Despite being a veteran artist who’s seen the highs and lows of the global spotlight, Lenka remains completely tethered to reality.
A multi-faceted musician and actor, Lenka achieved international fame and a cult following since the release of her smash single, The Show. But what makes her so delightfully warm is her unabashed sense of self. It’s this warmth that shines through on her brand new single, Ivory Tower, the first release from Lenka in a hot minute.
Inspired by Ivanka Trump and having a ‘rich bitch’ attitude, Ivory Tower acts both as an escapist fantasy and a subtle critique of what the world has come to. Needless to say, Happy had to have a chat with Lenka to discuss her evolution as an artist, and what it means to live in an Ivory Tower.
HAPPY: Hey! How’re you doing today?
LENKA: It’s been great! I drive up from Berry this morning – woke up at like 5 am! So, I spent the day in the studio just recording, doing some music with you guys, and just being a city gal!
HAPPY: So you’re from Berry?
LENKA: Near there, deep in the woods in that sort of area. I was born in Bega, so I’m from the South Coast, but then grew up half my life in Sydney, and then moved to America to do my music career. Lived over there for like five or six years, and then came back here. It’s weird because we went from New York to Sydney – which felt like a country town – and now we literally live in a literal rainforest with no mail, no delivery, no garbage collection.
So, I think we’re pretty much at the deepest point now, and we might ricochet back to civilisation at some point. We’ve got two little kids, my husband and I, and we’re both freelancers in the arts, and we’ve managed to get away with it!
HAPPY: So, firstly, can you tell me a bit about yourself, because you’ve done other things outside of Lenka?
LENKA: So, I was in Decoder Ring a long time ago, an Australian band. I was an actor before that. I did a few movies and TV shows in Australia. Plus, I was a TV presenter on Cheez TV.
HAPPY: What channel was that on?
LENKA: Channel 10, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z.
HAPPY: My god, I do recognise you. Oh my god, holy shit!
LENKA: I was only on Saturdays. Anyway, after that, I went to art school and studied sculpture. Then I decided I wanted to do music and I joined Decoder Ring for a little while, which was a sort of an electronic ambient outfit. We had a big album in 2004. I did another album with them in 2005 and 2006. We went over to America to do South by Southwest, and then I stayed there to work on my solo music. And then in 2007, I signed a publishing deal with Sony ATV and a record deal with Epic.
I just kinda marched in there like ‘I’m gonna be a popstar!’. Because Feist was having a big hit at the time, I was kinda like, ‘I wanna be like Fiest. I’m an indie singer-songwriter, but I’m gonna have a big hit’. They were like, ‘okay’: they signed me, and they made me their worldwide priority. And they worked really hard at getting my song The Show, which you’ll probably recognise because it was around a lot in 2008. And it worked in some places and not in others. Like, it didn’t work in Australia. Unfortunately, Triple J never played it.
I did two shows out here in that whole five years that I was in living in America, they wouldn’t let me come out. I did two showcases. I was here for a week. So that’s that was a bit of a bummer. My biggest regret is that I didn’t push to get recognition in Australia. You really need to tread the boards. Like you’ve got to play all the little dive hotels around the country and build up a grassroots fan base. I did that in America. You kind of need to unless you have a massive radio hit, but I was on the road for like 10 months of 2009.
Europe, Asia, America, Jesus. And so over those years, I’ve had had lots of radio hits in Asia, and I would go over there and do a lot of stuff. I’ve had quite a bit of radio success in some European countries like Germany. I’ve had like three top ten hits in Germany. I’ve had a number one in like Poland, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Sri Lanka, lots of crazy different places. So in some little pockets, I’m a bonafide pop star. And in the rest of the world, no one’s ever heard me.
HAPPY: So what’s your new project? What are you looking to do right now?
LENKA: Right now, I just have sort of released myself from the burden of working on albums and putting out albums. I’ve done six of those. I’ve kind of convinced my managers to go, “we don’t actually need to do that anymore”. They’re like, “yeah, you’re right”. If you just have a song, you can just put out a song, whereas previously, it was always like, “no, you’ve got to build up like 10 or 12 songs and put out a record and do your promo for the record”.
