Image: Cybele Malinowski / Supplied

Missy Higgins On ‘When the Machine Starts: “It Felt Like I Was Writing A Post-It Note To My Future Self”

When Missy Higgins waved goodbye to her audience – standing and in-person – at the end of her set on the first night of March in Wollongong, she couldn’t have possibly predicted it would be the last time she would be doing so this year. Then again, very few things about 2020 have been following any sort of script. From her recently-unlocked home of Melbourne, the singer-songwriter reflects on having the rug pulled out from under in the year’s first quarter.

“I was pretty lucky to squeeze in a bunch of shows that summer, before the lockdown started,” says Higgins. “Ultimately, I only had to cancel one or two shows. It’s really nothing compared to what friends of mine have gone through – a lot of them had to cancel more or less everything that they were planning to do that year. All these massive tours and these massive shows, gone. It’s just the most heartbreaking thing to go through. I came out of it mostly unscathed.”

Her attention was never too far removed from music, however – she made appearances during live-streamed performances such as Isol-Aid, Music From The Home Front, Recharge Festival and The State Of Music. While not exactly a replacement for the real thing, they’ve offered Higgins – and, by extension, her fans – a degree of stability in what she describes as “a real rollercoaster of a year.”

“I can’t really sum up my experience, or how I’ve dealt with it,” she says. “Every day holds a myriad of emotions. We really struggled at first, because there were so many unknowns and so many variables. No-one had any idea how long this would go for. It was really scary. Once we locked down, we had this outline of how to live and how to keep safe.” Higgins has spent most of 2020, then, focused on her family: a five-year- old son and a two-year-old daughter, both with husband Dan Lee.

“Being at home with a couple of young kids at a time like this has its own scale of emotions,” says Higgins. “There are some moments that are really amazing, because you’re completely in the moment and not worrying too much about what’s planned for next week or next month. With the calendar wiped clean, you’re free to just be with one another. That can be such a gift one day, but the next you’re all just pounding on the door like, ‘Oh my god, get me out of here!’”

In amidst that spectrum of emotions came ‘When the Machine Starts,’ a brand-new single from Higgins. The striking piano-driven pop number sees the veteran songwriter taking stock, reflecting on the present but also looking towards the future with as hopeful an outlook as one could hope for given the times. “It was definitely written on one of those days where things were feeling good,” reflects Higgins.

“I remember thinking that this was an opportunity to remember what matters most to me. It was an opportunity to distil all the things that I hold dear to me, and figure out what my real true priorities are – when I’m being completely honest with myself. It’s very rare to find yourself in a position to do that sort of thing.”

Higgins has only released a handful of songs following the release of her fifth studio album, Solastalgia, in 2018. As a rule, her method of songwriting is neither habitual nor ritualistic – if there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. “It’s not like I’m sitting there, just going ‘Well, I haven’t released an album in a year or two. Time to do that again,’” she says. “There’s no point trying to put that pressure on yourself.” Thankfully, there was enough in the tank to fuel the writing and subsequent recording of ‘When the Machine Starts’.

“It really ranges for me when it comes to writing,” she says. “With this new song, I had this burst of inspiration when I was just listening to the radio. It just dawned on me that I should be writing about everything that’s going on. It felt like I was writing a post-it note to my future self to not forget the lessons that I’d learned during all of this. The best songs that you write, I think, all come from some sense of urgency. In the past, though, I’ve definitely had these periods where I’ve gone for ages without writing anything. You develop this kind of slow-build, and inevitably that leads to a tipping point.”

Aside from some additional parts played by members of her touring band – keyboardist Sarah Belkner and drummer Leigh Fisher – ‘When the Machine Starts’ is practically all Higgins’ doing. That goes beyond the writing, composition, arrangement and instrumentation, too – for the first time in her career, Higgins produced and engineered the single entirely by herself. “It was really fun,” she says of putting the single together piece by piece.

“I did try to collaborate with a couple of producers – I sent it off to them to see what they would do with it, but I just wasn’t feeling anything that they were sending back. Ultimately, I just preferred the version that I’d made myself. It felt more organic, really. I’ve co-produced a lot of my music before, but I’d never engineered on a track the way that I did for this one. When it comes to production, you’re basically just making the decisions. The only difference this time was that I didn’t have a team to bounce off – it was just me. I quite liked it, to be honest – it was a real chance for me to just take my time and flesh out the song in my own way.”

When queried as to whether this is a set of working principles that she will take into whatever musical project she undertakes next – be it a single, an EP or even her sixth studio album – Higgins errs toward a positive response. “Besides everything else, it’s really just so easy once you have the hang of it,” she says. “You get into this rhythm, and you end up working really quickly and really efficiently.”

“You don’t have to wait for anybody else – I mean, really, you don’t even have to go anywhere else. I can be a real hermit sometimes, so I love the fact that I can work my own hours in between getting the baby to sleep or getting my son off to kinder.” For Higgins, nearly 20 years into her career, it’s also a matter of retaining a sense of self and a forthright degree of agency in a line of work where it can be easy to lose your distinct flavour when they’re too many cooks in the kitchen.

“Without you realising it, an album can easily go off into a direction that you’re not on board with,” she says. “It can lose that sense of being completely authentic. I didn’t have that feeling when I made this track. It’s certainly not flawless – there are things that I listen to now that I can say I would have done differently. That being said, I kind of like that too. I like that it’s not perfect. It’s just cool to be learning something new this late into my career, more than anything.”

‘When The Machine Starts’ is out now. 

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