Whatever Makes You Happy

29 May 2012 | 3:34 pm | Dave Drayton

A cat, Nick Cave, and a filthy share house: Missy Higgins talks to Dave Drayton about the recipe for the comeback album that almost didn’t happen.

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It's 2008 and Missy Higgins is where just about any budding musician would give an arm and a leg (provided they're not needed for instruments) to be. She had already swept Australia off its collective feet with debut album, The Sound Of White, been awarded numerous accolades and, with critics likening her to Sarah McLachlan and Alanis Morissette, she looked poised to capture the elusive American market with her second album, On A Clear Night, released there through Reprise/Warner Bros. She was a big deal on the cusp of even bigger things and was working hard to make them happen – though all was not well.

“It was more a gradual thing,” says Missy Higgins of the existential crises that crept up on her and led her to question what it was she wanted from music. “I think actually during the making of my second album, I remember just having a bit of a meltdown and wanting to scrap the whole thing and just going, 'I'm not ready, I'm not ready for this.' I don't know why, I think I was feeling a lot of pressure from my American record company. You know, they'd be coming into the studio and listening to a song and saying really stupid comments about the recordings and I was like, 'This is not why I started making music in the first place,' you know?”

The seeds of doubt had been planted, but with 'success' – the kind lit up in lights and splashed with cash deemed so from an external view, one not privy to the inner workings of the artist – in reach, these thoughts were quashed.

“That was the start of it, and then I toured that album for two or three years, which is longer than most people would tour an album for, because it started to get quite successful in the States and it just kind of gradually built up. So I think I got to the point after that where I really knew that I had to take a break, but because I'd reached such a good level in America, everyone was kind of telling me, 'Oh, you'd be really crazy to walk away from this right now, because you've just got to the point where the next level is super stardom,' or whatever. Whatever Americans say when they're trying to convince you to make them more money.”

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At odds with herself and with those who supposedly knew best for her, Higgins began working.

“So basically I tried to make a third album straightaway; I tried to go into the studio and write every day,” Higgins says. “I rented a little room above a flower shop in Northcote in Melbourne and I tried to do it Nick Cave-style.” Recounting this experiment now, Higgins is excitable, clearly in her element talking about the music that inspires her and her craft. “He used to dress up in a suit and get his suitcase and go into 'the office'. I was like, 'I'm just going to treat this like a job, I'm actually going to try and be professional about this.' But it didn't work – my heart wasn't in it and I wasn't inspired. The songs just weren't coming. Or, you know, they were, but they were not really good songs, they were just more like bizarre musical abstract meanderings and I didn't end up really writing anything down. It was more just kind of cathartic; just getting all this stuff out of my system.

“After about a year of doing that I was just getting really, I was just digging myself into a hole I think. And my family and my friends were watching me bang my head up against the wall trying to write and unable to write and eventually they just said to me, 'Why are you doing this to yourself? It's obviously not making you happy.' I guess I had to look at myself in the mirror and go, 'Well the songs aren't coming and it's not making you happy trying, so maybe you just need to walk away from it and do something else with your life.'”

She packed up shop above the florist and moved in with a couple of friends. She did Indigenous studies at university in Melbourne. She made an attempt at the 'normal' life that was traded in when she signed with Eleven, still in high school, on the back of her surprise triple j Unearthed win.

“After I got rid of the room where I went to try and write every day I thought I've got to drop music altogether, I've really got to walk away from it and not even have it as a possibility in the back of my head; I've really got to honestly try something else in my life. So I went to university for a bit. And that was a really great experience. I never went to uni because I got signed in high school. And I did things that I'd always wanted to do, like live in a big share house with a whole heap of friends. But it was really awesome; I loved it. It was the funnest two years of my life, living in a share house. But I guess in the back of my head there was always a little bit of sadness that I didn't have music in my life anymore.”

When she'd walked away she'd told her manager not to contact her with show or tour offers, she had tried as best she could to shut music out. But, as she said, in the back of her head there remained a sadness, an affection for music. It took an invitation from Sarah McLachlan – the same person she was compared to on the back of On A Clear Night, the same person that was a childhood hero of Higgins' – to join her all-female Lilith Fair concert tour to bring her back to the music.

