It's almost hard to believe that Kate Miller-Heidke is only on her third album (fourth if you count side-project Fatty Gets A Stylist, which was released as a solo album outside Australia). Her latest, Nightflight, is atmospheric, engaging, colourful, emotional, revealing and enticing. The strong melodic sense of her best work is there, of course, as is the thoughtful orchestration. But the lyrical content is perhaps more personal, more intimate this time around. And tying it all together is that voice. At once strong and fragile, always controlled yet never clinical, Miller-Heidke's intuition as a vocalist is one of her most valuable traits. It's hard to imagine a Kate Miller-Heidke song coming from any other artist, so perfect is the marriage between material and performer.
Nightflight is something of an international album in its creation. It was written between London and Toowoomba. Yet it was recorded right here in Melbourne. "We worked at home this time so I could exploit my stupidly talented circle of friends, and create that atmosphere of playing with people I go way back with, rather than being isolated in a strange town," Miller-Heidke explains. She and producer/partner/guitarist Keir Nuttall wanted to try something different, having lived and worked previously in Los Angeles. "I actually love it. And living there for a short period of time was great," Miller-Heidke says of La-La Land and its influence. "But this is a very different album to the last one. The storytelling aspect of it factors in. I come from a folk music background and I kind of learned songwriting at the Woodford Folk Festival, and I like story songs." Sarah is a particularly moving example of this. It tells the true story of a pair of friends ("It didn't happen to me. It happened to a close friend of mine") who go to the Livid festival together in 1997. The pair get separated, one comes home and one doesn't. Blame is passed around, and eventually the truth is revealed. It's a chilling, gripping song which is accompanied by a moody, lyric video of lonely country roads in the dark.
A few tracks later, Let Me Fade is another highlight, with its refrain of "I'm a stumbler, I'm a seeker, I'm a roller, just let me fade. I'm a drinker, I'm a wanderer, I'm a loner, let me fade." The chorus lyrics almost recall classic blues standards, yet the delivery is even more sombre and blue. "That was a Fatty Gets A Stylist song. It's one of those lucky songs when the chorus came to me in a dream, and thankfully I could remember it. It's got an incredible string arrangement." That would be John Metcalfe, who worked with Peter Gabriel on his 2010 Scratch My Back album. "It‟s basically a song about wanting to disappear, about surrendering the idea of yourself and shrinking into nothing for a while, which I guess is kind of depressing!"
But surely not every song comes to Miller-Heidke fully formed in a dream. So where do they come from? "I always find it really hard to answer stuff about songwriting, but Keir and I are always collaborating. One of us will have the germ of an idea or a hook or a verse or a chorus, and often the other will complete the song or make changes." One distinction that fed the record's creative process was its method of birth: "This album was very much written on real instruments, as opposed to Curiouser which was a bit of a laptop album. These new songs have so much more depth and they add a real complexity and texture to the live show. It's great. The pacing of it is definitely influenced by the structure of a live set, and just taking people on a bit of a journey without jerking them around too much but also without boring them."
Various songs from Nightflight have already been played live (there's a particularly haunting take on Sarah available on YouTube) but the tour proper will begin in August, including a show at the Corner Hotel on Tuesday August 14. What can we expect from the live show? Any hints? A multimedia extravaganza? Inflatable devils and fireworks? Miller-Heidke reminds coy. "There's going to be a lot of voices," she offers. "Lots of singing. It's not going to be a multimedia extravaganza, no! We're going to play a lot of dirty rock rooms, and just do it."
Dirty rock rooms are certainly the domain of Adelaide metal band Double Dragon, who Miller-Heidke recently collaborated, lending her operatic vocals to their recent album's title track, Sons Of Asena. It's a surprising partnership no matter which way you look at it: classically trained vocalist appearing on a metal album, or metal band employing the services of alternative pop iconoclast. In the end though, it's just about the music. "It was just a bit of fun," she shrugs. "We just did it at home. And it's really cool! It's actually good! It's proper, good quality!" So how did this unlikely pairing come about? "They were just fans. They used to come every time we played in Adelaide. We got to know them because they stood out so much from everyone else in the audience!"
BY PETER HODGSON
KATE MILLER-HEIDKE'S album Nightflight is out now via Sony Music Entertainment Australia. She takes the album on the road this winter, playing The Corner Hotel on Tuesday August 14.