Interview: Kate Miller-Heidke

Published in Drum Media (WA) | 26.07.12 | Issue # 298



Living this year on airplane food and recycled air, Kate Miller-Heidke has had little time to reflect on the game changing events 2012 has thrown her way – a chart-smashing new album and a memorable appearance on ABC’s Q&A. Ahead of her album tour, Daniel Cribb catches up to analyze the chaos.

“If one more person coughs on me I’m going to punch them in the face,” songstress Kate Miller-Heidke sings on her latest album, Nightflight. It’s a fair enough statement too. It’s rare that such a powerful vocalist comes along, and it’s understandable considering someone projecting airborne diseases her way could have less than desired repercussions – especially as she’s finding herself spending an increasing amount of time on tour. Waking up in one state and flying to the next, doing the same thing every day for weeks on end is draining for anyone let alone someone using their voice to its extreme most nights.

The morning of Miller-Heidke’s most recent performance in Perth, she awoke in Melbourne feeling the need to nurture her vocal cords, which often leaves airport security believing she is a deaf mute. Some confusion at the airport and a day filled with whispers paid off though, as she was in fine form whilst entertaining a packed crowd. The following day a colourful Miller-Heidke tightly grasped a mug of coffee in her hotel room, suggesting the bottle of wine she had on stage was finished post-show. “My voice is still tired, it’s fine though. It hasn’t really happened before like this, but I think it was because I was so jetlagged and then we had to do five shows in a row. I had to do closing night at the Opera in London then fly out the next day and straight away do five shows. And then I got sick,” a reserved Miller-Heidke quietly explains.

At this stage her husband/guitarist Keir Nuttall and backing vocalist/guitarist Madeline Page were in the air halfway to Queensland for the next show. Jumping around from state to state all week there had been some eventful moments that included a meeting with Michael Cera a few days earlier backstage at her show at the Sydney Opera House. “He was doing a play in the theatre there, but then we kept seeing him. He was staying at the same hotel. It started to become ridiculous,” she laughs, admitting that stalking comes naturally.

The music video for single, I’ll Change Your Mind, narratives such a trait quite well as she plays a stalker who sets up camp outside the house of a young man and tries, on numerous occasions, to get his attention. The video seems fairly tame for the most part, until the end, when Miller-Heidke breaks into the house, thrusts a knife into her chest, removes a very realistic looking heart and gives it to her stalkee. So what contributed to the album’s change of direction and her desire to be seen in a different light?

Touring around the world, including a run of shows opening for Ben Folds in North America, Europe and the UK, as an acoustic three-piece over the past couple of years gave her the opportunity to step back from certain elements of her previous work and redirect her musical path, as is apparent throughout Nightflight, a direction well received as it entered the ARIA charts at #2. “To be honest, Ben Fold was a big influence. I sat backstage and watched him play night after night at eighty shows. But this record was mainly a reaction to the last one. Not directly influenced by anything in particular, but just wanting to make something different and surprise myself.”

During long international flights, Miller-Heidke began to feel as if she was in purgatory, thus naming the album after the song Nightflight was an easy choice. “The title was applicable to every song on the album and not just the one. It’s more about the word really. Although it’s one of my favourite songs on the record, I like them all. It’s still pretty fresh though, so I’m still in the honeymoon period. I’m sure I’ll hate them all in six months,” she laughs.

After Curiosity hit success, Miller-Heidke found herself living out of suitcases and on a diet consisting mainly of airplane food. To get away from it all and clear her head, she and her husband retreated to Toowoomba in Queensland for a few months to workshop material for the next album. Once the bits and pieces of a third studio album were in place and tracked, she escaped the ridiculous heat of the Australian summer and flew to Europe to mix the record in Suffolk with Cenzo Townshend (U2, Kaiser Chiefs, New Order). When the idea for last minute backing vocals arose, Miller-Heidke had an urge to record the part outside, in the snow. “It was a beautiful day and, with all the snow, it just seemed like the right thing to do; to go outside. It was hard to set up, but it was worth it for the photo,” she jokes. The photo in question can be located on her Facebook page.

Besides a scenic photo, the studio’s location provided an opportunity to try for a position in the English National Opera. Passing the audition for John Adam’s The Death Of Klinghoffer with flying colours, she landed the role of ‘British Dancing Girl’ and became the only Australian cast member. “It was the English National Opera, one of the best companies in the world. To get to play on that stage in Covent Garden felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity – and it was.

“They were all lovely people and amazing opera singers. It’s such a weird discipline, but so inspiring in a way. The whole experience of being in the theatre, it’s quite intoxicating… We had seven weeks of rehearsals and two weeks of shows. The first two weeks of rehearsal we were sitting around in a circle, learning about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and doing research and presenting assignments and stuff. It was absolutely incredible. It was like being at Oxford.”

Back in Australia, the cycle to promote her new album began. When asked to perform on ABC’sQ&A, whilst nervous due to the nature of subject matter usually discussed on the show and the feeling that she’d need to prepare, she was convinced into thinking it would be a good opportunity to play a song off the new album. The agenda for the evening was to be focused on the upcoming budget, but they promised to throw her a couple of music questions. “As anyone who saw it knows, we didn’t move on and the entire show was about Labor and unions and budgets and interest rates, and I felt about as useful as a waterproof teabag,” she responded online a couple of days after the appearance. During the show Anthony Callea Tweeted “There is one person on the panel tonight that is a total waste of space….embarrassing rep for Gen Y! #qanda”, to which Miller-Heidke responded: “Pot Kettle Fuckwit.”

Never claiming to be an expert on politics, she can, however, claim expertise when it comes to songwriting. So how does this album stand up to her previous works? “It’s more organic. It’s more lush and cinematic and just more real. I’ve loved playing in the duo the last couple of years, doing those kinds of [acoustic] shows that we did last night. I just wanted to harness the power of that; the power of dynamics and simplicity and silence, rather than just adding layers and layers of shit to everything – which was our approach in Curiosity and it worked for that, but it just wasn’t where I was at musically anymore. I think it encompasses a lot of the themes – the darkness, the light, the contrast, the themes of mortality and life.”