Ladyhawke: ‘I feel lucky to be alive and making music’

Since we last heard from the synthpop star, she’s had a frightening brush with cancer and quit LA after a police shooting near her apartment. So how does she stay so upbeat?

Pip Brown was less than a year into motherhood when the mole on the back of her leg started to itch. The synthpop musician known as Ladyhawke had already been through the wringer with postnatal depression; now another life-altering situation was on the cards. “I’d always known it was there,” says Brown of the mole, “but when I got pregnant I noticed that it had started to change and was acting weird.” After being distracted by what she calls “new baby haze”, Brown finally had the mole examined and was immediately told that it was potentially melanoma.

“I knew it was going to be bad,” she remembers, speaking from her home in Auckland, where she lives with her now three-year-old daughter Billie Jean and her wife, the actor and director Madeleine Sami. “I just had this sick feeling.”

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Brown’s worst fears were realised. She was diagnosed with a Clark’s level-four melanoma, meaning the cancer had reached the bottom layer of her skin and the likelihood of it spreading was high: “There were a couple of weeks where they couldn’t tell me if I was going to live.” But after what felt like the longest wait of her life, Brown was told by her specialist that she was in the clear. That it had not spread was something of a miracle. “The level of it was so bad that it sort of should have gone everywhere,” she says, still sounding in a state of disbelief.

That Brown’s new album is so utterly joyous, then, is no surprise. Time Flies is a glitzy reminder of everything that made Ladyhawke unique when the New Zealander first emerged with her self-titled debut album in 2008: a sumptuous rush of electronica that’s icy cool, yet warm and human; a celebration of simply existing.

“I just felt so lucky and privileged to be alive and in a room making music,” she beams, even in yet another lockdown in Auckland. She is in the purple-lit room she uses as a backdrop for her live gaming sessions, having started dabbling as a Twitch streamer during the pandemic after being inspired by the British songwriter and fellow gamer Shura, who has since become a close friend. Brown became obsessed with playing The Last of Us, Part II, a post-apocalyptic adventure game with a gay female lead and a trans character, as well as sharing the experience with likeminded viewers. “It’s amazing to see yourself represented in a game,” she says. “Being a female gamer you’re so used to seeing the female body represented from the male gaze, think of Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. But in The Last of Us, they just look like real girls.”

Time Flies is Brown’s fourth album under the Ladyhawke name. The first single, a gutsy disco belter called Guilty Love, owes as much to the stomping sci-fi rock of Muse as it does to Donna Summer. It is deeply personal, too, about Brown’s experience growing up gay while going to a Catholic school that regularly told her any such life was sinful.

“My sexuality was something that I buried and it delayed me realising that I had those feelings,” she says. Despite her education, Brown’s parents were not religious. Her dad was an atheist and her mum “sort of a hippy”. Yet Brown was still terrified of coming out to them, which she did in her early 20s. “I was really scared about rejection and being shut out of the family. I can’t even believe I thought like that, but that’s how extreme it was. When I finally did come out, they were like: ‘Duh, we always knew!’” she chuckles. “No one was surprised!”

Brown made much of Time Flies over video calls during the pandemic, collaborating with fellow New Zealand pop act Broods, Empire of the Sun’s Nick Littlemore, and producers Tommy English and Josh Fountain. They used a shared Ableton screen, which allowed Brown to send live feedback to whomever she was working with. But she won’t be swapping the studio for remote recording in the future. “It was really cool but it’s not the same as being in the same room,” she says. “I’m pretty stoked that we managed to get it done.”

Mild thing … Pip Brown, AKA Ladyhawke.
Mild thing … Pip Brown, AKA Ladyhawke. Photograph: Jessie Casson/The Guardian

As well as motherhood and cancer, there have been other big life changes for Brown since the release of her last album, Wild Things, five years ago. Then she had been living in Los Angeles since leaving London after the release of her debut. But when Brown was five months pregnant, police shot dead a man on a balcony metres from her Runyon Canyon apartment. Spooked, she decided to leave the city. “I heard the whole thing happen,” says Brown, who headed home to be near her family. “I was like: ‘See ya, LA!’”

Brown had long used alcohol to manage the depression and anxiety that had plagued her since her teens, but while in Los Angeles she finally gave up drinking. When we speak, she’s proudly seven years sober. Yet on returning to New Zealand, her mental health continued to deteriorate. By the end of 2019, something had to give. “I felt like I was a bit of a punching bag,” she says. “I got to the point where I couldn’t take it any more.”

So for the first time, at the age of 40, Brown committed herself to having therapy. She rapidly saw an improvement, switching to Zoom sessions when the pandemic prevented in-person meet-ups. “I talked to him earlier today, actually!” she smiles. She has also started taking medication for the first time: “I was really resistant because I thought: ‘No, I can manage it on my own.’”

Now, she says with a smile, she’s the best she has been in decades. “On paper, it’s a long-ass journey to where I am now. But, you know, everyone gets there in their own time.”

Time Flies is out on 19 November (BMG).


Leonie Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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