Kate Miller-Heidke (pronounced hide-key) is sitting across from me idly picking at the sticker on the front of Wears The Trousers #7, blissfully unaware that every scrape of her fingernail is like a knife through the heart of a man who spent hours manually affixing them to thousands of copies. I try not to flinch but it hurts. We are sitting in the ‘garden’ of the Salvation Army offices in Chalk Farm, nearby the venue where Kate is about to play her first ever public gig in London. In approximately 13 minutes we will be forcibly ejected* by a gaggle of elderly women affronted by our presence. They’re about to have a “strawberry tea” and we are not invited. Rock and Swiss roll.
Kate is no stranger to the rock lifestyle. Why, only two nights before she was dancing on stage with Spinal Tap at Wembley after being plucked from the audience by one of the band’s crew. “Maybe they thought I looked like a slut,” she giggles with mock horror. “They had a whole bunch of slutty-looking girls up there shaking their arses. It was sort of similar to a Steel Panther gig. There were girls up there just dying to get naked, but credit to the guys in Spinal Tap for not asking them to show the crowd their tits…because they would’ve! It was during their last song, ‘Big Bottom’ – I tried not to take that personally. It was pretty incredible.”
Clearly the crew hadn’t heard Kate’s song ‘Can’t Shake It’, in which she protests her inability to dance with witty deprecations (“I execute the moonwalk like I stepped in shit” is a personal favourite) stapled to an addictively shonky dance beat that defies any notion of stillness. It’s brilliant, but you can hardly blame them. Kate is pretty much an unknown on these shores, a fact she is looking to rectify with an international release of her second album Curiouser. Currently signed to SonyBMG in Australia, she’s visibly frustrated by the fact that the album isn’t even available digitally overseas. “It’s ridiculous! Antiquated record company procedures I guess,” she shrugs. “It will happen no matter what. I’ll release it independently if no one wants to pick it up.”
With very little in the way of meaningful support from commercial radio down under, Kate has gradually amassed a devoted fanbase the old-fashioned way: through good, solid touring and word of mouth. She’s not a fan of playing for music industry bigwigs (“They are usually drunk and pretty hard to please”), and don’t get her started on Australian Idol. “It’s poison,” she spits. “For a long time people told me, ‘You should go on Australian Idol’, and it pissed me off a lot. All I can say is that I’m really glad I wasn’t, like, 15 when that show came out because I probably would have ended up on it. It would’ve fucked me.”
After gaining some notoriety for performing a hilariously and vehemently anti-Idol song at her early gigs, Kate has a new focus for her astutely observed comedic wrath: Facebook, or rather people you’d like to forget ever existed sending you a friend request. “I like a good novelty song every now and then,” she laughs. “But, you know, it has to be tempered with tragedy and poeticism.” Sarcasm doesn’t translate well on paper so I won’t repeat the lyrics, but it’s hardly surprising to learn that Kate prefers Twitter. “I love the immediate gratification of it,” she grins.
As you’ve probably guessed, humour plays a big part in Kate’s music. Whether poking fun at outmoded hippies on ‘Politics In Space’ (“The ‘60s were 50 years ago, you know / get over it!”) or mocking would-be gigolos on ‘God’s Gift To Women’, there’s a thread of glittering mischief that runs right through Curiouser and Kate is pulling the strings. I ask whether Kate’s 2008 Australian tour supporting Cyndi Lauper had a big influence on the sound she would later hit upon with Curiouser. “I think it did, yeah,” she nods. “I think she’s fucking amazing. Especially seeing her live. God, she’s incredible. And the sense of fun and experimentation, playfulness and fearlessness – all of those things were things I wanted to take into the recording of my album for sure.”
One thing that Curiouser is not, however, is rooted in the ‘80s. That decade may have been Lauper’s heyday but Kate went into the recording of the album certain that she didn’t want to musically reference any particular point in time. “I know there’s a lot of really bad ‘80s synth-pop around, and it’s the same in Australia. We went into everything with the spirit of play and the spirit of fun and innovation, so I kept that in my mind rather than trying to be retrospective.” Not chasing awards then? “I don’t really give much of a shit about the ARIAs,” she snorts. “It’s just, yeeeuchh, whatever.”
Curiouser was recorded over a 2-month period in Pasadena, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, at the studio of producer Mickey Petralia, who has previously worked with Beck and Flight Of The Conchords. “We had a very different LA experience to most people, because we were out of town,” she explains when asked if she’d lived it up celebrity-style while in California. “Pasadena has more of a little village feel. Plus we were working 14–15 hour days and totally absorbed in the music.”
