Sia / We Are Born
4.25.10 / Vic Theatre
Never in my life have I spoken with an artist as open and honest in her responses to my questions than when I interviewed Sia in anticipation of the Australian singer’s upcoming concert in Chicago and new record We Are Born. Sia is truly a breath of fresh air in a world oversaturated with puppets masquerading around on stages all over the world as performers (Britney Spears? Justin Bieber?). Sia will be stopping in Chicago on The We Meaning You Tour 2010 on Sunday, April 25th, 2010 when she plays the Vic Theatre with opening act Girl In A Coma. Not planning on seeing the show? Read on to find out more about the singer/songwriter pop vocalist. Once you finish reading this interview, the need to see Sia live in concert will completely overwhelm you. You will NOT want to miss it.
Read my interview with Sia after the jump…
“Soon We’ll Be Found” is by far my favorite song of yours. I tend to enjoy sad songs in minor keys. Could you go into detail about how the concept for the tune came to be, as well as how the song was written and recorded?
“My publishers wanted me to work with Rick Nowels because he is a hitmaker. He has written huge songs for Dido, Fleetwood Mac, and New Radicals. You know that one incredibly annoying song “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals? He wrote that one,” says a blatantly irritated Sia. The singer’s publishers at EMI were trying to get her to write with Nowels when creating material for 2008’s Some People Have Real Problems. In the end, Sia agreed to the pairing up of herself and Nowels. “I did it for EMI. It was quite an awkward day,” admits Sia, who normally writes with friends and her band members. “There was something off about our chemistry. I took the pen I was using and wrote on my Converse sneakers, ‘Remember not to write with Rick Nowels.’ Then my godfather came and picked me up from the session.” The Australian-born singer/songwriter stands by her motto to “never go back if I do not enjoy it” when recalling the not so enjoyable experience of writing “Soon We’ll Be Found.” Sia goes on to say that, “Rick was always leaving the room to take or make phone calls. He was being unprofessional.” Sounds like it. I wouldn’t have put up with that kind of behavior either. The singer confesses that she has only left a writing session twice in her career. The day with Rick Nowels being one of those instances. The other time was with Linda Perry.
Wow. You and Linda Perry didn’t click?
“I wasn’t feeling well the day I wrote with Linda Perry. She had just finished a writing session working with P!nk. I remember walking into Linda’s studio and thinking it was the size of a football stadium. She had a piano in the middle of the room with pens, pencils, and pads of paper set out on top of it ready for us to use. I usually write in bedrooms, not in rooms like Linda Perry’s football stadium sized studio. Linda told me that P!nk was coming over with her hog and would take me for a ride.” Sia recalls being in disbelief at what her life was like that day. “I thought to myself, This is not my life! I do not write songs in rooms as big as this and go for rides on hogs with P!nk!” After excusing herself with an explanation that she wasn’t feeling so good, Sia went straight home and continued to write Colour The Small One.
When you do co-writes, do you have to work harder to get your point across?
“I don’t write by myself. I like to work in pairs. I like the collaborative process. I don’t play an instrument.” This last statement came as a shock to me. I had expected someone who writes all of her own songs (and those for other artists) to at least play the piano or guitar. “I play a little glockenspeil, a little melodica. If I had to, I could write a song on the piano,” Sia cautiously admits. “I can’t do it unless someone else is in the room with me,” says Sia when explaining her requirements for writing. The songstress says she gets frustrated when people don’t work as fast as her. “I have to work with people who are adept at playing their instrument. Musicians working with me must be able to play along with whatever I sing and be able to figure out the permutation of chords.” Sia goes on to say that engineers and producers have to be “proficient with whatever software program we’re using in the studio, whether it be Logic, ProTools, or even fucking GarageBand.”
Do you find that you are recognized more for your songwriting or your singing? Do you prefer fans and critics to praise one skill more than the other?
