David Le’aupepe wears his disadvantaged start to life like a talisman on his sleeve.
Growing up in a rough neighbourhood in a rough part of Sydney’s inner-west, he has spoken openly about the troubles he had at school, at church, drinking, smoking, doing drugs.
The son of a opera-singing New Zealand immigrant and a mother with a disability he reflects on his family’s poverty in a philosophical way.
“We were so poor man,” he said.
“Mum had a disability and dad was a stay-at-home dad so we lived off mum’s disability pension, which wasn’t much.
“I make it sound like it was really bad, it wasn’t perfect or amazing but my parents did their very f…ing best. They were extraordinarily disadvantaged but they did their best for my sister and I.”
He went to school in Sydney’s Burwood when “Burwood was really dangerous” and when an injury precluded him from sport, he turned to music.
It would be a turning point that would define a lot about the 25-year-old’s next few years and take him from the rough streets of the inner-west to the ARIAs stage where his band Gang of Youths took out the gong for album of the year for their second album Go Farther In Lightness along with the awards for best group, best rock album and producer of the year .
“It was never meant to happen, it was never meant to be,” he says.
“Gang of Youths were never meant to be a success, we were never meant to go past the first album.
“But there is a sense of relief in winning the award, a relief that I may have actually made some impression on the country I grew up in.”
Music hasn’t just given Le’aupepe a pathway that diverts from those of his contemporaries growing up – “so many kids I grew up with are in jail now”. It gave this deep thinker and very deep feeler a way to express himself.
From the breakdown of his first marriage through his suicide attempts (The Positions) to a sense of hope from the tragedy (album of the year winner Go Farther in Lightness) Le’aupepe doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to talking about his feelings.
And he hopes that as the band’s profile grows it will encourage other men to do the same.
“I think ignoring sensitivity and ignoring vulnerability and trying to downplay it is part of human nature,” he said.
“I think this advent of the toxic masculinity is bull… and I intend to be fully part of that f…ing deluge that brings it down.
“There is a stigmatisation of man sharing anything, let alone feelings, and I want to be part of that house of cards falling.”
Carving a path by speaking honestly about his feelings has served Gang of Youths well but now, with an album of the year win and a wedding (he wed his partner Cort Bray three days before the ARIAs) the future is looking a bit brighter than it once was.
“I don’t always have to write about tragedy. Sure life has tragic elements and I think my music will always have death and tragedy but I don’t want to make work watermarked with it,” he said.
“I want to explore all avenues of life and all avenues of feelings and find out what it is to thrive and conquer.”
And with the wins in life and work under his belt, he also wants to make sure he doesn’t go back to those dark places that found him making a series of bad choices.
“I am never returning to being a drug-addled drunk,” he said.
“Deep inside I am still that kid, I am still terrified and ashamed and scared, we all still carry around with us the impression of who we were. There is a sense of me that inside me somewhere that I owe that kid something.
“I owe him progress, I owe him reflection and I have a duty of care to ensure he never rears his head again.”
And Gang of Youths’ future is all about ensuring he lives up to that commitment.
“It sounds pretentious, but for me, personally, Gang of Youths is about setting fire to effigies of my former self.”
Go Farther In Lightness is available now through Sony Music.
– The Age