Out of the dark
Girl, interrupted … after her huge success, singer/songwriter Missy Higgins took herself far away from the music business for some serious soul-searching. Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan
Just after Christmas 2008: Missy Higgins is among the heat and colour and acrid incense of a giant golden Hindu temple in an ashram in southern India. She's 25 and famous, with dozens of lovely songs done and sung, but she's also confused and increasingly distressed.
Through gritted teeth she's asking herself the big questions, quietly for now, although the white noise of confusion will soon be loud enough to drown out the music that should be flowing through the young musician's head.
Who am I? Am I of any use?
Looking sharp … Higgins at the 2005 ARIA awards – she won five gongs. Photo: Snapper Media
Thinking back, she now understands that she was suffering a recurrence of the depression that has dogged her sporadically since adolescence. Higgins, Australia's premier female singer-songwriter, can also understand that she was searching for something beyond what she already knew, and that all she knew was music.
In year 12, while still a boarder at Geelong Grammar, a private school near Melbourne, she got a worldwide record deal. She'd written songs since age 13 and, at 17, won the Triple J Unearthed quest with a song called All For Believing after her elder sister had entered her on the sly.
Ever since, she has written songs and sung them all around the world to an increasingly passionate fan base. She had no rites of passage, no wonderings, no wanderings. Hers is the story of a young woman who did too much too soon and then didn't know where to go. She says, because she's now 28, that it was a "Saturn return", the time when a person leaves youth for adulthood, according to the cycle of the ringed planet. Only problem was that her youth was her adulthood.
Missy in action … on stage with Sarah McLachlan, Lilith Fair, 2010. Photo: Getty Images
Her brother, David Higgins, says, "She never got to wake up in a strange house with carpet in her mouth like the rest of us."
But it was more than that. She was lost.
The main question was this: am I anything without music? She didn't know if she could stop and still survive in the world. By this point, she had sold two million albums. Yet still she thought life was probably elsewhere.
"It was an existential crisis," Higgins says. "I didn't think I had anything to offer any more."
In that moment in India, in the heat, smells and the piercing stillness of the ashram, it was terrifying. She didn't yet know what was happening to her. "Do I go in another direction," she wondered, "to see if it takes me to happiness?"
Yet she gritted her teeth again. She was one of 80 guests at the big Hindu wedding of her friend and fellow songwriter Ben Lee. He was marrying the actress Ione Skye, daughter of Mellow Yellow singer Donovan, in the southern Indian countryside near Vellore, the ceremony performed by Lee's guru, Sri Sakthi Amma.
The ashram was on 40 hectares; the temple was the largest golden temple in the world, bordered by an ornate star-shaped "chakra" path. Amma, a 35-year-old bearded male, is referred to by devotees as a "she" because he/she claims to be the divine manifestation of the goddess Narayani.
It was a 10-day epic for Higgins. The wedding went for two. Then it was heavy meditation. She was there after a year living alone in Los Angeles - in Silver Lake, specifically - and playing big shows across America in venues holding several thousand people. Her second album, On a Clear Night, went within a whisker of going gold stateside; the song Where I Stood - "I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you" - was a massive hit after being flogged on radio and used in big-time American TV shows.
"You listen to Amma speak," she remembers, "and watch her as she washes a statue of Narayani with ghee and milk and rose water and honey."
This happened during ritual prayer ceremonies in the morning, afternoon and evening, among cows and candles and incense and the constant loud, hypnotic sitar music. "It's an incredibly spiritual place," she says now. "You can't escape yourself or your demons."
From the guest house over the road one day, she wrote an email home. It was, she says, like the raw rantings of someone between heaven and hell. "I was questioning everything and even questioning my own existence. I had plummeted to the depths of my own psyche. I was confused about what I had discovered in myself."
Higgins' mother, Margaret, wrote back from the family home in comfortable Armadale, Melbourne. Her email read, "I don't think that place is good for you, Missy. I think you should get out of there now."
She did, travelling into northern India on her own, meeting local musicians, staying with families. She was away from the spiritual pressure cooker of the ashram but, still, all was not well.
