Decked out in Stuart Vevers-designed Coach for this exclusive interview and photo shoot, singer/songwriter Lenka talks about her cheerful new album.
Whether you know it or not, singer/songwriter Lenka’s music has likely graced your ears numerous times. The Australian sensation’s whimsical, cup-half-full attitude fueled the international hit “The Show” from her eponymous debut album, with her music continuing to gain traction with tracks like “Everything at Once.” The irresistibly catchy optimism of her sound is an advertiser’s dream, helping her land music in giant commercials for the likes of Coca Cola, Windows, and Old Navy—not to mention TV features on prevalent shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Ugly Betty.”
After taking time to focus on her growing family, Lenka is back to spread the jubilant vibes with her fourth studio album, The Bright Side. We talked to the multifaceted artist about her musical evolution, working with husband James Gulliver Hancock, and the wonders of exploring fashion via social media while she happily tried on pieces from Stuart Vevers’s sunny spring collection for Coach, including a t-shirt designed in collaboration with artist Gary Baseman, to whom Lenka just happens to have a personal connection.
You’ve been both an actress and a singer. Which passion came first?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a dancer, and then that changed when I was a teenager. I decided I wanted to be an actor and my mom helped me out getting an agent, and I started acting quite early at about twelve, thirteen. So I was like a professional teen actress, which was really fun, being in high school and getting to leave school and go for acting and stuff.
And how did the shift to singing come about?
I think maybe I was a little bit burnt out from that career choice already by about the age of nineteen (laughs). I don’t know, I just knew that I wasn’t going to be 100% committed to the life of an actor, as my mentors were. Like my teacher at acting school was Cate Blanchett. She’s like, 150% an actor–she just lives and breathes it, and I knew I wasn’t like that. I went to art school and studied sculpture, performance art and video, and that didn’t feel like the quite right fit.
And this whole time, you know, I liked music and I could do a little bit of music, and my dad’s a musician, but I never was thinking that it would be a career, probably because of my dad. I just wanted to rebel against the whole notion of doing the same thing. But I was singing in a play when I was about 22, 23, you know, like an Off-Broadway, fringe theater thing, and my director sang a song, and that was the moment where I totally flopped over and I realized that I was enjoying singing more and I was getting more out of it, and it felt like the audience was getting more out of it. People kept saying to me, “You should do more music.” So that was when I sort of shifted focus and spent my time brushing up my music theory and writing songs. And then I joined a band so it kind of quickly became my life.
It’s funny how you end up falling into the things that wind up being your strongest passions.
I know, and sometimes I regret a little bit that I didn’t know earlier because I was actually 30 by the time that my first album came out, because I was in the band for a few years and then I started doing solo stuff, and then it takes a few years to sort of get people to believe in you and give you the money to make an album. So I’m like, “Shit, if I started at 15, I would have had so much more time to do all that experimenting and everything. I’d be touring and be 23, which would be more fun I think because now I’m like married and I have a kid and my life doesn’t feel that “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
You and your husband, visual artist James Gulliver Hancock, have worked quite a bit together. Can you talk about being a creative team?
He’s an illustrator and a visual artist…if you’re a New Yorker, you’ve probably seen his work on the subway. And from the very beginning, when I started to do solo music, he was really there for the visual side of building up my identity as a singer/songwriter. This sort of whimsical, childlike thing I have going on is partly developed by his style as well. We’d actually just started dating as well, so really the joining of us together romantically was the joining of us together creatively as well, and that was quite exciting. We were like, “Yeah! We have lots of stuff that we can do together.” And we wanted to help each other’s careers move along in a parallel path.
We don’t work together as much now. I tend to hire more people. But he’s always there as a kind of production designer or at least another pair of eyes to help out, and he still does all the layout and everything for all my albums and merch. He’s gotten a little busier; he’s fulltime now, doing books and things, but yeah, we’re lucky because I think you want to have a partner that has a similar career to you, but I don’t know though if I would want my guitarist or someone to be my partner or something like that.
