Robyn Loau went from pop star to indie darling and then disappeared: what happened next?
‘Take It From Me’ by Girlfriend was one of the biggest pop tracks of 1992.
The Australian quintet were a pretty typical pre-packaged pop group; clean cut, with great voices and the dance moves to match. Their songs were bright and innocent, perfectly targeted at a teenage audience and, in hindsight, destined to be stuck in the early 90s thanks to its cheesy synths and booming faux-hip hop/new jack swing bass and drums.
But pop music was never the end game for the group’s Robyn Loau. In 1994 she decided to leave Girlfriend and pursue something deeper, walking away from the chance at a few more hits in favour of a more creatively challenging, and hopefully satisfying, project.
“The overnight success of Girlfriend kind of blindsided me,” she tells Double J. “I didn't have any clue it was going to be as huge as it was going to be.
“But the plan was always for me to do my own thing afterwards.”
Loau hooked up with London producer Adamski, who’d emerged from the UK underground to have massive hits with 'Killer' (featuring a young Seal on vocals), ‘The Space Jungle’ and ‘N-R-G’ in the early 90s.
“We went over early in January when it was snowing, I was warned about him because he had quite a reputation of being this kind of bad boy - throwing things out the window, being a bit off the rails. But when I met him he was as sweet as could be.”
And the partnership worked. The London trip gave Loau a sack full of songs and a renewed confidence about the first splash she’d make as a solo artist. One of those songs, ‘Sick With Love’, buoyed spirits more than any other.
“We collaborated one evening and the most memorable part about it was walking out, with this great song under our belt, and it had just started snowing in London. That was quite a different for me, from anything I'd ever done.
“With Girlfriend, it was definitely driven by the management and producer, who wrote the songs. We were pretty much just the people employed to fill the artists' shoes, basically. That stuff is so incredibly marketed to a very young audience. At the time I was in my late-teens and early-20s and very eager to explore my freedom in terms of being out of home.
“So, I guess 'Sick With Love' was pulling back the veil and unleashing myself free of my parents, and free of the record company who had me quite confined to that girl next door image.”
Her face had been on the bedroom walls of teenage girls around the country. Her cassingle in their Walkmans. Her dance moves replicated in playgrounds in every state. Now, just a couple of years on, she was delivering a dark, trip hop tune that opened with the lines ‘Every time I’m making love with you, kind of makes me feel like I hate you’.
It was a big leap. But Loau was confident it was the right move and didn’t fear reprisal from fans who may deride her change in direction.
“I don't think I was nervous at all," she says. "If anything, I was just excited. For me it was a delicious deviation from where I had been. It was letting me spread my wings."
If the song has a sonic trademark, it’s the beautiful, haunting cello line that runs throughout. Adamski wrote the line in London and performed it on a synth for the demo, but when it came to recording it for the single, Loau called in a favour from a dear old friend and collaborator.
“One of the girls in Girlfriend, Lorinda Noble, her mother was a professional cellist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra,” she says. “So, we asked her to play that solo line and it just works really well. It was cool that I could combine my friendship with Lorinda and her mother. Still to this day we're friends.”
I guess 'Sick With Love' was pulling back the veil and unleashing myself free of my parents, and free of the record company who had me quite confined to that girl next door image.Robyn Loau — Double J, 2018
‘Sick With Love’ spent 14 weeks in the Australian top 50 and landed at number 71 on the triple j Hottest 100 of 1997.
That a member of Girlfriend was on triple j at all was testament to what a startling reinvention Loau had pulled off, and anticipation around the release of her debut solo album, Malaria, was immense.
But Malaria didn’t see the light of day.
“Just as the hype was at its peak, my label [Polydor Records] was bought by Universal and everyone on the label was just put on hold,” Loau explains.
“A completely new team came in all the old staff were out. The new team came in and said 'thanks, but no thanks’.”
Naturally, Loau was devastated. But that feeling didn’t linger.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Robyn Loau’s story is how quickly she genuinely made peace with what had transpired.
“I was completely devastated and disillusioned by the entire thing,” she says.
“Basically, overnight my record was shelved and I'd spent so many years building up to this point. So, I actually took some time out and went overseas and that was a massive help for me, clearing my mind and sorting out exactly what I wanted from life.”
For perhaps the first time in her life, Robyn Loau realised she didn’t actually want to be a pop star.
“The recording industry is so very fickle, these things can make you or break you,” she says. “It was a massive sign and I kind of stepped away from it thinking 'Perhaps this is not aligned with my values.’
“A lot of people say, 'You've got to get back on that horse, re-record something and sign up again' but for me I just knew that it was not what I wanted. It was not going to bring me happiness. So, I did some soul-searching, lived overseas for quite some time and made a decision.”
That decision led her to where she is now, a burlesque performer, actress and vocalist for hire, who has worked with countless international acts over the years.
“That joy I got from performing as a small child, I realise I could still get it without the help of a record company.
Stardom was not important. Music, performance and making people happy was.
“When I was young I had this passion for music. I said I really wanted to be a pop singer and I wanted to be famous, but I was too immature to really know why,” she says.
“But I guess I figured that out through the course of my career, knowing that I didn't want the pop fame as you would think – I just really wanted that joy of performing live. That really just sets you free.
When I was young I had this passion for music. I said I really wanted to be a pop singer and I wanted to be famous, but I was too immature to really know whyRobyn Loau — Double J, 2018
“I think a lot of people determine their success by ratings or chart position or how many units they sell.
"However, as creative people, we really need to go back to the source of why we do it. That was the lesson I learnt.
“What am I doing it for? It's because I actually love doing it, rather than wanting it to go that extra ten places on the chart. That's not the reason I was in the studio doing it. It was a good revelation to have.”
Part of that revelation came while working on the Siva Pacifica project in the mid-90s.
It saw Loau travel to remote islands and villages, learn about their traditional chants and songs and give them a modern twist.
“It was great for me, because my background is Polynesian. It was an awesome way for me to reintroduce that into my life.
“For anyone, no matter what you do in life, what your career is, just going back to your roots and finding out about your heritage really is so humbling and really enriches your life.
"It also helped me work out what my values were in terms of what's gonna make me happy. Do I go for the money or for what actually brings me joy? It was a big factor in changing paths in my career.”
That album did eventually come out in 2009, over a decade after Loau finished recording it. But its release didn’t bring closure to Loau, because she didn’t need it. She had moved on.
“To be honest with you I made peace with that while I was travelling overseas,” she says. “No matter whether or not your work is viewed or heard by people, I think you need to make peace with that. When you finish your product or song or artwork, no matter how successful it is, no matter how many copies it sells, no matter how many people hear it.
"You need to go 'Well I've completed this, that's a success' and set it free.”
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