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In a world littered with disposable pop Missy Higgins is a welcome relief.. passionate, sincere and proudly Australian.
The singer/songwriter from Melbourne has enjoyed phenomenal success in her homeland in spite – or perhaps because – of shunning the usual synthetic packaging and tabloid tackiness. Instead she’s adopted a more timeless approach, relying on her undeniable songs and unforgettable live performances to build a genuine and gimmick free connection with her audience.
Missy’s new album, “On A Clear Night”, retains the hallmarks of her earlier work – irresistible melodies and ‘arrow through the heart’ lyrics delivered by a voice that clearly means it. However, this time around the tracks benefit from the empathetic production of Mitchell Froom who helmed the first three Crowded House albums as well as works by other quality artists such as Ron Sexsmith, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and the Finn Brothers.
The new album also showcases the changing world view of a more self assured artist. There’s a quiet strength to these new works which suggests a more confident young woman. She’s grown up in public and “On A Clear Night” is the diary she’s kept along the way
“The album hopefully reflects where I’m at right now”, explains Missy. “I just feel a lot clearer about who I am and what I want to be doing with my music. Working with Mitchell was a big part of that process too. I’ve still got so much to learn but I think I’ve moved on from most of the confusion and self doubt I felt when I was just starting out. I’d say that’s themain difference between the old songs and the new ones.”
It’s certainly been quite a journey. In a story that’s now well known, Missy started off singing standards with her older brother’s band when she was only 13. She was thrust into the limelight in 2001 when she won Triple J Unearthed while she was still at high school. Instead of rushing into a recording studio she chose to go backpacking around Europe before coming home and releasing an eponymous EP that topped the indie charts in late 2003. In August the following year she released the “Scar EP” in Australia. Off the back of tours supporting George, The Waifs, John Butler Trio and Pete Murray the disc entered the national charts at ..1. Her debut album, “The Sound Of White” achieved the same feat soon afterwards.
It was quite an arrival.
More Australian touring followed including a stint opening for the Finn Brothers, appearances on major festivals such as Homebake and Falls, plus a slot on the memorable Waveaid tsunami benefit concert in January 2005.
“The Sound Of White” was released internationally later that year and Missy toured the US and UK repeatedly including stints opening for the likes of Ray Lamontagne, The Finn Brothers and Howie Day. By the end of 2005 Missy had racked up over 200 gigs culminating in a memorable series of huge outdoor concerts around Australia.
“The whole thing almost seemed like a blur”, says Missy. “One minute I was just some opening act nobody had heard of and the next minute I was playing to 20,000 people in (Sydney’s) Centennial Park. It was pretty overwhelming.”
But the craziness didn’t stop there. “The Sound Of White” scooped the ARIA Awards, adding 5 gongs (including the coveted “Album Of The Year”) to the one “Scar” had earned in late 2004. Missy also won an APRA songwriter’s award, appeared twice on the cover of Rolling Stone, and enjoyed major hit singles with “Ten Days”, “Special Two” and the album’s title track.
All of this activity propelled “The Sound Of White” to nine times platinum status in Australia for sales of over 650,000 copies, making it the biggest selling CD of 2005 and one of the most popular releases in the country’s history.
Says Missy; “I’m not one of those people who feels obliged to knock their previous albums – I’m actually really pleased so many people liked “The Sound Of White”. It’s a good snapshot of who I was in my late teens and I’m happy I made it. Its popularity was obviously never something that I expected but it opened up the doors to a lot of amazing experiences for me and I’m very grateful for that. Of course I’d be lying if I pretended that I didn’t feel a lot of pressure when it came to following it up but that’s exactly why I decided to really take my time and make sure that the new album was everything I wanted it to be.”
2006 saw some more overseas touring but by the middle of the year the focus had shifted toward songwriting and making plans for recording.
“I made a really conscious decision to just try to be invisible in Australia last year. I was sick of hearing myself on the radio so I can only imagine how much everybody else needed a break from me for a while”.
Fortunately Missy likes to write songs while she’s on the road, so while touring “The Sound Of White” she penned many of the tunes that would comprise “On A Clear Night” and gradually honed them through live performances.
