Pip Brown, the New Zealand-born multi-instrumentalist better known as Ladyhawke, has overcome a fair bit of misfortune in her young life. At the age of ten she was diagnosed with a disease called erysipeloid, which is common in seagulls but hadn’t been seen in humans in 20 years. If that’s not bad enough, she’s allergic to all forms of antibiotics and penicillin, which complicated her treatment so much that she ended up in a coma.
After coming close to death, she recovered only to discover in the coming years that she had Asberger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes social interaction difficult. So how did a sickly, socially awkward New Zealand teen go onto become on of the most exciting musical artists we have today? Well a formidable talent, drive and sense of adventure have come in handy.
Brown was only a teenager in New Zealand when she formed the band Two Lane Blacktop with some friends. They went on to play at legendary New York club CBCG. Then on an impulse, Brown moved to Melbourne where she formed the band Teenager with Nick Littlemore (Empire of the Sun).
But it was her decision to leave Teenager and focus on her solo project, Ladyhawke, that shot her to prominence. Ladyhawke is named after the 1985 cult film, in which a radiant Michelle Pfeiffer played the cursed title character.
Bird references seem fitting, given that Brown was nearly killed by a seagull’s disease and that her whole life since represents a phoenix-like resurrection. She says the name represents the way she sees herself – as “a pop superwoman creating radio-friendly songs with a single bound”. Either which way, it’s a killer name.
Rightly or wrongly, Ladyhawke’s 1980’s influenced dance music has seen her grouped with other contemporary singers such as La Roux, Little Gaga, Sia and Little Boots. All have distinctive looks, visual style and more than a taste of androgyny.
Which brings us to Ladyhawke’s cover art. The illustrated watercolour and ink drawings that feature on her records and in her music videos have helped define her brand. They’re by 31-year old Melbourne artist Sarah Larnach, who is not only Brown’s collaborator but also her best friend.
Larnach first saw Brown at a Melbourne party in 2004, where she immediately noticed her “mopey posture, unlike anything I’d seen on a girl.” Speaking to The Independent in an article about their friendship, Larnach recalled: “She seemed really cool and I immediately wanted her to be my friend, but I didn’t want to freak her out, so I didn’t even talk to her.”
They lived close together and soon became friends. “I had a large of group of friends, but never a best friend, so it was great meeting Sarah,” says Brown. “Straight off the bat I found her hilarious. Sense of humour is key for me – if I find someone completely unwitty, I can’t even bluff getting along with them. She is sharp and intelligent and I enjoy every second of conversations with her.”
Larnach was a slack student at art school and lacked confidence in her work. Brown observes: “She is the biggest procrastinator in the world, but I always thought she was an incredible artist – she has a brilliant imagination. When she first plucked up the courage to show me some of her art I was so impressed. I ended up posing for her for heaps of paintings, so I became a bit like a muse, though I wouldn’t quite call myself that.”
It’s a fair description however, as the collaboration between the two has created a career for Larnach. “As soon as I met Pip I knew she was going to be really significant, not just in my life, but in general, and I knew I’d do anything to help her. Maybe I’ve helped her a bit, but she has helped me a great deal.”