You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Sia

Monday, March 3, 2008

Q&A with Sia

I love interviewing bands, hence why I started this blog in the first place. But what I love most is how, despite often asking very similar questions to each band, some musicians can be incredibly refreshing and give very unexpected answers. Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler is a breath of fresh air in the music industry. Her quirky answers during my phone interview with her and infectious laugh throughout made it such a delight to talk to her. (Read on to find out what I mean!)

You can find the full interview with Sia below or listen to part of my phone interview here. In addition, you can read my write-up featured on Rolling Stone's Rock & Roll Daily blog here. Feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think! In the meantime, check out this stream of her performing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. For Windows. For Quicktime. She's playing a sold-out concert at Webster Hall in NYC Saturday, March 8. I'll be covering the show, so keep on the look-out for a full review sometime next week!

I love the colorful album artwork. Did you design it all yourself?
Well, we started out, me and my friend Eric [Spring]. I’ve been doing Apple Art on the computer for the website. I started for fun at airports when I couldn’t get wireless Internet to surf crap gossip websites. I decided to start for fun, matching art for the song titles because I felt we need a reason to sell C.D.’s. People just don’t buy music unless there’s something in the packaging that’s worth having. I thought it would be fun to do pictures, make flashcards for every song. Halfway through, because I’m an incredibly lazy fucker, I got tired of doing it, so then we engineered a competition for the fans, like 20,000 fans. It had to be cohesive with the cover, so we gave them the cover, which I did with my friend Eric in the Le Parc Suite hotel after breakfast in Los Angelis. A lot of people don’t really notice that on the cover art work there is someone who is being rained on, who is really having a bad day with a big frown. And then there is another person who is smiling but has no arms and legs. That’s what I meant when I said, some people have real problems and they’re not complaining.

How did you choose the title for your album?
We would make jokes about it all the time. During recording people would come in and complain about, I don’t know, like their coffee bang ditter or traffic, or that their cleaner didn’t do something. And I’d say, “Some people have real problems.” Like, they’re waiting for a lung or they don’t have a mum. When anyone would say a really, stupid, rich person’s complaint then we literally would say, “Yeah, some people have real problems” and it would be hilarious and it just stuck. I thought it would be a funny name for an album. And then I thought people would ask me about it a lot and if I were to get rich and successful I would remember to not turn into an asshole. But I am one, so it didn’t work. [Laughs] No it’s working.

Did you go in having a concept for your album?
No. I just wanted to make an album that didn’t really sound like it belonged to any particular era. I just wanted it to be . . . not really fashionable or anything. I wanted to make an album that had good songs and was recorded mainly live. That’s all. I had about 48 songs, ‘cause it had been a long time since I had put out my last record and I’ve been writing so much. So I just gave them to Jimmy [Hogarth] who was the producer and I said, “Could you choose the best songs?” He came back with 18 and then we ran out of money between 14 or 15 so we just ended up with those ones and then we chose the best out of those. The ones we were most attracted to, sexually [laughs] and that was it.

I don’t really have as much involvement in it. I like to just write the songs and then once I’ve written them and recorded them, when I’m in the studio I’ll know if I really hate a sound that someone uses. I like to trust all the musicians, all of them are awesome. Generally, they bring their own great thing. Jimmy has good taste and I trust him. I only really listen to them when I’m writing them and then when I’m recording them…I didn’t even listen to the mixes. I didn’t have any headphones so I listened to them through my Mac speakers and I thought they sounded good. There was only one thing that Jimmy sent me that I went back on. The horns were too jazzy and I didn’t like it. We had to redo the horns. I wanted them to be like a marching band. But that’s all, that’s the only thing we had to redo.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?
“Academia” is my favorite and then I like singing “You Have Been Loved,” it’s a good song to sing live. But yeah, I think “Academia” is my favorite and I like “Buttons” too.

I love the lyrics on “Academia.”
Thanks! That was like a vomit song. You know, when you just literally pick up a pen and they just go “bleup.” That took five minutes to write and then we researched it just to make sure all the words are right.

And you recorded that song with Beck, right? How was working with him?
Yeah. It was good. He came out for the day. I had a day where I gathered all of my friends to help me sing backing vocals. ‘Cause I wanted a big choir-y sound on “Death By Chocolate.” And then he came down and I asked him if he would sing on “Academia.” I had already asked him in an email but I asked him again because he hadn’t responded so I asked him in person. I was like, “Do you hate it? Do you want to do it?” and he said sure. That was a bit of a treat. But really, he’s just being really supportive. He’s doing me a favor. When people like you ask me about it and then you write about it and when people Google Beck, my name comes up. So he’s basically doing me a big favor.

