Like many songwriters, Steph Linsdell jots down random phrases in her Notes app in the hopes they will later find a home in her music. When it came to titling her debut mixtape for her solo project LÂLKA, the singer, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was taken by a particular combo on a chance scroll through these tidbits: “romance and rebellion”.
“I make music largely based on feeling,” she explains. “When I open up Ableton, I’m thinking about what vibe I’m going for. Do I want something abrasive? Do I want something that’s a little more cute? It goes back and forth a lot. I really loved the juxtaposition at play within that phrase – to me, it really represented how I was feeling at the time.”
‘Romance + Rebellion’ is the Borneo-born and Brisbane-based artist’s most ambitious project to date: a non-stop mixtape, each track seamlessly blending into the next in a bright fluorescent journey. From the wallop of hyper-pop to the sugar rush of drum’n’bass, all guided by Linsdell’s robotic vocals, the mixtape collects her most striking material so far.
Though it was largely created by LÂLKA on her lonesome, she hopes listeners will feel the opposite of alone when it’s playing from their speakers. “I hope, when people hear this mixtape, they find a home for their feelings,” she says. “There’s no narrative or big theme to it – it’s more a collection of different emotions and vibes. That’s one of the main reasons I called it a mixtape as opposed to an album. Sometimes, our emotions are the hardest thing to label and define, but if people can relate to this music then they might not even have to label them at all.”
The mixtape arrives over half a decade into Linsdell’s run as LÂLKA, having debuted the project in 2017 with the dark, slow electronica of ‘Dare You to Love Me’. It served as a radical reinvention from her previous project Quintessential Doll, which leaned in a baroque indie-pop direction and merely hinted at electronica – the proverbial seasoning to LÂLKA’s star ingredient.
Abandoning Quintessential Doll in favour of LÂLKA, as it turns out, was a necessary evolution for Linsdell – even if there wasn’t any greater significance to the name itself. “I wish it had a deeper meaning,” she laughs. “I was trying out a few formations of letters, and I liked the way that all of the letters in LALKA had these right angles.” As for the circumflex over the first A: “when I created my Facebook page, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t accept LALKA as a name – so I added the Â and it was accepted,” she explains. “It’s also Polish for ‘doll’ – so maybe there is a deeper meaning.”
One of the other key differences between Quintessential Doll and LÂLKA is both the vocal and musical environment. In the former, Linsdell’s vocals remained largely untouched as she moved between performing on guitar, piano and violin. While she still incorporates that last instrument into some memorable sections of ‘Romance + Rebellion’, the lion’s share of the music was created on Ableton and her vocals are often fed through either AutoTune or a vocoder.
“Sometimes, our emotions are the hardest thing to label and define, but if people can relate to this music then they might not even have to label them at all”
With LÂLKA, Linsdell – a classically trained pianist – hopes to dispel the traditionalist notion that singer-songwriter are only legitimate when they perform with a “real” instrument. “I can definitely see why people correlate the two, but as a songwriter it’s largely the opposite for me,” she says.
“The reason I became an electronic artist in the first place was because I found that ‘real’ instruments were ultimately quite limited in how I could express myself. There’s 88 keys on a piano, and you can play a lot of different notes and chords, but there isn’t enough depth in its sonic spectrum and its qualities. Electronic music became more personal to me, because I had to dig deeper to explore how I wanted to say what I wanted to say. It’s no less authentic or personal than if I was standing up on stage with a guitar.”
The trial and error process of learning music production on her own has also allowed Linsdell the most creative freedom she’s experienced across her entire career as a musician. “It’s really fun to sculpt sounds in the exact way I want them,” she says. “It’s my main form of self-expression. Some people write beautiful poetry, some people can paint beautiful paintings. For me, it’s all in this project and all in my production.”
‘Romance + Rebellion’ is Linsdell’s first release since she was formally diagnosed with both fibromyalgia and Autism. At a time when conversations around chronic illness and neurodivergence are more prevalent within public discourse than ever before, she felt it imperative to be transparent about these new aspects of her life – with the hopes that said conversations will continue.
“Knowing these facts about myself was enlightening – it was like, ‘oh, there’s a reason for the way I am, I’m not just weird’,” she says. “Once you know what you’re working with, it gives you a direction to find tools that help you. It was important for me to be open about it and not ashamed of it.
“Growing up, I always knew something was off about me. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t like everyone else. Once you understand how your brain works, you become super practical – instead of being stuck in the diagnosis, you start looking for solutions to your problems. People will never know what the solutions are, though, if these problems aren’t being discussed in the first place.”
“The reason I became an electronic artist in the first place was because I found that ‘real’ instruments were ultimately quite limited in how I could express myself”
In an effort to keep these conversations going, LÂLKA’s launch party for ‘Romance + Rebellion’ in Brisbane is being curated so it’s as accessible as possible. This includes implementing a sliding-scale ticket price to keep the show affordable, a designated chill-out area, a late afternoon start time and accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms.
“I will probably miss a few things this time, because it’s my first time doing it, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to learn more and more as I go,” Linsdell says. “Even in the process of making this show happen, I’ve been looking at stuff I hadn’t even thought about prior to this. It’s so part of the norm that it doesn’t even really get talked about, but night-time gigs can be hard for some people. The things that may not affect you might affect another person, and putting on an accessible show can really make you realise that.”
Linsdell lights up when discussing the positive response she’s gotten to the show and the goals behind it. “I got a message the other day from someone whose name I always saw come up in my mailing list and in my merch orders, and they were so excited I was putting on a show they were able to come to,” she says. “They were like, ‘Finally!’ Those little things are really exciting for me, it makes me feel as though I’m at least doing something right.”
LÂLKA’s ‘Romance + Rebellion’ mixtape is out now. The celebration show in Brisbane takes place June 18 at QUIVR Bar – find tickets and more info here