David Higgins, six years older than his sister and also a musician, says those days near Vellore were a "turning point." Certainly around about now was when Missy started thinking more and more about quitting music. David is a Buddhist and understood where she was at.
"All the bad things that you feel will be replicated by good things later," he says. "But at first you can be reflective to the point of being morbid."
Next stop: Brazil. Missy Higgins journeyed up the Amazon River. She was with a couple she had met in India who were involved in ecotourism. They went to a remote village of the Asháninka people near the Peruvian border on an Amazon tributary. She stayed for six nights, sleeping in a hammock. During a village full-moon party, fuelled by a fermented vegetable root that had some (but not her) up and dancing for three days, she was coaxed into singing. The chief's hut had the only village generator; someone got a cheap amplifier from somewhere and a derelict electric guitar. Typically, she felt reluctant. "I didn't want to be the centre of attention."
But she sang two of her songs in the jungle, including an old song called The Cactus that Found the Beat that she wrote at 17: "There will never be a doubt in me, 'cos Mamma told me it was meant to be ..."
Then Missy Higgins went home to her family.
When I last wrote about her, in 2007, she seemed to be at the crest of a massive wave, about to release On a Clear Night, full of lovely, heartfelt songs. She was already a star but this was set to take her higher.
She issued a veiled warning about quitting music. No one took it seriously. Except, of course, Missy Higgins. I remember we did two long interviews and at the end of the second, she stood up to leave and said, almost as an afterthought, "I don't control the songs. They control me. I might take some time off, get away. It's ... complicated."
And that is exactly what happened. Having returned to the bosom of the family after India and the Amazon - and after an ill-fated and agonising time trying to write when nothing good would come - she quit, confused and depressed.
She told her manager, John Watson, that it was over, and not to offer her anything any more - no tours, no appearances, no collaborations.
She felt as if she was inconsequential and had vanished and gone, so the best thing she could do was literally vanish and go. "She said it was like she had drowned," says David Higgins.
The Higginses of Melbourne are a close, affectionate family; she's the youngest child by eight years. Her father, Christopher, is an English-born GP; her mother, Margaret, works in childcare. David is a free spirit, a musician who works by day in IT in a hospital, while older sister Nicola was a fashion designer and shop owner before becoming a full-time mum.
Chris Higgins tells me that when his wife was pregnant, and they knew the baby was a girl but had no name, they went walking in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens and a sweet little girl came up to them and started talking. They asked her name. She said, "Missy" and explained that her real name was Melissa but everyone called her Missy. So the Higginses named their unborn daughter after her, and she was called Missy by everyone from the moment she was born.
Artist Kate Tucker, whose portrait of Higgins was a finalist for this year's Archibald Prize, says her friend is a woman of contrasts: goofy and hilarious on one hand, and introspective on the other. "She is a very serious person at heart, and very intelligent, who doesn't take things lightly," says Tucker. "She is someone who listens hard to what you have to say and then means what she says in return. She is incredibly authentic, honest and brave."
"She was a scream as a youngster," says David. "She was so cheeky and so funny. Her big eyes watching what everyone did. She was just so generous. She would be carrying something in her hand and would give it away, all the time."
Once, when Missy was a toddler, her father left her for 30 minutes watching TV and came back to find she had cut her own hair and also cut the "hair" of the white fluffy rug she was sitting on. She'd arranged dark and white piles, side by side.
When she was five and had just started at Armadale Primary School - where they still sometimes play her songs over the school PA system to signal recess and lunch - Chris instituted "show and tell" at the dinner table. By now David was 11 and Nicola was 12. "It was for Missy," says Chris, "so she could get a word in. She had the floor and she wasn't going to give it up."
At six, she started piano lessons. Her father is classically trained. Chris's father's mother also played, and Missy recently rescued her great-grandmother's old Steinway from storage for her own inner-Melbourne home, a cute renovated white cottage full of musical instruments and Aboriginal art.
Her father made her practise for 30 minutes every day, and soon enough she was lost in music. As a young girl, she would listen to her brother play for hours. By 15, he was already very good and determined to become a musician. He remembers she was in awe of the music; she soon started to lie underneath the piano in the sitting room of the family home.
