Cover Etty Lau Farrell talks overcoming ageism in the rock industry (Photo: Walid Azami)

The singer-songwriter from Hong Kong talks about making her solo debut at 47, her advice for thriving in male-dominated fields, and what it’s like working with husband Perry Farrell of band Jane’s Addiction

Chances are, you might not have heard of Etty Lau Farrell—yet. The dancer and singer-songwriter and wife of rock legend Perry Farrell just made her solo debut at age 47. Putting her solo career on hold to raise a family, the songstress is now ready to showcase her talent as an Asian American artist.

Hailing from Hong Kong, Lau Farrell’s family moved to the US where she trained as a dancer and singer for a band. While on tour, she met her soon-to-be husband, Perry Farrell, the godfather of alternative rock. Since then, the singer has performed with her husband and her band The Kind Heaven Orchestra on many occasions.

In an exclusive interview with Tatler’s Front & Female timed to International Women's Day, Lau Farrell tells us about making her solo debut at a later age, the trade-offs she has to give as a mother and artist, and why she chose to be a rock star despite the industry being male-dominated.

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You’ve just released your first solo song, He’s A Rebel. After all these years in the music industry, why did you choose to debut as a soloist now?

I’ve always loved performing since I was three years old when I began to dance. Even then, I had a passion for singing but kept it to myself. I entered the music industry, singing first with Satellite Party and then as lead singer-dancer for Kind Heaven Orchestra. I realise that a solo music career was what I wanted to pursue next.

During the pandemic, my husband, kids, and I would all hang out around our living room where we have turntables set up. We would put on classic vinyl, and listen together. We did that every time the boys bought records. Then we came across He’s A Rebel [from American vocal group The Crystals]. Perry and I thought it was the perfect song for the first solo single because of how well it fit my style and vocals. After singing the song around my house, I brought in some friends to add to the song and we decided that it would be the first release of my career. 

But why now? There’s no better time like the present to do what you love.

In your song, who’s the rebel?

I can’t speak for The Crystals and who their rebel is, but for me, it’s my husband, Perry. He’s always been my hero, number one supporter, and, as we all know, a rebel in his own way. From the first day he discovered that I can sing, Perry has been a great teacher and mentor, never wavering in his support and his encouragement.  Perry gave me his trust, belief, and attention in helping me develop my craft.

Your debut song is produced by your husband, Perry Farrell who is also an artist of his own right. What is your collaboration style like?

He’s very involved [in my career], taking me under his wings, as a mentor, a teacher, supporter, partner and as a manager. He weighs over every option but also considers my desires and opinion in decision making. He’s my producer who gives me directions, I follow, but with my own flair.

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Both you and your husband have music careers. Have you felt pressure to make a name of yourself or to match his superstardom?

Absolutely. Sometimes that pressure is all-consuming but now, it’s about matching [each other] because it isn’t a competition. He is who he is, where he is because he is one of the most prolific, unique artists of our generation—that’s his Legacy. I have my own story to tell, my own destiny and success to achieve. 

A woman should have a career and family, but it’s hard to maintain both. Choices and sacrifices have to be made and I’m no different. I have had to leave my children for weeks at a time while I was touring. I have missed their birthdays, many firsts such as the first day of school, first time on a skateboard. I have missed milestones and every time, it would hurt my heart.

“Rock music is no different from any other industry, as a woman, you must be confident, assertive and stand your ground”
Etty Lau Farrell

It’s difficult, especially for women, to make a big push to debut solo at 47. How do you overcome the stigma that comes with ageism?

Oh, am I 47? Is age really a factor anymore? Well, not to me. Age is really a glass ceiling that women should push through. Age is not a bad thing, as a woman, you develop poise, grace, charm, wisdom, and confidence. If a woman, a person, takes the time to take care of themselves, then she is ageless. For example, I would not have had the experience and the knowledge to not only be an artist, a global festival promoter, a partner in my husband’s other business endeavours had I not had the years to acquire and build up my repertoire.

What drew you to the rock scene in the first place even if you knew that it's male dominated?

Rock music is just so phenomenal! Who wouldn't want to be a part of it? When we left Hong Kong, we moved to Bellevue, a suburb in Seattle. In the late 80s and early 90s, rock music ruled Puget Sound, including some of the most prolific alternative grunge bands like Nirvana. They were all-encompassing in the years that shaped me, as a person and as an artist. Besides, everyone wants to be a rockstar, who says only men can apply?

Rock music is no different [from any other industry], as a woman, you must be confident, assertive and stand your ground. It’s difficult but the successful women that I know have always been able to remain poised and collected under any circumstances. There are battles to be picked to win, so I pick my battles. I don’t allow men to dominate or bully me. That’s how I stand my ground. Men don’t listen and love to mansplain things to you, so you just put in your good work and show them that they don’t know everything.

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You’re originally from Hong Kong. How connected do you feel to your Hong Kong roots?

Hong Kong is and will always be in my heart, and I will always love and support the people and their plight. I return to visit often as I still have family and friends there. We follow the news, and I would discuss it with Perry and my dad. During the pandemic, I had to cook a few dishes that were near and dear to my heart when I was still in Hong Kong. They’re mostly when you can find them in Hong Kong-style cafes such as cutlet with rice, minced beef with rice and Borscht soup.

I remember growing up on Jordan Road and walking to St. Mary’s. That stretch of road, across from the Kowloon Park, where magnolia would bloom in spring. Incidentally, I remember taking Chinese calligraphy from a building up the hill from that street, and years later, one of my sons attended the international school there for a year.

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Your husband once mentioned in an interview that he changed the lyrics to He’s A Rebel and that you were singing to the men and women in Hong Kong. Can you tell us about that?

As a Hongkonger, I try to keep up with what is happening to my homeland and how it has affected my friends and family. Perry changed the lyrics of Rebel as a way to say to the men and women living there “We are thinking of you and we support you”. It was one of the ways that Perry and I know how to spread the message of love and kindness.

You’ve been open about your experiences with discrimination since moving to the US when you were young. How are you trying to draw awareness to the rise of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans?

When my family moved to Seattle, we lived in a very yuppie (young urban professional) neighbourhood with only around three Asian families. I definitely stood out and was looked at almost like an exotic animal. Every stereotype you can think of was thrown at me. It was a difficult time and I tried very hard to assimilate. But at the same time, a part of me still wanted to retain my own culture and beliefs.

Hate crimes and discriminating again anyone minority or group are really terrible, terrible things, and they need to stop. We have to look within ourselves and consciously make a change, and then we can help others to be more inclusive and accepting, not tolerate but integrate. I’m partnering up with a couple of organisations that focus on equality and hopefully be their voice on social media platforms.

During the pandemic, I showed up to demonstrations in Los Angeles, when violence and hate crime against Asian Americans took a sharp rise. I have spoken with organisations such as the National Asian American Pacific American Women's Forum about collaborations and being their spokesperson to promote equality and rights of Asian American women.

If you could give any advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Stay your course and don’t give up. Do not let other peoples’ desires and opinions shape who you are and who you want to be. Practice. It’s okay to feel discouraged but don’t indulge in the negativity too much. Be kind and be authentic.

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