Australian Singer-Songwriter Alex Lahey Talks New LP, Urges Home Country to Pass Gay Marriage Bill: 'It's Not That Big a F--king Deal'

Alex Lahey
Giulia McGauran

Alex Lahey

Australian singer-songwriter Alex Lahey captured the attention of indie rock veterans Tegan and Sara after performing at Australian festival Splendour In The Grass, who invited Lahey for a brief stint on tour last year and released the acclaimed EP B-Grade University, which helped get her signed to American indie label Dead Oceans.

In the span of a year since then, Lahey released her debut album I Love You Like a Brother on October 6, giving listeners snapshots of her past relationships and her family life, tackling life’s challenges with a sense of humor and catchy choruses tinged with surf rock, garage rock, and even doo-wop.

Thursday night (Nov. 16), Lahey made her late night debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers, performing the catchy Brother single “Every Day’s the Weekend." One thing some may have missed from the performance is its subtle political statement, acknowledging how the majority of the population in Australia had voted this week in approval of same-sex marriage. "We've just got a big "YES" in gaffers tape on the kick drum!" Lahey tells Billboard, from the show's green room. 

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Her new album may focus on themes such as family dynamics, breakups, and newfound love, but Lahey feels strongly about the importance of equal rights in her homeland, discussing it in the gorgeous closing track "There's No Money." "It’s really disappointing that the country's leaders haven't taken a step up for what's right and just didn't fucking bite the bullet and do it. Not even bite the bullet -- like, it's not that big a fucking deal. Just do it," says Lahey. 

Billboard caught up with her at the Seth Meyers set prior to the performance to discuss the album, as well as her improving self-care habits, her empathy for Taylor Swift and more. 

It’s incredible to know you’re playing tonight. How you feel about this experience?

I feel really good. I'd be worried if I didn't. It's definitely ... we only got the call less than a week ago to do it, and I remember getting the call and it got confirmed and I was like, "All right, Thursday is my white whale. I need to make sure that I'm in a good place." Then of course, two days after that, we flew from Glasgow to Boston, and I caught a cold on the plane, and basically we were lucky we had a couple of nights of playing shows. So effectively, I quarantined myself and managed to get this cold away from me in two days, which is pretty impressive.

Today, we drove here overnight from Boston and I haven't slept, but I feel strangely fine. And what's even more strange is I feel very relaxed. I feel like with touring in general, my attitude towards it is to just be where you are at the given time... Last night we played the same venue in Boston that we played in March, and when we played there in March, we had like 25 people there. And then last night we had like this really wonderful full, vibing room. And that to me is just bizarre. 

When did you first realize that you were finally getting so much attention overseas?

I think very early on I got some really good press in America, which was almost like creating these opportunities for someone who was too under resourced to take them on, so to speak. Last year I ended up getting Best New Music on Pitchfork, which was like just the most bizarre thing ever and opened up a number of doors around the world for me. I was working part-time, the project wasn't breaking even, I didn't have an EP out yet, and I was quite under-resourced in a way.

I think that everything has sort of panned out, in a way that I've been able to take advantage of the press and the opportunities that have arisen overseas. Which, you know, is no mean feat by someone who lives in such an isolated part of the world.

It's been really wonderful to watch it sort of develop a life of its own globally, which is something I never thought would be a part of my life, or be part of what I do. It's bizarre to see it do that and I really hope that it doesn't stop with the next one. I don't want to stop, I'm really enjoying it.

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When I first listened to your EP, one of the main things that made me love it was that it was one of the most relatable things I’ve listened to in a while. How do you feel about so many people reacting strongly to your words? 

I think it's bizarre. People ask me, "Do you go out of your way to be relatable?" And I don't. I think the reality is -- and something that we forget, especially with the way the world shifts and we engage with each other and all that  is that even though we're all individuals, there are so many shared experiences that we all have. It's something that brings us all together and it's something that when we talk about things -- political issues or social issues or whatever -- it's almost like sweating the small stuff because if you look at the big picture; we're all the same. 

For me it was really interesting almost hearing people confess to me that they felt that way.  It was bizarre that people were like, "Oh I can finally get this off my chest," or like, "You've articulated this for me and I resonate with it." And I'm just like, "Well, it's because I feel that way. It's because I'm human too." It's because I am vulnerable or I feel happy or I feel this, it's about experiencing a spectrum of emotion. And when you've experienced that, it's highly, highly likely that the person next to you has experienced a similar thing. If you're open about it, then there's something to talk about, there's a dialogue.

What do you think are some of the misconceptions that people have of an artist who, like you, is gaining attention quickly and only see that facet of “making it”? 

Look at Taylor Swift. She's like the epitome of 'made it' and she's got a bunch of shit that she's dealing with. There's always shit, again, it's a part of being human. Everyone has shit. Everyone has problems and everyone has stuff that they have to work through, everyone has a history, everyone has all that sort of stuff. There's so many things that we experience that don't go away no matter what happens in other areas of your life.

I get really frustrated when people back home are like, "Oh, you're touring, it must be [incredible]. You just get to travel." I was like, "I don't fucking see shit!" I have the best time and I love my job, and I wake up every morning and I'm so happy to be doing what I'm doing. But don't think it's some sort of fantasy. And I don't think it ever is. I don't think Beyoncé goes out on tour and fucking goes to the top of the Eiffel Tower when she's in Paris. She fucking sleeps and plays a show. That's the reality of it. It's just another lifestyle. 

