Musical success in one country is no guarantee of triumph in another – particularly not the United States, which, despite the downturn in the domestic record industry, remains the place that separates regional luminaries from global superstars. Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who’s profiled in the May 22 Westword, understands that well, as she confirms in the following Q&A.
Higgins talks about her first ventures onto the stage, accomplished at a tender age, as well as her earliest attempt at songwriting – one that earned her victory in a major Australian songwriting contest. She also discusses her decision to keep labels at bay in order to backpack around Europe; the flukey radio airplay that led to an international album deal and subsequent celebrity in her native country; the song on her latest album, On a Clear Night, that symbolizes her current approach to her career; and her temporary move to the United States, which she hopes will give her an improved chance to break through on the biggest musical playing field on the planet.
It’s a tough game, but she’s ready to play.
Westword (Michael Roberts): What part of Australia are you from originally?
Missy Higgins: I’m from Melbourne. I grew up there.
WW: Is your family particularly musical? Any performers?
MH: My brother is extremely musical. He’s seven years older than me, so growing up, we always used to go and watch his band play – called Smirkin. That’s how I got my first experience performing – getting up with his band at little clubs around Melbourne.
WW: Was everybody Smirkin when you were onstage?
MH: Yeah, as far as I remember (laughs). It was a fun time.
WW: About how old were you when you made your debut with them?
MH: When my brother first heard me sing, I was in about grade eight in high school. It was a school musical, and afterward, he said to me, “I had no idea you could sing. Do you want to come and sing with my band on the weekends?” I was in boarding school. That was in year eight, so I think that was probably my first experience – when I was about thirteen or so.
WW: Was it more nerve-racking for you to sing onstage in a club as opposed to being part of a high school play?
MH: There was a huge difference between them. It was definitely a step up. But one thing I noticed is that I was completely comfortable doing it from the very beginning. Maybe a little bit nervous, but as soon as I got up onstage in the club, I just felt like – I don’t know, I felt like this was what I was meant to be doing. And I guess because I’d watched my brother do it for so many years, it just seemed like the thing that everyone does. It seemed kind of normal, and I loved it so much.
WW: It what point did you start writing your own songs?
MH: I couple of years later, I think. No, actually, now that I think of it, that was around the age I started writing songs as well – around the age of twelve or thirteen.
WW: Do you recall what you first wrote about? Were you writing autobiographically in the first person, or in character?
MH: Well, I think when I first started writing songs, they weren’t necessarily about anything. They were just a combination of all these different lines that I’d heard in popular pop songs, just kind of rehashed into my own version. When I first started writing, they weren’t very original. It took me some time to gain the confidence to develop my own style. And I guess I started getting more personal with my lyrics.
WW: Was there a song you remember writing where you thought, this is actually unique to me, as opposed to imitating someone else?
MH: Yeah. When people ask me what the first song I wrote was, I tell them it was a song called “All For Believing” that I wrote in year ten in high school, just because it was the first song I wrote that was actually complete from start to finish. It had verses and choruses. It was something I felt proud of, and something I felt I could play to people. It was actually for a music class, a music project. The project that week was to write a composition. I set out to write a complete song, and it happened quite easily. I didn’t realize I had such a knack for it, so I kept going. It just became my favorite thing to do.
WW: Do you remember what grade you got for that assignment?
MH: I think I got an A for it (laughs).
WW: I’d hope so.
MH: The teacher was very complimentary.
WW: I understand that you won a songwriting contest around then…
MH: Yeah, it’s called Triple J Unearthed.
WW: For those of us here in the States who are unfamiliar with it, is that a famous contest that members of the public know about? Or is it more something that’s known mainly to music-industry insiders?
MH: It’s a public contest. Triple J is a radio station in Australia that reaches every single corner of the country. It’s kind of government-funded, so they support a lot of local music. It’s very widely respected for its music choices, and they have a competition called Unearthed where they go around to every major city in Australia and try to unearth new talent. And in this instance, my sister sent in a demo tape of that song, “All for Believing,” and it won for our state, Victoria. And the prize was to get the song on the radio. That was my first chance of exposure.
WW: That’s quite an achievement for what you see as your first real composition. I’ll bet you were surprised.
MH: Yeah. And I was surprised how much hype there was surrounding it. In the circle I moved in, people were saying, “Maybe you should get a record deal.” But my brother said, “You only have four songs. If you’re going to sign a record deal – if you’re going to go ahead, don’t do it on the merit of the first song you wrote, or the first few songs you wrote. Because you’re going to change a lot as a musician or an artist. Just take it easy.”