Sia freely admits that she does not care which skill she is recognized or praised more for, but that she likes compliments for either talent. “I enjoy the perks of songwriting over singing. Writing makes me feel less fucked, less damaged.” When comparing the two occupations, Sia explains that, “With songwriting I don’t work as hard. There’s no promo, no tour, no interviews, I don’t have to be famous. I don’t have to give any of my energy away. Whenever I need to, I can call my therapist and make an appointment.” Thinking about it now, I can see why so many of my favorite songwriters stay out of the spotlight and live normal lives without invasions of privacy. When was the last time the public saw the ridiculously reclusive Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin? That’s what I thought. Sia says that she is trying to like her job again. “I’m taking my dogs on tour with me. I’m going to stay on my bus versus in hotels each night.” Speaking of dogs, within minutes of my phone call to Sia, she informed me of a possible interruption: “That’s my vet on the other line, but she can leave a message!” And just like that, my time with the internationally known singer was more important than answering her veterinarian’s call. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel special at that moment.
How did you get involved in the writing process for Christina Aguilera’s forthcoming record Bionic?
“Christina had her management call up my management to see about working together,” Sia says. Apparently, Christina had her management make calls to some of her favorite artists and writers to set up possible collaborations. One of the people she was already working with? Linda Perry, the writer behind Aguilera’s enormous smash hit “Beautiful.” Of course Aguilera would team up with Perry for her new album. “I thought to myself, Linda? Maybe I should give her another chance,” Sia remembers. “Christina had a couple of Zero 7 records and knew that I had written with and for Zero 7. I actually had my managers call her managers to see about having Christina sing on my song ‘Death By Chocolate’ on my last album [Some People Have Real Problems]. I don’t think her managers ever delivered the message to her because I never heard back about it. My management didn’t even know her name! They called her ‘Christine’ with an ‘e’ at the end instead of an ‘a.’ I bet that upset her people.” This time around, the communication between each singer’s management team occurred without questionable interruption. “I have new management now,” laughs Sia. Christina’s management called Sia and asked if they could set up a phone call for her and Christina to chat. “She called me and I asked her, ‘What do you want?’ basically,” recalls Sia. “She asked me if I had anybody in mind I wanted to bring along to our first writing session, which I did. After our initial conversation, Christina called us back to write a song for her. I called my bass player Sam [Dixon] and said, ‘Let’s go write with Christina Aguilera’ and we did.” In the end, all four songs that Sia and Sam wrote for Christina made it onto her upcoming album, due out this spring. Good news for any songwriter! One of your songs makes it onto a Christina Aguilera record? You’re golden, my friend. Absolutely golden.
How much of the business side of the music industry did you understand when you first started out in your career? Publishing deals? Recording contracts? Licensing deals?
“Absolutely nothing,” Sia openly admits. “I was so naive and thought one good song was all you need to get played on the radio.” Sia continues to share how she was discovered by her first management team. “I was at a jam session in England. There was a guy pacing back and forth in front of the stage saying, ‘You’re with me’ over and over again while looking at me. [He and his partner] signed me to a really bad record deal and a not-so-bad publishing deal.” It wasn’t until 18 months later that Sia realized her managers were really cocaine dealers and fired them. “My managers were celebrities’ drug dealers!” exclaims an audibly disconcerted Sia. “I asked myself at the time, Why do all these top celebrities like Kate Moss know the words to my songs? As it turns out, my managers were constantly playing my songs while getting high with their celebrity clients.” Sia has come a long way from being the naive neophyte she was back in Australia. With new record We Are Born, Sia has now been placed at the top of her label’s to-do list. “It’s my first time as a priority at any record label [she is now with Sony]. I’ve always been the ‘passion project’ at my record label; never a priority,” says an indignant Sia. “I’ve been dropped like, 50 times.” Now that she’s a priority, Sia has come to understand just how important her latest musical effort is to Sony Music Entertainment employees all over the world. “There were 45 people at a meeting I had with my label in New York. There were another 45 people at a meeting in London. In Germany there are 30 people working my new record and in France there are 20 people. It’s unbelievable how many people are currently working to promote my new album,” gushes a grateful Sia. The singer considers her success and career due to “the luck of the draw.” I could not agree more with Sia that there are a “fuckload of people who are super talented who never get heard.”
How involved are you in the decision-making process of licensing your songs to television shows?
