With ‘Zero Gravity’, the world was introduced to the eccentric pop stylings of one Kate Miller-Heidke, Australia’s competitor in this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. This was the singer’s introduction to the world stage, but anyone who’s been paying attention in Australia knows that it’s far from her first rodeo. In fact, the Brisbane native has been delivering a slew of diverse and delightful pop songs as a solo artist for some 15 years now – including collaborations with Ben Folds, the original score of the Muriel’s Wedding musical and three back-to-back ARIA top-five albums.
You more than likely know tracks like ‘Caught in the Crowd’ and ‘Last Day on Earth’, the former of which won the International Songwriting Competition in 2009 and the latter of which went triple platinum on the charts. With this list, however, we’re looking at 10 essential tracks from Miller-Heidke’s catalogue, ranging from the dark and devastating to the outright hilarious. Behold, the wondrous multiplicities of one of Australia’s greatest musical creatives.
1. Space They Cannot Touch, Telegram EP (2004) / Little Eve (2007)
Here, we take it back to where it all began. The very first single Miller-Heidke released remains one of her finest songs to date – so much so, when it came time to release her debut album Little Eve, the track was re-recorded especially for it. Its tasteful guitar work, care of the indispensable Keir Nuttal, is matched with the tenderness and vulnerability conveyed in Miller-Heidke’s vocal delivery. It ensures you’re entirely under its spell the moment its bright chords ring out in the opening seconds – and, 15 years after it first came out, it’s just as mesmerising now.
2. Words, Little Eve (2007)
With its vamping Kate Bush chorus and drilling toy piano, ‘Words’ forges forth into a baroque pop setting that’s quick to eliminate the room of squares. Some found the discordant vocal upticks a nuisance, while others delighted in its quirks. Regardless, you knew where you stood – it never made time for fence-sitters. It’s gone on to thrive in the live environment, including a memorable performance at the ARIAs and later reworks where touring vocalist Nicole Brophy lead an unexpected snippet of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’. It’s true – she won’t do what you tell her.
3. Can’t Shake It, Curiouser (2008)
A child of the ’80s and early ’90s, Miller-Heidke grew up in an era of multiple dance crazes and literal major steps in the world of dance music. This, in its own way, is an ode to that world – which also happens to lean heavily into the fact that Miller-Heidke herself has never considered herself a great dancer. “I execute the Moonwalk/Like I stepped in shit” may be the funniest line she’s ever written, while the inherent disco groove of the song is done both with a knowing wink and as a loving tribute. Dance if you want to.
4. Are You Ready?, Fatty Gets a Stylist (2011)
Legend goes that Miller-Heidke discovered a completely different range in her vocals one night, singing in the shower. From that, herself and her husband – the aforementioned Keir Nuttal – formed Fatty Gets a Stylist and released an album that went on to be one of the single most underrated pop albums of the 2010s. She’s nigh-on unrecognisable in this guise, but her knack for addictive choruses and big hooks still manages to sneak its way in. No-one quite knew what to make of Fatty, but it lives on through this beautifully-brassy slice of well-worn weirdness. Get set, let’s go!
5. The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child, Fatty Gets a Stylist (2011) / Nightflight (2012)
If you ever wanted to get an insight into Miller-Heidke’s creative duality, look no further than her two very different versions of the exact same song. The former arrives on a warm bed of synthesizer hum and turns into a sunny, slightly off-kilter twirl of electronic pop. When reworked a year later, however, the song turns into something much more earnest and quietly affecting. It’s slower, in a higher key and considerably matured. It’s entirely a testament to Miller-Heidke that she could draw so much out of a single composition – not many are ever capable of such a thing.
6. Ride This Feeling, Nightflight (2012)
Sometimes, you just need to hear a line like “I’m gonna ride this feeling/As far as it goes.” It’s about a newfound sense of optimism, and the hope that fills your heart upon starting anew. As the song goes, you don’t know if you’re flying or falling – in a way, that’s kind of the point. It’s a leap of faith, and if it leads to a crash landing then so be it. ‘Ride This Feeling’ opens Nightflight, her third studio album and by far her best. You simply could not think of a better beginning than this joyous refrain.
7. I’ll Change Your Mind, Nightflight (2012)
There are two very different readings of this song, and depends entirely on if you’re watching the video or not. If you’re just listening to the song itself, you get a slightly-quirky and entirely charming indie-pop number that is brutally honest about post-relationship hook-ups and the unhealthy balance that comes with them – and yet, is still laced with hope that things can go back to the way they were. With the video, however, the song takes a much darker turn – and not even a huge key-change can offset the tension it’s pulling on. Either way, it’s a winner.
8. The Devil Wears a Suit, Nightflight (2012) / The Best of Kate Miller-Heidke: Act One (2016)
‘Devil’ remains one of the darkest songs in Miller-Heidke’s entire discography. It’s a song that’s entirely shrouded in mystery, with endless interpretations ranging from the history of child abuse in the Catholic church to the seedy underbelly of the music industry. Its original version is well crafted, with its thumping percussion and warped vocal samples adding a heightened intensity to the arrangement. The song’s definitive version, however, is a live acoustic version that was featured on Nightflight‘s deluxe edition and reissued as a part of 2016’s best-of, Act One.
Slowing the track to a crawl, the arrangement relies entirely on the Celtic-tinged acoustic guitar and the thud of the piano’s low end. By drawing out the song, Miller-Heidke allows the lyrics to really settle in and get under your skin to a full effect. Better yet, she holds off her high range in the song’s chorus until its final repetition, scaling new emotional heights of the refrain by doing so. However you navigate a song like this, it’s undeniably moving.
9. Fire & Iron, Nightflight (2012)
Another decidedly stripped back moment in Miller-Heidke’s catalogue. It’s a portrayal of young love, with all of its insecurities and false bravado, but with a sting in the tail that lingers long after the final notes fade. Close harmonies in the choruses add depth and warmth, while the lyrics remain one of the most uniquely devastating sets Miller-Heidke ever composed. A tough song to get through, but one that nonetheless needs to be spoken about if you’re going to go list her essential songs. Love and loss never quite hit so hard in her world than on “Fire & Iron.”
10. O Vertigo!, O Vertigo! (2014)
Finally, we go out with a bang. Far from the murky, shadowy depths of the last two songs, the title track to Miller-Heidke’s most recent solo album is a breathtaking return to bright, joy-fantastic pop. Her classically-trained operatic voice is a thing of legend by this point, but it’s never quite been implemented before the way it is here. Consider this: ‘O Vertigo!”s outro is to the voice what Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ is to the guitar. No matter how many times you hear it, you fail to comprehend how a human being was able to pull something like that off.
Kate Miller-Heidke will represent Australia at the Eurovision Song Contest grand final this weekend. She performs at Sydney’s City Recital Hall later this month. See details here.