What is your writing process like?
I write everyday. It used to be much more loose. I write with people, I can’t really write by myself. I mean I can, but it’s not as fun. I like to be part of a team. Mid-day we usually schedule one or two songs with different writers. Sometimes I have an idea and I just write it down and remember it, like one sentence and then I can build a song around that. Normally it happens while I’m in a room with another writer and it’s been scheduled, but it’s different every time. Normally the chorus comes first and then the music gets the feeling of the song from me and it just comes out and if it doesn’t come out then we move on and we start a different kind of song.

How do you feel this album is different from your previous albums?
I guess I’m in a better mood. I wasn’t in a good mood the last album. And this album I’m in a much better mood and I think that’s reflected in the times. And it’s hairier. A lot hairier. [Laughs] It needs a haircut actually.

I was curious about your song “Lentil.”
Did that title confuse you? [Laughs] It was a dog called Lentil, that was the first dog I ever fostered and I couldn’t take him with me back to London because he didn’t have the right rabies shots and it was in Australia. I had to go back to London to work and I had to leave him in Australia and I felt so bad because I loved him so much. I found him a really good home and he’s so happy now. I see him every summer. He’s a good boy.

In “Playground” you sing, “I don’t want to grow old/Bring me all the toys you can find.” I feel everyone can relate to that, is that a fear of yours, growing old?
Totally. Yeah, and also I just don’t want to stop having fun. I think it’s a decision to grow old. I saw my mum made a decision and she just got old over night. It was like she made a decision and it was like, “Why are you doing that?” She just reversed that decision. She came to New York for Christmas, where I live now. And while she was here she reversed that decision and I’m so glad. But yeah, I just don’t want to make that decision to grow old.

How are you staying young?
A lot of dancing, shopping, hanging out with good people. Dancing, more dancing. Singing a lot, good dating, a lot of good dating. Making stuff, fun stuff, crafting.

Were you originally a back-up singer for Jamiroquai?
No. I mean I was. I went down there and recorded some stuff and he paid me and everything. But then he said my voice was too distinctive and he never used any of it. It’s probably for the best. He was really nice to me when I was first starting out as a singer and he actually gave me a bunch of money to help me pay my bills. He was gonna start a record label and wanted me to sign to it but it never happened. And we never saw each other ever again.

And you’ve sang for Zero 7 too. How do you feel all these experiences and people have influenced you and your music throughout the years?
Well, a lot because I don’t listen to music. When I’m surrounded by those friends and musicians they play music constantly. So I guess I’m heavily influenced by whatever they’re listening to at the time. And of course by dynamics, band dynamics and friendships and all that sort of stuff. But yeah, I can’t do that anymore because I’m getting busy with the solo stuff so I’m not doing the next Zero 7 album. That’s sad because that was the best fun and I think my best work has been with them. But maybe one day we’ll be able to do some more. It would be nice.

Over the past 10 years, you’ve progressed so much. Do you feel your fans have changed at all?
No, I feel like they’ve stayed the same, but then maybe they’ve grown slightly. Like its’ expanded, like they’ve told their mums. [Laughs] That’s what I think. I know I have a loyal fan base because a lot of them have been on the message board for five years. But yeah, I think it has definitely gotten bigger.

How is your tour going?
It’s been amazing, people are so nice! They’re giving me gifts. They pass me notes while I’m on stage. I love it! It’s been really good audience participation. Like, sometimes there will be a note that says, “Could you dedicate the next song to blah, blah from blah, blah. We danced our wedding to this song.” It’s so nice. Other notes would just be like, “Show us your tits.” I’ve gotten presents; someone gave me a handmade scarf the other day. Other people gave me the most amazing toiletries and smelly bath things. Someone gave me so much beautiful essential oils. Another bunch of people gave me awesome joke presents, like silly masks, whoopee cushions, and suspenders. I think they all seem to know what I like, which is really weird. Nobody has given me a present that I’m not into. I’m becoming a really good receiver! [Laughs]

What was your inspiration behind Some People Have Real Problems?
It’s a long time coming. It was like four years of accumulated experiences. One of the songs didn’t make the last record another one was a song that didn’t make a Zero 7 record. One of them was one I was writing as a pop song for some other pop star. When I thought maybe my solo career was over, I started thinking I would try and write pop songs for big stars. Like Shakira and Paris and Britney. In the end, we realized I was going to make another solo record and so I collected all the songs I had been writing. There’s a few B-sides that we didn’t use and didn’t put on the album. It was a pretty simple process for me anyway. Probably not for all those poor fuckers at the management company and the record label and everyone who’s working their asses off to do the other stuff that I don’t even know about.