They would turn off the lights and David would play and she would be in what she has a called a "trance". At 14, she started singing with David when he played gigs with his jazz-funk band in grown-up Melbourne bars. Around this time, Chris says, her serious side emerged. She became a thinker. She went to Geelong Grammar, as her siblings had done, and fell in straight away with its acclaimed music school, which specialised in jazz.
Teacher Paul Rettke was staggered by her first lesson with him. She sang Cry Me a River, the old-time tearjerker made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. "It was hard to believe she was a 15-year-old boarder from Geelong Grammar," Rettke tells me. "She sounded like Billie Holiday, like she'd had her heart ripped out."
She started writing her own songs, locking herself away in a school music room with a piano. She wrote All For Believing, the Triple J winner. The song, a delicate, emotional piano ballad, set the blueprint for her early material. She was a young woman, very young, already intuitive and attentive to affairs of the heart, with a wonderful, warm voice and desperately honest - to a fault, perhaps.
Some years later, around the time of her second album, close readings of the lyrics revealed an open sexuality. She gave an interview to a lesbian magazine about bisexuality and was seen in Melbourne lesbian bars.
Chris Higgins says, "She had a gay relationship for a year but looks back on that as a phase in her life. She thought all the speculation was silly. She has always said it is not the gender of the person you are with but the type of person they are. It was hard for her. She was misunderstood."
For the record, Higgins is now in a relationship with a man, a musician and filmmaker whom she met while making her new record, The Ol' Razzle Dazzle (out on June 1), in Nashville. "It's so boring, people talking about my love life," she says.
Her father says that when she started to get noticed and it was clear what was ahead, he only gave her one piece of advice. "With fame comes responsibility. When you are in the public eye, everything you say carries weight," he says. "I think she took that seriously."
When people recognised her - the single Scar quickly became a hit in 2004 when she was 20, and her debut album, The Sound of White, entered the ARIA charts at No. 1 - Chris Higgins noticed she was increasingly anxious. The trigger, he says, was the sibilance when people nearby whispered, "Missy." The hissing sound upset her.
This anxiety had first surfaced while she was still at school. It was an incident that was to change the dynamic - for the better - between father and daughter.
Chris Higgins suffers from depression and has done for a long time. A thread of it runs through his side of the family. As a doctor, he's convinced it's genetic. He's happy and stable now, "medicated and well controlled" with a hobby of climbing very high mountains all over the world.
He calls what happened her "meltdown" - a depression- and anxiety-related episode so serious she collapsed at Geelong Grammar and ended up in hospital. She spoke about it last year at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne at a Women of Letters literary event.
There was, she said, "a new darkness brewing inside me", but she was also putting herself under mental and physical pressure. She was studying hard in year 11, the end of the year was approaching, she was going out with the school rugby captain and was taking ecstasy and cocaine "to escape the grind of adolescence".
One night she felt that darkness fall as she walked to the school dining hall with a friend. She felt as if she was outside her own skin; her limbs grew heavy. "I wanted to evaporate, or explode, or implode," she said of the preview of what would happen 10 or so years later in India, again under pressure both internal and external. She said she wanted the feeling to go away and she said she wanted to go away, too.
She got to the dining hall, sat down and then couldn't move. Her head droned and the feeling moved into her arms and fingertips and they started to tingle, the first frightening signs of a panic attack. She walked outside, collapsed and was taken to hospital.
The next morning, she said, outside the hospital walls was still a "seething, revolving mess of life and, like or not, I had to participate".
It was only then that she spoke candidly with her father, and he with her. "It was surprisingly comforting to know I wasn't alone," she said, "and that it apparently wasn't my fault." She started taking antidepressants, started feeling better and now admits to a "mixed relationship with the little white pills".
The road towards new album The Ol' Razzle Dazzle - the showbizzy title an intended irony, given her troubled journey and the soul-searching that marks her songs - began, unknowingly to her, as soon as she quit the music world.
She didn't know she would make another record. Certainly, when she rented a room above a florist in the Melbourne hipster suburb of Northcote in 2009 to try to write, she thought she would never make another one.
