Kate Miller-Heidke on her stunning new album recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: "I'm really proud of it. It represents the pinnacle of what I ever thought I could achieve with my music."
Kate Miller-Heidke has a voice that is truly unique, beautiful and powerful. But the main thing about a voice such as hers is the incredible way in which it inhabits many different environments. At first, it would be easy to classify Kate's voice as delicate and gentle. And you would be right to say that her voice lures you in, inviting you to listen to her tell you the most intimate of tales. But it cannot be denied that, my goodness, girl can wail. Kate has this magnificent ability to open up and reach the highest of vocal heights with a depth and a clarity that could cut through a heavy metal guitar if need be. Or, in fact, a symphony orchestra. It is this operatic power that people can easily overlook when hearing her early pop tunes. Combine the two - her original pop music with a symphony - and it's magic. Such is Kate's latest musical offering. An album called Live at the Sydney Opera House. Indeed that is simply and complexly what it is. Kate singing her all of her original music from a diverse music career, set to the backdrop of one of the greatest symphony orchestras in the world, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Kate has been creating music since 2000 from her hometown of Brisbane, but really came into widespread national consciousness a few years later when her following grew and grew, and she released a wonderful album called Curiouser in 2008 a few years after signing with Sony Music. The album went to number one, as did her hit single The Last Day On Earth. In 2013, Kate announced she was leaving the label, and bravely ventured out into the world of independence and crowd funded her next album. The risk paid off, and that record entitled O Vertigo! debuted at number four on the Australian album charts, broke Australian crowdfunding records, and was nominated for an ARIA award.
Kate has been nominated for a whopping twelve ARIA Awards, won four Helpmann Awards, and was the first Australian to win the grand prize for the International Songwriting Competition for a song written by herself and her creative collaborator and husband Keir Nuttal, Caught in the Crowd.
Kate has performed on many a stage, from festivals such as Coachella, to the great theatres of the world such as the London Coliseum, The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and, of course, the Sydney Opera House. The latter of course, is where she returns to record her own music.
While all of these achievements are testament to her star power as both pop icon and opera singer, Kate is no stranger to arranging and composing. She was commissioned in 2015 to write the music for an opera for Opera Australia, for the children's story The Rabbits Now she is working on writing music and lyrics for the Sydney Theatre Company's forthcoming Murlel's Wedding: The Musical.
It's been a dream run with opportunity after opportunity presented to perform, create, inspire, and build a lovely and large portfolio of diverse works that would make any classically trained pop-loving artist envious. And in this interview with Music Love's Julie Kerr, Kate agrees, but also says the times when her musical pathway has been a bit bumpy have motivated her to keep creating and making new works. And that's why we love and admire her discipline and talent. By the way, Kate has a heck of a lot more to offer. But for now, get her new album and be drawn into the wonderful world, mind and craft of Kate Miller-Heidke.
JK: You're about to release a brand new album of recordings of original songs from your shows with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from March this year. From a couple of videos that I've seen it looks and sounds like heaven. How are you feeling?
KMH: I'm thrilled that people get to hear it. I'm really proud of it, actually. It represents, in a way, the pinnacle of what I ever thought I could achieve with my music and so I'm glad that it's going to be out there
JK: How long has it been in the works for?
KMH: We've been planning it for close to three years now. The idea for the concert was first cooked up by Simon Rogers at the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Brian Ritchie from [Tasmanian music festival] Mona Foma, and so a version of this concert was first premiered down there [in Hobart] a couple of years ago. Really, I have a lot to be grateful to those guys for. Initially it was very much their vision, and myself and Iain Grandage put together a list of amazing arrangers - the best arrangers in Australia.... It takes a long time to put something to put something of this scale together.
JK: I can imagine. You're no stranger to classical music, orchestras and opera, and I wanted to ask about the crossover thing. Do you classify yourself as classical/pop crossover artist or do you see yourself as an inherently as a classical musician that has a mainstream audience?
