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.