Sia. The Independent 2004

words: Dan Gennoe

 

She may be small, but Sia Furler makes a lot of noise. Much to the annoyance of the other diners who’ve come to the swish Primrose Hill restaurant-pub to enjoy a quite Monday lunch, the refined ambience has been shattered by a bout of uncontrollable, head back, mouth wide laughter. All eyes are now fixed in irritation on the diminutive 28 year-old, Adelaide born singer, dressed conspicuously in long-johns and a denim mini skirt, as she breathlessly tries to complete her story of the day she dueted with Beck.

It’s a straight forward enough tale. Beck heard her sing in LA with British down-tempo duo Zero 7, whose 2001 debut album Simple Things she contributed two songs to, was captivated by her jazzy slurring and asked her to duet with him the following night. As a joke she suggested they sing You’re The One That I Want from Grease. He liked the idea and after a few minor modifications the pair performed John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s cheery sing-along as a “country stalker anthem”.

The cause of Sia’s hilarity however, relates to the news that she wasn’t his only female partner for the evening. “He told me that Beth Orton and Norah Jones were dieting with him and that I was going last,” she snorts reliving the horror. “I thought ‘Great! No one knows who the hell I am and I’ve got to go on after Beth Orton and Norah Jones’. So I asked them if they’d screw up a bit to give me a chance.” After another extended pause to regain her composure and breathe, she adds, “And kindly they did. One started in the wrong key and one messed up the words. So by the time I went on everyone was just waiting for someone to sing the right words in the right key.”

Evidently Beck himself was impressed as he asked her to join him for the remainder of his US tour and ended up co-writing hazy lullaby The Bully for Sia’s endearingly lethargic second album, Colour The Small One. It’s a deceptively sweet song- a cosy country plod of an apology to a boy she tormented at school- which characterises the album’s gentle demeanour and dark undercurrent. For all her boundless energy and outward displays of jollity, the last three years have not been her easiest.

Back in 2000 the release of Sia’s strident debut single, the Prokofiev sampling Taken For Granted, had her curiously hailed as both the best thing to come out of Australia since Kylie and the saviour of UK R&B; well she lives in London. Jo Whiley had her play live on her Radio 1 show, Trevor Nelson raved about her unique style and the single went Top 10. Then record company politics caused her subsequent album, Healing Is Difficult, to be delayed by six months, by which time she sniggers with a degree of disbelief “everyone who’d been interested in me ceased to be so interested. Which was disappointing”.

A change of management followed, she’s now looked after by the team behind Robbie Williams, and following her performance with Zero 7 at the 2002 Mercury Awards she quickly signed a new record deal with Island subsidiary Go! Beat!. But then, during the recording of Colour The Small One, Sia suffered a sudden and unexpected emotional breakdown. 

“I just went bananas,” she informs with a flippancy that belies the severity of her condition at the time. “The inner dialogue completely took over. The day we recorded Breathe Me, I went home and went properly nuts: vodka, Valium, I completely lost it. That’s why the vocals are so small and fragile on that track, because that’s how I was feeling.”

Though her career’s false start no doubt had a hand in triggering the emotional collapse so poetically relived in Breathe Me and the caressing late night diary confessions of first single Don’t Bring Me Down, the root cause resides further back. Through therapy she’s traced it to a long held fear of abandonment and the death of the man she describes as her first true love, who was run over in Kensington High Street in 1997; just one week before she was due to join him in London. 

“The first album was nearly all about Dan dying. I was very gung-ho, I was gonna get through it. It was a very deflective album. I wasn’t coping, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she offers uncharacteristically subdued. “Someone made quite a good point recently that perhaps Healing Is Difficult was intellectualising everything and this album’s feeling it. I think that might be true.”

The musical sea change from Healing Is Difficult’s hip hop driven R&B to Colour The Small One’s hushed laments she credits to the influence of Zero 7’s Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. “When I started touring with Zero 7 was when I actually started listening to music. All the music I’d listened to in my life had been incidental. I only owned two albums, Jeff Buckley’s Grace and a Jackson 5 Best Of. On tour Sam and Henry were always talking with a great passion about all these artists I’d never heard of, so I bought a Discman and started going through their books of CDs. Amazing stuff like James Taylor, Harry Nilsson, Django Bates, Nick Drake. That’s when I really fell in love with music, and knew I wanted to write songs like that.”

“Also, the natural progression for me was to make the next thing on from doing Distractions and Destiny on the Zero 7 album, and that’s what I think this album is really.” Indeed, while When It Falls, Hardaker and Binns’ forthcoming follow-up, which she also appears on, is more of the liquidly atmospheric same, it’s Sia’s own take that’s the real development of the down-tempo theme. 

She concedes that some might think that, having proved not to be the next big R&B thing, she’s jumped on the Zero 7 bandwagon. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t think that” she exclaims loudly, her earlier volume returning. “I guess I have really. It’s down-tempo, songy and lush. But so what? To me it just feels more comfortable and authentic.” 

A sly grin creeps across her face, like a naughty child about to say something they shouldn’t. “Before, if I’m honest, I just wanted to be famous,” she says in a whisper. “Ever since I was little I wanted to be a superstar. With the first album I wanted loads of cash. I wanted to be in Hello. I wanted my picture taken. I thought it would make me so different, fill all of my holes, make me sexy, clever, inspired and loved. That’s what was so disappointing about even getting a tiny bit of success with Taken For Granted. None of it happened. Afterwards I was exactly the same person, with the same problems and holes. It was pretty anti-climatic.

“Now it would be my worst nightmare,” she concludes with a wide-eyed look that confirms that she means it. “I’ve learned that there are far more important things. I don’t really care about being famous anymore. I just want to sell enough albums so that I can make another one.”

 

‘Colour The Small One’ is out now. The single ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ is out on 9 February.

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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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