Hits or rarities? B-sides or live cuts? In assembling the tracks for her new, semi-retrospective collection The Special Ones, beloved Melbourne pianist and singer-songwriter Missy Higgins wanted to take a personal approach. “It’s less the singles that made it to radio – it’s more the songs that became favourites over time,” she says. “Maybe the slow-burners.”
They could be the ones in which she’s found a real satisfaction with how closely she connected an experience and its expression. “There are certain moments I’ve written about in my life that I’ve managed to capture in a way that I was really proud of, I think,” she explains. “As a songwriter… the whole idea is to try and capture a feeling, and kind of spin it around and put it on paper in a way that enables you to understand yourself a little bit better, and understand the world a bit better. And sometimes, as if by magic, you just happen to do that in a way that feels really precise and really satisfying.”
Realising she’s accurately articulated those feelings often comes in conjunction with live performance, and a mutual comprehension between herself and the audience. “When you play a song live for the first time, you can really feel if it connects or not,” Higgins says. “Sometimes I don’t even know if the song’s any good until I play it live, and then that tells me. And it’s nothing to do with how much the audience claps at the end, or how quiet they are – it’s something kind of intangible. It’s this energy, like they’re all kind of holding you up. It’s weird, but it’s a beautiful feeling. It’s the best part of what I do – those rare moments when that happens.”
One of the new songs on The Special Ones is Arrow, which went straight to #1 on the ARIA chart upon its release last month, and which Higgins recorded just three days before she gave birth to her daughter. She found that the lower register of her voice altered in an unusual way while she was pregnant, and grabbed the opportunity to record with this new tool. “It was the only day that the studio was available, and I was like ‘Oh my God, I might not even make it to the recording!’” she laughs.
Another fresh musical bun is the astonishing All For Believing, which Higgins penned for her Year 10 music class. She admits it was written during lunchtime because she hadn’t done her homework. “I’d never really written a proper song before, and then it all kind of poured out,” she says. “It was about my first love… he kind of broke my heart. I was feeling everything so intensely, and listening to a lot of Sarah McLachlan, which I can really hear when I listen to that song.”
(Below is an extremely adorable video out there of Higgins recording the track for the first time, at age 15: “We chose a hotel room for the quietness factor, but fate would have it that a group of bagpipe players decided to use the park right outside our window as their place to practice that day. So there’s probably some subtle hints of bagpipe in the recording somewhere!”)
Amongst these gems is Higgins’ first hit single Scar, a live version of Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me, a cover of The Drones’ Shark Fin Blues from Higgins’ remarkable homage album Oz (2014), Futon Couch from this year’s Solastalgia, and many more. But the song the musician says has changed the most over time – perhaps grown on her in ways she hadn’t imagined – is the perennially gorgeous The Special Two. “I wrote that initially for my sister, when we were having a feud over a boy we both liked,” Higgins smiles.
“It’s so embarrassing to think back on it because it was such a trivial thing to fight about, but it broke my heart because she’s always been my best friend and we’d never fought before then. I think so many people have adapted that song to their own lives and made their own meanings out of it – it’s become more of a love song. I forget that I wrote it about my sister, and it’s more a kind of universal song about dedication, and forgiveness, and unbridled love for someone that they’d do anything for. So, it’s beautiful, because the fans have changed that song for me.”
The Special Ones is out November 23 via EMI.
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