Missy Higgins & ‘The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle’

The Australian songstress talks about her creative process, writer’s block, and how she experimented with sounds during the recording of her new album, “The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle.”

Co-produced by Brad Jones (Jill Sobule, Matthew Sweet) and Butterfly Boucher (David Bowie, Sarah McLachlan), Missy Higgins’ first studio album since 2007’s “On A Clear Night” turned out to be a very personal album for the artist. Upon its release, Higgins described it as “everything I have experienced over the last few year – the ups, the downs, the uncertainty, the questioning and all the lessons learned.”

Photo: Heidi Ross

When composing, do you already know what the finished song will sound like?

I usually start off playing the piano or the guitar and improvising. I spend a lot of time sitting with my instrument and seeing what will come out of it. Sometimes I’ll stumble across a chord progression that really stands out and really inspires me. Then I’ll play it over and over [until] it starts to mean something and see whatever comes to my head. That will eventually turn into a song.

Then I’ll maybe sit down away from the piano and write out a lot of lyrics and then go back to it. But I don’t usually have drums, guitar or any other instruments in my head while I’m writing the song. It’s usually just … piano and the chord structure.

Do you set aside time to write or do you wait for inspiration before you begin composing?

I don’t really do that. I like to [compose] whenever I’m feeling inspired. But at the same time I do tend to take time off to write the album while I’m not touring. I have a general thing to write every day but I won’t set a time.

Some artists have said writing is the hardest part of their career, while others say they enjoy it almost as much as performing. Where do you fall between these two extremes?

Probably both of those combined. It is one of the hardest things but also one of the most rewarding and joyful experiences. When you have writer’s block, there’s nothing good, but when you’ve just written a song, there’s nothing better. There’s also nothing better than performing a new song for an audience for the first time.

Do you feel as if you’re actually finished when you complete the words and melody, or is the songwriting process a continuing experience until you have finished the recording?

It’s always done, for me, when I’ve finished writing it. The recording process is a way of immortalizing it.

Photo: John Davisson
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif.

What can you tell us about the new album, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle?

I had a lot of writer’s block over the last two years before I started making this album. A lot of disillusionment with the industry and the idea of doing music the rest of my life, I didn’t know whether that felt like I was making a difference. I kind of had an existential crisis. A lot of the songs on this album kind of deal with that. I guess to personify music as this illusive lover that keeps running away from me and I keep chasing him. It’s really a romance.

Sonically, it’s quite experimental for me. We tried out a lot of different sounds. There’s a lot of backing vocals, a lot of sing-out, some school-girl vocals, some beautiful gospel vocals. We really used vocals as an instrument itself, something I’ve never done before. I absolutely love harmonizing.

When recording, do you like working with your own voice on backing tracks or do you prefer having other singers’ voices in the mix?

On this album I worked a lot with Butterfly Boucher, my co-producer. She has a really incredible voice and she’s pitch-perfect. Our voices blended really well together. In that instance I loved working with another vocalist. It was fun. She would come up with things that I never would have thought of.

After the album is in the can, do you and your touring band spend some time learning to play the songs as they sound on the album? Or are you already at that stage once the album is completed?

It’s definitely different taking the songs on the road. You only have a few musicians at your disposal. Unless you want to use a backing track, you have to rethink the songs. I think I’m lucky in that respect that my songs do translate pretty well to the live show. They’re basically simple with a few flourishes here and there. The most important thing to me with taking these songs on the road is the fact that my band needed to be able to sing. Almost all of them are strong singers. I really do have incredible backing vocals. It sounds really great live.

With the new album, was there one or two songs that you were very anxious to play live?

Yeah. I was really looking forward to playing “Watering Hole” live. That song has a simply great Deep South kind of feel to it. It has beautiful gospely vocals. It also has animal noises in it. Butterfly and I, one night, we stayed up late in the studio and threw down track after track of funny animal noises. We had a lot of fun doing it.

