Sia wants to stab you with a fork, but she won't
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American ears piqued to Australian pop songstress Sia Furler's sound after her dramatic ballad "Breathe Me" was featured in the last, heart-wrenching moments of HBO's Six Feet Under finale in 2005. Successful collaborations with electro-pop outfit Zero 7 had led to her own solo releases, but it was a case of well-timed TV placement that rocketed Furler into a spotlight of her own. In the years since, she's honed a distinctive mix of emotional "weepies," as she terms them, and cheerful dance tracks with albums like 2008's Some People Have Real Problems and the upcoming We Are Born. Furler was even brought into the Top 40 fold last year as a co-songwriter on Christina Aguilera's upcoming release, along with Goldfrapp, Ladytron, and M.I.A. Before heading off on an international tour, including a stop at the Fine Line on Saturday, Furler talked to The A.V. Club about studio time with Xtina, her own alter ego named Vagina Croissant, and quitting it all to be a "big fat lesbian."
The A.V. Club: What kind of tour preparation have you been up to?
Sia Furler: This is my favorite time: when the record is finished and I just get to make up fun ideas for videos or I get to design fun sets because, to be honest, I don't know how I ended up in this industry. I'm really visually stimulated more than anything. I don't really listen to music. I'm more into watching telly or watching movies and visual art. It's so interesting to me that I landed this gig. I really don't know anything about music. I don't really listen to it. I don't know anything about the history of music. [Pauses.] That's weird. [Laughs.]
AVC: So, there's definitely a strong visual element to this stage show?
SF: Definitely. I guess I'm insecure and I don't think singing is enough so I like to incorporate a lot of gimmicks. [Laughs.] I just feel like I need to have some gimmicks just to make sure I get the people happy. Because my job is that I'm an entertainer and that people pay to see a show is a big commitment—and, oh, if they even bother to buy the CD that's pretty fucking awesome—and it's not cheap anymore. It's usually more than $15 or something. They can just sit at home and listen to the CD if they wanted to, but they came to the show for something different. They don't want to just hear the music. They want to be entertained to some degree. I'm kind of old-school like that and feel that people deserve their money's worth. I'm just into gimmicks. I like to converse with the audience. I like a bit of note passing. Anyone who shouts out "banana peels" during the intervals between songs is allowed to propose to their girlfriend or boyfriend. I like to keep it sort of inclusive and entertaining.
AVC: It's hard to tell sometimes how much musicians are involved in their stage shows, but it sounds like a lot of the set designs and costumes come directly from your brain.
SF: Yeah, like all of that glow-in-the-dark shit [from the last tour], I made that on a paper plate. I did a little video for Zero 7 called "Somersault" and I wrote the whole treatment for that on a paper plate. Because when you're on a tour bus often the only thing to write on is a paper plate. [Laughs.] There's a lot of stuff that's mine but, like, my only contribution to the "Soon We'll Be Found" video was that I wanted to do something with sign language. With the "Breathe Me" video, I co-directed that with Daniel Askill and my concept was just that I wanted to use thousands of Polaroids like a flip book. But it was him that turned it into that Escher kind of magic with all that forwards and backwards kind of business. So, it's not all me, but I tend to just come up with a fantasy and then people make it better. I think that using people in collaboration just makes things better, personally, for me.
SF: Oh my God, yeah. Isn't that so fantastic? Well, the thing is that we were rehearsing and we thought it would be funny if we all had alter egos, and Sam, who is my bass player and my friend, is genius at word pairing. Everyone in the band got a name and mine was Vagina Croissant, which was just spectacular. I was christened that by Sam. He also came up with my other favorite one for Ali, who is the cello player, which was Ass Jacuzzi. Everyone got one, and I really felt blessed. At the end of some shows I would introduce us all as our alter egos, and it would inevitably get a laugh and it was so fun. That's why I called my live album Lady Croissant because we couldn't use the word "vagina" or it would get one of those naughty stickers and it could impede sales. And as a lady of ambition, I was like, "Well then, Lady Croissant will have to do. It will have to be an in-joke."
AVC: You could release your split alter ego album someday in the vein of Beyoncé's I Am… Sasha Fierce.
SF: Yes, you're so right. In this business there kind of has to be an alter ego because we'd never survive having to be this entertaining all the time. ... Oh my God, I'll need a warm bath and a cloud hug later. A nice hug from a cloud. [Laughs.]
AVC: You have to let Vagina Croissant handle it at some point in the day.
SF: Vagina Croissant is handling this right now, in fact.
AVC: Can you describe what kind of departures you've made on the new album? It feels very up-tempo.
