This is the third part of a planned 5-part series highlighting my favourite female music artists. My favourite female artists are not necessarily the ‘best’ female artists of all time. Though, some of them might easily fit into that category. In saying that I have to admit it would have been far easier to look up any ‘best of’ list and include the likes of Tori Amos, Bjork, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin here. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to them enough or buy their records, so they simply didn’t qualify for my list despite the fact that they are awesome.
The process of thinking about which artists I like was easy, but narrowing that field down to fifteen for the purpose of this series was difficult. In helping me decide who would make my favourite female artists list, I decided to stick to one simply rule. I had to own a minimum of three albums of any given artist. That said, I decided to rank them in terms of how they inspired and influenced my music listening habits. I’d like to think that there is definitely something special about each of the artists mentioned from here on end. I hope you might agree, but I definitely know you will be shocked, maybe even bewildered by some of my choices. Without any further ado, this is part three (of five) of this series.
No. 9: Kate Miller-Heidke
Hailing originally from Queensland, Australia, Miller-Heidke foray into the music world began at an early age, where she fell in love with singing and musical theatre. Her earliest influences were Joni Mitchell and everyone’s favourite Leonard Cohen. Her first unofficial performances were at home, and perhaps in her bedroom, rehearsing scenes from Les Misérables and The Sound of Music. Later in her teens, she began to make a name for herself with her startling voice and dreamed of a life in the music world. Opera, it seemed, was going to be the vehicle that would propel her there. By 2002, the gifted Miller-Heidke emerged from the Queensland Conservatorium with a degree and numerous awards as a developing artist.
Kate was well on her way in establishing a career as a classical singer, but just when she was posed to fulfill a professional dream (In 2005, she made her solo operatic debut), she had a change of heart. Well, maybe not a change of heart, but a calling from the pop world that was too hard to resist.
Kate’s clever debut album inevitably drew her comparisons to, and I’ve read, Tori Amos, but I would definitely say Kate Bush. I am not the first to make this comparison. Though I would like to add that, like Kate Bush, Miller-Heidke is anything but cool. Quirky, yes. Funny, definitely. (Kate has often also said that she wasn’t cool at all in high school.) Then again, I have never met Kate, which makes me wish I had donated to support her O’Vertigo campaign a few years ago, to possibly meet her. She was offering a variety of things in exchange for her fans support, like a happy birthday rendition via a phone call to a personal living room concert. Nonetheless, I have transgressed from my point, just have a listen to her song Words and hear Miller-Heidke do her ‘Kate Bush – esque’ best. Though, it almost sounds unfair to compare her to Bush, because Miller-Heidke is extraordinary and inventive in her own right.
“Are these words working do they work for you?/ Is there something wrong between us?/ Is there something I can do?/ Is there some way I can take back all the times you threw away?/ Been burning up the decade when you should’ve seized the day…” – (Words) Kate Miller-Heidke
I first came across Kate in 2009 and I was immediately taken by her unique brand of pop. By then, her sophomore album Curiouser (2009) was doing huge things here on our Australian charts and her single Last Day On Earth (from the same album) struck an instant accord with me. I wasn’t the only one it seems, many young Australians and sections of indie pop communities in the UK and America, all realised something special was looming.
As on her earlier album Little Eve, Kate combines her achingly beautiful voice with amusingly uplifting melodies (often sung with a shriek or trill for added effect), something that has become her trademark. In Can’t Shake it, for example, Kate playfully sings, “Tried moving my body to the latest hit/Someone called the nurse thought I was having a fit/I execute the moonwalk like I stepped I shit/I can’t take it. God’s Gift To Women and I Like You Better When You’re Not Around are also as lyrically clever as they are amusing.
But Kate is not always relying on her oddball sense of humor to impress you. The calm and unhurried piano driven The Last Day On Earth, at almost five minutes, is arguably her sincerest song that makes you want to tear up uncontrollably. The End Of School, a nostalgic look back at youth, also stands out a one of my favourites, but it is Caught In The Crowd that is truly the albums triumph. It is a song about school bullying, in which Kate sings from the perspective of the passive observer who doesn’t step in to defend a friend. The song not only caught the attention of many schools as an anti-bullying campaigns tool, it was the grand prize winner in the International Songwriting Competition of 2009.
