So much for the Difficult Second Album cliché, then. Barely a year after making her album debut with the well-received Little Eve – which nudged the Top 10, went gold and established a solid fan base – Kate Miller-Heidke has already sent record number two, Curiouser, out into the world. In an era where the usual post-album sequence is to tour, milk the album for singles, tour some more, panic, pull out songs hastily written on tour and then get the next record out two or three years down the track, it’s an impressively fast follow-up – especially so given that the songs were entirely written in the intervening period.
Fortunately, Miller-Heidke’s label was willing to get another album out good and fast. “They were happy. The singles were over, and Little Eve wasn’t really an album about singles anyway. The singles were largely ignored by the radio – they got a few spins on Rage and Video Hits and that was it. It was definitely more about the album as a whole and about live touring. I think we must have done about 100 gigs last year, and I got kind of sick of playing the same songs all the time.”
Surprisingly, Space They Cannot Touch, a song which first appeared on CD four years ago, isn’t one of them. “That’s one of those special songs that you don’t get sick of. I love playing that song – it’s this tool that puts me in the moment every night, it’s great. Unlike other songs – like Make It Last, I’ve been waiting quite some time to drop that one from the set. It’s hard, though. We played a big gig at the Caloundra Festival a few nights ago, sandwiched in between Ian Moss and Pete Murray, which went really well. I was doing a signing for Curiouser afterwards, and this little girl was there with her mum and dad, she must have been about six years old. And she couldn’t even look at me; her eyes were bright red because she’d rubbed them so much. Her dad said ‘we’ve got a very upset little girl here because you didn’t play Make It Last.’ That kind of thing makes you think twice – maybe there is some merit in that song. But at the same time it’s such a luxury to have this new pool of material to draw from.”
The new songs were melded into recorded shape in Los Angeles with producer Mickey Petralia, renowned for his work with everyone from Ladytron and Luscious Jackson to Linkin Park and John Cale. But it was his recent producing work for a musical comedy duo that was the clincher… “Keir and I sent our demos out to a few different people who we admired, and Mickey was the first person to respond. He called us and said that he really liked the songs; he was impressed with our demos because they were very detailed, we’d worked on the arrangements a lot ourselves at home. And I was totally obsessed with Flight of the Conchords at that stage, so I didn’t even care what else he’d done! I’ve always had that slight element of humour in my music, and the way Flight of the Conchords is done, it’s musically brilliant and at the same time it’s funny. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. As well, I think Mickey’s one of the best drum programmers in the world. So we get that blend of electronic and organic elements.”
Petralia’s out-there-but-still-pop style, as it turns out, suits the Miller-Heidke penchant for blending quirky pop with wide-eyed sincerity perfectly. Knowing when to bring the wacky (the sly groove of God’s Gift To Women an early highlight) and when to pull back and let the song do the talking (as on the Hampdens-like The End Of School) he, along with Kate’s husband and co-producer Keir Nuttal, has put Miller-Heidke squarely in the middle of clever-pop territory and actually gotten away with it. The recording sessions themselves were anything but conventional; Petralia’s preferred working day starts at 4pm and finishes at 4 in the morning.
“Those working hours were kind of insane,” Miller-Heidke admits with a wry laugh. “But we had to do it – that’s how Mickey worked. But it was great to be able to be totally immersed in the universe of those songs – with those kind of working hours you really don’t have any time in your life for anything else. And we didn’t have days off, either. It’d be waking up at 2 in the afternoon, having some Cheerio’s and then heading off to the studio. And the thing is, the later you go into the night, the further the next day’s start gets pushed back.”
There’s always been a healthy dose of quirky humour in Miller-Heidke’s songs and performance – and there’s plenty on Curiouser – but could things like her infamous Australian Idol song or her operatic cover of Psycho Killer on Spicks and Specks run the risk of having people peg her as a novelty act? “Yeah, totally, it’s dangerous to do covers like that. I weighed up the pros and cons of that, and I nearly didn’t do it. But they wouldn’t have any other song, they wanted that song, and my album was about to come out, and I just ended up saying yes. It is hard, being where I sit in the context of the whole music scene – not having that radio support and all that – working out how to get people to the gigs, and get them to hear about your music. And it’s that kind of thing that gets people talking. They come to the gigs to see things that they can’t hear on the album, and I’ve always thought it’s important to make it worth people’s while to come to the shows. I know that what I do is not something that everybody likes, that it’s polarising and that people have a strong reaction to it, they either like it or hate it. But in a way that’s good, because the people that do love it are extremely loyal.”
The Miller-Heidke live band has changed a little for this album’s shows, with new guitarist Nicole Brophy replacing violinist Sallie Campbell. “I think it’s indicative of the fact that with this album I was really moving away from that folky background,” Miller-Heidke explains. “We were putting violin in a lot of songs when it didn’t need to be there, simply because we had a violinist there. It just made more sense to have a second guitarist and singer. Nicole’s really fantastic, definitely an asset to the band.”
As the conversation winds up, one final question has to be asked. Album track Supergirl is a paean to a certain Marieke. Could it possibly be… “It’s about Marieke Hardy. Was it the ‘sex toys” line that gave it away? I’m a fan of hers, I like her work… I’ve never met her though, I’ve just admired her from afar. I’m a fan.” Does Hardy know she’s been immortalised in song? “No, I don’t think she knows yet. I guess she’ll find out soon and it’ll be awkward and weird. But I’m not going to tell her!
© Anthony Horan 2008
Originally published in Inpress Magazine issue 1045, 12th November 2008