SF: It's really hard because I don't know how to talk about music. This album still has some weepies but, yes, it is much more up-tempo. I don't know why. Maybe my mood improved or maybe I just developed some privacy issues and decided that it was time for a break from singing songs from the subconscious. But to be honest, I played these songs for my friend and she was laughing because she started to get up and dance and then she was listening to the words and was like, "Fuck, Furler. You're the only person that can make me dance and cry at the same time." And I thought, "Oh my God, you're right. These are miserable lyrics over a pop song. Oh, I've done it again. Whoops." I didn't even realize because I’m not even conscious of what's coming out. It takes me, like, half an hour to write the lyrics for a song. They just come out. Once we've established a chord progression for each section of the song, the lyrics just go "blurrp." And so, oftentimes, the less I'm there, the easier the lyric writing is. It's a totally subconscious thing, and I'm realizing more and more that I'll say, "Oh yeah, all my songs are fictional," but then look back and see what was happening in my life at the time and then re-listen to the lyrics. I'm like, "You're a liar! Those songs aren't fictional. They were about things that were happening and you were too embarrassed to tell the truth!" [Laughs.]
AVC: It wasn't one of those things where you said, "I'm going to write an up-tempo album."
SF: No, not at all. Because also, I wrote a lot of ballads for Christina for her album, so a lot of my ballads went to her. In fact, my management heard my album and said, "We think maybe you need one more ballad," and I was like, "I totally agree with you." I don't want to disappoint my fans, and part of the reason they like me in the first place is because of the weepies and their ability to project whatever they're going through onto those weepies. I don't want to deny anyone that. I don't want to be one of those artists that just changes and leaves everybody perplexed so they're saying, "What? We only liked you because of those weepies and now you give us this? What are we supposed to do with this?" I'm hoping that my fans will come with me on the ride because this is just an album I wanted to make. Those last two albums were albums I needed to make, but this is one I just wanted to make.
AVC: Was the process of collaborating with Christina a lengthy one? That album seems to have been in the works for a while.
SF: No. We did a song a day. It was so easy! We'd go in there between 12 and 2 and we'd start on something and kind of get the bare bones going and I might still have some lyrics missing or I might not have a bridge melody, and she'd come in at 2:00 and would bulldoze us. She was amazing. She'd be like, "Well, how 'bout this? Squiddly-bobo [sound of jazzy note singing]," and it would be a 10 times better song. Or she'd be like, "Can we use the word 'lioness' here?" and I'd be like, "Fuck yeah," and it would end up being the best word in the song. She was just really easy to work with. She's not a control freak. She's a perfectionist but not controlling in any way. She was really open and it was awesome. It was a really awesome experience for me to be working for someone. I would like to do more of that. I'm not sure if I want to be an "artist."
AVC: In the sense of being a solo singer like you are now?
SF: Yes. I guess I don't know if I'm comfortable with fame or touring or promo or any of that stuff, and I really discovered that I love working for people and co-writing and working under someone. That might be where I head depending on how this tour goes or whether I get better at dealing with being recognized or people just wanting or needing something. You know, it's just about having enough for my friends and family at the end of the day. When you're entertaining all day long and that's your work, you end up really very tired. You don't have a lot of energy left over for your loved ones. I think maybe that's more important to me than fame and riches. Or simply fame because, you know, the only real industry that you make any money in the music industry is as songwriter. It's the only growth industry. Everything else is losing money. So being a songwriter would mean I could still be rich and be fun and entertaining to be around for my friends and family. [Laughs.] Which really appeals to me. It's nice to give to the public, but to be honest, you know, they're not going to be holding my hand when I take my dying breath. [Laughs.]
AVC: It's probably also heightened because you do have a lot of this emotional, ballad-y music.
SF: It can be really weird. A lot of people are great and very respectful and would never interrupt you in the middle of lunch where your friend is telling you they have breast cancer. But there are just some people that are excited and just don't understand that it's awkward, that sometimes you're in a really bad mood and you've got terrible PMS and you feel like you just want to stick your head in a bucket of water and scream. So, you have someone who is so sweet and who wants to support you and you feel like just stabbing them with a fork because you've got PMS and it's nothing personal. It's just like you've become public property at that point, and that's just something that I’m just not sure about because I am a nice person. I don’t want to be mean to people. It's a weird life. I'm not sure if it's really the life for me. It's the life I imagined when I was 10, but I'm not sure if it's really the life I'm planning for my future. I like the idea of just writing songs for other people. That appeals to me: disappearing and becoming a big fat lesbian. [Laughs.]
AVC: It's interesting that so much of it is an issue of not wanting to bend against good manners.
SF: Oh yeah. Because it can feel so mean. I had that happen to me with Jeff Buckley when I was 17. He happened to be at my local pub in Adelaide. Now I know it's because he was trying to score heroin and he was obviously, like, aching for a fix and was not in the mood to have someone come up to him and be chirpy. But I said I loved him and he didn't even acknowledge me. He literally just rolled his eyes and turned away. I was so devastated and it affected the way I thought about his music, the way I thought about myself, which was like, "I'm such a loser." I don't want to ever make anyone else feel that way. So in order to avoid being that person it might be part of my future to just relinquish that part of my job and put less pressure on myself.
AVC: Maybe just reserve the freedom to appear and perform every so often?
SF: Yes, that would really be my fantasy—maybe just do three shows a year and each year in a different city, just singing for the people who really want to see it and then just write for other people. I do love to sing, but I'm just as happy singing in the bathtub, you know?