The Write Stuff

1 June 2012 | 3:56 pm | Cassandra Fumi

“It was like I was mourning the loss of a lover,” Missy Higgins admits of the writer’s block that plagued her.

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It's possible Inpress knocks too energetically. A woman answers the door to a small Victorian home down a one-way street in South Yarra. Missy Higgins' energy is immediately welcoming and gentle. Being flustered and desperate for the toilet is not ideal. Higgins offers the bathroom. Needing to go to the toilet actually turns out to be the perfect, unplanned icebreaker. It sets the tone: You're a person, I'm a person – let's chat. Higgins is just finishing up an interview with a suited man and offers her bedroom as waiting area (maybe getting here three minutes early was a good thing). A copy of the Dr Seuss classic Oh, The Places You'll Go! is clocked peeking out from underneath what looks suspiciously like a book on spiritual enlightenment.

Sitting face to face with Missy Higgins is surprisingly comfortable. She opens up straight away. No fluff bullshit. “When I decided to quit it wasn't that I didn't want to do music anymore, it was just I couldn't figure out how to. I was having severe writer's block,” Higgins explains. “I just couldn't figure out why the songs weren't coming out. I took this as a sign that maybe that time in my life was over.” The humble and softly spoken Higgins states: “If I can't write songs then I can't play.”

While attempting to navigate an existential crisis, Higgins travelled to India to attend her friend Ben Lee's wedding to American actor, Ione Skye. Even though Higgins had lost the will to write music, her will to write never faded. “I have diaries full,” she admits. “I've always found [writing] so therapeutic. Extended travels of India kinda happened accidentally after the wedding as I just decided to travel by myself.” Understandable, she was already there. “On a spiritual level India didn't let me run away from my demons, it made me turn around and face them. It put things in perspective a bit. At the time, this was a real struggle, but when I came home [to Melbourne], I was on a high for about four months.”

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When asked about the 'holy' cows, Higgins laughs, “There were cows all over the roads. It was awesome. Being a vegetarian I love that they treat their cows like gods. Even if you're held up for hours on the road behind a cow, you just have to wait.”

Set Me On Fire, the opening track on new album The Ol' Razzle Dazzle, was first conceived in an apartment Higgins was subletting in Brooklyn. “I just wrote down the lyrics like I was writing a rap song. I didn't think it was going to become a song,” she exclaims. A visual of this petite Aussie in New York rapping brings immense joy. Perhaps the best way to write a song was not expecting it to become one. “I just wanted to write about my struggle with writer's block,” she explains. “It was like I was mourning the loss of a lover.” That lover, as the song indicates, was melody.

Now that we're chatting about the upcoming release of The Ol' Razzle Dazzle, the gold in Higgins' hazel iris is becoming more obvious. Higgins met collaborator and producer of The Ol' Razzle Dazzle, Butterfly Boucher, at Lilith Fair in August 2010. “She was playing bass for Sarah McLachlan [one of the founders Lilith Fair]. We hit it off straight away. We both bring different elements to songs and complement each other.” To see this musical partnership in a bedroom jam session, check out 'Butterfly Boucher & Missy Higgins – 5678' on YouTube. 

The Ol' Razzle Dazzle was recorded in a Nashville studio where a blonde-haired Higgins (hair colour: important detail) resided throughout the process. Boucher (who Higgins fondly refers to as “Butter”) and Nashville-based producer and singer/songwriter Brad Jones produced the album. “I was far away from my record company,” the now-light-brown-haired Higgins tells. “So I didn't have them interfering at all. It was probably the most fun I've had making a record. [In Nashville] I fell in with a really great bunch of musicians and songwriters. I found them all so inspiring. We all just fed off each other. Butter and Brad are both free spirits: They don't make music to sell it to the masses, they make music because they have to. It's what they love. They live and breathe it.” Higgins, with a sign of obvious admiration, continues: “They are both so passionate about finding new sounds and finding new ways to bring songs to life.”

Higgins played Falls Festival this year. “It was really gratifying to get back on stage and feel such a warm welcome,” Higgins, who had her Nashville band with her, says. ”They were all so blown away by the size of the crowd and the fact that [the audience] were singing so loudly.”

Higgins reminisces about writing her triple j Unearthed 2001-winning song All For Believing – the track that started it all back when she still had long hair (maybe a trivial detail). It was written at Geelong College in Year Ten for a class music assignment. “I think I hadn't really done my homework,” she confesses. “So the day before, or the day of, I went into the music school at recess and wrote. Then I played it for the class in afternoon.” When asked what the reception was like, Higgins chuckles, “I think they loved it. Wait. I think I got an A… I'll never be able to write like that again, because, then, I wasn't thinking about writing for an audience. I wrote songs never thinking that many people were going to hear them. When I play my old songs at shows there is a real innocence to them.

“Part of the reason why I walked away from music for a while was because I didn't feel like I had a home anywhere. I had been away from Melbourne for such a long time that I didn't really feel connected to it anymore.” Spending time here again, Higgins joyfully proclaims, “I am so grateful to be living here and call it home”. Aspects of living in Melbourne she relishes include: “The pace of life, the café culture, having good conversations with friends over coffee, the constant bands playing down at your local pub.” Higgins seems to be laying roots. The house we are sitting in has been freshly painted and furnished as she is preparing to move north of the river.

The Ol' Razzle Dazzle is more than just Higgins' return to music. It's a celebration of her rediscovered love for music. She reflects on the young girl in the film clip for Scar, who stuck the side of a piano back together with her gum. “I think, 'Oh, god, you're so young! If only you'd known what was ahead of you.” But, I guess, where's the fun in knowing …The Places You'll Go?