I must pause here to make sure I don’t get carried away with my admiration for Kate. I could honestly talk about her forever. She is only one of two local artists from my country that made it onto this series! So instead I will wind it up, but you can read about her in an article I wrote earlier this year entitled Indie pop, folk and opera, all in a days work for Kate Miller-Heidke.
I will however add that in the last few years, Kate has returned to the theatre. She was commissioned by Opera Australia to compose a new opera, where she focused all her energy in writing an opera based on the children’s book by John Marsden called The Rabbits. It won 4 Helpmann Awards including Best Score (in 2015), which cemented her status as arguably Australia’s most versatile artist.
No. 8: Alanis Morrisette
The 1990’s was a time when we all longed for hope, but in the same breath it was also still about a time when we dealt with disillusionment. My experiences with working with young people (and I was one of them) was that there was this hovering grey cloud of confusion and angst that came with being a child of the 90’s. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Morrisette burst onto the scene to give us hope and a sense of direction.
I had just finished a degree in youth work, when “You Oughta Know” started getting heavy airplay on mainstream radio here in 1995. By then I had become a Pearl Jam and grunge convert, but something about Morrisette appealed to me, especially her piercing vocals. Morrisette was truly putting on notice the boys club lack of sensibilities. Asserting herself into the mainstream, in the way she did back in 1995, still gives me chills. In short, I think it’s safe to say that she gave young women a booming and unquestionably proud mainstream voice.
Like US radio stations, Australian mainstream radio played “You Oughta Know” with different degrees of editing due, to its sexual innuendos. “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” and “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” were annoyingly butchered by inept broadcasters. Of course, it was understandable that this would happen with broadcasting rules of decency, but enough was enough I thought, as I made a beeline for the record store to buy the song and album Jagged Little Pill, as it was meant to be heard.
What I love about JLP is that it hits you (metaphorically) in the face with unapologetic burst of fierceness and the next with its gentle calmness. This is no more evident than, for example, with Morrisette’s almost hysterical voice in “You Oughta Know” or her fiery preachy vocals in “All I Really Want” which sounds and feels anthemic. On the opposite spectrum songs like “Perfect” and “Mary Jane” highlight the soft quietness of her vocals and nature. People have sometimes commented that this format on her album presents as a slippery slope of uncontrolled emotions, but that’s not true. She was in complete control.
“I want you to know, that I’m happy for you/ I wish nothing but the best for you both/ An older version of me/ Is she perverted like me/ Would she go down on you in a theatre/ Does she speak eloquently/ And would she have your baby/ I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother…” – You Oughta Know (Alanis Morrisette)
Alanis easily won over my heart and mind with JLP and I’m sure many others too. In hindsight it’s easy to see now that she had nothing to lose by releasing JLP. She pulled off the biggest gamble of her career and come up trumps with six hit singles.
Some friends occasionally still ask me why I listen to Alanis nowadays. “Come on Rob, she made one outstanding album and that’s it.” Even more frustrating is how still today people like to pigeonhole her as That 90’s Angry Chick. Usually I just smile to such a cop-out statement, and at other times I like to point out that, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) and Under Rug Swept (2001) were also great albums. In fact, I think that Junkie is better than its predecessor. It is filled with moody ballads and mid tempo tracks with the honesty and vulnerability Morrisette could only get away with.
On the subject of Angry Chick, I sigh and roll my eyes. But you know what? I understand why people say that. It’s a perception that has dogged her throughout her career all because she wrote You Oughta Know. She is far from being a man-hater. As an advocate of female empowerment, she is unapologetic and a proud feminist. And so she should be. I think that if you asked her about her views on men you would be surprised to hear that she believes men have a place in her world. Putting music aside, this is one of the reasons why I am interested in what Alanis is up to nowadays. But the occasional nostalgic blast from the past, by listening to my favourite Alanis songs, doesn’t hurt either.
