Photos © 2005 by: Beth Shandles
In her first new song in five years – “Unashamed Desire” – Missy Higgins defiantly sings “I’ve got nothing to hide”. It’s a bold clarion call for where she’s at these days. But just a few years ago the acclaimed singer/songwriter was keeping one pretty big secret:
After selling million of albums with “The Sound Of White” (2004) and “On A Clear Night” (2007) and touring the world performing her much-loved songs like ”Scar”, “Steer”, “The Special Two” and ”Where I Stood” Missy privately made the decision to turn her back on music and do something else.
Plenty of artists give lip service to packing it in but Missy actually walked the walk. What’s more, she did it without telling the public. There were no farewell tours, no press releases. Instead she just quietly gave the music biz types around her a ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you’ chat and got on with living a new life.
Jump cut to three years later, and her new album “The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle” tells the unvarnished story of that journey. While her previous albums leant heavily on her personal relationships, this album delves deep into Missy’s relationship with making music. And as the tongue-firmly-in-cheek title implies, it’s been a tumultuous affair.
“You get the amount of success you dream of and it doesn’t bring the happiness you thought it would,” Missy says. “You have an existential crisis – how do I become happy? If this doesn’t give you fulfilment what does? And when it’s caused by something you’ve always attached as being your identity, what do you do? I’ve always been the singer or the musician or the songwriter. And when I quit music that was terrifying. Who am I? It was scary but it was also important to find out.”
The album’s opening couplet sets the scene around the time she finally finished touring in 2008 … “I’ve got a lot to say, I just don’t know how to say it”. Blocked. Burned out. The album then traces her journey back to music through the pressure of expectations (“Everyone’s Waiting”), some dark days (“All In My Head”, “Watering Hole”), the loss of a loved one (“Cooling Of The Embers”) and ultimately back into ”The Sweet Arms Of A Tune”.
It’s an album about a break up and a newfound love but this time the other party isn’t a person … it’s music itself.
“By the end of touring the last album in late 2008 I was in this place where I felt I was part of a production line. I was the product. It had just lost the purity and the romance for me. I really wanted to get back to that and I didn’t know how. So after much tossing and turning I threw in the towel and said I’m gonna try something else.”
She started a Uni course in Aboriginal Studies. And she moved into a share house to experience so called ‘normality’. She travelled and worked on some causes in which she believed. For the first time since she won “Triple J Unearthed” during her final year of high school she wasn’t defined by music making.
Ironically the catalyst for bringing her back to music was a one off decision to play a handful of acoustic gigs in America.
“I got asked to do 5 shows on the Lilith Fair tour during my Uni holidays in the middle of 2010″, says Missy. “I’d always wanted to see that festival as so many of my favourite artists had played on it. All the shows they wanted me to do were within driving distance of a friend’s place in Brooklyn where I could stay so I decided to just do it as a working holiday. It had been over a year since I’d played a show anywhere and I almost chickened out at one point but as soon as I finished the first song it just felt great. I walked away from that gig kicking myself … “what the hell was I thinking?! I love playing music.”
Missy jumped aboard Lilith Fair armed with just one new song, “If I’m Honest”. It went down a treat. “It felt so good to play a new song. It also felt good to sing again, to perform again, I hadn’t been on stage for a year. The turnout was amazing. I was overwhelmed by the love, I met some people after the shows who were telling me how they’d missed me and were waiting for the new album and they loved the new song. Without over-stating it, I got this feeling that perhaps I am making a difference – if only to just a few peoples’ lives. All these people were asking me when the new album was coming out. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I wasn’t writing or recording anymore.”
Over the months that followed the floodgates opened and the songs poured out again. More than 30 songs in the back half of 2010. Suddenly she felt less pressured, free to take chances and do what felt right. After steadfastly avoiding co-writing for her second album “On A Clear Night” she opened herself up to collaboration again. She spent some time with old friend Kevin Griffin with whom she’d co-written “Scar” all those years ago. Together they penned the irresistible “Hello Hello”. She also sat down with friend-of-a-friend Dan Wilson and together they created two of the album’s cornerstones … “Set Me On Fire” and “Everyone’s Waiting”. A few months later the song Dan co-wrote with Adele (“Someone Like You”) turned the world on its ear.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the writer’s block until I wrote about it,” Missy says. “The chorus of ‘Set Me On Fire’ is about the fact music is ultimately the only thing that makes me feel alive in that way. Ironically music is the only thing that can save me from a musical block. I was emerging out of that period, out of the darkness at the time I was writing that song. I was getting my passion for music back, it was a like an old friend I hadn’t seen for so long. I was overwhelmed by the joy of having the love for it back.”
As important as her time with Dan and Kevin would turn out to be, the key collaborators turned out to be in an unlikely place … Nashville. In keeping with Missy’s credo of just doing what felt right she shunned the big name producers who were keen to work with her and teamed up instead with some mates. Ex-pat Australian Butterfly Boucher had reconnected with Missy during the Lilith tour when she was playing bass for Sarah McLachlan. She and local engineer/producer Brad Jones (Josh Ritter, Bob Evans) teamed up to bring a genuine freshness to the creative process. Butterfly chimed in as co-writer for several tracks and together with Brad they formed a tight little unit experimenting
“Butterfly and Brad were perfect. I wanted it to be a really inspired, creative experience. There was no pressure. We just made it in Brad’s warehouse in the industrial district over the space of three months.”
“I didn’t want to make a third album the same as my first two,” Higgins says. “Butterfly and I had a lot of chemistry writing together. She showed me a different style of song writing. Her chord changes are much more complicated than I would ever do. I probably brought a much more naive, pure, simple melody thing to the table. The combination was really great. We became really good friends over the course of it. It became a bit rockier, a bit edgier than what I’ve done in the past. I definitely have that side to me, songs like ‘Peachy’; it was good to explore that side of my song writing.”
Every Missy Higgins album has a particularly raw, personal moment. Here it’s “Cooling of the Embers”, detailing the ailing health of Missy’s grandmother. “I remember when you were strong and never wanted help from no one, what you’ve become is not who I remember,” she sings.
The next step for Missy Higgins? Returning to the road: “Performing has always been my most favourite part. I’m most excited about playing new songs, that’s the best part of playing live.”
And she’s coming at it fresh and hungry…re-born.
“I’ve taken a long time off, I’ve grown up, I have a new sense of appreciation of all I’ve achieved and how lucky I have been to be in this position. Before it had all happened so quickly, it was so full on for six years it was hard to gain any perspective. Now I’ve got a sense of my place in the world and who I am. I just want to do things that make me feel happy and inspired. Keeping inspired is a huge thing for me. If I’m not being inspired or creative I don’t feel like my blood is flowing properly.”