Missy Higgins’ eclectic homage to artists from Oz
In the book of essays that accompanies Missy Higgins’ new album Oz, she attempts to define an Australian sound. “It’s very hard to articulate. At the risk of overgeneralising, there’s a kind of raw punky twang at the heart of it, a looseness in the shoulders, a directness in the lyrics, a sense of no-fucking-about in both words and music. There’s gruffness, a slightly reserved honesty, inherent cynicism and a deep, secret need to be loved. That’s my unashamedly subjective impression, anyway.” On Oz she covers an eclectic selection of Australian artists, and the book she calls “a cross between liner notes and a kind of random autobiography”.
As we chat over tea in a cafe near her Abbotsford, Melbourne, home, I tell her the idea of “looseness at the shoulders” resonates. “I think it kind of comes down to the attitude, and the lyrics,” she says. “Mostly there’s a bit of self-deprecating humour in there, and a sense of not taking ourselves too seriously, and a kind of a pretty unique perspective on life, that Australians have, I think. I don’t know...”
We’re sitting at a bench, chatting like two people in the front seats of a car might, not looking at one another, but instead out at the street that’s being whipped by a cold spring wind. Autumn’s rotting leaves are being flung out of the gutters. The tips of the plane trees’ limbs are fluffed with the lime green of new growth. She’s wearing a stripy skirt that stretches over her five-months-pregnant belly, a black jacket and grey scarf, and when I turn away from the street to look at her, she’s still looking outwards. Under her cap of dark hair I see the pale seashell of her ear.
On and off, over the past five years, Higgins has spent time listening to Australian music across all genres for songs that speak to her, and unabashedly in our accent. “Slim Dusty was the first of the country music scene to [sing in an Australian accent],” she says. “Australian radio wasn’t playing Australian country music with any Australian accents, they were all just emulating the Americans, so he was hugely influential.” She covers his song “The Biggest Disappointment” on Oz, a song actually written by Dusty’s wife, Joy McKean.
Higgins herself sings with an audibly Australian accent, and in person she’s laconic. There’s almost a drawl there that seems at odds with her private schooling, her Melbourne city upbringing.
“I was influenced by Frente! and The Waifs, who sang in an Australian accent, and Something for Kate were a bit Australian, so I think that’s probably the reason that I sang in an accent. Because that’s what I was listening to at the time.”
In 2001, Higgins won Triple J’s Unearthed competition, still a teenager and in the midst of her final year at school. She wrote “I’m All for Believing”, the song that won her the Unearthed title, when she was only 15, and online I watch footage of her performing it as part of the celebrations. She sits ramrod straight at the piano, her hair pulled high in a schoolgirl ponytail. Throughout the song her eyes are firmly shut. Her voice is strong and clear. When the song is finished, she opens her eyes and looks self-consciously around, unsure what to do with her hands now they’re freed from the piano keys. She wipes them down her waist, across her thighs, and gives the audience a shy smile: “Thank you.” This is Higgins on the precipice, pre hit albums, pre swag of ARIAs, and unaware of how fame might shape and change her life.
In Oz she covers Paul Kelly’s “Everybody Wants to Touch Me”, and in the accompanying essay – there’s one for each song – she talks about being pulled into the sweaty armpits of strangers, these horrible hugs. “I’m hardly the first person to observe that if you get a bit famous you actually don’t change at all but everyone else around you changes,” Higgins writes.
I ask her about fame. “I still find it very strange and I really wish that I didn’t,” she says. “I mean, I’ve definitely come to terms with it in a huge way, compared to how I used to be. I don’t feel like a caged bird. I don’t feel like I can’t leave the house or anything – maybe it’s just become much more normal now. And also people are less… they recognise me a bit less now. And also when they do, they’re a bit less crazy about it.
“I think that when you’re first starting out, when you’re young, you have a lot of young crazy fans who have just discovered you and they’re just super excited, and they can’t control themselves. And that’s always a bit freaky because people just kind of come rushing up to you with crazy eyes and shake you and scream at you about how much they love you.”
Higgins laughs as if she still can’t believe it, but she has adjusted her life. She doesn’t go out to clubs or pubs anymore, or if she does, she doesn’t stay past a certain hour. “There’s this witching hour where all the drunk dudes in packs just decide it’s time to come over and get a photo for their sister, and then they never let you go.”
Her brown eyes remind me of the soft, long-lashed eyes of a kangaroo. I can understand the urge to pull her in for a hug.
