Songwriter for hire: Kate Miller-Heidke enjoys writing for others as well as herself. Photo: Jo Duck
Four albums in and Kate Miller-Heidke is not just comfortable writing and performing but is growing more confident as a songwriter for hire. Recently I suggested she would be a good one for Kylie Minogue to consider - to enliven that diminutive pop star’s songwriting pool - and the idea was well received.
"I was quite flattered by that. Especially as there were gays online who took offence to it too, so that was good," Miller-Heidke laughs. "I feel to some extent that I am a bit of a chameleon and in recent years I’ve found myself writing to a brief more, and there is a part of me which really digs it."
One of the attractions of writing for others is that you stop second-guessing yourself about what this all may say about you and what people will interpret about you and your decisions.
"That's exactly it: you think, how would this be perceived coming from me. Songwriting is such a personal thing and sometimes you have to battle with your ego a bit, which is why it's freeing to write from the perspective of someone else,” she says. “If the audience is present in your own mind, that can f--- me up, I think.”
One of her “off site” projects is a commission from Opera Australia, The Rabbits, which has Lally Katz writing the libretto and is based on the massively successful illustrated book by Shaun Tan, who she calls "a national treasure".
"I find his work extremely powerful and moving. [This project] is a big metaphor about colonialism, so it's quite an epic subject, but we are writing the opera for children and families."
In pop-culture terms, this is closer to a musical rather than going for the full Rufus (as in Wainwright, who has had his Verdi-inspired opera Prima Donna performed around the world in recent years). Operatic voices sing it but in “a musical language people will find quite easy to understand". And presumably it's not over until the fat rabbit sings.
Miller-Heidke is a ambitious songwriter, in terms of testing herself more than most, so was this attractive because it potentially was beyond her?
"Yes, definitely. I was absolutely shit scared about it, jumping headfirst into the unknown in a lot of ways, but I felt instinctively it was something I wanted to do. You can't really say no to a commission from Opera Australia so I said yes, and after that had to figure out how the hell I was going to do it."
In the two years or so since she was commissioned by Opera Australia, she also has moved from an artist signed to a major label to a fully independent one. That's a lot of risk as well as opportunity coming at once. Apart from feeling terrified about the project, did being commissioned to do it give her a sense of confidence in this risk-taking phase that also included her new album, O Vertigo?
"I never feel confident that I'm going to be employed three years from now,” she says ruefully. “But it has been good for my confidence, I think. Shaking me up creatively, using a different part of my brain, and I’m able to lose myself in that. Writing from the perspective of a numbat, for example, has been so completely different that it has shaken my world. And that was happening around the time I was writing for O Vertigo, which is the fastest I've written any record.
“I think there is a sound about it that is more spontaneous than anything I've recorded before, and that comes through."
Kate Miller-Heidke plays the Concourse, Chatswood, on August 15 and Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, on August 16
Pop meets classical
Kurt Weill – The Threepenny Opera (1928)
George Gershwin – Porgy And Bess (1935)
Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet – The Juliet Letters (1993)
Carly Simon – Romulus Hunt (1993)
The Knife/Planningtorock and Mt Sims – Tomorrow In A Year (2009)
Rufus Wainwright – Prima Donna (2009 )
Damon Albarn – Dr Dee (2011)
Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond – You, Us, We, All (2013)
Kate Miller-Heidke – The Rabbits (2015)