Bigger than Bega: Lenka's Asian odyssey
ON HER way to meet me for lunch at Sydney Madang, the Australian pop singer Lenka tweets to her followers.
Lenka, who is all but unknown in Australia, recently knocked Gangnam Style off the top of the iTunes chart in the Philippines with her single Everything at Once. She's had five No.1 songs in Asia, earning a platinum disc in Thailand and a gold record in Korea. On Facebook, she has 1.7 million "likes", including 900,000 from Indonesia.
She travels though Asia with bodyguards and is politely mobbed after gigs. "My fans over there see me as a pop star as big as Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber," says Lenka. But in Sydney, "I just go about my business and no one really takes any notice of me".
She was born Lenka Kripac in Bega, New South Wales, to an Australian mother and a Czech father, and is almost certainly the only person from Bega ever to become famous in Korea.
As a teenager, she trained at the Australian Theatre for Young People, and played the role of Vesna Kapek in GP. She went on to appear in Australian movie The Dish and ended up hosting children's cartoon show Cheez TV on the Ten Network. In 2004, she joined Sydney electronic group Decoder Ring, whose soundtrack to the movie Somersault won an AFI award for best original music score.
In 2007, frustrated that Decoder Ring weren't interested in her more poppy songwriting, she crossed the Pacific with her partner, illustrator James Gulliver Hancock, to try to make it as a solo artist in the US. Instead, to her great surprise, she became the next big thing in Hong Kong. She still seems a little baffled by her sudden popularity.
"It actually started cooking before I'd ever set foot there," she says. "The first tour that I did, I stepped off the plane at Hong Kong airport, wearing my pyjamas and no make-up, greeted by 40 screaming fans with 'Lenka' signs and cameras, wanting autographs - and news cameras, local news stations, paparazzi."
Until then, the only "Lenka" sign she'd seen was one she had made herself to put up on stage. "I was quite shocked," she says. "I've got a really strong fan club in Hong Kong and they follow me everywhere. They'll turn up at the hotel, at the airport when I'm coming and going. I don't know how they know."
Other Asian countries fell like dominoes before the might of Lenka's Sony publicity machine, but she is no longer signed to Sony.
"In some places it was great, such as Asia and Germany," says Lenka. "In some places it was awful, like Australia and England. Australian Sony didn't do a very good job. I did come and do a couple of shows, but nothing happened."
Her song The Show appeared in a US TV commercial for Old Navy clothing and a promo for Ugly Betty, as well as various ad campaigns in Europe and Asia. It's girly, bouncy, breathy, sweet, naive and poppy, and it sounds like something you must've heard before.
Lenka's Asian followers tend to be teenage girls, but she played a promo at a Gap store in the US and "the audience was almost entirely filled with toddlers", she says. "Five-year-olds and stuff, who obviously never get to come to a gig, but they were all fans."
At Sydney Madang, a Korean barbecue restaurant tucked away in Pitt Street's Little Korea, she orders bibimbap because, she says, she loves it.
"Photo please," asks one of Lenka's Twitter followers, so she posts a picture of the dish. "I've put up a lot of pictures of me eating various foods around the world," she explains.
Lenka is delicately pretty in a globalised, racially homogenous way. She could almost be Asian, nearly Icelandic, possibly Middle Eastern, maybe French. While she's eating, she pauses to pose for the photographer, and I've never seen anyone quite so good at being photographed before. She repeatedly freezes into a tableau of herself, almost composes the picture on her own - her actions, her expression, the precise moment to be captured - then continues her meal as if nothing has happened.
Lenka says she experiences Asia through food, since her schedules leave her no time for sightseeing. "All the radio stations and the label employees always try to get me to eat the weirdest food they can think of," she says, "like durian. It's the most disgusting thing on the face of the earth."
"In every language," she says, "I learn 'hello', 'I love you', 'thank you': a few little greetings to say on stage. In Indonesia, I'd run out of them, and the only other word I knew was 'pisang goreng', which means fried banana. So I just blurted that out on stage. Now everyone in Indonesia thinks I love fried banana, and whenever I go to a restaurant or hotel I get given it with a big smile on the waiter's face, because he thinks I'll be so happy to receive pisang goreng."
And how does she feel about fried banana? "I don't really like it, actually," she says.
It's hard to get rich being a pop star in Asia. Costs are high - Lenka tours with a four-piece band - and returns are low. "It's mostly a pirate market," she says. "A substantial amount of the sales are actually ringtones. Five ringtones adds up to a single download, or something like that. They somehow count it as part of your chart position."
For songwriters such as Lenka, money comes from music publishing, royalties earned through songs placed on TV shows and ad campaigns. It's tough to break into markets such as Korea and Japan, where locally produced K-pop and J-pop dominate the charts, but no one can predict what will happen in China.
"Everybody wants to break into China," says Lenka. "You have to be approved by the government to play. All my lyrics have been read and approved, which makes me think, 'Well, I guess I'm not really saying anything too controversial, or sexy."'
Last year, Lenka and Hancock had their first child, Quinn. In utero, Quinn had been on 30 flights and visited 16 countries. At nine months old, he's already been on four planes.
Lenka was still touring at five months' pregnant and had assumed life would return to normal once she'd given birth. "I thought it'd be dinner parties every night," she says. "But I haven't even done the laundry. It's so hard to get anything done."
She has, however, managed to record a new album, which will be released in June. Her fans are excited, but they seem equally overjoyed about her lunch.
"I like you," they post, under the picture of her bibimbap. "So good", "It's amazing", "I LovE you! Lenka!"
Watch a video of her song The Show on youtube.com/watch?v=elsh3J5lJ6g