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Missy Higgins: ‘It’s A Tough Industry To Get A leg-up In As A Woman’

3 March 2022 | 12:01 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

“It makes me hopeful for the future of my daughter to see these brave girls doing what they’ve done over the past couple of years.”

(Pic by Brian Purnel)

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“It just feels so good to be on the road again with my mates!” Missy Higgins enthuses. “It’s two shows a weekend, at the moment – the most shows that I’ve done in about three years or something! – which is amazing. And then playing these new songs live has been really amazing, too; it just feels really powerful having all these girls in my band singing backing vocals.”

The “new songs” Higgins refers to appear on her latest mini-album, Total Control, which contains five songs she composed for the biting ABC TV political drama series of the same name (including the previously released Edge Of Something) plus her latest single, a version of The Motels song/title track – all reimagined and co-produced by Brendon Love of The Teskey Brothers. 

Directed by Rachel Perkins and starring Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths, Total Control – the TV series – tells the story of Alex Irving (Mailman), a fiercely brilliant Aboriginal woman from outback Queensland who makes her way into Parliament via invitation from the Prime Minister of Australia (Griffiths) and is determined to make a difference by shaking things up.

“I knew that it was something really special, because I’d seen the scenes and I’d seen how amazing Deborah Mailman was,” Higgins extols. “I’d never seen her in anything quite like this before, she’s so raw and visceral and, yeah! I mean, most of the songs that I wrote were for her scenes and so I got to watch her over and over and over again in the same scene so I feel like I really got quite deep into her character. 

“Alex is so courageous and she’s an Aboriginal woman, which means she’s fighting against all the odds that are against her. She has grown up in a society that has not only been dismissing her as a woman, but dismissing her as an Indigenous woman. And she comes from a community and a culture that have been downtrodden and dismissed their whole lives, and are just fighting for recognition. 

“So there’s so much anger in her and there’s kind of so much baggage that she’s accumulated, and rightly so; to get inside that character and live vicariously through her for a bit and let out some of my anger about, you know, growing up as a female and not being heard or recognised or respected in the way that I saw my male peers being recognised and respected – that was a really kind of cathartic experience for me, to kind of put that into song.”

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Higgins was 21 when she became a household name in this country off the back of her 9x Platinum debut album, 2004’s The Sound Of White. But she wrote her first song, All For Believing, aged just 15. The story goes that this song won a triple j Unearthed competition, and was added to rotation, after her sister Nicola submitted it on her behalf. (Following a heated argument the sisters had after competing for a boy they both liked, Missy penned her “sorry letter”: 2004’s The Special Two.) 

When asked whether there were a lot of people telling her what to do when she was coming up on the scene, Higgins responds, “I think you get spoken down to a lot and I think I’ve always been fairly headstrong so, you know, I’ve tried not to let myself be walked over [laughs]. But I’ve also been extremely lucky and privileged that my skin is white, so that’s sort of an automatic privilege. 

“And also I think that I got success really early on and that success brings with it a certain amount of power. I think when you’re playing in those small venues, you’ve really got to kind of fight your way to respect; it doesn’t just kind of happen automatically. So, yeah! It’s a tough industry to get a leg-up in as a woman, but, you know, things are really changing and I’m just so inspired by all these strong women that are coming up in the industry at the moment, and being super-headstrong and knowing themselves and, yeah! A lot of the women around me at the moment are just so incredible. So my respect for them is what informed the content of a lot of these new songs.”

While composing the music for ABC TV’s Total Control, the music producers typically provided Higgins with “the mood of the scene” and “the motivation of the character”. “When you’re writing a song about yourself, they’re the things that take the longest to figure out,” she tells. “So if somebody gives you those two, it’s like giving you half the song on a platter already so, yeah! I found it really, really fun and the songs came super-easily.

“Sometimes [the producers] would send me a bed of music that I would write on top of – I did that for Season One – and for Season Two we kind of did it the other way around where I would write the song first, and then I’d send it to them, and then they’d kind of produce it up to make it sound like it was part of the sonic landscape of the TV show.”

