Kate Miller-Heidke has the vulnerability of Joni Mitchell and the vocal agility of a coloratura soprano. She’s been compared with piano diva Tori Amos and art-pop singer Kate Bush, but she isn’t strictly folk or opera or pop. With a talent for storytelling and a taste for theatricality, 32-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke makes her own rules. Her new record, O Vertigo!, was released in March.
“I’m sick of turning it down”, she announces on the opening track, setting the tone for an album fuelled with energy and momentum. She acknowledges her friend and tour partner Ben Folds for the advice that inspired her to write it: “Get into your tool box and actually use your tools”.
And Queensland Conservatorium trained Miller-Heidke has quite a range of tools to use. A songwriter from the age of 14, one of her earliest influences was musical theatre. She went on to study classical voice, with her sights set on becoming an opera singer. She earned two degrees in classical music and several prestigious awards before making her solo professional operatic debut with Opera Queensland in 2005. At the same time, her song “The Space They Cannot Touch” became the most requested track on major Aussie youth radio station Triple J.
When she found herself in the position of choosing between contracts from Opera Australia and Sony Records, Miller-Heidke chose the record deal. “As an opera singer, there’s a lot of people above you… all telling you what to do,” she explained in an interview for ABC Local earlier this month. “There was something in me that never liked being told what to do. … I had my own ideas.”
She’s never been one for boundaries. “My music teacher didn’t like me too much. She thought I was a little shit”, she confessed in a recent interview for Rock Candy Magazine. But Miller-Heidke’s tenacity paid off. Amassing a cult following with lyrics such as “I like you better when you’re not around”, “If you’re God’s gift to women then God got it wrong,” and “So now you wanna be my friend on Facebook – are you f***ing kidding me?”, her first Sony album went gold (Little Eve, 2007) and her second (Curioser, 2008) went platinum.
Miller-Heidke co-wrote the majority of each record with her long time guitarist and now husband of 14 years, Keir Nuttal. The couple met while being judged with a clap-o-meter during a battle of the bands competition (Nuttal’s band won the grand prize of four jugs of beer, and he kindly offered to share them with Miller-Heidke.) They have been together for 14 years. In 2008, they became the first Australians to win the International Songwriting Competition with the affecting Caught in the Crowd, a song about bullying from the perspective of a passive observer.
In 2012, they collaborated on Miller-Heidke’s third studio album, Nightflight. Cinematic and revealing, it reached number one on the iTunes chart in Australia, but after seven years with Sony and an emotionally draining tour, Miller-Heidke sought a change of direction and successfully negotiated with the label to let her go. She wanted to become an independent artist, choose her own team and release music on her own terms.
A campaign was set up through Pledge Music to support the making of Miller-Heidke’s first independent record. Loyal fans reached 100% of the goal in three days and 226% in total, making it the fastest and most successful crowd-funding campaign in Australian music history. The album was recorded over seven weeks at The Shed Studios in Melbourne last year. Miller-Heidke wrote most of the tracks on her own, as well as being responsible for vocals, keys and co-producing.
While previous album Nightflight was dark and introspective, O Vertigo! is playful and quirky.
“Then one morning right on dawn, you lost the wheel, you missed the turn, the whole world rolled on top of us, you said my name, but I never woke up again” – “Fire and Iron”, Nightflight
“I swear, I’m gonna lose my shit if you look this way, I’m gonna lose it, I’m gonna lose it… you look like you belong in my arms” – “Lose My Shit”, O Vertigo!
Kate Miller-Heidke – “O Vertigo!” (Acoustic)
Three highly acclaimed artists provide guest vocals on the new album: Indie pop/rock singer Megan Washington features in Ghost, a duet with an edge inspired by Nina Simone’s The Other Woman; UK folk-rocker Passenger, whose real name is Michael, graces the beautiful Share Your Air; and Aussie hip-hop artist Drapht ramps it up to eleven on the funky and contagious “Drama”.
It’s Miller-Heidke’s voice however, that rules this record. Themes of love, release and self-empowerment are explored through an impressive palette of vocal colours, and there are moments where the singer really lets go. Case in point, the rapidly ascending vocal hook on the title track, affectionately dubbed “the yodelling ambulance” by fans. In contrast, the vocals on “Rock This Baby To Sleep” are light and angelic. Inspired by the collegiate a cappella scene in the US, the track is comprised of a myriad of melodies, harmonies and rhythms, all sung by Miller-Heidke and layered over each other. The overall effect is a vocal nerd’s dream.
The same can be said of Miller-Heidke’s live shows. On stage she is almost otherworldly, weaving in and out of melisma or cadenza with ease and creating exquisite harmonies with the use of loop pedals. She accompanies herself on several instruments, supported by the talented Nuttal on guitar. His dexterity and sensitivity on the instrument is captivating, and the chemistry between the two is electric. All the while, Miller-Heidke maintains her innately Aussie sense of humour and an honest, endearing charm. Her classical vocal training has enabled her to manage a rigorous touring schedule. She still does vocal exercises every day, using them to warm up and warm down her voice. As for the opera career, Miller-Heidke never quite relinquished it. A few years ago, she performed the role of Baby Jane in Jerry Springer, The Opera at the Sydney Opera House to critical acclaim. She also performed feature roles in two productions with the English National Opera, The Death of Klinghoffer in 2012 and Sunken Garden in 2013.
This year, Miller-Heidke will reprise her role in The Death of Klinghoffer for the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. She’s currently prepping for the role, playing sold out shows across Australia and writing a children’s opera. It’s this type of dedication and diversity that allows her to continue eschewing any type of label. She considers her new album “some of the best work I’ve ever done.” Confident, empowered, and fiercely independent, Kate Miller Heidke has come a long way from a little girl who was “constantly being told to shut up.”
“There was something in me that never liked being told what to do. …I had my own ideas.”
Kate Miller-Heidke has come a long way from a little girl who was “constantly being told to shut up.”