Interview: Kate Miller-Heidke

Originally published through Esperanto Magazine 

Kate Miller-Heidke photo 2

Today, Kate Miller-Heidke gets up early. Her head is clear, since she made a point not to drink any alcohol the night before. She starts her morning by gathering together a plethora of grains, fruits, nuts, and – most importantly – blueberries from her kitchen, and turns the healthy array into a feast. Today is a songwriting day, and a songwriting day means that Kate’s porridge is of the utmost importance.

“I’m really particular about my breakfast now – it sounds like lunacy but I’m almost superstitious about it,” she laughs. “It feels like it’s my anchor point or something.”

After her porridge she has a coffee. Then a herbal tea. Then, and only then, does she start warming up her voice and throwing around ideas for new material. She also manages to do something while she’s writing that many of us find practically impossible – that is, stay off the Internet. “It pollutes my brain,” she explains wryly.

Why mention all of this? Well, because Kate Miller-Heidke is the singer-songwriter behind four wholly unique, critically adored, chart-topping albums. The crowd-funding efforts behind her latest record and first independent release, O Vertigo!, became the fastest selling in Australian history. She has worked with everyone from Chrissie Amphlett to Ben Folds, and her disarmingly frank live stage presence is one of the most entertaining in Australia. When Kate Miller-Heidke explains her creative process, you shut up and take notes.

So here it is. According to her, the key is to not get overwhelmed by the project that you’re working on. Just come up with some ideas in the morning and refine them in the afternoon, slowly putting something amazing together step by step.

“I like to work from 10 til 1, that tends to be my most productive time,” she muses. “Then in the afternoon I’ll be editing, doing the hard slog, things that don’t necessarily require creativity but have to be done to move the project forward.

“It’s so not rock and roll. It’s really just treating it like a job and panning up each day physically and mentally, just being present and spending time,” she describes. “Especially after the crazy whirlwind of being on tour and everything else that goes with that, I just need a lot of time. Some time to stare out a window doing nothing, and then some time to really get myself into a routine.”

Her inspiration for a song can come from anywhere. First and foremost there’s music, like the operas of Puccini, or the lush indie pop of Kishi Bashi. Being exposed to original and emotional work has a tendency to kick-start fresh ideas in Kate – continuing the cycle, as she in turn influences her fans.

“For me it’s just a question of being open and seeing good art, being in the audience and experiencing good art myself,” she says. “After that it’s just about trusting my instincts. That feeling of knowing that something’s a good idea or that something’s a steaming pile of shit. If something keeps me interested then I just have to trust that other people might find it interesting too.”

The people in her life also make excellent fodder for her story-teller lyrics. Take Curiouser’s ‘God’s Gift To Women,’ in which Kate sings derisively about “pick-up artists,” men who study techniques that are supposed to get women to sleep with them. “If we were the last two people in the world/ the human race would face extinction,” she informs these unappealing specimens. “If you’re god’s gift to women/ then god got it wrong.” While we can probably all think of someone we’d like to direct this to, the motivation for the track was triggered by a specific individual. Namely, a man Kate once saw strutting down the aisle of a commercial flight, loudly playing a purple ukulele, for no apparent reason.

“I’d just read that book the Game by Neil Strauss and it seemed like textbook peacocking,” she laughs, before pausing a little guiltily. “I’m sure he’s a nice guy.”

Kate’s next project is an opera-musical aimed at children, based on Shaun Tan and John Marsden’s wonderful picture book The Rabbits. The story follows native Australian animals as they react to the arrival of the titular rabbits, who come on ships and wreak havoc on the lives of the nature-dwelling local population. It’s an obvious allegory for colonialism, the effects of which Kate says aren’t covered properly in schools.

“The way I was taught Australian history was so fucking dry, and dull, and it was all about parliamentary documents and confederation and whatever,” she remembers. “And I think that true Australian history is so grim and grotesque, and full of sex and violence and genocide and it’s actually darkly fascinating. Also very sad, when you think about how much the indigenous population are still facing.”

Most creatives wouldn’t turn to a children’s book for inspiration, but that’s why most creatives aren’t Kate Miller-Heidke. Here at Esperanto we have no doubt her stage show will be as whimsical, grand, and subtly complex as her albums – just as long as she has her porridge to keep her going.

Kate Miller-Heidke is performing at the Melbourne Recital Centre on August 29th. Her children’s opera the Rabbits opens next year.

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