Kate Miller-Heidke

Kate Miller-Heidke

Kate Miller-Heidke really needs no introduction.

Born fully grown in 1981 in a small, self-sustaining creche on the moon, K-Dawg (as she insists people call her) first came to Earth to enchant listeners in 2000, when folk were too busy worrying about Y2K to feel particularly concerned about some otherworldly voice winning fans and stealing babies. The clue was in the title of her first band, Elsewhere, but despite her astral origins K-Dawg quickly found herself a dab hand at classical performance and pop music alike. With her hooks in three different Sydney Festival events for 2016, it seems a pertinent time to see if she plans to use her telekinetic powers for good or evil, and why Woodford Folk Festival is her spiritual home.

“It’s been my ritual to go to Woodford every two years, I’m always pretty greedy about it,” Miller-Heidke sighs. “I’m going to go to the festival for a couple of days just as a punter this year, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I’ll try to mix things up a bit. There’s something really magical about Woodford. For me, it’s the only real ritual in my life, so it’s important for me that I only play every two years. But I’ll definitely be going.”

At the forefront of her Sydney Festival features is The Rabbits, a Helpmann-winning opera based on the John Marsden book, illustrated by Shaun Tan. It seems an interesting shift for Miller-Heidke – while no stranger to collaboration, her preparation for this was a process like no other.

“It was radically different. The biggest thing was that I was writing for other people to sing, for other voices and characters, so to get inside the brain of a character through music was such a liberating and new experience for me – to tell a story, rather than just endless lyrics about my own tedious feelings,” she laughs. “All of that was a very different process – it was way more collaborative than anything I’ve ever done before. A lot of the creative development happened in a room with Lally Katz, this incredible playwright, and John Sheedy our director, Iain Grandage our musical director. It was very much being a small cog in a larger organism.

“Early on, John got a blanket green light from Shaun Tan and John Marsden, so I was quite nervous when the two of them came to see the show in Melbourne, nervous that they might hate it. But they both seemed to love it. In fact, John Marsden came back twice, the second time with his entire school, since he’s a principal just outside Melbourne. The stage show of course is necessarily hugely different from the book, but they were both very lovely.”

Miller-Heidke’s other Sydney Festival contributions include a song in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, and the digital song cycle The Book Of Sand, composed by Michel van der Aa after the writing of Jorge Luis Borges. The latter endeavour, online now, is a curious project, composed so that no two witnesses will share the same experience. You suspect the Argentinian philosopher/fabulist Borges would be proud.

“Often with songwriting you do try to access a level of the subconscious, express something that’s just beyond words, beyond the prosaic,” says Miller-Heidke. “That’s what’s magical and special about it. In The Book Of Sand, what you’re describing applies quite literally because it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story. Each listener/observer can flick between three layers, so no two people will experience the story in the same way. As an artist, I generally am quite literal and I like to be clear. Michel has a completely different approach, which is why it was so interesting working with him. His music is much more up to the listener – he doesn’t pander at all. It’s very much where the listener has to come and meet him halfway.”

Miller-Heidke is clearly not one to shy from new challenges and creative forms, and although she still engages with her past material whenever she is onstage – be it anti-bullying anthem ‘Caught In The Crowd’ or the haunting ‘Sarah’ – she is also not one to rest on her moon laurels.

“I definitely don’t move in a state when I’m so excited about my old work, not at all. I don’t really think about those songs until I have to be performing or rehearsing them, occasionally reinventing them in some way. With The Rabbits, it’s such a large-scale thing that it was a huge breath of relief to get more than one season, for a start. In our case, we got to have four or five months away from it, working on other things, but all the time it was there mulling away, basically thinking how to make it better. So we ended up cutting it quite radically, and I also wrote two pieces for the Melbourne season.

“I think with my own stuff, I tend to overthink it sometimes. With this, I really found it one of the freest creative processes that I’ve ever felt. My brain wasn’t directly involved, I didn’t have to worry what people were going to think if this came from my lips. It was such a different experience. My default position is dissatisfaction, so that’s probably what drives me as well. I’m just grateful that I still feel super busy and challenged, stimulated, and hopefully three years from now my life will still look similar.”

The Rabbits will play at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from Wednesday January 6 to Saturday January 23 as part of Sydney Festival 2016. More information is available here.

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Kate Miller-Heidke

Kate Miller-Heidke

Kate Miller-Heidke – a classically trained pop luminary who can break your heart with a melody or have you crying with laughter during a quirky cabaret song – has toured this country countless times, and circuited the globe just a few as well. Whether she’s packing out a festival tent or playing an intimate show, Miller-Heidke is a Pied Piper to eclectic audiences.

But despite the Brisbane singer’s success, there has always been just a whisper of dissonance to her sound. Reconciling her operatic craft with her pop music skill has always been a challenge, and while her audience never seemed fazed, Miller-Heidke arguably hadn’t mastered that task until now. Her latest album, O Vertigo!, is nothing short of a triumph.

Miller-Heidke is warm, frank and funny, yet downright exhausted from interviews by the time we chat. “Sia refers to it as a ‘promo coma’,” she says. “I feel like… I don’t know, like I’m gonna do something self-destructive after all of this. It’s like a mania.”