When it came time to perform that song, [we thought] it would be so fun to do these animal noises on stage and get the audience to sing along. I turned out to be a fun audience participation kind of song.

Speaking of animals, you’re very active in animal rights. Do you have many animals at home?

I don’t because I travel so much. I have a cat that lives with my parents. I would really, really love to have animals but I travel too much.

About your video for “Hello Hello,” where you interact with a person wearing a big koala bear’s head – did you get any response from the furries in the world?

I haven’t actually. That’s a hilarious video. Kind of like a groove fairy tale.

When you first saw the footage, did it feel kind of surreal to see yourself next to the person wearing the animal head?

It was a very surreal moment. I didn’t realize how big the head was. It was really strange acting with a koala head. It was such a huge head and his eyes were so far apart and made out of felt. I didn’t know where to look. It was really strange trying to react to this animal that had no emotional expression.

You’ve had several of your songs placed on television shows.

Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few songs on TV shows, especially the singles from my last album. It’s a great way to get your music out there. In the last few years having a song on TV shows has been just as important if not more, to having a song on the radio. People love to find out which songs are on their favorite TV shows. When a song is coupled with an emotional scene, people respond to the song.

Are you actively working to place songs on TV shows or did they seek you out?

I think both, actually. It’s kind of a two-way thing. We’re definitely actively trying to get songs on shows, but a lot of the time it’s the shows that reach out.

When touring the U.S., what moves you, the band and crew from city to city?

We go on a tour bus. We all sleep in bunks overnight and wake up in the next city. I prefer that to flying and ducking in and out of hotels.

Artists often comment on the quality, or lack of, when it comes to meals. As a vegetarian, is it difficult to get decent meals while touring?

It’s not very hard. I used to be vegan and that was really hard. But vegetarianism isn’t so hard anymore. There is usually a vegetarian option at every restaurant, unless, of course, you’re at a steakhouse or BBQ. I think vegetarianism is definitely becoming more popular. And animal rights and the truth about factories are spreading around. People are becoming more health-aware and environmentally aware, and I guess restaurants are coming around.

There are places I’ve gone, like a few years ago in middle America, where you ask if they have anything vegetarian on the menu, and they’ll say, “We got chicken,” or “We got fries.”

How much touring is too much for you?

I’m still trying to figure that out. I think a couple of months at a time is max for me, then I have to take a couple of weeks off.

Are there moments when you begin a tour and you’re already looking forward to completing it? Or the exact opposite where you’re at the last show and wishing it wasn’t over?

Yeah, both. You go through so many stages. At the beginning of this tour, I think because I was jet-lagged and tired in general … Of course, you get a little ways into it and start loving it and you never want it to end. It’s a complete roller coaster of emotions.

What would you tell a young girl who’s dreaming of her own musical career?

Just have fun. I think the worst thing you can do is put too much pressure on someone. It’s hard to make a really good career out of it. The good thing about music is you can always have it for yourself. You don’t need to have a career in music in order to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s even more enjoyable if you don’t have it as your job. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable if you just keep it as a hobby.

If you’re … making it a career, follow your instincts. Do whatever makes you happy.

Photo: Heidi Ross
“When you have writer’s block, there’s nothing good, but when you’ve just written a song, there’s nothing better.”

Currently on break from supporting Gotye, Missy Higgins is performing a series of headlining shows that feature her Ol’ Razzle Dazzle co-producer Butterfly Boucher in the opening slot. A friend of Higgns and Boucher – Katie Herzig – appears on the middle of the bill. Higgins’ headlining dates include Dallas at the Granada Theater Sept. 12; Omaha at Slowdown Sept. 14; Kansas City at Beaumont Club Sept. 15; St. Louis at Old Rock House Sept. 16; Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom & Tavern Sept. 18; Pontiac, Mich., at The Crofoot Sept. 19; and Toronto, Ontario, at the Opera House Concert Venue Sept. 20. Higgins reconnects with the Goyte tour in Boston at the Bank Of America Pavilion Sept. 22. Please visit MissyHiggins.com for more information.