Missy Higgins: “nothing that I tried made me as happy as music did”

Five years ago, while recording her album On A Clear Night, Missy Higgins decided that she’d had enough. She was going to quit music, or at least take a break from public view, but then the album came out and she was back to the touring, promotion and interview cycle. It was too much and she needed to do something ‘normal’.

Resetting her compass, Missy has spent recent years (in no particular order) starring in the film Bran Nue Dae, moving into a share house in Northcote, enrolling in a indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, moving to New York, attending Ben Lee’s wedding in India, listening to a lot of Phillip Glass, moving to Nashville, falling in love and making a new album.

That album The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle is out now and Missy is back in love with music and the touring and festival appearances that come with it. FL caught up with her to chat about the break and how she found inspiration again.

I wanted to start by asking you about a quote that was attributed to your brother in the Sydney Morning Herald. He was talking about how your success meant you missed out on parts of your youth – it was something along the lines of ‘Missy never got to wake up in a strange place with carpet in her mouth.’ I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that in reference to what happened to you after the touring cycle for On A Clear Night ended.

I laughed when I read that one. I’ve never heard him say that before and he does come out with some pearlers.

After I finished touring my second album, [I felt like] it had all gone on for a little bit longer than I had planned it to. When I was recording On A Clear Night I remember saying over and over ‘after this, I’m going to take a break. I’m going to take a break’, but when it came time to tour it just went on and on. The single did well in the States and I ended up touring it for two years and I finished that up and I felt like I didn’t have anything left. I really think I was burnt out. There was a big thing with people talking about my personal life around the time of the second album, and that really got to me; I really didn’t like all of that being in the media.

By the time I finished touring I decided I wanted to do some things that I never got to experience when I left high school. I never went to uni and I never lived in a share house. And I guess I never spent time in Melbourne or got to know the town at all or spend much time with my family. I did all of those things.

There’s been a lot made of you ‘quitting’ music at that time. I know that’s probably a tenuous term to use. Is it true?

Yeah, it is, actually. I didn’t want it to be true, but I didn’t have a choice. I literally tried writing for the third album for about a year, and I only wrote one song.

The harder I tried to write a song, the less inspired I became

Did it make the album?

It did. It’s called If I’m Honest. I also wrote a little bit of Watering Hole as well, but I never thought that it was going to turn into a song. I turned it into a full song about a year later. The songs just weren’t coming. I thought that if the songs weren’t coming, it was going to take forever to make the album. It was making me miserable because it was so hard, and it felt like the harder I tried to write a song, the less inspired I became. My family and my friends ended up saying to me: “You don’t have to be doing this. You’ve released a couple of successful albums, nobody would think of you any differently for walking away now.”

Would did you see yourself doing at the time, supposing that you weren’t intending on coming back? What was the future going to be?

I really didn’t know. That was the scary thing. I think that’s why I tried writing for so long, because I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t know what the hell I’d do with my life. I knew that I wanted to learn more about Indigenous Australian history and culture and I knew that I wanted to learn more in general. But I didn’t really know if that would take me anywhere in particular as far as a career [was concerned], and there’s always that problem that I’d be recognised in a lot of jobs and that would kind of be a bit awkward.

I think that’s natural – you’ve identified yourself as this one thing for your entire existence.

I identify as that, and most people that I meet identify me as that as well. I don’t know. That was the question. I really tried exploring that side of myself; thinking about hypothetical situations where I’d do something else, but nothing that I tried made me as happy as music did.

What got you through it? When did you start being happy?

I started coming out the other side when I got offered the Lilith Fair tour in America. At the time I had called my manager and told him that I was quitting and not to tell me about any tours. But he told me about that one because he knew that I used to be a big fan of Sarah McLachlan’s, and I couldn’t say no. It was a half an hour set, and I’d play my old songs and the one new song that I’d written, and it might be fun.

I went over to do that, if slightly reluctantly. But I had an absolute ball – as soon as I got on stage I realised that this is what makes me happy. All of a sudden I realised that I wanted to start doing it again, because nothing that I had done over the last couple of years had made me feel that way – especially playing the one new song, because it went down so well. That was really good for my confidence.

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