The Bright Side is going to be your fourth studio album. Can you talk to me about the musical evolution you’ve experienced since the beginning of your career?
Well this album, it’s a little bit of a return to what I feel like is my strength as a songwriter, with sort of optimistic, kind of happy songs that I had departed from for a little while. But my mood in my life right now warranted me to revisit, so I’ve just made those happy tunes again. And also, I have a toddler who wants to dance, so he was really responding to me making things with a more up-tempo, upbeat kind of feel to them. I mean I’ve been striving to try and be very happy in my life and I feel like I’m at that point [now], and I just wanted to bottle it. This album is basically a capsule of my happiness. I want to be able to look back on it and say, “That was a good time in my life.”
Where did your inspiration for the songs come from this time around?
A fair few of the songs were born from briefs for film and TV writing. I’ve been sort of taking a bit of time off, having a baby and stuff, but still doing a little bit of writing. So, you know, sometimes they’ll be like, “This is the character, these are the themes in the show. Can you write a song along those lines?” And I’m allowed to use those songs whether or not they’ve been used in that project, so I’m still able to put them on a record or something if I want to. So I’ve sort of had this collection of songs that I loved and they made up about half of the record and then I sort of rounded it out with the last few tracks.
So some of the songs are about your own life, and some are about characters that were described to you?
Yeah, but the thing is that the characters that I’m given to write about are usually young, joyful girls, so it’s kind of the same vibe anyway because that’s what I’m known for. So the two are intertwined. It’s like, “Oh, perfect! This is exactly how I feel right now. I can easily write a song like that.”
Where does the album stand at this moment?
It’s totally finished. The vinyl is getting printed as we speak and it’s slated to release on June 16th, so I think that’s probably enough time to get it all ready. I’m sure we’ll release a new song before then, too. I’m not sure which one; it sort of depends on which one I want to make a video for.
So the visual component plays a factor in which singles get released. Do you have any ideas yet?
There’s one video that I want to do that [my husband] wouldn’t be involved in, because it isn’t going to be that pretty, but there’s this one song called “Unique” and I want to do it with fans, get them to send in videos of themselves, and I bought a selfie stick. I was so embarrassed by it–I was like, “This is for a video. I’m allowed to do this.” But I’ve used it so many times, it’s so much fun. I mean, it’s amazing! I’ve got a new iPhone and the camera is amazing and I just sort of want to take it with my life a little bit and do one of those sort of behind the scenes, just walking along the streets kind of videos. It won’t be all that artistic, but I think it will suit the song.
When it comes to fashion, do you think about what you wear on stage heavily?
I do think about it heavily. I spend a lot of timing trolling vintage markets and things like that because I do love ‘50s Mod and kind of vintage looks. At the moment, I’ve been doing a lot of blue, like “Blue Skies,” almost like a bit Normcore and suburban, just black and white and blue. And then I’m obsessed with polka dots at the moment…I love graphic prints and unusual color combinations so my eye is usually caught by things like that.
Is there anyone you look toward as a fashion icon?
As far as icons, I don’t know who it would be. I feel like it would be vintage-y people too. I should look at my Pinterest right now. It’s been a really big tool for me when I have to communicate with stylists. It’s great. I can just be like, “If you want to see what kind of stuff I like, have a look at this.” Or you can make an album specifically for a particular shoot, like that’s what we did with my album cover shoot.
I like Mary Quant, 1960s stuff. There’s a lot of Mary Quant in here. I often really like what Taylor Swift is wearing. I’ll see her walking down the street and be like “Hmm, I think we have the same Pinterest board.”
How do you find a lot of your inspiration?
That’s a lot of Pinterest too. You do find that if you start to follow people or you get on a thread, it sort of learns what you like. Like it knows that I like bold patterns, so it will just show me people’s latest runway looks that have lots of crazy patters.
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Lenka photographed by Justin Bridges for BlackBook. Styled by Alyssa Shapiro. Hair and makeup by Ashley Rebecca.