One song from the album, ‘Caught In The Crowd’, recently netted Kate and her husband Keir the top prize of $25,000 in an international songwriting competition – a serendipitous event that finally allowed her to bring her four-strong band and tour manager over to London. I ask, somewhat redundantly, if the money has made a big difference and she laughs. “Well it hasn’t actually gone through yet. International cheques take 6 weeks!” A nervous look crosses her face. “I’m trying to time it with my credit card statement!”
The song has also received a lot of attention from the Australian press after a government anti-bullying campaign picked it up. A tale told from the perspective of a grown woman who regrets doing nothing when a schoolmate reached out to her for help against his bullies, it’s a brightly nostalgic pop song with a message. Or at least, that’s how Sony wanted to present it. I get the impression that Kate is a bit tired of talking about it, perhaps even sees it as a bit of an albatross, as she gets a bit defensive when I bring it up.
“First of all, I’d just like to clarify that I didn’t initiate or work on any campaign. I definitely don’t see myself as any kind of ambassador for anything,” she says. “I didn’t set out to make any kind of statement. I’m not an anti-bullying advocate, publicly, but it’s nice that the song has had that meaning for some people. I definitely get a lot of emails about it. People who have been bullied in school or are going through it now who say they listen to the song and it helps them in some way, and that’s all you can hope to achieve as a songwriter I suppose.”
By this time we have been thrown off the Salvation Army premises, trying to conduct the rest of the interview in the middle of the street. Not an easy task as Londoners eager to make the most of the hot weather bustle past on their way to Primrose Hill and the canalside bars in Camden. “Heatwave my arse!” laughs Kate, before conceding that, yes, things do get pretty sticky on the Tube as she recounts how one journey got stuck in the tunnel on the way back to Bayswater, where she and Keir are staying with a relative. She pulls a face. “It was quite scary actually, the prospect of being trapped down there.” (Upstairs in The Enterprise, where Kate later plays a set so astonishingly good that even the promoter looks shellshocked, it’s even hotter. The air hangs like a thick and musty velvet drape over the delighted crowd. Amazingly, Kate and the band barely break a sweat.)
Conversation inevitably comes around to me canvassing her opinions on her fellow Aussie artists. Does she feel a kinship with them? She laughs a little warily. “Some of them… The good ones! I think Holly Throsby’s amazing. Sarah Blasko’s really great. And Max Sharam – that’s going back maybe 10 years now. She had an amazing theatrical thing going on, with occasional operatic bursts. Stretching back in time as well, Chrissy Amphlett [of The Divinyls] is one of my big influences. I think she gets forgotten a lot in Australia but she’s a part of our musical heritage.”
Some years back, Kate was part of a sort of travelling revue of Australian women that called themselves ‘Broad’, established by prolific Aussie rocker Deborah Conway in 2005, and she admits to being surprised by how much fun the experience was. “We all sat on the stage throughout the entire thing and we all sang and played on each other’s songs, and everyone had a completely different style. I found that really inspiring. Actually I wrote quite a few songs out of that,” she says. “You know, the music scene can feel kind of competitive, with people judging each other – especially women, it’s in our fucking DNA to be gossipy and judgemental of other women – so for women to come together like that and for it to be just completely supportive, no holds barred, that was a really nice feeling.”
Another project she was a little sceptical about at first was her recent stint as a cast member of ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. “When I first heard the name I thought, ‘oh god, this is gonna be a piece of shit!’,” she giggles. “But once I heard the music and watched the DVD, it became very clear that it was actually a quality piece of work.” Kate took the role of Baby Jane alongside David Wenham (aka Faramir from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’) as Jerry. “The whole thing only ran for a week, but I’m so glad I did it because it was such a great experience. I loved my character, and I think, as an Australian musician, that playing at the Sydney Opera House is something you’d want to tick off your list!”
The Enterprise must seem like a rabbit hutch in comparison, but Kate doesn’t skimp on the theatrics, the fun or the swearing. A mid-song breakdown during ‘Words’ sees the band interpolating the notorious coda from Rage In The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’, prompting the crowd to get on their feet, while ‘Can’t Shake It’ sees Kate climb off the stage to act out silly dances on the floor. The applause is righteous, as if no one can quite believe the sheer exhilaration of it all. I head home thinking that it’s been an utter privilege to see this first of what will hopefully be a great many London shows to come.
When I next hear from Kate, via Twitter of course, she’s tucked up in bed with her defaced copy of Wears The Trousers in hand. “It’s wonderful,” she says, and all is forgiven.
* not really forcibly, I just always wanted to say that.
Kate is back in the UK in August. Visit her Myspace for a list of the dates.