Sia confesses that she isn’t really involved at all in the process of choosing whether or not to place her songs in television programs. “I trust my management for the most part. No more TV though, only film now.” The most she has ever been offered for one of her compositions (“Breathe Me”) to be placed in a television commercial was from Coles Supermarkets in Australia. “One of my songs was in a Coca-Cola advertisement that aired during the Olympics. It was an ad for the Special Olympics [2008 Beijing] and I had no problem letting them use my song. Thankfully, I’ve never done a tampon commercial, although we’ve come close,” jokes Sia. The pop vocalist is completely aware that placing your songs in TV ads, shows, and movies is now becoming the number one way for artists to receive their big break and gain public recognition. Licensing and synchronization of music is also how artists and writers survive financially. “Publishing has always been my main source of income,” confirms Sia.
Many people consider you big breakthrough into mainstream success to be when your song “Breathe Me” was featured in the HBO TV series Six Feet Under. How did that song get placed in the crucial series finale?
“We didn’t even know that ‘Breathe Me’ was placed in Six Feet Under!” Sia tells me, still shocked at how her breakout into international commercial success actually happened. “That song was originally licensed for use in the show’s season four trailer. However, it was licensed in perpetuity, meaning that the TV show could use it in anything,” explains Sia. When Six Feet Under didn’t end up placing “Breathe Me” in their season four trailer, Sia figured nothing would ever come of the deal and forgot about it.
These days, songs placed in commercials and TV shows can launch an unknown artist’s career. Do you think you would be at this stage in your career today if the “Breathe Me” placement in Six Feet Under had never happened?
“That placement resuscitated my dying, fucked career. I had just been dropped by Universal [Music Group] two weeks prior [to the episode airing] after delivering a pop record to the label. They said, ‘We can’t put this out, it will confuse your fan base.’ They told me, ‘you’re a downtempo artist and what you’ve delivered to us is too poppy and uptempo.’ Two weeks later, I was dropped,” recalls Sia. “I was living in the English countryside at the time. When the episode aired, friends started calling and emailing me once they heard ‘Breathe Me’ on the show. I didn’t even know [HBO] chose to use my song in the pivotal series finale!”
As someone who has had their fair share of record label conflicts, what advice would you give to someone about to enter the music industry and sign their first contract with a label?
“I don’t think anyone should take advice from me,” chuckles Sia. “I have good management now. Find good managers who are skilled in number-crunching and paying people on time.” What else would the signer recommend to a rookie artist? “Do loads of fucking promo. Do interviews. I said ‘no’ to interviews for the first two records I released.” Thank goodness she rethought her personal policy on giving interviews, otherwise I might never have had this opportunity!
What do you sing around your house/apartment? Any under-the-radar artists you are listening to that people should hear and know about?
“Girl In A Coma. Holy fuck, they’re amazing. They’re opening for me during the first half of the [North American] tour,” says Sia with unbridled enthusiasm. “One of my favorite bands right now is called Ponytail. I wanted them to open for me on my tour, but unfortunately that’s not happening. In the UK and all over Europe, everybody is crazy for I Blame Coco; it’s fucking bananas!” says Sia in utter amazement. “She’s fucking amazing.” Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that I Blame Coco has left an impression on Sia. Even Swedish pop star Robyn has been affected and appears on I Blame Coco’s song “Caesar.”
What question about your music has become your pet peeve?
“There’s a few…,” muses Sia. “The number one question I get asked is: Why did you call the last album Some People Have Real Problems? That’s the question I’ve answered 15,000 times,” declares Sia grudgingly. Well, thank goodness I didn’t ask her that! Nor did I ask Sia the second most popular (and obnoxious) question she hears in interviews: Why the big change with the new record? Apparently, making a pop/dance/uptempo record comes as quite a shock to interviewers around the world. My question to those who ask the latter of Sia: Why not?
Thank you so much for speaking with me! You were awesome to talk to!
“Likewise! Have a great day!”
*Sia will be performing at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, IL on Sunday, April 25th, 2010. Girl In A Coma will be opening. Tickets available here.