On recording her version of The Motels’ Total Control, Higgins recalls, “They wanted to put the song in the show in one scene where Deb’s [character Alex is] dancing in a pub, and they had The Motels version in. And I guess someone had the idea of maybe me recording that song so they could use my version in the show instead. So I did. And that was another one of those lockdown collaborations where none of us could get in the studio together, so we just kind of did our parts and sent them to each other. And that’s how we came up with the recording of our version of Total Control and, yeah! It’s one of my all-time favourite songs, too.”

The second single from Higgins’ On A Clear Night record, 2007’s Where I Stood, seemed to reap the rewards of multiple international sync placements – including Grey’s Anatomy! –

before that was even really a thing. “It had just become a thing,” Higgins corrects. “So it was around the time that all these artists were starting to break by having their song sent to TV shows or, like, Apple.” 

Higgins is specifically referring to those iPod silhouette ads, which typically catapulted the artists behind the songs to global superstardom (the first of which was Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl). “So that was, like, the number one priority,” she continues. “It was like, ‘Gotta get your song on a TV show!’... A song could definitely go viral through a popular TV show, but, you know, it was really a new thing back then. So I was over the moon by that opportunity, because a lot of people in America heard my song on that TV show [Grey’s Anatomy] and it also got on some other ones – One Tree Hill and a couple of others. It’s by far the most successful song of mine over there; that’s the single everyone knows me by in America.” 

To date, Where I Stood has also featured in Smallville, Friday Night Lights, Ghost Whisperer, The Hills, Lipstick Jungle, NCIS, Weeds, Pretty Little Liars and The Client List.

This scribe was fortunate enough to be in attendance when Missy Higgins performed at Sidney Myer Music Bowl back in January, 2021 as part of the Live At The Bowl series, for which separated platforms were constructed on the grassy hill to ensure groups of attendees would remain socially distanced. During her soul-elevating performance, Higgins introduced If I’m Honest as a song she initially wrote for Keith Urban. Is she able to please elaborate?

“Well, after my second album [2007’s On A Clear Night] I had a huge bout of writer’s block. I tried for, like, a year or two to write songs and I just couldn’t come up with anything; I think I was just absolutely burnt out from endless touring around the States for years and I’d realised that I just needed to step away from music indefinitely,” she recounts. 

“So I did that for a while and then during that time when, in my mind, I’d given up music, Keith asked to have a meeting with me. So we met up for coffee and he asked if I wanted to write a song with him, or collaborate in some sort of way. And I was so flattered, ‘cause I think he’s amazing. And part of me really wanted to do it, but the other part of me was so scared because I was in the middle of this massive bout of writer’s block and I hadn’t written a song for ages. And I just thought, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be able to get into a room with someone I’m this kind of intimidated by and be able to write a song for him – that’s just not gonna happen, it’s gonna be humiliating. So I reluctantly turned him down and I said, ‘I’d love to at some point in the future, but right now I’m just stepping away from music and I don’t think I’m gonna be able to. Sorry.’ 

“And then I think about a year after that, my writer’s block kind of got turned around all of a sudden when I got offered this Lilith Fair tour in America and I was asked to play by Sarah McLachlan, who is my all-time idol. And even though, in my mind, I wasn’t doing music anymore, I couldn’t refuse ‘cause I just loved her so much; she was such a massive influence on me. So I went over there and I did that tour, and it just really made me remember how much I loved music. And all these emotions started flooding back to me, and I just felt so grateful to be able to play music, and I started writing again!

“So when I started writing, one of the things that I was doing was just giving myself little challenges or little projects, I guess, so that I had parameters to work within – even though they were parameters that I’d made up myself – and one day I just thought, ‘I’m gonna write a song for Keith and see if he’s still interested in collaborating,’ you know. So I wrote If I’m Honest with him in mind – well, I guess it was partly for him and partly for me. I mean, it’s also about a personal experience of mine, but I thought if he wanted to take the song he could change some of the lyrics to be more about his own life.