The pissed off “Peachy” was among the first to work its way into Missy’s set. It was often introduced onstage with a wry chuckle as “the sequel to “Ten Days”“. The equally energetic (and only slightly less feisty) “100 Round The Bends” also became a fan favourite through repeated live airings.
“Unlike nearly all the songs on the first album both of those ones were written on guitar”, Missy explains. “When I’m touring I obviously can’t carry a piano around everywhere. The guitar’s the only instrument I’ve got with me in the hotel room or on the bus and the songs I write that way tend to be a bit more ‘up’ while playing the piano usually inspires slow songs for some reason. Maybe that’s why there’s a bit more energy on this album compared to the last one – I just didn’t get to spend as much time sitting around at home playing the piano.”
The new disc still features some beautiful keyboard driven ballads such as “Sugarcane” and “Where I Stood” but this time they’re evenly balanced by the more uptempo tracks.
Recording for “On A Clear Night” commenced at Mitchell Froom’s home studio in Los Angeles during early September 2006. For the next three months tracking proceeded at relatively leisurely pace using a stellar lineup of LA musicians including deeply gifted drummer Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple).
In another memorable career highlight former touring compadre Neil Finn was roped in to provide some extra guitars on “Peachy” and backing vocals on the rustic “Going North”.
“Because it was Mitchell’s own studio and all the players he loves to work with it was just a really relaxed way to record”, says Missy. “There was no clock ticking away in people’s minds so there was no pressure to get in the way of the creativity. We could just take our time and try out different things until we caught the right performances and sounds for each song.”
The opening track, “Where I Stood” showcases both the tasteful restraint and the lyrical maturity that are the album’s trademarks while the sass and swagger of Missy’s personal favourite track – “The Wrong Girl” -is clearly the work of a more self-confident songwriter. Missy credits her producer with helping her realize her ambitions for these pivotal songs.
“Working with Mitchell was such an empowering experience. He’s made so many great singer/songwriter style records yet his main priority was always to help me make the record Iwanted to make. He’s full of all these brilliant ideas but he never tried to impose anything on me; he just let me take my time and we let the songs unfold the way they wanted to. The result, I think, is a record with a real depth to it and I’m so proud of it.
The first single, “Steer” is in many ways the album’s statement of intent. An infectious and uplifting piece about seizing control of your life, it sums up the discs outlook. It’s therefore only appropriate that a line from its chorus should lead to the title of “On A Clear Night”.
“A lot of the songs on the last album were written from fairly dark places but “Steer” is really the opposite of that”, explains Missy. “It was inspired by a realisation I had one night on the beach, looking up at this amazingly clear sky above me. It dawned on me how small we are, how short life is and how ridiculous it therefore is to spend any of it feeling compromised or unfulfilled. I felt so liberated to have finally figured that out and the song ‘Steer’ just kind of fell out of that moment.”
This sense that ‘anything’s possible’ isn’t confined to the lyrics; it also extends to the musical departures on the album. “Going North” has a surprisingly country twang to it, “Warm Whispers” employs some unusual structures and atmospheric loops, there’s an acoustic string band treatment of “Angela”, and the haunting “Secret” is written around just 3 notes played on one string of the guitar. They’re the kind of subtle and surprising twists that sustain listener interest across the course of the album.
“I wanted this album to seem really simple when you first listen to it but then the more you play it, the more you discover. There are lots of little instrumental textures and things that you only notice after a few spins so hopefully people will feel like it’s one of those albums that’s worth playing a few times.”
Tracking of “On A Clear Night” wrapped in December of 2006 and to mark the final day of recording Missy joined Neil Finn onstage at a secret club show he did at Largo in L.A.. After doing her own set she joined in on backing vocals with Neil and his makeshift band that also featured Mitchell Froom on keys and the legendary Jon Brion on guitar. The group improvised versions of classic Finn songs like “Fall At Your Feet”, “Four Seasons In One Day” and “Better Be Home Soon” which, in the closing of a circle, Missy used to perform with her brother many years before.
“It was a really special night”, Missy recalls. “From my point of view it was just a perfect way to celebrate the completion of this album. Of course if you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be singing “Better Be Home Soon” with Neil Finn I’d have laughed at you and then I’d probably have panicked and refused to leave the house (laughs). But after everything that’s gone down over the last few years I was able to just relax and enjoy the night. It was beautiful.”