With a background in acting, it is easy to tell Lenka’s wide range of talent just from watching her perform. Her expressive and innovative videos display a danceable, infectious talent, as does her catchy, upbeat voice and instrumentation. Her music has been captured by pop culture through commercials (Old Navy) and popular television sitcoms (Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty). Her easily accessible lyrics leave room to enter into her world of love, loss, and mood swings. I was fortunate to gather up a few minutes of her time (mid-supper) before her headlining show at Soiled Dove Underground in Denver, Colorado.
How are you?
Very good. Very happy to be in Denver and the venue is beautiful.
I’m impressed that you’re eating steak.
Well, the show’s not until 10.
Time for it to digest.
Yeah. I can’t eat for like, several hours before I go on or I go into a food coma.
Is this your first time in Denver?
No. The first time I came in, I was on my way to Boulder. I love Boulder.
That’s where I’m living now.
I had a day off so I got to check out Boulder. I love crunchy towns.
But you’re eating steak.
I’m not a vegetarian but I’m a bit of a hippie.
Fair enough, then Boulder is the perfect town to visit. I like to say that everyone has wheels for legs because they bike everywhere.
And those mountains right there are beautiful. I didn’t get there, but I wanted to go up for a hike.
They are a sight. So, I was watching your video for “The Show.” Can you tell me a bit about the concept and how it came about?
The live action or the animated?
Well, it’s a harness stunts trick. I actually received about 15 treatments of different ideas from different directors. I narrowed it down to four and then I eventually picked that one. In his words–the guy that wrote it–it is a metaphor for the invisible hand of fate. I really like that because I hadn’t thought of that, but it goes so well with the song. The song is about feeling like you’re not in control of your life and that the best thing to do is take a backseat and let go. And so, his idea was that some things are pulling you in and out of different scenarios and you don’t get to decide when. He’s like, “Oh, you’re having such a good time and then you are thrown in some other situation.” So I thought that was really cool. I love flying and skydiving and dancing, which I regretted immediately because it was actually really painful. Really uncomfortable. I had bruises from the weights. And trying to like, find wardrobe that can fit over a harness. If you notice that all the dresses are like, tight up here (motions to above waist) and then poof out. Yeah, the wardrobe girl was great. We had to cut through the dresses. I have a lot of respect for people that do that kind of stuff now because I didn’t realize it takes a lot of time and a team of people to figure out the frames.
But in the end, the audience really embraces it and responds to the element of creativity.
It’s great effects. Amazing. Everyone wants to believe in magic, stuff you can’t do in real life.
And it gave you a chance to act a bit and that is your background. Do you miss it?
I do. And I’m trying to think with my next video, you know, how can I kill two birds with one stone. You know, sometimes in music videos when they play all different roles, like Britney does it all the time. I don’t want it to be quite like that but I would like to try and get the acting chops back somehow.
Do you have a favorite medium? You’ve done stage, screen, and television, right?
Yeah. I mostly did TV. The first thing I did was a play when I was fourteen. And then I got a job. I did a soap opera in Australia called Time and Away and then I was on a show called G.P., which was like a Grey’s Anatomy drama. I grew up on TV and I really miss even the hardcore schedule that they had and having to shoot stuff everyday. I loved it. I went through my teenage years on set. I’m the closest to theater now doing live performances. I think my gift would be theatrical acting because you have to be so big. I still feel like I’m acting a little bit. What is this song about and how can I make it ten times bigger to make the audience understand what I’m thinking? But, film acting is all about subtlety.
Did you know then that you eventually wanted to go into music? Your father was a jazz musician. Did that have anything to do with–
Me not wanting to do music.
Oh, really, not wanting to do music? Why?
Well, I was a bit of a rebel. Not a huge rebel, but I just wanted to do my own thing. I always had this idea in the back of my head that when I was an old lady I’d be singing. Like, I’d go be a jazz singer or something, but I didn’t like that you had to go and practice so much. I didn’t like the idea of having to work on your skills. It’s so stupid, because I spent hours and hours everyday dancing. I wanted to be a ballerina. I was a real girly-girl. I wanted to be an actress. Then I wanted to create my own work so I went to art school and I got through performance art and video art. I went through a very experimental phase. Then I came back to realize–well, actually I was singing in a play and people really enjoyed my singing. I realized that that would be a really good way to combine the goals that I could be the boss, be the creator, come up with my own concepts, rather than just be a part of someone else’s project and find an audience. When I was at art school, I learned that you can spend all your money and all your time making your art and about .1 percent of the population are going to get to appreciate it. And I have a bit of a thirst to get out to a wider audience.
And get that reaction.
Yeah. And tell my stories to lots and lots of people and hopefully affect lots and lots of people. Nothing I love more than people writing to me and telling me how they feel about the song. Or you know, they’ve got this really difficult situation or something like that. It’s amazing.