“That was just something that I'd always wanted to be involved in as a kid. I used to love Sarah McLachlan and it was a bit of a dream come true. I just thought, 'Oh my God, I can't say no to this, I mean, what harm's it going to do? I'm just going to go over there and do a few shows.' And at that point I'd written one song in a couple of years and as soon as I got on stage and I played that new song and I played my set I just felt so… I felt like I was back doing what I'm meant to do. I just had this overwhelming feeling of, 'This is what makes me happy, this is the thing that just feels right.' And I played that new song and the audience seemed to really love it and I guess that gave me a lot of confidence back too and it made me realise that I hadn't actually lost the ability to write. I thought I had – I thought I'd just, somehow, I'd just used up all the songs inside me and there were no more. But it just made me realise I hadn't lost it, I'd just forgotten how to use it.”

Once again inspired, Higgins packed her bags and headed to the source of inspiration, America, looking to get out of her comfort zone and try once again for album number three. “I really love being in new places and people-watching and immersing myself in different cultures. And playing new instruments,” Higgins adds playfully, “I just wanted to go and play at different people's pianos.

“So I put word out on the internet and said if anyone's got any friends in the States that need house-sitting or a dog that needs feeding or a plant that needs watering, let me know, on the condition that they have a keyboard or a piano – and I got quite a lot of notes back. Because I know so many musicians over there, a lot of them are on tour a lot of the time, so they'd have a house full of instruments that they'd need minding, so I stayed in all these different places in LA and New York and Brooklyn and Nashville and I just wrote on a lot of people's pianos. Some of them worked and some of them didn't. One place in particular worked really well. It was a place in Sunset [Park], Brooklyn and it was this old grand piano in this tiny little apartment and I was looking after a cat called Minky, who was just a little terror. But I didn't know anyone in Sunset Park and I just used to go and sit on the hill and watch the Mexican families throw birthday parties and the Chinese women do their morning ritual salute to the sun and it was really, really inspiring.”

So Higgins created new release, The Ol' Razzle Dazzle, not an album aspiring to super-stardom, nor one that people expected or demanded, but the one she wanted to make, made on her own terms.

“Walking away and then coming back to music in my own time definitely gave me the freedom – because I'd detached myself from the idea of needing success, or needing recognition – so that definitely gave me a freedom to write the songs that I wanted to write and do it in my own time in a Southern city on the other side of the world with friends.”



There's a playful nature that rears its head on The Ol' Razzle Dazzle. “There was definitely a feeling of celebrating just the joy of playing instruments and just experimenting with different sounds, I think because Butterfly [Boucher] and Brad [Jones, co-producers] are both multi-instrumentalists and they're both really musical, so the three of us would just sit around and get really excited about putting some part here and there,” Higgins explains. It shows – a Bee Gees-channelling disco vibe on Temporary Love, some quirky pop in Hidden Ones and a bunch of animal sounds bringing the dark, bluesy Watering Hole to life. Though they sound as though they could have been lifted from the field recordings of a David Attenborough documentary, the animal sounds were, in fact, made by Higgins herself. And as she surprisingly reveals, it's not the first time she's impersonated an animal on a recording.

“[Watering Hole] is one of those tracks that's not like anything else on the album. The guy that we got to sing on it is James Nixon, who's this old black Nashville gospel singer. He's really old and he's obviously just been through so much and, oh my God, his singing was amazing; guttural. Butterfly and I stayed back one night – I think we'd had a couple of tequilas or something – and we decided to put animal noises on the bridge after the harmonica solo; sounds of the watering hole animals feasting on your brains. That was us impersonating animals!”

Higgins' older brother David, six years her senior and a musician too (outside his work in IT), once had Missy put some different sounds to tape for a recording of his. The two have been playing together since Missy began playing with his jazz-funk band around Melbourne in her early teens.

“I've always had this animal language. My brother and I used to – and we still do sometimes – just call each other up and just make animal noises at each other for about five minutes. Once I did animal noises on a recording of his about eight years ago. It was a little bit less 'middle of the night watering hole' animals and more like ducks and birds and seagulls. A little bit less dark, a little bit more fun and jazzy.”