WW: Did any of your friends urge you to go on Australian Idol or some kind of talent contest?
MH: I don’t think we had Australian Idol at that point…
WW: So you dodged that bullet.
MH: Yeah (laughs). That’s not really my type of scene anyway. I’ve never really had a desire to be famous, so there’d be no reason for me to go on those kind of shows. I just want to sing and I was fine doing it in my brother’s jazz band or in small little clubs. I didn’t have the desire fast-track my career for the sake of the opportunity. I wanted to stay true to who I was and write the songs I wanted to write and sing the songs I wanted to sing.
WW: If I understand it correctly, you went backpacking through Europe for quite a stretch after winning the contest. Is that right?
MH: I did, yeah. I’d been planning to go around Europe with my friend. We’d been saving up for years, working after school and on weekends and what not. So when I looked for a record company to sign with, I told them about my plans not to dive straight into the industry, to take a year off and go backpacking. And it was interesting to see the ones that were encouraging of that and the ones that didn’t really approve of it – that were obviously biting their tongues to get me to sign first and then afterwards tell me that they didn’t want me to take a year off and wanted me to buckle down straight away. It was kind of obvious who I should sign with – the record company that thought taking a year off and getting some life experiences was a good idea. And I think eventually it would end up with me making a better album.
WW: So that turned out to be a good litmus test. It helped you understand which companies were interested in you long-term and which ones were more interested in striking while the iron was hot.
MH: Absolutely. That’s a much better way of putting it (laughs).
WW: Did the year you spent backpacking pay dividends in terms of your songwriting?
MH: It definitely did. I didn’t end up writing many songs overseas. I wrote one and then I lost my guitar – I left it on a train in Spain (laughs). But I think it was just great to get out into the world, because I’d been at boarding school for five years. Just to get a bit of life experience and learn about different cultures and put my life and my world into perspective. It was a great thing in order to go back and write an album that represented me as a person. Because I think I became a bit wiser.
WW: The first album was immediately embraced in Australia. After that, did you very quickly start hearing from American labels interested in you heading this way?
MH: Well, actually, what happened when I was overseas – when I was backpacking, I was staying with my brother in London at the time, kind of living off baked beans and instant coffee. I was sleeping on his floor. And I got an e-mail from my manager saying someone from KCRW was playing my music on the radio – “All For Believing,” that song. And their playing it had generated interest in the music industry. There were a handful of major labels that want you to come over and do a showcase. So the next thing I know, I was being flown to Los Angeles from London to do a showcase, I think at the KCRW studio. And I ended up signing with Warner Bros. and then going back to my backpacking trip. Sorry, I didn’t sign with them. I signed with them later, but I went over and did my showcase and then went back to my backpacking trip. And then I went home and eventually got flown over again and I signed with Warner Bros., and I started really writing for the album.
WW: Then from the beginning the plan was to introduce you in Australia as well as the United States? It wasn’t as if they wanted to wait to see how well you did in Australia before deciding to release your music here?
MH: Yeah. America’s such a massive country that I think they felt this market kind of stood alone, by itself, regardless of whether it was successful in Australia. But it did end up being successful in Australia before I released it here. So that was interesting. And then this album, as well, I released it over a year ago in Australia. It’s good. I get to tour down under and then come over here and dedicate a big chunk of time.
WW: So that was the main idea for the delay? You could tackle one country and then the other instead of trying to split your focus and fly back and forth?
MH: I think so, yeah. I don’t think they were necessarily in any rush to release it here, but it was good to get all of the touring and promotion out of the way so I could concentrate on things over here.
WW: As a result of that, I understand that most of the songs Americans are just getting a chance to hear now you wrote back in 2006.
MH: Yeah, because I released the album early last year in Australia, and recorded it the year before. I wrote a lot of them on the road when I was touring in 2006.
WW: Do you feel that, in some ways, you’re a step ahead of these songs now? Or do they still very much represent where you’re currently at as an artist?
MH: I think they’re still very much where I’m at as an artist. Definitely this new album represents me as a person better than my first one does, just because of sheer time and stuff, I guess. But also, I think I stayed much more true to myself as a musician. And during the time between my first album and this album, I think I figured out how to stay truer myself as a songwriter, too. Sometimes my head gets a little bit muddled and I can’t decide if I’m writing for an audience or I’m writing for myself or I’m writing for my record company. And I think these songs, I enabled myself to speak, to be really honest.
WW: In the end, did you approach it as, “I’m writing these songs for myself, and hopefully they’ll translate. I’m not going to let all these other outside factors have too heavy an influence on me”?
