From the first seconds of The Sound Of White, two things are clear. The broad vowels tell you that Missy Higgins comes from Australia. And everything else announces that she is about to make her presence known far beyond her homeland.
Break it down: Her songs balance intensity and craft, eloquence and honesty. Her singing is a contradictory wonder, polished by lessons learned from jazz singers and composers. Pour all these elements into one disc and you get The Sound Of White -- a fiery brew in a delicate vessel.
It's this pure spirit which compelled her to go backpacking around Europe when she finished high school instead of grabbing one of the numerous record company offers to rush in and make an album. It's also this spirit that has driven her to spend most of the last year on the road -- playing over 100 gigs in the last six months alone - taking her songs to people one by one.
Growing up in Melbourne, Missy came late to pop music. Her father played the piano; her older brother gigged with a jazz band. Without other influences Missy imagined herself first as a chanteuse, a singer of standards. Looking in the mirror, she would wonder when she'd be able to pass for eighteen so that she could start doing "Cry Me A River" or "Moonlight In Vermont" in smoky clubs.
At thirteen she began a five-year stretch at a dormitory school in a small town an hour from Melbourne. With home visits restricted, Missy had the freedom she wanted and she developed the self-sufficiency that freedom demands. Her grades were good but having to share quarters with other students motivated her to find a place where she could get away on her own.
That turned out to be the main room in the music school. "It was massive," she remembers, "with a beautiful grand piano that reverberated against the wooden floors and hard walls. I used to skip doing homework, go in there, and just sing at the top of my voice. It was wonderful."
Her ears were opening too. No longer sheltered at home, she heard Nirvana, Courtney Love, and other alternative artists for the first time. The piano lessons, which had begun seven years earlier, stopped, and Missy began teaching herself guitar. "My friends and I were rebelling; I guess we all felt we could relate to Courtney Love's angst," she says.
She also began writing songs, with unexpected results on a day that would change her life. Just sixteen at the time, she had -- put off an assignment to write an original composition for her music class. Missy wound up skipping one class and locking herself into a practice room just a half hour before it was due.
"I had some vague idea about the melody I would use," she says. "When I sat down it came together somehow -- my first real song, with verses and choruses. I was really proud of it, but there was no way, in my wildest imagination, that I thought anyone outside of the ten people in my music class would ever hear it."
That song, "All For Believing," wouldn't stay stuck in that classroom. Encouraged by her teacher, Missy cut it on a demo. When her brother heard it he started raving -- nonsensically, she thought at the time -- that she should present it to record companies. And when her sister demanded that she submit it to Unearthed, the national song competition run by the influential national alternative radio network, Triple J, Missy hadn't any idea what she was talking about. But she told her sister to go ahead, if that's what she wanted to do.
"About a month later I get this phone call," Missy smiles. "This woman says, 'Are you sitting down?' I said I was. She said, 'You've just won Triple J Unearthed!' I didn't have a clue what she meant -- and then I remembered. And I was blown away."
With "All For Believing" playing all over Australia, Missy found it hard to focus on finishing her senior year. ("I was like, 'I don't have to work!'" she says, amused at her own response. "'I have a career in music!' That was so cool!") Yet she did hang in there -- and by the time she'd gotten her degree her impulse to burst into the spotlight had turned into a more measured plan.
She received numerous offers from record companies, most of whom urged her to seize her moment of opportunity; to leave school and rush release an album. However, after giving it some thought she decided to take a different path.
"I didn't want to be a one-hit wonder," she says. "I'd seen all these other girls who'd left the music industry almost as soon as they'd entered it. I had too much respect for myself -- and for music -- to let that happen. To do that, I had to grow up a little bit. I had to experience life."
And so she left to backpack for six months through Europe. She planned to write songs on the road, but after leaving her guitar in the luggage compartment of a train in Spain, she concentrated instead on writing poetry and in a journal instead. Never having been out of Australia, and seldom having ventured far from Melbourne, she came back with a view of life that left her better prepared for music.
While in London she received an email summons to Los Angeles, where tastemaker station KCRW had gotten a copy of Missy performing "All For Believing" live onstage and put it into prominent rotation. This led to a quick flight around the world, a showcase performance, a connection with Warner Bros./Reprise Records that turned into a confirmed deal, and a flight back to the Old World to resume her wanderings.
Following a short respite back home, Missy flew again to L.A., where she, producer John Porter (Elvis Costello, Los Lonely Boys, Ryan Adams), and a specially assembled team of musicians gathered.
"I'd never actually played with a band before or put instruments to my songs," she admits. "I had an idea of how I wanted them to sound, but I wasn't sure I could convey that to the musicians. They were great, though. We were all like old mates by the second or third day because they all became quite passionate about what they were playing. I'd play them for them on guitar or piano, and then we'd jam through it very organically. Suddenly they weren't session musicians; they -- we -- were a band."
The result was The Sound Of White, which was completed in mid-2004. A decision was made to release the disc in her homeland that year to capitalize on tours with local heroes John Butler Trio and the Finn Brothers. The lead single, "Scar", was soon embraced by radio and went on to become the most played song of the year in Australia.
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