Fearless. That was the word that kept coming up when Kate Miller-Heidke was dreaming up her second album. Fun was another one. The fact that she dared to dream either while her 2007 debut Little Eve was still ringing loud and clear suggests a couple more F-words. Forward. And Fast.
“We had no songs,” she says. “What we had was a huge burst of inspiration. We went into this album with a vision. We mapped out how we wanted it to sound; the aesthetic, the spirit of it. Experimental, hooky, unashamedly pop… we wanted to exploit everything that’s unique about my music.”
She had a tough act to follow. After a trilogy of EPs from ’04 to ’06 – Telegram, Comikaz and Circular Breathing – Little Eve burst onto the scene to land in the upper reaches of the ARIA charts and earned the singer a host of accolades. The album went Gold and clocked up four ARIA nominations.
But her sophomore set Curiouser, which began to take shape on a holiday in Laos shared by Miller-Heidke and her partner and guitartist/songwriter Keir Nuttall, brought the dream to brilliant life. Radiating a newfound sense of mutual certainty, Curiouser immediately struck a chord with fans and critics when it was released in October 2008. The Gold-selling album earned itself another F-word: the first album of Miller-Heidke’s to be an iTunes #1 and storm into the ARIA Top 10 Albums chart.
Impressively, it’s the wonderfully unself-conscious yet accomplished songwriting that takes both Curiouser and Miller-Heidke to the next level. Remarkably, it’s also the first time she’s opened herself up to collaboration – here, working closely with Nuttall – and the results are inspiring.
“Songwriting was always too personal and I felt too self-conscious to collaborate,” Kate says. “But after a certain point, I just lost my inhibitions and I didn’t care. We got into a groove where we bring out the best of each other. These songs are better than anything we’d written individually before.”
Recording with Los Angeles producer Mickey Petralia (Beck, Peaches, eels, Dandy Warhols), who had the right mix of humour, enthusiasm and weird old electronic stuff to offer the new tunes, Miller-Heidke, Nuttall, bassist Ben McCarthy and drummer Steve Pope spent two months crafting Curiouser. With his strict 4pm to 4am shifts (with no days off), Petralia’s studio wizardry turned out to be the perfect galvanising force for Miller-Heidke’s and and Nuttall’s carefully detailed home demos.
“To me,” she says, “it sounds like a modern album, a forward-looking album.” To everyone else, however, it sounds like one of the best Australian records in recent memory – a set embraced by an enthusiastic audience and one lauded with critical acclaim.
“Can’t Shake It”, possibly the world’s first booty-swinging tune about a booty that just won’t swing, was the first taste of Curiouser and one eagerly devoured by a growing fan base. It became the most-added track to radio upon release and gave Miller-Heidke her first Top 40 single. The icing on the cake was its nomination for the 2009 APRA Song of the Year.
Meanwhile, a very different song, “Caught In The Crowd” – a double-fisted tug of heartstrings between the gently tootling texture of the music and the recognisably real story of lingering childhood regret – shot to greater heights. Miller-Heidke made history as the first Australian to win the prestigious International Songwriting Competition grand prize, with “Caught In The Crowd” handpicked from more than 17,000 entries to woo judges including Tom Waits, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Neil Finn and The Kinks’ Ray Davies. The song shone with heart and soul – something indicative of Curiouser, even in its most fun and playful moments.
“Songs had to either have heart and be really emotionally affecting or have a sense of fun or wit about them. If a song didn’t meet either of those criteria it was out. I’ve written songs in the past that don’t fit those two categories and those are the songs I kind of get sick of. They don’t seem to have much potency after a while,” Miller-Heidke adds.
Then, one such emotionally affecting moment, “The Last Day On Earth”, ideally surmised the universally resonating power of Curiouser. A beautifully compelling tune, which perfectly captures the indestructible power of love in the most fragile and finite surrounds, it was viewed a phenomenal 200,000 times on YouTube in just four weeks, going on to sell Gold and becoming Miller-Heidke’s first #1 ARIA single.
It also cemented the Brisbane native’s status as one of the country’s finest artists. Building on the unique vocal and performance dynamics learnt through early operatic training and a love of musical theatre, Miller-Heidke’s shows are as affecting, fun and memorable as her songs. And thanks to word-of-mouth renown through her Little Eve tours, Miller-Heidke is now right at home on stage in large rooms filled to the with her ever-growing hoard of devotees. It’s been an incredible journey for an artist whose dream of an album came from such a, well, curious origin.
“Mickey thought Curiouser was a noun, something that made you more curious,” Miller-Heidke says. “That’s what made up my mind about the title. Wouldn’t it be great if people listened to this album and it made them curiouser?”