When you were deep into your art and experimentalism, is that when you first took notice of Miranda July (writer, director, performance artist)? Your song, “Don’t Let me Fall” was inspired by her.
She is my favorite artist.
What was it that really moved you about her?
I was reading her book of short stories.
With the yellow cover?
I can’t remember. Actually, I always chuck the cover of my books and then we gave it to someone. Me and my boyfriend, we always buy books and then give them to people who we think will like it. I can’t remember the title of the book. I’m sure you can find it online. No One Belongs Here More Than You. Anyway, it is a collection of short stories and she has this very unique, amazing warts-and-all way of accessing the human psyche and all its flaws and putting it out there. All your fears and all the things that are so weird about being a human with emotions. So, I was fully absorbed in this book and that day when I was writing–I was writing a song with a friend–I guess it was like, it didn’t turn out like this, but it was intended to be, lyrically a very wounded, scared person falling in love, hoping that the person’s not going to trample on their heart. But it sort of musically, particularly once we went into the studio and had David Campbell do the string arranging, turned into this orchestral very lovely song. So, it turned out like a lullaby, which is really quite weird. I guess a parent/child relationship has a lot of insecurities as well, so that is how it came about.
Have you seen [Miranda July’s movie] Me and You and Everyone We Know?
Oh yeah, I’ve seen it a few times. I love it. And she has an amazing project where she tells other people to make the art. There is a book on it and it was a website. She put up a thing like, take a photograph of your parents kissing. And then everyone–just humans out in the world–would do it and send it to her. The book is not her art; it’s all other people’s art.
Are you still creating art now?
Yeah. I’m doing tapestry and needlepoint.
Oh, I just learned how to knit so I’m really training my fingers to work.
Oh, cool. I can’t knit for shit. That’s a good poem. (Laughs). I think we are going to have a little exhibition in Tokyo when we go on tour there. My partner, James, does all my digital illustrations. The other videos–the stop-motion animation–I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of those on YouTube or my Myspace, but we collaborated it. So we are going to have a show together when we go over there. The stage tonight–if you’re going to watch the show–he made that stuff. So, I’m doing like, a wall piece tapestry. It’s taking forever but it’s the perfect thing to do on a tour bus.
Yeah, I can imagine. So, now that you are a solo artist–after having spent several years with Decoder Ring–do you feel like you have more room to be creative? What are you doing differently now that you would have liked to do then?
I don’t have to try and be indie or experimental. I come from an underground and experimental world but I really like pop and vocally driven sweet music. I always felt angry toward making it a little bit weird and inaccessible so that it would be highbrow. And now I don’t have to do that. I can be like, I don’t care if it’s all major chords and it sounds like a nursery rhyme. That’s what I want it to be. So, that’s definitely a big difference. I mean, basically just being able to style it exactly the way I want it to be and have no one to answer to. That was actually quite scary at first, being in the studio and going: okay, if this doesn’t work, there’s no one I can blame. It was my decision and I have to take responsibility for that. But, it’s been okay.
Are you a big listener of pop music?
No, not really, but I absorb it everyday. My tastes are way more indie than what I make.
Well, I’m a huge Bjork fan. My favorite stuff from last year are She & Him, Goldfrapp’s new album. I listen to a lot of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, stuff like that.
Stuff to really put you in a good mood, right?
Yeah, I know. Well, that’s why I tried to have a happy album. There’s probably no Nick Drake songs, but there’s definitely some Elliot Smith songs that are uplifting and definitely some Bjork songs that are uplifting like “Human Behavior” or “Big Time Sensuality,” the early stuff. And when I was making my album, I was thinking: Okay, in my iTunes, in my music collection, those are the songs that I love the most. If you can get a good groove out of a song if you’re feeling shitty and it makes you feel amazing, then that is so precious and special and absolutely priceless. So I just wanted to do that as much as possible and I ended up with pretty much an entire album that’s about depressing stuff but sounds happy.
What do you do when you’re in a shitty mood? How do you move past it?
I write. Eat junk food. Go to the movies. You know, the same stuff everyone does but I’m definitely more likely to deal with the mood through writing when I’m depressed or confused or feel like life’s sob story. It’s the times you want to just write bad poetry.
(Laughter) I’ve been there. You were named VH1’s You Outta Know Artist. What don’t people know about you that you’re willing to share?
Well, I think all that stuff I was saying about actually coming from more of an underground thing. People don’t really know that and they would never guess it. Accept maybe for the artiness–the drawings that are on my website–other than that, I don’t think people would guess that I did use to do performance art and video art and weird sculptures or stuff like that. Or, that I was in an experimental band in Australia. But I don’t mind. I’m happy to take as many of those commercial avenues and opportunities that come up, as long as I don’t lose my integrity along the way. I mean, if they’re there for the taking, I’ll take them. If they think I’m worthwhile getting into teenagers bedrooms then…awesome.
by Aimee Herman
[Photos: Nick Leonard]