When her last album came out in Australia, nobody noticed; last time she was in the country, you’d never have known about it save for the odd throwaway press mention. As a living illustration of how talent needs a healthy dose of good timing when it comes to navigating the music industry, Sia Furler is getting the kind of global attention that goes hand in hand with being a newly-arrived, hugely admired artist. And it only took her fifteen years to get there.
Sia talks fast. Really fast. Perhaps it’s the endurance test of sitting on the phone for consecutive 15-minute interrogations, but there’s no boredom evident here – it’s all uncontained enthusiasm, transforming her usual left-of-centre ebullience into a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that crackles down the phone line, disintegrating into digital data noises every so often (“The modern phone woes of a pop star… I’m using a Blackberry that I bought off Craigslist – I bought it for a hundred bucks from someone we met at the Burger King down in Chinatown. So that’s probably why the phone’s very quiet unless I give it a good old bash and thwack!”)
Of course, there’s a real-world reason for such unbridled enthusiasm. After two solo albums that were greeted by the quiet applause of a contented few (and solid appreciation from Zero 7 fans for her extensive guest work with that band), Sia’s third – Some People Have Real Problems – is finding a wider audience, one large enough to see her finally do an Australian tour this month. And she’s writing songs with Christina Aguilera for that uberstar’s next album. Suddenly, people are paying attention. “This part happened in just the past year; I’d always made enough money to survive, but I was never famous, which was good, great.” You don’t want to be famous? “No! But I made a reasonable income, and Zero 7 afforded me the luxury of sabotaging my solo career. When we’d made Some People Have Real Problems though, my management decided it was going to be huge, that I couldn’t do both things anymore and be part of Zero 7. And I think that gave me a bit of a kick up the butt. So now I’m actually doing the work that goes hand in hand with putting out a record when it’s your only source of income. And that is, essentially, promo and a marketing budget. This is the first record I’ve ever done promo for. I’ve done something like 1200 interviews for this record. I did four for Colour The Small One.”
That remarkable album – a complete departure musically into a lush, dark, and often cinematically orchestrated world – was released five years ago to critical praise, but such lack of record company enthusiasm that it sank without trace. But then, Sia wasn’t exactly all over the music press talking it up… “Yeah, well… I was kind of sad. So I didn’t want to do any talking to anybody. I was under the misconception that I was like Radiohead and I didn’t need to do promo, that people would hear about the record and I’d sell millions of copies just because people were psychic. But actually, I sold 13,000 copies before I was dropped by Universal. And it was two weeks later that the Breathe Me thing happened in Six Feet Under, and that totally resuscitated my dying career.”
She’s not exaggerating. The day after the final episode of Six Feet Under aired with its intensely emotional ending soundtracked by Breathe Me, Sia had countless instant new fans… and a call from Universal wanting her to sign a new deal. “Yeah, that was pretty funny. I laughed out of my vagina,” she recalls with a playful laugh, calmly throwing a grenade into the conversation. That almost child-like mix of uncontained enthusiasm and a delight in naughtiness is a constant surprise to those whose mental picture of Sia has come from her music; Californian public radio station KCRW experienced that first-hand during a live-to-air interview and live performance in 2006 when host Nic Harcourt suddenly found himself on the receiving end of Sia’s brand of mischievous humour (it’s still on their web site here).
“I got into big trouble for that. And then the producer told me they wouldn’t be able to have me back on if I didn’t clean my act up, and then I cried, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” It made for memorable radio, though… “Great that it was cool, but I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, and apparently although I’m allowed to use those words, the context they were in was teetering on the verge of what they consider vulgar. And they can be fined for that. They’re a public radio station, so I was basically risking their licence. I felt really bad. But we’re all happy families now… and I watch my language!”
Ironically it was KCRW that championed Sia’s music when she didn’t even have a record out in the US – and two of the station’s staff were responsible for the Six Feet Under break that literally rescued her career. “They originally pitched it for a trailer for the fourth season, I believe. But because I was really struggling in my solo career, we gave them rights in perpetuity – which we would never do now, but it’s often normal to give the network those rights so they can reuse the song for that one thing without asking permission or letting you know when or where they’re going to use it. So they actually didn’t tell me they were using it in the final episode. It was a surprise to everybody – I woke up to ten emails about it. It was fantastic for us, it was fucking amazing, but it could have been even more amazing if we’d known about it a little bit in advance so we could have had the record out the week that aired or had some sort of press around it. But thankfully it worked out beautifully anyway; people liked it enough to wait for it and then buy it when we did get it released in the US.”
As the conversation draws to a close, Sia mentions that she’s off to see Rufus Wainwright play that evening – though she doesn’t know quite what to expect, since, as she puts it, “I don’t listen to music.” It is, needless to say, rare to hear a singer, musician or songwriter so plainly state that they’re not disciples of their own craft; surely, accepted thinking goes, one has to absorb music in order to create your own?
Sia laughs, then pauses for a moment. “I don’t believe in that at all. I think that you should allow yourself to be an instrument, and you don’t necessarily have to buy into what it is that you create. I think everybody has a right to create and not have to buy into that which they create, or into the scene. I think god gives people a gift and they should use it. I know that my gift is to write songs and to sing them – but that doesn’t mean that I have to buy into my scene. I can buy into another scene. I’m into visual stuff. I like visual art so that’s my hobby, and my job and my gift is singing and writing songs. And I love doing that. I appreciate a good voice; I just don’t really listen to music. I can appreciate music – when I go to my friend’s house and they have a record on and it’s beautiful I can see that. But I don’t buy music and I don’t listen to it.”
This fact – which perhaps is as much as a way of defusing the inevitable what-are-your-influences questions as it is a simple truth that runs against the grain of the way an artist is expected to be – rubbed Inpress journalist Anthony Carew the wrong way during an interview with Sia in September 2008, his scathing article concluding that Sia was “an egotist uninterested in the actual product of her artistic labours.” Despite it having been a virtual how-to manual for giving an artist bad press, Sia’s response is calm, measured… and defiant. “I think he’s being quite reverent. And I’m not really a fan of that. I pride myself on being irreverent and not buying into the hype of being an artist, and artistry, or glamorising dysfunction or any of that stuff that goes hand in hand with being an artist. I think that’s kind of naïve, because I know what it takes to write a song and write music, and there’s nothing special about it. It’s a talent, like painting a house, if you can paint a wall without dripping paint on the floor, that’s a rad talent and god gave it to you, so you use it.”
© Anthony Horan 2009
Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1063, 18th March 2009