“I wanna be free… I wanna be new and different…”
Perhaps it’s telling that this line from her song Anything I’m Not prominently adorns the back cover of the booklet of Lenka Kripac’s debut album. The former actor (mostly on TV, with feature film roles in The Dish and Lost Things) turned into an unexpected radio star with her contributions to Decoder Ring’s Somersault soundtrack and their subsequent album Fractions, her indie-ethereal vocals perfectly suited to the band’s crunchy electronica. So when her solo debut appeared on the horizon, one could be forgiven for expecting more along those lines.
Not a chance. Lenka (that’s just Lenka these days, ta very much) had other plans. Press play on her self-titled debut and you’re greeted with the joyous, horn-powered sing-along pop of The Show, vocals front and centre, harmonies aplenty. And it’s no anomaly; this is, you realise fairly quickly, perhaps the happiest album of the year. It’s pure pop right to its core, with obvious influences from the definitive Happy Pop decade of the ’60s, and The Beatles in particular. In a cynical age, it’s actually a little startling; go along with it, though, and it draws you in. Simple pop it might be, but there’s a lot more depth here than you’d first think, as well as enough hooks to power an ad agency.
“I made a really conscious decision to try to make uplifting, happy music,” Lenka explains. “I was mostly writing sad songs, and I decided I wanted the challenge. It’s much easier to write sad songs. But I thought about my own iTunes collection, and the fact that the songs I cherish most are those few that really make me feel good. And there’s only about one or two of those per album of my favourite artists. So every time I sat down to write, or sat down with a co-writer, I would say I wanted to write a happy song. So as a result I ended up with this collection of them. Even if the subject matter is not happy – it could even be quite awful and depressing – I wanted the tone to be happy, to leave the listener in a better mood than when they first started listening.”
In that it certainly succeeds; though only one single introspective, low-key track is allowed in near the end (the gorgeous Like A Song) the exuberance of the music and the often-playful vocal makes this possibly the only album loaded with introspective, forlorn lyrics that doesn’t stand a chance of depressing anyone. The so-catchy-it’s-dangerous Trouble Is A Friend is a perfect example. “I was in a really shitty mood that day, I had a hangover, and I said to my friend (Thomas Salter) who I wrote that song with, ‘I want to write a blues song today, but I want it to be danceable’. I wanted to cheer myself up – it’s not so bad, you feel like shit, you always get yourself into trouble, but it’s not the end of the world, there’s good things about that too.”
Growing up in the coastal town of Merimbula, Lenka was surrounded by music of the happy persuasion; her father started the Jazz Festival there and played in a Dixieland jazz band, and it was with this band that she made her singing debut. “I did start pretty young, learning instruments and singing on stage with him a little bit, just for fun,” she recalls. “But then acting became my passion and I didn’t do any music at all. Music kind of crept back in via acting. Sometimes acting requires you to sing, and I was singing in a play in Sydney when I realised how much I loved it. People seemed to really dig my voice, thought that it was interesting and wanted me to keep doing more. So I started to do a bit more writing and take it a bit more seriously, and eventually recorded a few of my songs. Then I met Decoder Ring, started working with them and music just took over. It was a gradual swapping from acting to music.”
It all sounds so straightforward – but in reality, just as with the series of encounters that set her solo album in motion and saw it assembled in stages with five different producers and assorted co-writers, it was all about meeting the right people in the right place at the right time. “I’d met the drummer – he played on my first demo, the first time I recorded some tracks. Maybe six or eight months later he called me up and said that he was in a band that was doing the soundtrack to a film that was a female coming-of-age story, and felt like it could do with some female vocals, so would I be interested in writing a song? They asked a few other people as well, but thought that my vocals fit, so that happened, then we toured, one thing led to another and they eventually said ‘hey, how about you just join the band’.”
It was during their visit to the 2006 SXSW Festival in Texas that Lenka’s world widened. “I realised there was something I was quite attracted to in New York and LA, and I wanted to come back over and suss it out; so I came and wrote with a few people, and travelled in Europe for a bit. I was sort of on a big adventure, and one thing just led to another, really. I had a fairly inquiring spirit about it, and I was open to collaboration, trying to find people to help me realise my own sound. Luckily I found people that believed in me and helped me get my music heard by the right people. It’s timing and luck if the person that falls for your music happens to be in a position where they can try and get you signed.”
Lenka sums up her “own sound” by referencing three artists –and it’s something she’s thought about quite a bit, as she starts with a statement that’s also found in a video on her YouTube page. “I sort of see myself as the musical love-child of The Beatles, Björk and Burt Bacharach,” she says, and then pauses to think about it a little more. “I did mention The Beatles a lot when I was working with producers on the record. I’m definitely influenced by them, I love The Beatles. Björk would be my biggest influence as a singer, mostly because I feel like she helped me find my own voice when I was listening to her as a teenager. She made me realise that you could let all the idiosyncrasies and flaws come out in your voice rather than cover them up and try to be perfect. Burt Bacharach, I love his songwriting, and I often used him as a reference for the horn sounds I was after. And I love the sexiness and sass and grooviness of The Beatles… mixing an innocence and a freshness with… a desire for trouble. I love their songwriting too. When I decided to make ‘pop music’, to me that means making accessible music – simplifying the melodies and chord structures, and focussing on hooks. And my favourite hooks are Beatles hooks.”
Indisputably an artist who knows exactly what she wants from her music and determined to get it without compromise, Lenka is all about making unashamed pop music – but most definitely not of the manufactured, soapie-actress-turns-pop-puppet persuasion. And the fact that she was briefly a cast member on Home And Away 14 years ago doesn’t change that fact. “I was 16! That’s a large amount of time ago…! No, I would never let that happen to me. I’m adamant that I want to do my own style of music, and I’m very lucky to have found a team of people that are happy to help me do that, and trust me.”
It’s surprising to hear such deliciously exuberant pop from someone who lists Will Oldham, Cat Power and Matthew Barney amongst their favourite artists. Surprising, but totally intentional. “I have consciously moulded my music into being a little more pop oriented. As you can tell from my taste in music, I listen to fairly experimental singer-songwriters. But when I’m writing songs I choose the more accessible melody over the more unusual melody. And that might change as I get older and do my second and third album, but right now I really wanted to make a sweet and intimate but upbeat, accessible record.”
Mission accomplished, happily.
© Anthony Horan 2008
Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1043, 29th October 2008