“Anyway, it turned out I was a bit too late, ‘cause he’d just finished recording his album. So I ended up recording it for my own album [2012’s The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle] and it’s a song that I really cherish now, as my own, so it all worked out in the end.”

When asked whether she’s often kept songs she’s written with another artist in mind for herself, after growing attached to them, Higgins explains, “I actually never give away my songs; that was quite a rare occasion. I like the idea of it, but I think, for me, it would have to be something that was not too personal. Because otherwise it would feel like I was just ripping out a page of my diary and giving it to someone; it would not feel right at all,” she stresses, laughing. “But I do really love the idea of someone else taking my song and interpreting it in a completely different way, and making it their own. I think that would be quite fun.”

Higgins was actually called upon by Tim Minchin to sing a version of his achingly beautiful song Carry You, which features in the outstanding, award-winning Foxtel series Upright. And this song definitely sounds like it was written with her in mind. 

“Yeah, I really responded to it,” Higgins agrees. “I loved it when I first heard it and that may be why he wanted me to record it, ‘cause I think he knew it was a song that I could make my own. I did a bit of a slightly different version – I mean, his version was a piano version, too, so I guess it wasn’t that different but, you know, there’s sort of things that you can do in the studio to really make it sound like it’s your song. But it’s a beautifully written song so, yeah! That’s why I was so keen to do it.”

While Minchin has said he feels emotionally attached to a pianola purchased by his great grandparents, which he learned how to play the piano on (check out his Insta if you’d like to see a photo of this family heirloom), Higgins also shares fond memories of the first piano that found its way into her family home: “My dad got given this old piano from one of his patients who didn’t need it anymore and we loved it, because one of us could lie underneath it and feel the vibrations of the other one playing the piano. 

“We’d turn out the lights and close our eyes, and it was just a really beautiful way to tell each other stories. And I guess be vulnerable with each other, and kind of strengthen our friendship and our closeness together and, yeah! Just communicate through this musical language, which I couldn’t do with anyone else.” 

Just in case you’re imagining the Higgins kids taking turns tackling Rachmaninoff concertos, Missy clarifies, “It was all improvisation; creating these musical landscapes on the piano for the other person to sonically bathe in.”

Of writing songs from another character’s perspective – mostly Mailman’s character in Total Control – Higgins admits, “That was incredibly freeing. I just found it so easy to write for another character. I think because there was no baggage attached, I didn’t have to have that kind of insecurity or self-consciousness hanging over me where, you know, I know that people are going to read into it – [assuming it’s] about my personal life – or judge it against my other music. I just thought, ‘Oh, this is a standalone thing and I’m not even writing it for myself, I’m writing it for another character,’ and, yeah! It just takes a lotta the pressure off. 

“Sometimes it can be really hard to sit down and figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and there’s a lot of pressure to say it in exactly the right way and to describe that emotion really, really perfectly and so simply. And when you’re working within someone else’s parameters – and especially a fictional character – you have a lot of creative freedom.”

So did Higgins feel chuffed hearing her compositions within Total Control when it screened on ABC TV? “It’s amazing, actually, to work on something in the working stages and then see it when it’s been all polished-up and part of the emotional landscape of the show,” she marvels. “It’s really quite a special experience seeing your songs used like that.”

Throughout the series, Total Control touches on entrenched racism and inequality, the incarceration of Indigenous Australians, land rights and the rampant sexism that women in politics face. It definitely has the power to make viewers feel uncomfortable and will hopefully open up some important conversations. 

“I hope so, too,” Higgins seconds, “and, to me, part of the joy of writing for this show was really kind of embracing the political landscape of it and noticing the mirroring that was going on between the TV show and our political landscape. A lot of the songs, for me, were not only inspired by the show, but really inspired by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins who, at the time of writing, were standing up in Parliament and calling out abuse. 

“And it was so inspiring to me to see that this younger generation of females were now feeling courageous enough to not just stand up publicly, but on a national stage to tell their stories, and I just thought, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way,’ and it makes me hopeful for the future of my daughter to see these brave girls doing what they’ve done over the past couple of years.”