After a musical hiatus, Missy Higgins found her voice once more while travelling the US, writes Lydia Jenkin.
Though many fans may not have known, Missy Higgins pretty much decided to quit music a few years ago.
The Australian songstress, signed to an international deal with Warner Brothers before she was 20, had strong success with her first two albums The Sound of White and On a Clear Night, which both went to No 1 in Australia.
But nearly seven years of touring left her disillusioned. So in 2010, she decided, without any fanfare, to stop. Instead she focused on putting down some roots in Melbourne, going to university to pursue Australian indigenous studies, doing a bit of acting, travelling to India and South America, and generally catching up with friends and family, which she'd sorely missed.
But ultimately she wasn't finding anything that was pushing her buttons in the way that music had.
"I was trying to find something that I loved as much as I used to love music - because I'd lost that passion for music but I really wanted to find it again in something else. But I really couldn't, and that was quite sad for me. When I couldn't find, or even think of anything that I'd like to do more than music, eventually I just decided to let go, and just see where life took me and have fun for a while."
Inevitably she was led right back to music. Even though she wasn't interested in performing at the time, when she was offered the chance to join on Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair tour of the US, her manager thought he should tell her about it anyway.
"I couldn't really say no to it, so I went over and did a few shows, and all the memories and the love for music just came flooding back. And it felt so right."
She also found she still had a loyal fanbase who were asking where she'd been and when she would have something new to release, which gave her the impetus to think about a new album - The Ol' Razzle Dazzle, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the glitzy showbiz side of the music industry - which Higgins (being a bisexual, vegetarian, environmentally conscious, animal rights advocate) finds a bit overwhelming at times.
Having decided to write music again, she initially suffered a bit of writer's block, feeling anxious about the possible results. But she decided to head to America and move around from city to city, housesitting and people-watching in order to get the words flowing once more.
"I get really inspired by my surroundings, and people-watching - New York is amazing for that. I stayed in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, which is a very Chinese-Mexican area, and it was just so inspiring to be in the middle of those two cultures."
Set Me on Fire was one of the songs which was inspired by her stay in the city.
"I actually wrote it as a rap song" she laughs. "Not that I rap or anything, but I mostly just wrote it as lyrics with a sort of rap rhythm, just because I really wanted to get these words out of my head. I was trying to overcome my fear and expectation of coming up with something that was better than anything I'd done before. So I decided the best way to combat it was to write songs about having writer's block, rather than what I thought I should write songs about."
From Brooklyn she moved to Nashville, where she linked up with fellow Australian multi-instrumentalist Butterfly Boucher (who she'd met while on tour with McLachlan), along with a friend of Boucher's, Nashville-based producer Brad Jones, who had his own studio set up where Higgins also lived while recording.
"It's an old cabinet-making factory that he'd just turned into a studio. It's very cool, full of character, peeling wallpaper and so on."
Along with several other Nashville musicians, and a variety of friends, Higgins, Boucher and Jones set about crafting the 12 tracks, aiming to keep a strong sense of experimentation and adventure when it came to the arrangements and production.
"I was playing instruments I'd never played before, like the Moog synthesiser and playing guitar pedals with my hands, and even Tibetan bowls on one song. On another song we did a whole lot of animal noises, we recorded them late one night, and they ended up sounding really cool when we put it all together."
The animal noises are something that Higgins is well practiced in, though it's the first time she's done it on a song.
"My brother and I have this really funny relationship where we just call each other up and we'll have a conversation in animal noises, maybe just quack at each other like ducks. We have this kind of bizarre understanding that only siblings can have, and we'll just make each other laugh by coming up with these different noises, we always have."
After a sold-out tour of Australia, she'll be heading here with a full Nashville band for two shows, before heading back to America to tour with Gotye for several months. It sounds like a fairly intensive schedule already, but she's got a plan to avoid becoming jaded all over again.
"I think I'm going to listen to my instincts a bit more. I think a part of making what I do sustainable or bearable is making sure I allow time to be creative. Playing new songs is wonderful as well, but the best thing is to keep writing."
Who: Chart-topping Australian songstress Missy Higgins
What: New album The Ol' Razzle Dazzle
When and where: Performing two shows at Q Theatre in Auckland on Monday August 6, and Tuesday August 7.
- TimeOutBy Lydia Jenkin Email Lydia