No. 7: Lisa Mitchell
In ten years, since Lisa Mitchell burst onto the scene, she has managed to grow and spread her wings as an artist, in a dog eat dog world that is the Australian music industry. Interestingly, her fan base has remained loyal to her in that time because what you see is what you get with Lisa Mitchell. She is approachable, sincere and giving of her time. With her heart sewn on her sleeve, her music is a reflection of herself and something that we can all relate to. Love, loss, relationships and spiritualism are themes that are littered throughout her music.
The amazing thing about my relationship with Mitchell (so to speak) is that I am filled with gratitude that I don’t have to refer to her as that artist from Australian Idol. I was oblivious to the whole Idol phenomenon, and its reincarnations nowadays, as The Voice and The X Factor. The idea of judging music in a sideshow circus doesn’t sit well with me. To me, she is simply just someone who came along musically into my world at the right time and filled my head with melodies that were unusual, definitely not mainstream or the alterative music scene I was used to. Grunge, punk, 80’s pop and classic rock was also something that flowed through my veins. Indie pop or folk rock, on the other hand, was something new to me. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise how much I liked Mitchell’s debut album Wonder (2009). Her soft girly vocals hit an accord with me, but more than that it was the maturity of her lyrics that held me captivated. It was almost a complete departure to everything I was listening to at the time.
From beginning to end, as baffling as it is beautiful, the album covers a playful journey through many moods and tempos. For instances, So Jealous is one of many guitar-driven songs on the album, but by far my favourite, because of its country blues feel. Musical standouts, of course, include indie pop songs Oh! Hark! and Sidekick (which is quite whimsical with its opening line, “I called out across the sea, Normality! Can you hear me?”). Neopolitan Dreams also stands out with its hypnotic acoustic arrangement, while Clean White Love tells us of love that it too good to be true. However, the whole album, for me, rests in the shadow of two songs, Love Letter and Valium, which are both piano driven numbers. They are so raw and personal that they feel like a confession. Love Letter, in particular, on a personal level, evokes feelings of old friends and lost love.
“Smoke stories, light and crystal vomit/ Stardust singing out like comets/ Do you feel the sun at night/ Do you see the stars in my eyes….” – Wah Ha (Lisa Mitchell)
It become abundantly clear a few years following the release of Wonder that Lisa was intent on sticking around. The acclaimed follow-up to Wonder called Bless This Mess (2012) would cement her reputation as an innovative and quirky songstress. Themes of existentialism, spirituality and love continued to define her music. With so many beautiful elements of storytelling and ballads throughout her sophomore album, I can’t help but feel that Mitchell is often singing personally to me. You often feel you are really involved in a conversation with her. It stands as one of my favourite albums of all time.
Like Kate Miller-Heidke, I cannot recommend Lisa enough to a new listener who might be interested in a singer songwriter who is so brutally honest about her songwriting and what inspires her. That said, with Lisa’s steadfast ability to write from personal experience, her third album Warriors (2016) is a real treat. Synthesisers, electronic beats and gritty bass sounds would largely replace Mitchell’s signature sounds of piano and acoustic guitars on Warriors. But I am glad she doesn’t completely abandon her piano and acoustic guitar making songs like What is Love and Where You Are (off the Warriors album) beautiful tributes to love and our planet. Of course, there is a lot more to like about Warriors, especially the opening track The Boys, I Remember Love and Love, Death X, inspired by the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.
Around about the time of the release of Warriors (last year), I wrote a stirring piece entitled ‘Singer Songwriter Lisa Mitchell has still ‘So Much To say’, which left me feeling quite nostalgic about how her music in such a short span of time had affected me. Even after some serious thought more recently, I’m amazed that I have her at No.7 on my all-time favourite female artists list! At 26, Lisa has only just begun her musical journey and I am sure she will continue to mature as an artist. I look forward to seeing how she might inspire me in the future.
Check back later for Part 4 of this series, which will feature my favourite artists from 6 to 4.
Photo Credits: The image of Kate Miller-Heidke is by flickr user TedxSydney and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license. The image of Alanis Morrisette at the Saban Theatre in Beverley Hills is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. I make use of the image of Lisa Mitchell under the rationale of fair use because no free alternative seems to exist that is reflective of her more mature appearance nowadays than her teenage years. If any errors with the use of this particular photo appears please let me know. I am not the uploader of You Tube videos embedded here.