ll be more nervous too – I’m one of those people who gets more nervous knowing who’s in the crowd rather than how big it is or whatever. And with BIGSOUND, the purpose of it is that you’re playing to scary people. I’m really looking forward to going – I do love it. Every year, I love it. I’ve been twice, but I’ve never played. It’ll be a completely new experience. I think we’re doing a lot more gigs than we need to – I’m looking forward to it.

Catch Alex Lahey in many, many places over the next couple of months as her B Grade University tour gets underway.