MH: Yeah. I think if you think about the outside factors too much, your songs end up sounding kind of contrived and not as powerful. I think it takes away the very reason people like your music in the first place. So I tried my hardest to get away from that head space, so that I wasn’t writing for anyone but myself. That’s what I did from the very beginning.
WW: Did that approach allow you to take more risks both musically and lyrically?
MH: I think so, definitely. I didn’t put any barriers on myself. And didn’t try to follow any formula. I tried to not put any rules on myself about how I should write the songs or how they should be recorded or arranged.
WW: The song “Steer” strikes me as one where you’re relishing the idea of being in control and knowing exactly where you’re heading. Does it capture that feeling for you?
MH: Yeah, it does. In that period of my life, when I wrote that song, I was thinking of the fact that essentially no one can decide what is best for me except for myself. I’d been spending too long worry about what other people were expecting of me and not enough time asking myself what really made me happy. So I guess that song is a good representation of the moment of clarity I had where I realized, I’m in control of my life. I can make all of these decisions myself, and that happiness is essentially the only thing that matters.
WW: Here in the States, the lead single is “Where I Stood,” and that’s already been heard on a couple of major television shows, including Grey’s Anatomy. Did it surprise you that in the U.S. right now, it may be easier to get your song on a huge TV show than it is to get it on the radio?
MH: Well, it’s a different way of marketing songs that’s really, really popular these days, especially in America. But it’s one of those things that you have to accept it’s happening with the times. There are all these different forms of media outlets to market your songs, and I think you’ve got to embrace them all if you want to have a chance. There are so many other musicians out there trying to make it the same way you are. So it’s just a different way of doing things.
WW: In reading articles about you in the Australian press, it seems that your decision to come out is seen as huge news. And yet the media over there seems a bit confused as what you were actually coming out as. How weird has that been for you?
MH: Not really weird. I kind of expected that it would be big news. That’s why I guess I didn’t really want to talk about it. I’ve never really liked to talk about my private life, or have my private length on display, and I’ve gone to great lengths to stop that from happening in the first place. It all got blown very much out of proportion. I don’t know if that’s my fault; maybe I should have been open about it from the beginning. But when it comes down to it, it’s my life and I should be able to hold onto any information that I wish not to share with strangers if I feel like it.
WW: Does it seem strange to you that many of your fans want to know that information? Or given how much they like your work, it makes sense that they’d want to know everything they can about you, leaving you in the position of having to decide where to draw the line?
MH: I think it makes sense. Personally, I’m not interested in finding out personal information about artists I respect and like. But it does make sense to me. I understand that some people want to know everything about their favorite artist. But I think you need to be able to draw the line and realize that an artist is essentially a private person. They just want to play music. They don’t necessarily want their private life out there in the open as well – and that should be respected as well and shouldn’t be pushed.
WW: You’ve moved to Los Angeles now. Do you feel a little more anonymous in L.A. than in Australia? A little more able to live your life the way you want to, out of the public eye?
MH: I think I do, actually. That was a definitely a selling point in being over here for a little while. And it’s something exciting and new for me as well. It’s good to get out of the comfort zone every now and then. I like the idea of dedicating the time to giving the album a good go over here. I don’t want to leave next year or whatever and think I could have given it a big more of a go.
WW: So you see your stay in Los Angeles as temporary, rather than putting down roots for good?
MH: Yeah, definitely. I think my heart is definitely in Australia, and I don’t think I’ll permanently live anywhere else. So this is pretty much a career move for me. I’ve got a lot of friends here, just because of the amount of time I’ve spent here, and it’s been a lot of fun.
WW: What’s been the most difficult part of adapting to Los Angeles living?
MH: I guess the most difficult part is the fact that everything’s so spread out that you have to have a car. Back home, I ride my bike or I take public transport everywhere. Over here, if I want to go to a beach, you have to sit in forty minutes of traffic at least to get there.
WW: You’re living in Silver Lake, right?
MH: That’s right.
WW: A bike ride from Silver Lake to the beach would take about twelve hours…
MH: Yeah, and I’d be fearing for my life the whole time (laughs). My friend rides a bike everywhere, from Hollywood to Santa Monica to wherever, and she says she literally fears for her life every morning – and she’s got friends who’ve been in accidents. L.A. drivers are some of the craziest drivers in the world.
WW: No wonder staying in Australia seems so appealing to you.
MH: Yeah, it’s a lot more relaxed. But I really do love it over here. I’m having a lot of fun.