Fearless. That was the word that kept coming up when Australian singer/songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke was dreaming up her sophomore record (and US debut) Curiouser. Fun was another one. The fact that she dared to dream either while her 2007 Australian debut Little Eve was still ringing loud and clear suggests a couple more F-words. Forward. And Fast.
She had a tough act to follow. After a trilogy of EPs in her home country from '04 to '06 "Telegram", "Comikaze" 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.
"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."
"We" includes Kate's partner in life and music, husband/guitarist/collaborator Keir Nuttall.
Radiating a newfound sense of mutual certainty, Curiouser immediately struck a chord with fans and critics when it was released in Australia in October 2008. In addition to a swag of glowing reviews, the album earned itself another F-word: the First album of Miller-Heidke's to be certified Platinum, go to #1 on the ARIA charts and #1 on the iTunes chart. Curiouser dominated the Top 10 on the iTunes album chart for two months and spent two weeks at #1. The record also received multiple nominations at the 2009 ARIA awards. The US version of Curiouser includes two bonus tracks which are crowd favorites: "Words", which was the 2007 ARIA nominated Breakthrough Single from her Australian debut record Little Eve; and the viral smash "Are You F*#king Kidding Me (Facebook Song)", which has had the Twitterati buzzing since it first appeared on YouTube.
Ultimately, it's the wonderfully unselfconscious 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 co-writing 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. 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.
"Caught In The Crowd", which is the first single from the record in the US, is a double-fisted tug of heartstrings between the gently tootling texture of the music and the recognizably real story of lingering childhood regret. With this song, Kate and her collaborator Keir Nuttall made history as the first Australians to win the Grand Prize in the prestigious International Songwriting Competition (based in Nashville). The song was handpicked from more than 17,000 entries to woo judges including Tom Waits, The Shins' James Mercer, The Cure's Robert Smith, Neil Finn and The Kinks' Ray Davis. The song shines with heart and soul something indicative of Curiouser, even in its most fun and playful moments.
"Songs had to either have heart and emotion, or have a sense of fun or wit about them. If a song didn't meet either of those criteria it was out," says Miller-Heidke.
Another track from Curiouser, the emotionally-charged "The Last Day On Earth", went double platinum in Australia and was one of the biggest hits of 2009. It is a beautifully compelling piece, which perfectly captures the indestructible power of love in the most fragile and finite surrounds. The song has nearly a million views on YouTube and went to #1 on the Australian charts.
Building on the unique vocal and performance dynamics learnt through early operatic training and a love of musical theatre, Miller-Heidke's live shows are as affecting, fun and memorable as her songs. She and her band have performed hundreds of shows in Australia in recent years, and Kate is now renowned for being one of Australia's finest live performers. A recipient of the Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Concert, Miller-Heidke is now right at home on stage in large rooms filled with her ever-growing hoard of devotees.
Miller-Heidke's shows are distinctly unforgettable and she's making significant inroads abroad, thanks in part to the wildfire enthusiasm of fans on the internet for her viral hit, "Are You F**king Kidding Me? (Facebook Song)" and she has played to large audiences in the UK, Spain, New Caledonia and Cambodia. In Fall '09 she toured the US as special guest of Ben Folds, garnered rave reviews and received standing ovations every night. In addition, in September '09, she made the long journey to Nepal to lend her voice to fight against human trafficking and she performed as part of the "MTV Exit Concert", an event to raise awareness on trafficking, the second largest illegal trade in the world.
This Spring/Summer, to support the US release of Curiouser, Kate returns to North America to embark on an extensive tour which will include performances at SXSW, Coachella and Canada Music Week.
"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?"