It's the best and I wouldn't want to do anything else. But I'm not going to pretend it's some sort of fairytale, because no one's life is. And if it was, then no one would be writing songs. So it's good to have these nuanced lives. Again, if Taylor Swift made it and everything was fucking dandy, believe me this album wouldn't have happened. So yeah, I think that's a myth.

 Going back to writing, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how this album came about.  What were you going through when you were writing it?

The album's just about a series of relationships in my life, both romantic and otherwise, for me it was just about learning about myself through communication and being involved with other people. Which, I think again, what we're saying is the spice of life.

It was really funny because I was just really writing songs. Much like the B-Grade University EP, it was just a matter of writing songs. I remember reflecting on that EP and being like, "Fuck, this is like, a total concept record..." And I don't know if this album is as tightly tied together as the EP, but I do think that there is a common thread of, you know, what it means to engage other people in your life, and what it means to allow yourself to love people and to allow yourself to be loved by people, and to allow yourself to love yourself.

I think the title of it, I Love You Like a Brother, is really reflective of that. But it's such a nuanced phrase, which could mean a number of things based on who says or how it's said or who it's said to. I really love the complexity of relationships that way, and I really love engaging with people because of the way it makes me think. I think that's the kind of extrovert in me. 

But in terms of writing it, all the songs were written after the EP  and I went into the studio with Oscar Dawson, who produced the EP as well, and it kind of was business as usual to be honest. It wasn't something that was like, "Oh, we're getting a bit of heat. We better fucking ramp it up and go to L.A. and get the guy who played on that Jeff Buckley record to play drums," or, you know, whatever. It wasn't that, it was all the same people, it was done on a lot of government grant money, which I'm really grateful for. It was all done in Melbourne, and I had a wonderful time and I look forward to doing it again, and hopefully make it a really immersive experience and not sort of being like ducking in and out on tour while we're making it.

It sounds like you were kind of processing the feelings you had in those relationships much after it had occurred.

Yeah that's how I write. That's very interesting that you picked up on that. I was talking to my partner about that not so long ago -- who's also a songwriter -- and I was saying that I need distance and hindsight from something before I write about it. Which is really interesting because for them it's the other way round, it has to be in the moment, as it's happening. Really, really direct, like directly from the source, as it's happening, and I just can't do it. It pains me. It's like too much feeling.

And so I need a little bit of hindsight and maybe that's why my songs are little bit more upbeat. It's kind of like, "Oh everything's okay!" Because eventually everything is okay, and maybe that's why. I very rarely write, especially with sad shit, I very rarely write about it in the moment, because I just need to sort of get through it myself before I apply it to that. Otherwise it's too much unpacking, can't do it.

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One song I wanted to ask you about is 'I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself', which is one of your most relatable tracks. What did it make you learn about yourself while writing it?

 I was going out with someone at the time who didn't make me feel particularly good about myself, kind of got me into some bad habits. And I remember my mum saying to me one time, I was leaving her house, and she was just like, "Alexandra, make sure that you're taking care of yourself." And I remember getting into an Uber and being like, "I am not taking care of myself." I was sort of drinking a lot and pulling sickies at work and just being kind of irresponsible to myself. And I remember thinking that, and I was like, "Oh my god, I'm so caught up in this thing that I've really dropped the ball on my life."

It becomes a cycle: You start feeling shit, and then you sort of like validate yourself through other people, and then you feel shit about that and then you validate yourself through that again. And then you find, "My lifestyle has slipped and I've put on like 10 kilos," or whatever. "I'm not sleeping and my skin looks crap because I'm not eating well and I'm drinking too much," and that sort of stuff. It's like that cyclical sort of nature and a big part of breaking the cycle is to acknowledge that it exists, and to say, "Hey, I haven't been taking care of myself, I fucking need to do something about it."

I had this list of stuff -- I was like, "What are all the unhealthy things? When you don't take care of yourself, what are all the things that happen to you physically that represents that?" Like things I have said; you gain weight, you don't consume the right things, your heart goes, figuratively and literally. You're tired, your skin breaks out, you smell like secondhand smoke.  You just don't know what's going on and you kind of spiral out a little bit. I remember writing down all those things and incorporating them into the song. It was almost like a message to myself.

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Another one I wanted to ask you about is “There's No Money,” where you had that line that hints at being unhappy with the political situation in Australia where same sex marriage was not legal ("We can't marry even if we want to/But if we moved in, could we take the heat?/Living in two homes really ain't for me.") Now that this changed, how do you feel about the current situation in Australia? 

Okay, because everyone in America is like, "It's passed!" I'm like, "No, it hasn't passed." So what's happened is that the government put out... it was a voluntary postal survey, so the vote that came back was a survey. It wasn't a plebiscite, it wasn't any sort of change to the constitution; it was a survey. It was statistics. And so now the government has that information, that shows that the majority of Australia wants marriage equality, and they're going to take it to parliament and get parliament, because that's how a constitution changes. So, it hasn't passed.

I'm pissed off that the survey happened. It was a waste of taxpayers money and it created a really unsafe environment for the queer community in Australia. And I think, as much as the majority voted in support of marriage equality, it pains me that 39 percent of the country didn't, and it scares me. It has to pass, it has to, and I think it will pass by probably the end of the year.

There's so much good to come of it, and I was filled with resentment when that survey came out, and I was really, really disappointed with the procedures to this, arguably, means to an end, which was totally unnecessary... But it's great to know that the majority is for it. That is wonderful. Given that in the early '80s, homosexual conduct was punishable with 10 years imprisonment. So we've gone a very long way. But, it's still just so backwards that it's been such a long process. So it hasn't passed yet. We've got to keep going.