Game-Changing Women of Australian Music- Missy Higgins Pt. 1

Missy Higgins Portrait

Scar (M Higgins/K Griffen) 2004 and The Special Two (M Higgins) 2005 – Missy Higgins

Missy Higgins (real name Melissa Morrison Higgins, 1983) commenced singing in concerts at her school, the prestigious Geelong Grammar (Melb) and occasionally performed with her older brother David’s jazz band. She admits she was a shy tomboy, who moved from school to school, trying to fit in, eventually being hospitalized for stress in Year 11.

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Aged fifteen she quickly dashed off a song for a class assignment she was running late with, entitled All for Believing, it was a remarkably mature, haunting, stately piano ballad, another two years later her sister Nicola entered the song in the Triple J Unearthed song contest, and it won.

An unpretentious 15 year-old Missy Higgins with a piano version of one of her first songs, All For Believing, so young, so talented, with distinctive Australian vocal cadences, Nina Simone and Sarah McLaughlin were several of her earliest influences.

She inked a local recording contract with John Watson’s Eleven label and then set off on a backpacking tour of Europe, All for Believing had been picked up by Los Angeles radio stations which prompted her to fly there, meet industry representatives and ultimately sign an international recording contract with Warner Bros. Locally Higgins toured with such acts as the Waifs, John Butler, Pete Murray and Neil and Tim the Finn brothers, her live performances were impressive, she was charismatic and earned the respect of her fellow performers. Below L-R – Kevin Griffin, Jay Clifford, Clif Magness.

While in the US Higgins collaborated with other singer/songwriters including Kevin Griffin (Better Than Ezra), Jay Clifford (Jump, Little Children) and songwriter/producer Clif Magness (Aril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Vanessa Amorosi), and while these collaborations became creative partnerships, Higgins experience with others in the industry in the States were memorable for the wrong reasons.

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She felt that others were pushing her towards an image and pop sound that was not genuinely her direction. While she has always tended to occupy a position at the poppier end of the folk music spectrum, she certainly did not aspire to be a pop princess, rock star or dance diva, her music and lyrics are more confessional, introspective, and nuanced, and her early singles and debut album The Sound of White, would confirm her arrival as the most promising new Australian singer/songwriter of her generation.    

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Often described as a songwriter who favors exposition over metaphor in her lyrics, she convincingly used metaphor in her first hit single Scar, where she cleverly outed those who had tried to mould her into a certain type of person, and commodify her music in a way that cut and scarred her and which she found disquieting and threatening “ So the next one came with a bag of tricks, she smelt like sugar and spoke like the sea/And she told me not to trust them, trust me/Then she pulled at my stitches one by one, looking at my insides clicking her tongue and said/ This will all have to come undone.” Below – Emma Goodland and Missy Higgins.

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The lyrics were interpreted by some as hinting at Higgins bisexuality which she also referred to on her Myspace page, and was confirmed when she had a same sex relationship in 2005 with tour manager Emma Goodland, and they co-habited in a Bondi apartment for some time, until they eventually split up, several years later. Missy Higgins sexuality had been a subject of interest since 2004, but she never tried to conceal her feelings, and the track Secret, on her On a Clear Night album, seemed to be mocking the whole process, in a rejoinder to a lover who won’t admit to a relationship “You got a secret, don’t you babe…”.

Lyrically Missy has always been forthright about the personal issues she grapples with and this resonates with people who are facing their own crises.

Griffen and Higgins developed the melody for Scar collaboratively and Higgins wrote most of the lyrics except the line “And doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound too close to home…” written by Griffin which Higgins initially rejected, but it grew on her and she correctly included it in the final mix. Missy Higgins sings with a pronounced Melbourne/Australian accent, flat unvarnished vowels, and a slight drawl, which makes her music very accessible and easy to identify with, almost vulnerable, but alien to other markets, particularly in the US.

Despite the emotional content of the song, it is essentially a beautiful and uplifting piano ballad, which intros with a beguiling piano figure and a bass line played by jazz bassist John Patitucci. Producer John Porter coaxed an impressive debut from Missy Higgins and engineer and mixer Jay Newland delivered an iconic Australian album.   

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The song and the album took the public by surprise, the Sound of White sold 650,000 copies, took out the ARIA Award for Best Pop Release -Album in 2004, and Scar scored an APRA Award for Best Song of the Year 2005, making Missy the youngest recipient of this award.

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Surprisingly the follow up single from the album was Ten Days, it was a breakup letter to her boyfriend who was back in Australia while she was recording in LA, it charted #12 locally, but the superior The Special Two, became the third single released, which was described by Missy as a “sorry letter.” Her vocals are measured, almost perfunctory, gradually building in emotion, it was another reflective and introspective piano ballad which charted strongly at #2 nationally.

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Higgins had experienced depression and withdrawal and felt that writing this song was therapeutic, it has also been suggested that Missy was reaching out to her sister Nicola (above with Missy) who had encouraged her, and had submitted the original tape of All for Believing to the Triple J Unearthed judging panel.

A song that underscores the joy of sharing a special relationship as well as grieving for the loss of a loved one.

The promo videos for Scar and The Special Two were low budget, kitchen sink affairs, apparently filmed in Missy’s current lodgings, she appears solo and includes such mundane activities as waking up, getting dressed, moving from one room to the next, tinkling with the piano and performing the song, some semi-comic relief features in the Scar video as the piano she is playing starts to fall apart and she barely completes the song with the instrument still intact – simple, personal and completely unpretentious, and possibly reflecting Missy Higgins state of mind at the time, as she reached the end of her teenage years, reflected on the spectaculasr success of her first two albums, and looked towards the future.   

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Despite favorable local reviews her early work was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “bland, well-meaning, and utterly conventional…” so the self-appointed arbiters of musical credibility were once again damning an Australian act with faint praise just as they had done to such acts as diverse as the Bee Gees and AC/DC, time would tell if they got it wrong again.

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