My life is so abstract. Like my life right now, I’ve done seven interviews before you and everyone’s been asking me, “So, you’re really blowing up right now. Your face is everywhere, how does it feel?” And I’m like, that is hilarious to me because that is so abstract. I have no awareness of it because my days are exactly the same. Every day I get off the tour bus in new city. I get into a hotel room, I take a shower, I get into bed and I do, like five hours of interviews, and then I get into a taxi and go to the venue, do a sound check. If it’s not catered at the venue I maybe will get to go around the venue to the closest restaurant to get some dinner and then come back to the venue, do the show, get back in the tour bus, drive overnight, wake up in a new city and do it all exactly the same all over again.

Yesterday was my first day off in 2 ½ weeks and I went on a mission to buy my love interest some underpants alone. I was like, I need a mission. I was so grateful for the mission because I actually left the hotel room even though I was still tired. I’m working really hard. But I was so grateful. I’m in Chicago and I left the hotel and went for a walk and it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t been for a walk or outside with real people, like humanity, not just working or in a venue or in a hotel room or in a taxi or in a tour bus for 2 ½ weeks. I went into a Starbucks to get a coffee because normally my manager will bring me a coffee while I do interviews or whatever. I don’t even do the normal stuff that normal people do, like stand at a bus stop with people, what I would normally do in real life.

It’s been so surreal. It’s so funny, because I go into a Starbucks yesterday and nobody recognizes me. I’ve been recognized once in Starbucks. I’ve still got jet-eye so nobody ever recognizes me if I’m walking on the streets. All the posters are down now, that was for the first week of the release, they had posters all over the streets in the cities or whatever. Now I’m doing all this promo and it’s in the papers the days before I get to the city that I’m getting to. But I don’t even get a chance to read any newspapers or anything like that, you know. It’s totally abstract to me, just totally surreal. I have no awareness because my life is me, in a hotel room with the shits. [Laughs] It’s so funny because I’m sure people think it’s really glamorous, like I must be living the fucking high life right now, doing the shows, traveling every night. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s just working hard. I guess that’s why the success is happening now.

Do you think your song, “Breathe Me,” being featured on Six Feet Under’s final episode was part of this success?
Oh absolutely. That laid the foundation for sure. Because I had a very small fan base in America thanks to Zero 7. But yeah, I think that really launched my solo career, absolutely. I have a lot to thank that music supervisor of Six Feet Under for.

What do you think you’d be doing right now if it wasn’t for your solo career?
I’d probably be making another record with Zero 7 or I’d be a dog rescuer, or video director. Yeah, I might be a filmmaker or something like that.

How would you explain your album to someone who’s never heard it before?
I have a standard response. I say its easy listening, just because it keeps people’s expectations low. You can’t really go wrong if you say that to someone. It is pretty easy listening. You either like my voice or you don’t. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but if you like it your generally gonna like it. It’s not going to offend you; it’s pretty middle of the road. It’s not really trying to be anything…its just doing its thing, existing. I think that’s normally what I say. Or I tell people its thrash metal if I want to confuse people. [Laughs]

What’s the most rock-star thing you’ve ever done?
It’s probably spending a lot of money on my dogs. On spending a lot of money having them looked after while I’m on tour and then having them flown to New York from LA at the end of the tour. I guess that’s pretty privileged. If you’re talking about getting drunk and hurling on a celebrity, like that kind of rock-star gossip, I haven’t really got any of those for you. I have a cache of successful friends, but I’ve never vomited on any of them or gotten pregnant from any of them.