And it’s a cycle that you’re in and I was in it for more than a decade, like 12 years. And last year, what I put out was essentially an album, but it was actually two EPs. One was covers and one was originals. I put that out in March and did a bit of an Aussie tour, and then the pandemic happened. I had a European tour and an American tour planned and both got cancelled. And so I was like, “fuck, I’m back to square one” again.
HAPPY: Was that a bit devastating?
LENKA: It was quite devastating. But it was also like, I don’t really like to muck around. I’ve got two little kids. It was quite relieving in a way. I can just stay here, I don’t mind. And what was actually super positive for me — and my mental health and my creative process — is that lockdown took the pressure off having to be perfect and having to put out a masterpiece each time. Because people were like, “Good on you. If you’re creating anything right now, you’re doing fine. Like, just do whatever.” A lot of people were starting to do remote sessions. I’m in the country, so that really worked for me. So this song, Ivory Tower, was written with Dave Jenkins Jr, who’s also got this act called Not A Boys Name. You guys have done a feature on him before.
Anyway, he’s played in my band and toured in China with me and stuff. So this is remote, and I was doing that with guys in Europe as well. They’d send back tracks and I’d record vocals back and forth over email. And it was just like, it doesn’t even really matter. It’s not for anything. We’re just having fun right now, if we can make some content, then great. Everybody could only work on content last year — nobody really had any plans to do anything because we thought the world was over. And it was really liberating.
And so this song, the reason I’m putting it out and promoting it is because I felt like I did set myself free a little bit. I’m singing from a different perspective. It’s inspired by Ivanka Trump. It’s called Ivory Tower, and it’s just me trying to get into the mind of like, a rich bitch, how they feel so evil and justified in their actions. So it’s just like a fun ’80s bop, kind of a Cyndi Lauper vibe. But that’s where the thing came from, and I shot the video myself with an iPhone wearing a wig in my little daughter’s bedroom. It’s just having fun, basically, and not really worrying too much about curating the output as having to be the next Lenka album. And that suits me fine. I’m semi-retired at this point. I just want to have fun, like, putting out whatever I like.
HAPPY: That’s gorgeous! But, why did you read it from the perspective of Ivanka?
LENKA: I was just looking at her and it was towards the end of the Trump era. So like, spring last year. We knew that we were in the final gasps of that terrible situation. And I just looked at photos of her and she’s always got such a poker face. But she’s so awful. And it’s not just her, it’s people like her. And I was just imagining what it would be like, and what it would feel like to be like that. Just tell yourself this narrative that you need to do what you do, and you need to ignore the people that are suffering in the world and continue to make billions of dollars, because what about me?
Do you know that kind of feeling? Blocking out so much. And so it’s got a second verse — it changes perspective to be talking to people like that. Politicians that want to continue doing bad things for the environment and people that would choose money and greed over anything else, but mostly women, the princesses in their ivory tower that are like, “I’m so frail, and I just have to look after myself. Because what would happen if I was to make a choice that was for others?” That sort of rich bitch archetype.
HAPPY: Was it cathartic to be able to express yourself like that?
LENKA: It’s weirdly enjoyable! And I feel like, at the end of the day, it’s kind of just a fun bop that’s fun to sing. And it reminds me a bit of how nobody knew that Madonna was taking the piss with Material Girl and everyone’s just loving it. They’re like, “we love being rich and vacuous in the ’80s”. And she was actually making a critique of society and it just got ignored.
Nobody even thought about it. I’m sure the record labels were just like, “let’s just talk about how everyone’s enjoying this”. Because it is fun to just be like, “I’m just evil right now. It’s fine!”
HAPPY: Yeah! I’m guessing you wouldn’t say that you’re evil?
LENKA: I’m not in my real life at all. I’m extremely conscious to the point where it’s exhausting. Like, we’re currently doing a plastic-free month in my family which was my decision – poor family. We’re not bringing any plastic into the house, we’ve got a ‘jar of shame’ that we can fill up in a month. And so it’s quite a lot of effort. I read on BBC that Australia is number one for the usage of single-use plastic per capita in the world. Britain’s number four. So it’s just like, why am I bothering? I get really depressed when I think about the world, and I give as much as I can to charity. I make choices towards trying to be a good person in this world. So maybe it was a nice little break to just not do that for a minute and just pretend to be an entitled rich bitch.