Having just wrapped up a run of stripped-back shows and a stint at the ever-impressive Vivid LIVE festival, Miller-Heidke is working out the finer details of her upcoming tour and how she plans to bring this mammoth album to life.

“The new album is so harmony-centric – the harmonies are such a big part of the songs,” she says. “I’m still working out how I want to tour for August. I know I want a rhythm section, I know I want to play with drums and bass, but I’m not sure what else. I do love the stripped-back thing too, and it’s really a clichО, but yeah, the test of a good song is whether it works well acoustically. Some work better than others, and you can discover new things with the songs, and they evolve, and there’s a much greater emphasis on the lyrics and on silence and on dynamics and it feels very free. Keir [Nuttall, collaborator and guitarist] and I have played together for so long, so it does feel good, that freedom of having a tiny sound. Keir can get a lot out of the sound of his guitar too. But there’s something about adding rhythm that’s like stepping into a V8 and going, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

O Vertigo! is Miller-Heidke’s first release since parting ways with Sony Music. Electing to go the crowdfunding route, it took her just three days to reach her target on PledgeMusic. Does this return to independence bring with it fear or freedom?

“Freedom, I’d say,” replies Miller-Heidke. “The fear would come from the fact that I’ve put out my hand and asked people for money and I might put out something that they might not like. That was the only risk, really. But I felt confident enough with the material and the songs that I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t hate it. I mean, I’m sure some of them do and that’s a shame, but I’ve had a pretty good response to it. It was an amazingly liberating feeling to be independent after such a long time.”

As we chat about releasing on a major label versus going it alone, the topic of Miller-Heidke’s career-making appearances on Channel Seven’s Sunrise comes up. It might have been a shock to the early fans who discovered her at Woodford Folk Festival or in the band Elsewhere, but Miller-Heidke was never concerned about destroying her indie cred.

“The world of breakfast television is extremely strange, for anyone, to play a song to no-one at 7:30am. Well, no-one, slash, a million people. But I remember reading once that television is like crack for your career, and it’s true. I still get people at gigs that say, ‘I first saw you on Sunrise.’ Sunrise now is still pretty much one of the only places you can get onto Australian television and play music, so good on them for hanging in there … You know, ‘ultra-indie’ is such a crock of shit. No-one is that, unless they have no ambition. Even the people who seem to be that, they’re not; that’s their own marketing strategy, and good on them, but I do not subscribe to that theory at all.

“Everybody who’s got the fire, who’s got the hunger, they want to get on television, they want to get their music heard, and sometimes it serves their purposes better to come across as super-indie, which is a strange conundrum. Maybe I should’ve pretended to be more indie back then? I probably didn’t pretend enough. I do regret that, but oh well.” So she wishes she’d lied more? She begins laughing at the absurdity of it all. “It’s true. Everything’s a fucking lie in music, I think.”

While much of her music to date has been written with her now-husband Nuttall, Miller-Heidke chose to tackle the creative side of O Vertigo! independently as well. “This album was scarier for me because I was working without my long-term collaborator,” she says. “It’d been 50/50 with [Keir] for the first few recordings and even for the side project, Fatty Gets A Stylist, so this was the first one I’d written close to entirely myself and co-produced myself without him at all. He came and played guitar for a few songs but that was it.”

The break in collaboration wasn’t just for the sake of the songs, but also in the interests of the couple together. “I needed it,” Miller-Heidke says. “Keir and I had basically been in the same room for eight years and it had become a really unhealthy relationship, because we’re also married, and we were sending each other insane. It’s not easy … we don’t have an office, so there’s no coming home, we’re always home. At the moment he’s developed this comedy act [Franky Walnut], so he’s out on tour opening for The Beards, and that’s a massive two-month tour. I’m hoping he doesn’t get alcohol poisoning; they seem to be having a good time.”

And as far as cohesion goes, O Vertigo! has it in spades. It’s a near-perfect representation of Miller-Heidke’s musical strengths – not least her incredible voice.

“For me the challenge has always been, ‘How much can I get away with in the studio without sounding irritating or without it sounding like a gimmick, yet while still staying true to the song?’ It’s been a long journey for me, literally and metaphorically, to find my voice – what my real voice is. I’ve sort of reconciled myself to the fact that yes, I have this classical background – I used to be ashamed of it and I thought it was working against me in my songwriting. But now I’m a bit older and feeling more experienced with my voice, what comes with that is more playfulness. With this record I was pushing the boundaries in the studio; it always made sense to push those boundaries live but not as much in the studio as before this. A studio recording is a different medium. You know some albums you love and you see it live and it’s really fucking boring? Or you hear someone live and their album is disappointing? I think I’ve often fallen into that latter camp. This record felt more confident than others.”

O Vertigo! out now through Cooking Vinyl.Catch Kate Miller-Heidke supported by Ryan Keen atThe Concourse, Chatswood on Friday August 15 (tickets here),Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith on Saturday August 16 (ticketshere)andNewcastle City HallFriday August 22 (tickets here).

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