Music

Lenka on Being a Mother and Writing a Transgender Anthem

Music

Lenka on Being a Mother and Writing a Transgender Anthem

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Photography: Johnny De Guzman

Pop songstress Lenka is back after a much-needed hiatus spent in her Australia native, where she lived a low-profile life with family, enjoying simplicities like sipping morning lattes and taking her son Quinn to the neighborhood park.

After years of nose to the grindstone hustle, this break from the music industry allowed her to see the world with fresh, optimistic eyes—one that made for a warm sonic imprint on her latest LP The Bright Side. This clear shift can be heard from her 2009 track, “The Show,” to this year’s sunny release, “Blue Skies,” trading out lyrics like, “Life is a maze and love is a riddle,” for, “It’s gonna be blue skies for you and I.”

Shedding light on Lenka’s positive life perspective, we caught up with the singer to talk about changes in the music industry, life as a part-time mother and part-time musician, and penning “Unique,” her brave, self-aware anthem for the transgender community.

You first came to America in 2006 to play SXSW with your band Decoder Ring. How have you seen the American music landscape shift since then?

“I think the biggest shift has been that it’s harder to get started. When I came over with the band and eventually wanted to do solo stuff, people were so open and willing to listen to the music—excited to collaborate. It wasn’t that hard to get a publishing deal, record deal, agents and all of that. I feel like nowadays, not that many big companies take a chance on people. You need to already have a massive following to get any kind of budget. For me, I came over with no money, not a huge amount of experience—just kind of getting started—and that was only the beginning of the Internet changing everything. I feel really lucky that I started then and not a couple years later.”

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You grew up primarily as an actress and dancer without any interest in music. How has that upbringing influenced your work now?

“I think it was really good for me as a teenager working in film and TV because I was working with adults, building up my work ethic. I’d have to leave high school and do my 5:30 am days and I really loved it, so I got used to a professional life. On a creative level, it affected my music in way I write, which is influenced by my years of playing characters and getting into the minds of how humans work—human nature and emotions, and all those things you think about as an actor now seep into my music. Having experience on camera sometimes comes in handy, as well. Or if something goes wrong on stage, I can deal with it well because I’ve had experience in theater. Knowing how to work an audience is also necessary.”

This new album has a clear sense of optimism. What in your life sparked this shift?

“It used to be a big challenge for me—it wasn’t my natural process to write happy songs. My first album, I was striving to do that, but I did take a break on some later projects. The reason I wanted to return to optimism was because of having a toddler around. He has such a beautiful wonder and energy about the world, and he’s so excited by things. He loves to hear upbeat music and dance along; he responds to happy melodies; he quite frankly tells me which songs he likes and which ones he doesn’t. I also think it’s important to put something into the world that’s positive and optimistic—a little bit of goodness to go around because that’s the kind of world I want to live in.”

How is it balancing your life as a musician and mother?

“Sometimes it’s nice to have a day off from being a mother and have a little break to retrieve my former identity, but when it’s a few weeks, it’s very hard and destructive, and I don’t think it’s an ideal mommy job. Touring is very hard, and I’ve had to find a balance with that when I’m on the road—break it up a bit and not be away for too long, which makes touring a little bit harder; it makes it more expensive, it makes it less logistical when I have to constantly go home. But any working mother has a hard time—some have to go five days per week, nine-to-five. When I’m at home, I’m luckily with my son all the time. When I’m writing and recording, that’s not too bad; I can squeeze in my studio time around his schedule. I’ve gotten to be good at writing songs in the middle of the night, but touring is a definite challenge.”

Your music is so wide reaching and has been featured in different TV series and Dr. Pepper commercials. When you go into the studio, do you intend to create pop songs or is this a natural release for you?

“I try and not think about it too much because if you do think about its end result being anything, you kind of lose the inspiration and it doesn’t turn out that well. So you sort of have to ignore that, but I’ve always naturally been what they call licensable. I love that aspect of the industry and what it has done for my career, partially because it pays the bills—you get paid in advance—but it’s also quite good for reaching new fans. Recently, in the past few years, I’ve gotten back to writing specifically for projects, so sometimes I do actually sit down in a songwriting session and write something for a certain character. Sometimes when given a brief, it has to have this one word and the rest is up to you. I quite enjoy that because it’s almost a bit like acting and I’m able to talk with the director.”

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You’ve said in the past that you use child psychology and teenage angst as catalysts for your work. Talk more about that.

“When I was at art school, I got a degree in fine art, and I was interested in fairytales—that’s actually where my interest in child psychology came about because fairytales are intended as a method of teaching children. That’s been an inspiration with a lot of the imagery and lyrics I’ve used in my music, just thinking about Hansel and Gretel, and the witch’s house and where that takes our brain—learning about fear and independence. I like to tap into those pockets of our psyche.”

You recently took a few years to spend quality time with your family. What was your best memory from this experience in Sydney, Australia?

“Just being a normal mommy and going to the park—such a simple life. You put your child first and don’t have any time to yourself, but in a way that’s quite liberating. I don’t really have much of a profile in Australia, so I’m a completely normal person; I don’t do any industry stuff, I just go down to the shops and get my soy latte and take my kid to the park. It’s a very ordinary life, but I’m very content. I of course get restless and want to get creative again.”

Something about “Unique” sounds like self-affirmation. Was there ever a point when you don’t think you would’ve been able to sing this?

“Actually, writing the song was quite difficult. I felt a bit uncomfortable going there and being so confident to say, ‘I’m me; I’m unique.’ It’s not something you usually declare to the world, but I knew there were a lot of people out there that want and need a song like that. We all need a song like that, so I put myself aside and went there. The song has been taking on a life of its own with people responding to it like an anthem when they’re on the fringe of society: transgender people or people with disabilities. It’s in a TLC reality show called, ‘I Am Jazz,’ which is about an 11-year-old transgender girl. The song tackles how to describe yourself when you feel different and not accepted; it was a tricky one to nut out, but I’m glad I did.”