HAPPY: It’s interesting that you’re gearing up with that political motif. Does this differ from your past work as well? Do you feel like you’ve evolved?
LENKA: I haven’t really done any politically motivated stuff before. I’ve always found that a little bit of a sore point, like I don’t want to sound like a one-day funk band being like ‘peace to the world’ or whatever. I’ve always been a little bit allergic to that. Mostly love songs, and mostly self-helpy music is my therapy. But there’s a couple of songs on my second album. There’s a song that was touching on the idea of refugees, but poetically. I never have really said anything that’s too much of a statement. And this one isn’t necessarily either. Mostly, my music is about optimism within the hard times, trying to keep hope, that’s usually the theme throughout my music – laughing off the bad times, just letting things go and holding onto the dream.
HAPPY: With Ivory Tower, is this something you wanna pursue further? Do you have anything else that you’ve sort of discovered from here that’s taken your fancy?
LENKA: I’ve just done a bunch of demos. And I’m thinking I’m just going to release a song when I feel like it. Nothing else is ready yet, there’s things getting worked on. But they still need to be mixed and things like that. But there’s no rules; I have my own record company, I have a really great partnership with my publishing company in LA, my managers are in New York. And, I’ve got a fan base, a small fan base, but they really want to hear whatever I might have to put out. So I just feel like that’s a really lucky space to be; I’m gonna put this song out, no pressure, I’m not looking for it to be a big hit. I don’t need to get the best reviews in the world. So it’s been a real blessing for me, what happened last year in the world, it’s helped me just not take everything so seriously.
HAPPY: Yeah. It must be liberating in that sense to know that as an artist, you can do what you want. You’re liberated from the difficult pressures of being a musician.
LENKA: I kinda forgot! Being signed to a major label and having a lot of pressure. I forgot that a little bit, I got quite burnt out. And now I’m just like, ‘fuck it, do what you like’.
HAPPY: Are you cynical towards the music industry?
LENKA: I think that it serves a purpose. I fully understand the point of view and the position of labels wanting their artists to be perfect, but I know that I stood up for myself. But I still have a lot of memories where I’m like, ‘oh my god I was so stressed out’, and you know, barely eating and sleeping for a couple of years! Because it was so scary.
Like, my debut on TV was on Conan. And the CEO of Sony was there backstage being like, ‘good luck’. I was just like, ‘oh’, and then they weren’t happy with the performance. They wanted me to fire my band. It’s just very high pressure, and I really feel for people that are having a lot of success. Whenever I see somebody having a big hit and having a big moment, I’m just like… I feel for you. This must be really hard right now. I bet you’re not sleeping great. And people talk about it a little, the expectation on them, but most people don’t, because you’re kind of projecting a dream, and you don’t want that to go away. You know, you want people to be able to listen to your music in their bedroom and just get hooked into the lyrics, rather than whatever career pressures you’re putting up with.
HAPPY: Yeah? So in a way you try to remove that context, in order to get that sort of appeal?
LENKA: Exactly. Just trying to be an artist. Some people do sing about that stuff a lot. And I would put it into my songs too, in fact, The Show which was my biggest song is about stress. Just enjoy The Show, that’s the theme of the song. The reason that I was stressed was because I just signed a record deal. And they were like, ‘where’s the hits?’ I wrote it with another writer in the Sony ATV writers room, and we wrote it in an hour and a half, because we were both really stressed. We’re like, ‘what’s a metaphor for how we’re feeling?’ It’s like, ‘we just have to, all this stuff’s going around us. And you just have to sit back and enjoy the show’. And then, yeah… boop, and out came the song. That’s the single. And so you just use what you’ve got going on.
So you know, I don’t feel too cynical about, like if I was to talk to a young artist that was really talented and really ambitious, and just making those first baby steps, I would recommend that they sign a record deal. It is a loss of control, but you get so many arms to help. I’ve had my own record label now and it’s so much work just for me. Yeah, I don’t have any interns or employees to be like, ‘how do you get a song on a Spotify playlist?’ I don’t know! You know what I mean? Like, they serve their purpose.
