I sat impatiently in my seat, staring at the surroundings of The Plenary, in Melbourne’s South Wharf tonight, but I guess that was just nerves, as I wondered what to expect from one of Australia’s most loved contemporary artists of recent years. Kate Miller-Heidke was somewhere backstage preparing to join the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a one-night only performance which was to feature songs from the Brisbane born singer’s award-winning opera The Rabbits and songs from her back catalogue of best known pop songs.
Eventually, when she did come out, and I caught sight of her trademark blonde locks and that cheeky smile, I was at ease. Dressed in an outfit that was so Miller-Hiedke (Kate joked with the audience that her husband Keir Nuttall, thought she looked like a cross between a Spanish Conquistador and Donald Trump’s apartment. Her silver crown that she wore suggested to me that she looked like a Byzantine empress), she paused without a word and let the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra open the nights proceedings with Bliss.
It was a very surreal feeling for me to be part of something special that I was not used to as a non-opera/orchestra theatre participant. Of course, this was old ground for someone like Kate with a background in opera singing, a career she excelled at long before she became a piano playing singer/songwriter. Yet to her credit she managed throughout the evening to bring so much of what was familiar to me to her show. Musical standouts are too numerous to mention, however if I was to speak well of something, Humiliation and a stirring rendition of Sarah were definitely stand outs. Nuttall’s attempt to steal the show with an empathic acoustic solo for Words was also breathtaking. But Miller-Heike possibly left the best ’til last with an encore performance of Last Day On Earth. However, Miller-Heidke’s remarkable vocals were always going to be the star of the show. By shows end, I was glad I spent a small fortune on my tickets. Rarely had an artist like Kate, left me so awestruck!
Kate Miller-Heike’s story however doesn’t end in a standing ovation at The Plenary. She’s still gearing up for a series of orchestral shows with respective state symphony orchestras from across the country, where they will undoubtedly ‘bang out’ her indie pop songs. In truth, I think it is a clever concept where Kate in her own unique way, successfully brings together two worlds. It’s also nice to see that while she has adopted a more friendly pop existence, she has not abandoned her roots, which made her remarkable in the first place. If that isn’t enough, a ‘best of’ album that reflects on her career so far, aptly called Act One, is worth listening to, especially for those who are not familiar with her.
For the record, Kate is easily one of my favourite female artists of all time. That said, I believe I am only telling the reader half her story and if you would let me indulge a little, I would like to briefly recall her beginnings before delving into her remarkable ‘left of centre’ career.
Hailing originally from Queensland, Miller-Heidke foray into the music world began at an early age, where she fell in love with singing and musical theatre. Her earliest influences were Joni Mitchell and everyone’s favourite Leonard Cohen. Her first unofficial performances were at home, and perhaps in her bedroom, rehearsing scenes from Les Misérables and The Sound of Music. Later in her teens, she began to make a name for herself with her startling voice and dreamed of a life in the music world. Opera, it seemed, was going to be the vehicle that would propel her there. By 2002, the gifted Miller-Heidke emerged from the Queensland Conservatorium with a degree and numerous awards as a developing artist.
Kate was well on her way in establishing a career as a classical singer, but just when she was posed to fulfill a professional dream (In 2005, she made her solo operatic debut), she had a change of heart. Well, maybe not a change of heart, but a calling from the pop world that was too hard to resist.
As early as 2002, Kate played in several Brisbane bands, but chose to go solo soon after. In between, the operatic and pop worlds, Kate made her solo recording debut by releasing independently the EP Telegram in 2004. The following year, one of the songs from her EP called Space They Cannot Touch, began gaining traction on national radio station Triple J. It ultimately led to Kate being signed by Sony/BMG Australia and the song would be re-recorded for its inclusion on her debut album Little Eve (2007).
Kate’s clever debut album inevitably drew her comparisons to, and I’ve read, Tori Amos, but I would definitely say Kate Bush. I am not the first to make this comparison. Though I would like to add that, like Kate Bush, Miller-Heidke is anything but cool. Quirky, yes. Funny, definitely. (Kate has often also said that she wasn’t cool at all in high school.) Then again, I have never met Kate, which makes me wish I had donated to support her O’Vertigo campaign a few years ago, to possibly meet her. She was offering a variety of things in exchange for her fans support, like a happy birthday rendition via a phone call to a personal living room concert. Nonetheless, I have transgressed from my point, just have a listen to her song Words and hear Miller-Heidke do her ‘Kate Bush – esque’ best. Though, it almost sounds unfair to compare her to Bush, because Miller-Heidke is extraordinary and inventive in her own right.
