Kate Miller-Heidke

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New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones described her songs as “a big clutch of Pantone swatches”. When people discuss Kate Miller-Heidke, the metaphors have to be big, in order to match a voice that is nothing short of monumental.

How many other vocalists come armed with triple-octave pipes that effortlessly switch between screwball lyrebird calls to hymnal-quiet hushes, before breaking out into operatic, glass-breaking siren calls? Now, following the big label successes of her gold record Little Eve (2007), platinum record Curiouser (2008) and ARIA/iTunes chart breaker Nightflight (2012), Kate Miller-Heidke has gone independent with her fourth solo record, an album that playfully redefines the boundaries of pop music, while pushing her voice into uncharted vocal terrain. Be warned: at these altitudes, less adventurous listeners may start to feel dizzy. There is a very good reason this album has been titled, O Vertigo!

“Something I really wanted to embrace on this album, more than ever before, is exploiting the range and dynamics in my voice,” Miller-Heidke says. “Very early in my career, for instance, I was told that the opera sound is very divisive and people don’t like it. They’ve done a study: apparently, opera singing and country twang are the two most hated sounds in the world.” However, in approaching O Vertigo!, Kate recalled the advice her friend and touring partner Ben Folds once gave her: ‘Get into your toolbox, and actually use your tools.’ “So for me, this record is about asserting myself and making my own choices. It might alienate some people, but this album is about focusing on where my strengths lie.”

From the towering pop of the title track (O Vertigo!) to the arresting romantic ballads that made Kate Miller-Heidke a household name (Share Your Air, What Was I To You?) and electrifying barnyard-stompers (Jimmy, Drama), O Vertigo! is an album of many firsts: it represents Kate’s first independent release after seven years with Sony (funded entirely by her fans in a record-breaking three days); her first album where she wrote the majority of songs solo; and the first that prominently features guest vocalists: UK folk sensation Passenger (Share Your Air); Australian hip-hop artist Drapht (Drama); and Kate’s long-time friend Megan Washington (Ghost).

Recorded over the course of a cold Melbourne spring with engineer and co-producer John Castle (Washington, Josh Pyke, Cub Sport, The Bamboos, The Cat Empire, Lior, The Drones), O Vertigo! represents everything long-time fans have been waiting for in a new Kate Miller-Heidke record, while scaling new and adventurous heights in songwriting.

After three albums and seven years with Sony, Kate realised none of the staff with whom she had worked at the start of her career remained at the company. After releasing and touring Nightflight, it felt like the right time to part ways. As she puts it, “It was about freedom, ownership and picking my own team.” Kate met with Sony’s CEO, and the label gave their blessing for her to leave and wished her well. “I was exhilarated by the whole idea,” she says. “It was very generous of them to let me go. They were within their rights to say, ‘Nope, make us another two albums’, and they didn’t. I’m really grateful.”

By that stage, the songs for O Vertigo! were already taking shape. All that was needed now was a recording budget, which is where music funding platform PledgeMusic came in. Kate invited her fans to contribute money towards recording costs in exchange for rewards. “Obviously, I’d watched Amanda Palmer and Ben Folds’ crowdfunding projects with great interest, and I had a feeling that model would work really well with my fans,” she says. “They’re very loyal and devoted. I felt they would be there to catch me.”

Rewards ranged from the modest (digital pre-orders of the album) to the exciting (having their names included in the liner notes) to the jaw-dropping (owning the Wurlitzer piano on which Kate wrote O Vertigo!). One of the most popular prizes was having Kate phone a person of their choice to sing a personal ‘Happy Birthday’. “I’ve probably been averaging one ‘Happy Birthday’ phone call every couple of days now,” she says. “It’s a really joyful thing for me too – to speak to someone on their birthday and surprise them. They often chat about the gigs they’ve seen or which songs are their favourites. Never in history have fans had such direct access to musicians, and it’s a real exchange. I love it, actually.”

Kate had a feeling the campaign would go well, but didn’t expect to break PledgeMusic’s records: she hit 100 percent of her target goal in just three days. By the time you read this, she will have reached close to 200 percent of what she asked for. “I had a feeling it would go well, but never expected it’d get to twice what I asked for. It was beyond my wildest expectations.”

Part of the campaign’s success can be attributed to the scorchingly funny video Kate’s husband and collaborator Keir Nuttall directed, featuring horrible proposed fake cover-art concepts, Kate taking the piss out of herself by reading Pro-Tools for Dummies and footage of an irate Amanda Palmer screaming at Kate to get out of her dressing room. “The Amanda Palmer thing was such good timing,” Kate says. “She asked me to make a guest appearance at her show at The Forum in Melbourne, so I got that footage just in time.”

Five per cent of all the proceeds have also gone directly to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) efforts to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. “I feel strongly about what’s happening with it at the moment,” Kate says, “and I’ve never been there. I want to see it before I die – while we’ve still got some reef left.”


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