In quitting she'd stopped performing and touring, being managed and being part of the music-industry machine. But she still wanted to see if she could make songs, for fun, like it used to be.
She made the rented place as conducive to that as possible. "I gave it a lick of paint and put my guitars and piano and organ in there and a couch and some candles. I thought, 'I'm gonna come here a little bit each day and see if I can write.' "
At the time, and into 2010, she was doing other new things, all about getting back to basics and finding herself. She was living in a share house in Northcote with two friends, which she'd never done before. She did a year of indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, growing her hair, riding a bike and wearing a beanie pulled down low. Like so many Melbourne girls do.
The music room above the florist was useful, but not in the way she intended.
"I would spend hours on four chords on the organ and four words and repeat and repeat them," she says. "It was more musical therapy than writing songs people would enjoy. It was for me. That is probably what I was trying to do. I wanted to get back to a place where it was just me."
She was listening to Philip Glass: "Minimal, abstract music. It suited my head space. I was disillusioned and felt under enormous pressure because I didn't like the idea that I couldn't do anything else, and I hated the idea that I was under an obligation to follow this path just because it was the only thing I knew.
"I can make sense of it now," she says, "but it was a roller-coaster. At times I thought, 'Okay, I'm gonna write some music to alienate all my fans because I don't care.' "
Her therapist told her she wasn't expressing her anger properly. So she wrote a song expressing her anger: "I called it Angry. It was about opening the gates and letting the bears loose, really dark, very cathartic. I played it for weeks."
Her moods were dark. She was losing hope. Her father intervened. "He said, 'You have to look in the mirror, Missy. Maybe you should do something else.' He said, 'You have had a lot of success; you wouldn't be a failure if you stopped trying to write songs and did something else.' He said he and Mum were struggling to see me like that."
She went to Europe for three months with her friend Breeze Callahan, who works in the film industry. The pair met when Higgins was in the film Bran Nue Dae, shot around Broome, WA, where she has a house. "It was hard to see her go through so much depression," Callahan says. "Even after all the time out she took, she still could not get inspired to write a song."
Her manager, John Watson, had all the while - for two years - abided by her wishes and not called or emailed despite his office being inundated with offers. But there was one he felt he had to tell her about. It was an invitation to do an all-female American music festival called Lilith Fair, curated by one of Higgins's heroines, Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. To Watson's surprise, she said she wanted to do it.
That was in mid-2010, and for Higgins it was revelatory because the very people she had forgotten about during her existential crisis, writer's block and acute self-doubt - her fans - were the ones who opened her eyes widest.
"It dawned on me," she says. "They hadn't forgotten. They are still waiting." After one show in the festival, she spent an hour signing photos and pressing the flesh. "They were all so heartfelt and full of gratitude," she says. "I was humbled. There were girls crying and wanting to hug me."
She thought to herself at that moment: this is the power of music, this is my calling. "I've been given an ability to make people feel things through music," she says.
The darkness lifted. Straight away she started writing and thinking, came home to Melbourne to bid her family goodbye once again, and left for LA and New York, where she house-sat for friends, and the songs came pouring out, most especially in a borrowed apartment in Brooklyn during the freezing New York winter of 2010.
Breeze Callahan was then in New York, too. "She was getting back on the horse," she says. "It was a special time. She called me over a few times; I would lie on her floor and she'd play me her new tunes on the piano. It was a dramatic transformation."
Then Missy Higgins went to Nashville. There, she fell in love and made her new record - by her standards a quite experimental suite of songs documenting what she had learnt about herself on this long journey and time in the wilderness. But there are also songs about fun, and life, and what it is to feel joy. They are the best ones.
"I felt like my blood was flowing again," Missy Higgins says. "It was like my heart wasn't working. But then it clicked. I felt useful. I felt like my talents were okay ones to have."
Lead-in photograph by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Penny Hunt. Hair and make-up by Isabella Scmid. Missy wears Lover Lace dress, Christian Louboutin wedges. This page, top: Styling by Penny Hunt. Hair and make-up by Isabella Scmid. Missy wears Michael Kors dress, Helene Zubeldia earrings from Bijoux Box, Tiffany & Co cuff.
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend.
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