HAPPY: Yeah, but hold up, what’s it like owning your own record?
LENKA: It’s really nothing to be honest, it’s just a figurehead. I don’t have a label, haven’t signed to another label. Yeah, I don’t have any other artists on my books. But when I set it up, when I got dropped by Epic, I was having a baby and stuff, so I didn’t do anything for a little while, then when I did want to put out another album, it wasn’t really the time to kind of go shopping around and try to get a label. So, my managers were like, ‘you can just be a label’, and it doesn’t actually mean anything, it just means that you own your album, you pay for it. That’s the thing – you pay, you pay for the recording. So you have to have money in the bank.
I have mentored a couple of people, but I certainly wouldn’t put my hand up to be the label. Because I don’t really know what I’m doing! But it doesn’t require anything. It’s just kind of like – Skipalong Records is what it’s called. There has to be a logo on the CD or whatever it is. Somebody has to own it. The master. So I own the masters. I’ve definitely enjoyed that aspect of it. I can decide how much money I want to spend. So being released from a record deal was quite liberating as well, because I have so much control over all that stuff. I get to recoup it if something great happens – if one of my songs gets commercial or something like that. Yeah, I get the master side of the fee.
HAPPY: It’s so bizarre that you can have that level of autonomy over your music.
LENKA: I don’t know if a lot of people say it that way. Depends on your personality. I think some really amazing performers just want to perform. Some wouldn’t even write their own songs. I’ve always been a little bit of a control freak. I think I was a bit annoying as an actor. So I’ll always be like, ‘what if we did it like this’ and everyone’s like ‘just go over there and do your thing, I’m the director’.
So for me, it was really great change. I was like, ‘wow, I get to write the songs, I get to express what’s in my head, I get to decide what my visual identity is, what my videos are going to be like’. I loved that. And I still work with stylists and directors and all that kind of thing. Producers obviously on the albums, because everyone’s got different skill bases, but they listen to you because you’re the artist. So for me, I’ve always been pretty opinionated about that stuff.
HAPPY: What goes into your career, like what goes in your songwriting processes? Are you just sort of like, thinking about it over time does it all just pour out of one sitting?
LENKA: Usually, it’s overtime, there’s a little phrase that will come. The car is a really creative space, a bit of an indicator, clicking or whatever, you just hear a groove on the radio and it inspires a melody, and you get out your phone and make a voice memo, and go home and work on it later. Sometimes in the middle of the night, like when I was having babies and I’d be awake in the night a lot, breastfeeding and stuff, I’d be getting my phone. I guess I was thinking of a song in the middle of the night. But a lot of my best material has come out of co-writing sessions. And usually, you might have one of those phrases, but then you’re fleshing out of the rest of the song, it’s amazing to be with another person who can be like, ‘this might be a lot stronger if we change that line or put a different chord here’. It’s nice to get out of your own head. So I like both.
HAPPY: With music and lyrics, which one do you focus on, especially now that you’re creating your own sort of music yourself? Given that you’re creating it with that full autonomy?
LENKA: It’s very linked! To me, the melody and the lyrics are really linked. Yeah, I think it would be quite hard. I have struggled in the past, like if somebody comes with a melody idea on a track. And you’ve got to try to get the lyric to fit into that. I find that really hard or vice versa, like Elton John, and Bernie, what’s his name? Elton writes the music only, the other guy writes the words, and he sends Elton, you know, a poem. That’s a different thing. I don’t think I’d be able to do that. To me, the two things have to hook together from the very get-go. Sometimes it’s just some chords that I like. But lately, there’s been a lot of like these sessions with these guys in Europe over Zoom. Usually, they’ll have a bit of a track or have a little idea, and then you build it up together at the same time.
HAPPY: Well, that sort of wraps up all the questions I have, is there anything else that you wanna dd in?
LENKA: Yeah! Go listen to my music!
Ivory Tower is out now.
Interview by Mike Hitch
Photos by Four Minutes to Midnight