Aussie songstress breaks into U.S. music scene with new tour

Australia native Missy Higgins is an up-and-coming singer touring the United States with novelist Harlan Coben. She took time before her April 7th performance at Wilmette Theatre to talk to the Maroon.

By Derrick Teo Wee Ghee

A musical heavyweight back in her native Australia, Missy Higgins is gradually building up steam here in the States with a slew of placements in primetime TV series and thriller fiction. Her latest album, On a Clear Night, has stayed on the Billboard charts for the best part of a year with songs like “Where I Stood,” which combines female singer-songwriter accessibility with a trademark Aussie edge. Now at the business end of a long American tour, Higgins takes time out from preparing from a series of performances with novelist Harlan Coben to talk about touring, staying in LA and environmental issues back in Australia.

Chicago Maroon: You’re nearing the end of a States-wide tour. How was it for you? Were there any particular highlights?

Missy Higgins: Um, there were some amazing shows. We played at The Fillmore in San Francisco which was a dream come true for me because I always wanted to headline there. I’ve supported about three artists over there over the years and every time I dreamed of having my own show, so that was really beautiful. And a good friend of mine called Lenka supported us for the entire tour. She’s an old friend of mine from Australia, and it was really lovely to have her along, it was really good having another Australian on the road, another Australian female. Guess that doesn’t happen very often.

CM: Your profile Stateside was pretty much built up from “Where I Stood” after it appeared in TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Hills and Smallville. Are you worried at all about the prospect of, later in your career, being known primarily for this song alone?

MH: I kinda disagree with you about the thing about – primarily about the one song thing, because I’ve been coming over to the States for, I don’t know, I guess it’s about five years or so now, and I’ve felt my fan base growing gradually over the years. I agree with you, it has a lot to do with the song, but it’s also – I think it’s a combination of the song being accessible on radio and also of having done a lot of groundwork as far as touring goes and building up a fan base from the grassroots level. So I guess for that reason I don’t feel scared about it being taken away from me quickly because I feel like I’ve slowly built up a fan base.

CM: Are there any differences between your audiences here and back in Australia?

MH: Not really – I mean, the audiences vary from town to town in the states so it’s kind of hard to generalise, but I found the audiences here really enthusiastic and really respectful at the same time. You know, it’s always different interacting as Australians with Americans when you’re on stage because it’s a very different culture. The Australian culture is much more – our sense of humour is a lot drier, and more sarcastic, so the way I communicate with the audience is a bit different, but it’s kind of hard to articulate in a way. But I really love playing over here, I really love it. From the beginning I’ve felt very embraced by the American public, and that really gives me confidence onstage, which for an essentially insecure performer (laughs) is a really, really wonderful gift.

CM: You recorded On a Clear Night over there. What was the experience like? What did you gain in particular from either the change in environment or from LA in particular? I mean, I know you love Western Australia, and LA must seem like worlds away from Broome.

MH: Um, yeah, it definitely is. It’s a completely, completely different universe. I think it was really amazing for me to have Broome as a refuge and a place to, um, let my creativity run free. It’s a really great place to have gone right before I went to LA, because there’s so much space in Broome, which is a small country town, and it’s kind of the opposite of the manic entertainment industry hub that is LA. So, you know, before the time I moved to LA, I’d been living in a very quiet, um, sort of solitude for quite a while so I was ready for the polar opposite kind of experience. And it was really fun – LA is really fun in its own way, there’s so much great music there that’s really great, art, culture…everything.

CM: You’re on tour now with Harlan Coben, who’s promoting his new book. How was your show last night?

MH: The show was good! The show was really fun. It was really different from anything I’d done before, in the way that it played out. Harlan and I kinda spoke back and forth about the similarities and difference between writing fiction literature and writing lyrics to a song. So it’s really interesting to explore that with a different kind of writer.

CM: How did this tour come about?

MH: Harlan wrote about me in one of his books. There’s a book called “Hold Tight”, and one of the characters in the book listened to my song on his iPod and spoke a bit about the song. The song was “Where I Stood”. And – oh yeah – and then it so happened that my aunty and my mom were sitting on the beach in Australia one time, and all of a sudden my aunty was like “Oh my God, he’s writing about Missy!” And so my mum went on, read the book, and she became a big fan of his writing. We were sent the book by Harlan Coben and our managers just got in contact and we decided it would be fun to try and do something together because Harlan is a big fan of my music and I’m trying to promote this album. So we kinda devised this little show idea, without really knowing what we would do once we got up on stage with each other, but this is turning out OK [chuckles].

CM: So how does this work – do you perform after him, or do you go on stage together?

MH: Yeah we both go on stage together and, well, he talks a bit about how we came about doing these shows and how we met, and what my music means to him, and then I’ll play the song “Where I Stood” that was mentioned in his book, and then we’ll have a chat about writing, and then another couple of songs, and then we’ll speak about another aspect of our writing, and then we’ll open it up to the audience to ask questions – it’s very free-flowing, we – just basically discussing the process and comparing the process with each other, and it’s really interesting, we’ll just see where that goes.

CM: You’ve decided that all the royalties from the EP sales will go towards Save the Kimberley. Tell us more about that.

MH: There’s some industrialisation that’s planned for the western coast of Australia, and basically what they want to do is drill for oil offshore and then bring it onshore off of the Kimberley shore. And this would mean that they basically have to erect a massive gas hub, which, including buffer zones, would take up about 30 square kilometres on the Kimberley coast, which would mean complete devastation of this area, which is the Australia that you see on the tourist brochures, all this beautifully rugged landscape and beaches and pure, white sand and, you know, crystal waters, this scene of thriving wildlife. So there’s a lot of protesting going, and I feel especially attached to that part of the country. I was there for about six months while I was writing for this album, so it’s a very, very important place to me and I think it should be an important place to every single Australian because it’s one of the last untouched beauties on Earth.

CM: You’re headed home now for your first Aussie gigs in a while, and you’re kicking off what must be a really fun prospect for you, performing with The Cat Empire and Tim Speedman. Are you excited?

MH: Yeah! I’m really excited. It’s been a long time, and I’m a little bit nervous, just because – I don’t know, just because I haven’t played there for so long and I really want to do a good show and the Byron Bluesfest is really really beautiful festival and everybody is always really lovely and excited and warm and laidback, so I don’t think I have anything to worry about. We’re also doing some other shows, we’re doing a show with Jason Mraz in Adelaide in a park and we’re also doing a show in Victoria in a winery. So, yeah, they’re all really different kinds of shows and festivals always have a really great energy to them—very, very different from small theater shows. It’s been a while since I’ve done something like that. Combined with the fact that it’s Australia, it’s really exciting

CM: What are your plans after this? Are you heading back into the studio anytime in the near future?

MH: I’ve no plans to head into the studio anytime soon. I used to plan quite carefully what I was going to do, and then I realised that I was constantly changing my mind. There are too many variables getting in the way anyway, changing my course, so. Yeah I’ll just kind of let it happen. I think it’s going to be a while before my third album, because I’ve been touring for quite a few years without a big break between albums – I went straight into my second one – so I think I’m going to have to take some time out, and just chill out in Melbourne. I’m going to stay there for a while; it’s been a while since I’ve been there. And I also really want my third album to be different and good and worth waiting for. I’m looking forward to exploring the multi-facets of my creativity and yeah, just sit still for a while. That’ll be good.