Amy Winehouse or Britney Spears?
Whose baby would I like to have? [Laughs] Well, I’m rooting for both of them. I care about Amy. I care about her because I am a fan and I’ve met her a couple of times and I kind of stalk her. I’ve got her phone number and whenever I listen to her album and I love it I text her and say, “I’m listening to it again, it’s so good!” Or when I saw those pictures of her after they’d been in a fight and I felt really sad about it I sent her a text saying that I cared about her, and I wished her lots of love. She never responds. I know she gets them though because her manager told me. She doesn’t really respond to anyone, she doesn’t do email. If I had Britney Spears’ number I’d do the same for her. I care about people in pain, you know? You’ve got to be a careless person not to care about people in pain. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. I had total nervous breakdown when I was making the last album. The reason I care and that I write to Amy is that I can identify with people in pain, I guess. One of my fans told me he was in pain on the message boards recently and I gave him my phone number. I was like; “If you’re going to hurt yourself just call me.” I don’t know. I’m rooting for both of them. I don’t want to see anyone in pain. I don’t know about ridiculing people in the press, its mean and it’s dangerous.

Who’s the coolest famous person you’ve ever met?
Probably Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. About seven years ago, I had a hit in the UK that went to number 10 and I was on this show called, Top of the Pops. She was on the show that night as well and she introduced herself to me and she just gave me a lot of great advice. She said don’t read press. If you believe the good, you believe the bad and there will be bad, it will suck you up. I’m a huge fan. I’ve met a lot of people that I admire. I’ve met Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder, Ryan Gosling, Beck is a friend of mine. People who I’ve respected and I adored growing up and even more recently, people whose art I respect. It happens, its more and more common especially since I moved to L.A. for three years, it’s crawling with celebs.

Speaking of Beck, you’ve collaborated with him and Giovanni Ribisi on your album, how did those collaborations come about?
Well, Beck I met through Nigel Godrich, who produces all of Beck’s albums and Radiohead and Air and who was actually an original member of Zero 7. Then he got the Radiohead gig and he got really busy with that. I met him through the Zero 7 bunch. And then Nigel introduced me to Beck about five/six years ago. Giovanni is Beck’s brother-in-law. So I met him through Beck.

Working with them is always really fun. They’re really nice and really supportive. Any time I’ve ever asked them for help they’ve helped me. The thing is I’m opposed to thinking that everything is competition and that we should all be helping each other. I asked Amy Winehouse to do a collaboration and she said, “No way.” And I was like, “Why not?” And she said, “I’m intimidated by you. I’ve been listening to you since I was a teenager.” I was totally shocked because she’s my favorite contemporary voice. Her and Lauryn Hill. I just think that’s shocking to me and because we sound so different. I was just shocked.

Who else would you want to collaborate with?
Jeff Buckley, Elvis [Costello], Barr, this artist called Barr, I love him, he’s like a poet. Har Mar Superstar.

What was your favorite album when you were 14?
When I was 14 . . . I was like 11 or something when I first got into Terence Trent Darby and the Bangles. That was the first record I ever bought, the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” I was listening to Soul II Soul when I was 15 and Malcolm McLaren.

What’s on your current playlist?
I don’t really listen to music; I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t have a playlist. I have a playlist that I made to deejay to this stand-in in Hollywood once. That has on it “The Macarena,” Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Candy,” “Madness”, “On the Wings of a Dove,” Blondie, “Hanging on the Telephone”, Joe Jackson, “Steppin’ Out.” Just fun, dancing around songs really. I dance a lot. If you go to my website,, you can see me dancing. I love to dance. I’m a big dancer, a big fan of the dance.

When do you think you’ll know when its time to retire?
I don’t know if I’m really that keen on getting a whole bunch of plastic surgery and anything like that. I think I’m just gonna do it for another couple of albums and then I’m gonna start doing movies, like directing movies. I’m writing one at the moment called Sister, which I want to direct in the next four years or something. But I think I should concentrate on the singing while it’s happening and just develop those movie projects.

So do you see yourself directing huge movies or more underground?
I think a nice fine line between indie and Hollywood blockbuster.

For more info. on Sia or for future tour dates, be sure to check out Sia's website or herMySpace


Chris said...

About time I left a comment. I actually discovered Sia's solo work one day while working, I was in a Best Buy location and a performance video of her's surrounded me on like 20 screens. I forgot the song. Personally, I really dig "the girl you lost to cocaine" as well as "buttons"...funny because as i write this i'm wearing my cannibal corpse shirt...

Anonymous said...

great job! awesome questions, and I love Sia!

Celine Tardy said...

Hey I overheard my sister listening to a song yesterday that I really liked and then saw that it was by Sia! And I was like whaaat, my friend Annie just met her!!

Anonymous said...

An Adelaide girl who's done it !! Anyone who ever saw her in one of her first bands "Crisp" all knew one day she would get there


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