KMH: No, neither of those. I feel like that term "crossover" is really loaded like the term "popera" for me - I actually can't stand it. I just don't see the need to quantify things into genres. I feel like we've moved beyond that. I do have a diverse musical background and I think that's partly why I've managed to stick around for so long. In a way, not many other people have the same kind of musical background as I do. I feel uncomfortable labelling it. Ultimately, if I think of myself as anything, it's a singer/songwriter.
JK: But in terms of your skill set there definitely must be an appreciation and understanding of opera or arranging music or things like that as well. What training have you had that you've had in your life that you've most valued?
KMH: So many things. I feel like the learning process is ongoing. And it's kind of partly why I still continue to seek out varied and different projects and every time I learn something. From being at the [Sydney Conservatorium of Music] studying classical music and learning my vocal warm up which I still use pretty much every day of my life, going on to actual life experiences which are no less valuable than that, up to working at the [Metropolitan Opera in New York] and getting to just observe how things happens at such a high level - the kind of discipline and professionalism of those singers was a big learning experience for me - and now the last couple of years I've been in lots of workshops writing music and lyrics for Muriel's Wedding: The Musical and that's been the most incredible intensive musical theatre course that anyone could ever devise. It's been amazing. I think if I stop learning I'd really stagnate and start to drink so much and hate myself. And I have experienced that for short periods, and it's not a way to live for me.
JK: Let's talk about Muriel's Wedding - you've been working on this for two years, right?
KMH: More - two and a half years
JK: What are you most excited about?
KMH: It's been probably the biggest project that Keir [Kate's collaborator and husband} and I have ever worked on, I think. It's a huge mountainous path. It's still ongoing.... and every time we think we see the finish line, it moves. I think we're going to be working on it and fiddling all the way up until opening night, and possibly beyond. I'm very excited and terrified for people to see it.
JK: I can imagine. It's so exciting. Congratulations on all the hard work with that as well. Your career, from my point of view as an outsider, seems pretty heavenly in terms of all the different opportunities you've had. You've been commissioned to write the opera The Rabbits, you're working on musical theatre now, and getting to play your original music with the SSO, plus all the experiences you had when you started out and then got a major record deal. But there must have been some bumps along the way. I wanted to know if you feel like you've had a dream run.
KMH: Yeah I do. Objectively, when I have perspective on it, there's definitely a lot to be grateful for, for sure. On a day to day level, sometimes I think you know, in Australia there's always a sense that you're scraping by. Sometimes you feel like you're living month to month and that the future is uncertain. And I suppose that's a niggle that most artists have to live with. And, in a way, maybe that's for the best because if I felt too secure I wouldn't be motivated to make as much work, so it cuts both ways.
JK: And what was the moment like in 2013 when you announced you were leaving your major label of seven years.
KMH: It definitely felt like a big milestone, and since then I have felt a lot more free in terms of doing an even bigger variety of projects, and taking time off from just writing pop songs for myself. Having said that, the music industry changes so so quickly, and that was what was right for me four years ago. But now looking to the next album - who knows? I might sign another record deal. Things change so quickly. I think that's really key to it - just try and be adaptable.
JK: Well you certainly are that. Now, who are your favourite women in music?
KMH: Hmmmm, oh, I'll forget the best people! Um, growing up, my biggest musical formative influences were definitely women. Joni Mitchell - being the biggest one - and to a lesser degree, probably Tori Amos and Sinead O'Connor. And Alanis Morissette and Susan Vega and Ani DiFranco. So many. In the industry I think, there are a lot of really, really inspiring women too. One of my managers Edrie Cullen is a pretty incredible woman and she's one of those rare people who you can have a productive conversation about creative matters - she's not strictly business. And my first ever manager Leanne De Souza up in Brisbane - she really was responsible for changing my life, basically.
JK: So when everybody downloads, buys or streams your album this week, what track are you most excited about?
KMH: I find it hard to narrow it down. All of the songs have been reinvented and these arrangements stand on their own two feet. I'm hoping it will be surprising and delightful for someone who knows the original versions. But also, I'd be proud if these were the only versions of these songs that anyone heard. Every single one of them has something special.
JK: Well, I wish you all the best for everything else and it's been such a privilege to talk to you
KMH: Great idea for a website, I'll definitely check it out.
Kate's new album Live at the Sydney Opera House is out now