“I remember a couple of times that I’ve met people that I really admire, and I’ve just freaked out, become such a weirdo in front of them. Afterwards I’ve thought, ‘My God, that’s why people are strange when they come up to me.’ I’ve been that weirdo myself. But when it happens to you a lot, you get this obscured view of the world, that everyone has a zombie inside them or something. But yeah, I mean, they all mean really well, and most of the time they’re really lovely.”
The research for Oz began years ago, at a time when she was struggling to write her third album. “I felt at the time that I really wanted my own album. I really wanted to write my own songs because I was feeling so down on myself for not being able to write – that I wanted to prove it to myself that I could. So instead of doing that covers album I just decided to quit music – if I can’t write my own songs, then I’m throwing in the towel, because I was too depressed about it.
“I sat my manager down and I told him that, well, basically that I don’t have a choice because I can’t write songs anymore and it’s making me miserable trying. I mean, looking back, there were obviously some deep-seated emotional issues going on. I had been spending a lot of time in America amongst really business-minded record execs, who would just talk a lot about, you know, chart numbers and sales numbers. And eventually I found myself in a place where the heart of the music had gone for me,” she says with a sigh. She runs her fingers through her cropped hair and it falls perfectly back into place.
“Like, the reason why I started writing music in the first place, that real innocent love of it, had completely disappeared. I had accidentally adopted their mentality, or I’d kind of been taken up by it. I’d done so much touring. I hadn’t come back to Australia for years, and missed my family. I think in between albums I always have a period of being scared that I won’t be able to write another song, or another album. It’s kind of hard to have faith.”
She describes how she eventually made her way back to music to write her third album, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle (2012), “heavily themed towards writer’s block and self-worth – and yeah – having an existential crisis of identity”. She laughs again. It’s a story she’s told before, part of the mythology of Missy Higgins, what endears her to listeners – this heart-on-the-sleeve honesty, an earnestness, a willingness to show the audience her vulnerabilities.
We speak about the complexities of performance and shyness. “There are a lot of introverted performers out there,” Higgins says. “I think what happens is that when you get out on stage, you’re in absolute control, and you’re not actually having to… you’re not having personal interactions. It’s a personal experience because you’re giving so much of yourself, but you don’t have to look anyone in the eye if you don’t want to. You don’t have to give more or less than you want. I think for some reason that’s the thing that makes it a calming feeling for me. When I get off stage I’m more anxious than when I’m on stage. So, yeah, it’s weird.
“One of my first memories [of performance],” she says, turning from the window to face me, “was being in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I think I was in year 8. I was in boarding school and we were trying out for the parts in music class, and everybody had to stand up and sing a line for the teacher. I remember standing up and singing, and seeing the look of surprise on the teacher’s face. I remember clocking that – wow, that teacher was impressed with me – and that felt really good.” She still carries a little of the childish joy of that moment, it changes her face, a grin breaks through.
“At that point, I don’t know if I even knew I could sing. I was given a really good part. That was my first experience with a microphone and a spotlight. I just remember stepping out onto the stage and feeling so comfortable, and empowered and confident. It was a strange kind of juxtaposition, because I was always such a quiet watcher as a kid.”
It’s a nice quality to bring to a covers album – as an observer, a “quiet watcher”, there’s a welcome sensitivity. Of singing covers, Higgins says: “It doesn’t hold so much emotional weight for me, because I didn’t write the music or the lyrics, but I can allow myself to let go a little bit more inside a cover song, and just have fun with it.
“Whereas, I think with my own songs, I feel a bit more responsibility, a bit more vulnerable and exposed, so therefore a bit more self-conscious. It’s the disappearing inside someone else’s story – makes for a bit of a break from your own head. Which is probably what performing is in general for me, too. As soon as you kind of click over into performing mode on stage, you let go of a bit of a sense of self, and just lose yourself in the music. It’s probably why I enjoy it so much.”
Watching footage of Higgins playing “Shark Fin Blues”, the Drones song, I can see that looseness in the shoulders. Her ramrod spine is gone. The tightness and the nervousness are gone. Instead the 31-year-old looks fluid, in complete control. She says she loves the lyrics. “They’re so dark and epic, and so vividly written. It’s this incredible metaphor of this person standing on a boat as it’s sinking, with the sharks circling around, and getting closer and closer to his feet, and the captain’s drunk, passed out in the galley.
“I’d love to know what the song means to Gareth [Liddiard], who wrote it. But to me it represents feelings of utter despair and hopelessness, or impending doom. It could be depressing, but there’s something really uplifting in the music, and the fact that it ends up turning into this big chant… it gets really orchestral.”
Although the sharks are circling, the music uplifts. I get a sense of Higgins hovering up there, watching all this below, the music giving her height.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "Roots music". Subscribe here.