After over 15 years and five albums to her name, the woman born Melissa Morrison Higgins is taking a brief moment to reflect on her career – an ascent from teenage Unearthed wunderkind to an ARIA-winning legacy artist that’s taken on more or less every theatre, arena and stadium this country has to offer. With the release of The Special Ones, Missy Higgins has collected all of her singles across her studio albums as well as two new songs, an original demo and a special cover of the Hunters & Collectors’ classic ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’, recorded while Higgins was supporting Ed Sheeran on his massive tour back in March. It’s a prelude of sorts to one of Higgins’ biggest national tours yet, in which she will head out across the country on a co-headlining run with old friends the John Butler Trio to kick off 2019.
On the day Higgins speaks to Music Feeds, however, it’s a transitional period between the two sides of her current life. “Thanks for being patient,” she says with a laugh. “I was waiting for my husband to get home so I could do the changeover with the baby [three-month-old Luna]! She’s so tiny, but she’s getting chubbier and cuter by the day.” With Luna in the loving arms of her dad, Higgins candidly reflects on her life in music – from a curious young strummer to a hugely-influential performer in her own right.
MF: Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start. Do you remember around what age you began to take a keen interest in music?
Missy Higgins: I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a singer. My older brother was a musician and a singer who’d sing and play around heaps of different bands in Melbourne. I wanted to be exactly like him. As soon as I could figure out a few chords on guitar and piano, I started singing. Then I really got into jazz – it became my dream to be a jazz singer. A few years later, I discovered I was able to write songs and I started to shift my focus away from just doing covers. When I ended up with a record deal, I started to think that this was the start of being able to be an artist in my own right. As strange as it seems, that’s not what I originally had planned when I first got into music.
MF: ‘All For Believing’ came out in 2001, when you were 18. Two years later, your debut EP came out. How do you reflect on those very first songs that you wrote in earnest so many years on?
MH: Sometimes, I just can’t believe how long it’s been. I mean, look at a song like [first single] ‘Greed for Your Love’ – to me, that just feels like a lifetime ago. I wrote it while I was on my gap year after I left high school, backpacking around Europe. I wrote a few songs on this beaten-up old acoustic guitar I’d brought with me, and that was one of them. That was, of course, before I accidentally left the guitar in Spain in the overhead compartment of a train.
Some of those early songs are so childish – and I understand; I was a child, after all. At the same time, you’ve got to look back on them with fondness. They tell the story of where I was at that point in my life. I feel like all of my songs, by extension, are reflective of that. They pinpoint certain moments for me. I look at all my songs and all my albums, and it feels like this one big diary.
MF: The Sound of White celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2019. Even though you were still – for all intents and purposes – developing your identity as a songwriter, that album is the work that is most commonly associated with you. What does it mean to you to have a legacy like that attached to your debut album?
MH: It’s so lovely. The women that I was inspired by back then played such an important role in making me confident enough to be who I was and not have to compromise my integrity in order to tell my story and be successful. To be in a position where I meet so many young women and girls who tell me that The Sound of White was that for them… I almost can’t comprehend it. It’s just the most wonderful thing – although it does make me realise how long I’ve been around now. [laughs] It’s a bit of a shock when you have a grown woman telling you that you were their favourite artist when they were a child!
MF: You mentioned the women you were inspired by – who in particular stands out to you from when you were starting out?
MH: A lot of Australian women, definitely. The Waifs were definitely a big inspiration, Vicki and Donna [Simpson]. Kasey Chambers, as well – I used to just love listening to her all the time. Outside of Australia, I was really drawn to what Sarah Maclachlan and Fiona Apple were doing. I feel like you really need those women before you to show you that you can more or less do whatever you want.
MF: You’ve written three more albums since The Sound of White. Have your songwriting methods changed much in that period of time?
MH: My practice has changed a little a bit, because I have much less freedom than I used to. I have to put aside a good chunk of time. I really need to be organised if I want to write songs these days. I block out a period to write – assuming it takes me, say, four months to write a record – and I get in extra help for us and the kids so that we can make it work. When I’m not writing, I’m straight back into parenting mode.
I’ve never really been one of those people who just sits down and songs just magically come to them. I’m not suddenly hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration when I’m just walking down the street. I’m just doing whatever I’m doing at that moment – there’s no constant background hum or idea. It’s either life or it’s songwriting – the two are never particularly mixed up.
MF: That’s fascinating when you contrast that with the notion that your songwriting can often feel like a diary.
MH: I think, when I was heaps younger – when I was just starting out – I could live in my songwriting a little bit more on a permanent basis. My head was always in the clouds – I was always thinking about songwriting and lyrics in my teens and my early 20’s. As I got older, it started to become more of a thing that I had to set time for – something that I could really focus on.
MF: Where did that focus take you in writing Solastalgia?
MH: I think the idea came through being both a parent and also aware of the environment and its degradation. I was thinking about what that meant for my children, and their future. Those two realities combined gave me a lot of anxiety, and I wanted to deal with it somehow. I was also obsessed with post-apocalyptic literature. That’s more or less where the album started. That gave me structure and parameters to work with, which can be really helpful as a songwriter. I started out with those ideas, and it kind of floated around from there. I did this tour in the US, and I decided I wanted to write the album in LA while I was over there and extend my stay after the tour. I wrote with a couple of friends of mine. Historically, for me, writing with other people has allowed to get me out of my comfort zone – you’re seeing new things and experiencing things with your brain more alert. That worked really well for me with that album.
MF: A lot of the songs on Solastalgia – and, by extension, a lot of your songs across all of your albums – could be perceived as Trojan horses in a certain respect. Although they’re ostensibly pop songs – catchy chorus, melody, major chords – if you scratch below the surface you’re often dealing with darker subject matter. Is having that cognitive dissonance something you’ve intentionally implemented over the years of your songwriting?
MH: For me, a song is never really interesting unless it has some sort of dark underbelly and lots of layers. Even a love song isn’t particularly interesting unless there’s some kind of subtle, underlying threat that things might not turn out so peachy in the end…
MF: See what you did there.
MH: [laughs] Right? It’s just the arc of a story, really. You want there to be shades of grey in the middle. Also, I’ve never been inspired to write unless I’m feeling strongly about something. It tends to be the subject matters that really move me and shake me to my core. It’s the more intense things and feelings – those moments of inner conflict that I feel like I need to get out onto pen and paper.
MF: You’ll be taking all of your hits out on tour with the John Butler Trio in 2019. How far back do you go with John?
MH: I don’t remember specifically meeting him for the first time, but I remember that first tour we did together. He took me out as his support act before The Sound of White had even come out – all I had to my name was an EP [2003’s The Missy Higgins EP]. I remember being in complete awe of his live show. Whether he’s got the band behind him or it’s literally just him playing guitar, he just takes his audience with him. He creates such a great atmosphere. I feel like I learned a lot from him at a really important time for me. I’ve always been so grateful to him for giving me such a big opportunity at such a young age. It’s going to be really lovely to get to do it all again together.
Missy Higgins’ new album ‘The Special Ones – Best Of’ is out now.