I first came across Kate in 2009 and I was immediately taken by her unique brand of pop. By then, her sophomore album Curiouser (2009) was doing huge things here on our Australian charts and her single Last Day On Earth (from the same album) struck an instant accord with me. I wasn’t the only one it seems, many young Australians and sections of indie pop communities in the UK and America, all realised something special was looming.
As on her earlier album Little Eve, Kate combines her achingly beautiful voice with amusingly uplifting melodies (often sung with a shriek or trill for added effect), something that has become her trademark. In Can’t Shake it, for example, Kate playfully sings, “Tried moving my body to the latest hit/Someone called the nurse thought I was having a fit/I execute the moonwalk like I stepped I shit/I can’t take it. God’s Gift To Women and I Like You Better When You’re Not Around are also as lyrically clever as they are amusing.
But Kate is not always relying on her oddball sense of humor to impress you. The calm and unhurried piano driven The Last Day On Earth, at almost five minutes, is arguably her sincerest song that makes you want to tear up uncontrollably. The End Of School, a nostalgic look back at youth, also stands out a one of my favourites, but it is Caught In The Crowd that is truly the albums triumph. It is a song about school bullying, in which Kate sings from the perspective of the passive observer who doesn’t step in to defend a friend. The song not only caught the attention of many schools as an anti-bullying campaigns tool, it was the grand prize winner in the International Songwriting Competition of 2009.
Following the success of Curiouser, first came her side project album with her husband Keir Nuttall called Fatty Gets a Stylist (2011) and then her 3rd studio solo album Nightflight (2012). In short, a roster of fine songs brings Nightflight to life with the quality of Kate’s lyrics. But to be honest with you, I haven’t quite made up my mind about where it stands in my pecking order of Miller-Heidke albums. It is definitely better than Little Eve, but is it a complete departure from her brilliant Curiouser? I don’t know. It is a more adult indie pop album at best with many dramatic arrangements. We ride a rollercoaster of emotive songs from the buoyant Ride This Feeling, in which Kate sings about taking her clothes off and soaring as if she is given to fly, to the haunting, stirring Sarah, which tells the story about a girl gone missing at a festival.
With the positive reception Nightflight was receiving in 2012, it seemed that Kate could do no wrong. She was truly now a bona fide star in this country. This was enhanced by her reputation as a live performer where her opera-esque qualities dazzled most fans and critics.
It was around about this time that a sea change was taking shape and in 2013, Kate left her record company Sony music after seven years. It seemed it was time to cut those ‘apron strings’ and venture out independently. To do this, Kate resorted to funding for her 4th album O’ Vertigo (2014), through a crowd-funding site called Pledge music. Now folks, if you are to learn anything about how to sell yourself, Kate’s pledge video in my opinion is the ideal example of how to beg, borrow, steal and charm your fans for support. Of course, Kate promised to use all funds raised to make her album and for donations towards the protection of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In return Kate promised everyone who pledged support an exclusive download of her album and other rewards. Interestingly, Kate smashed through her target within three days of officially posting her pledge campaign.
With more than enough funds raised from Pledge music, Kate recorded her album Vertigo in late 2013. She subsequently signed a distribution deal with Cooking Vinyl and released the album in 2014. The album benefited from the non-involvement of Sony, truly making O’ Vertigo an album more representative of Miller-Heidke at her best: eccentric, fun, and upbeat. Even the critics responded positively to her audacious new project.
Interestingly, I remember that the album could not have got off to a more suitably strange start than its first single Drama, a quirky pop-mash track. That said, it’s fair to say most of the albums worked well, and maybe it was no surprise that fans warmed to it instantly. Kate, of course, probably knew the importance of filling an album with catchy tunes and slower tracks reminiscent of her previous work. On a personal note, my favourite tracks from O’ Vertigo are Offer It Up, Rock This Baby To Sleep and Ghost.
In the last few years, Kate has returned to the theatre. She was commissioned by Opera Australia to compose a new opera. She focused all her energy in writing an opera based on the children’s book by John Marsden called The Rabbits. It won 4 Helpmann Awards including Best Score (in 2015), which cemented her status as arguably Australia’s most versatile artist.
It is also fair to say that the musical innovation and accessibility of Kate Miller-Heidke is a lesson that all new artists should take note of. It goes without saying, her unique brand of indie pop/folk/opera is not for everyone. Though, I really do hate those knockers (misogynists) out there, who call her music uninspiring, or worst yet when they accuse her of being a sellout. It’s not true, they just don’t understand her music and motivations. That said, Kate Miller-Heidke is someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously, but I recommend you don’t mess with this modern woman. At 35, her tolerance for chauvinists and sexist is less forgiving nowadays. How clever it is that her latest song, You’ve Underestimated Me, Dude is her answer to all those with half a brain.