I coulda killed a guy like Jimmy. The endearing/infuriating doofus of Kate Miller-Heidke’s ‘Jimmy’ – the sixth track on last years O Vertigo – put me immediately in mind of a guy I knew way back when. Stefan. A stringy haired, barefoot monomaniac whose enormous ego was built of Violet Crumble and self delusion. I road tripped all the way from Brisneyland to Sydney with him and can recall waking in a cold car by the side of the road somewhere in New South Wales. We had no petrol. He had no money. And I was of a mind to end his life and bury the body in a shallow grave.
Yet I didn’t, and now I recall that trip and my maddening road buddy with inexplicable fondness. Or it was inexplicable until I listened to ‘Jimmy’ and found in KMH’s lyrics, almost perfect recall of a guy she had never met. But she knows the type, I suppose. The type of hipster nitwit who can’t help but imitate the barista at the Colombian coffee stand, even though he sounds nothing like the dude, and everyone is watching, and your bullshit five dollar soy chai latte tastes like shit, because Jimmy insists on coming here anyway just to work on his stand up routine.
I said ‘Jimmy, don’t embarrass me.
I don’t want a display
Everybody’s staring, see,
I’m just not in the mood today.
And so what does Jimmy say? Does he apologise or dial it down? Hell no. Guys like Jimmy and Stefan they double down, bro! They come back at you with crackbrained non sequiturs like “What you don’t know is that I have a soul full of guns.”
And the hell of it is, they do. Not just big silly fucking cartoon guns either. To live as they do requires a courage we usually get sold in a very different form. In a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick, or the industrial-scale homicide antics of a 1980s meta-hero, an action doll made up of Schwarzenegger and Stallone parts. When I heard that line – “I have a soul full of guns” – it evoked a teeth-grinding envy for a writer who could bundle up so many truths in so few words. (I’m thinking of using it as a title for the first Karin Varatchevsky ebook.)
Envy is a feeling I’ve had more than once listening to Kate Miller-Heidke’s lyrics. I like her music of course, even though I have no technical understanding of it. She is classically trained, but works in popular music, possibly because of the freedom it offers. A teacher once described her voice as ‘garden variety lyric soprano’, which seems a little sniffy and dismissive to me. But her writing? That’s my game and if I’m playing one of her albums while I work, I sometimes find myself breaking off to listen a little more closely and to wonder at the narrative strength she brings to her writing.
It’s possible to enjoy all of her albums as collections of short stories, with all of the meaning, both surface and buried that comes packed in a really well written piece of short fiction, even a tale as unsettling as the suburban horror story she tells in ‘Sarah’, on Nightflight, the album that preceded 2014’s O Vertigo.
A cold read of Sarah’s lyric sheet threads the disturbing through the familiar – an old Stephen King technique. At the ’97 Livid Festival a girl goes missing. The close and familiar and safe, the playful and adventurous – “Stripy tights and fairy wings” – turned quite literally to creeping dread and mounting panic when the singer “turned around” and found her friend no longer there. The Hilltop Hoods, also great story tellers, talk of panicking on stage “like you lost a child” and that runaway panic accelerates through “Sarah” as wider and wider searches find nothing, until the police fish a blue dress out of a creek the next morning. It is a difficult song to listen to, not because it’s not beautiful, but because it so beautifully realises the horror of loss which most of us might experience for only a few seconds or minutes in our lives. Until the missing loved one pops back into sight. See if you can listen all the way through without goose bumps.
She is a pop artist though, and so darkness must be buried, even banished with light or with ironic shading at the right moment. “Drama”, again from O Vertigo, is another favourite character study, perhaps because it’s narrator, surely a late stage evocation of Lindsay Lohan, is so perfectly suited to the foot stomping tempo. “Lose my shit”, a much quieter but no less droll examination of desire, is possessed of a humour so dry it puts my martinis to shame, and most of that wry power comes not from the circumstances of the song, but the deadpan constraint of Miller-Heidke’s delivery.
I’ve always been more taken with story than character though, and it was story for which KMH first came to wider notice. Teen angst and doomed love are staples of pop music, but “Caught in the Crowd” drills deep under the usual surface details – girl meets boy, stuff happens, Just Like In A Taylor Swift Song! – to mine a deeper and more valuable emotional ore. With a few neat pen strokes she gives us an impressionist sketch of the course of true love totally not running smooth.
There was a guy at my school when I was in high school
We'd ride side by side in the morning on our bicycles
Never even spoken or faced each other
But on the last hill we'd race each other
When we reached the racks we'd each go our own way
I wasn't in his classes, I didn't know his name
When we finally got to speak he just stared at his feet
And mumbled a sentence that ended with 'James'
The awkwardness, the pain and reward of revealing just a little of the self, a tentative connection and it’s utter ruin in the face of cruelty and weakness asks us to acknowledge all of the terrible shitty things we have inevitably done in our own past. Wrapping it up in such a perky little pop song makes repeated play-throughs a strangely pleasant and compelling ordeal, like probing with the tip of your tongue at the raw wound of a tooth recently knocked out. There are those of us who never manage to pull off a story with the honesty of “Caught in Crowd”, even given hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words.
How the fuck anyone does it in a few verses, I don’t know.
But I thought the one who might know would be Kate. I emailed her late last year, wondering if, when she’s putting an album together the tenor of the whole collection inspires the stories, or whether the stories themselves arise independent of any deeper wellspring. There’s a lovely quirky positive energy to a song like Jimmy, for instance, despite the exasperation, and the song is as much a character study as a narrative arc. That energy doesn’t so much change as mature into a really sardonic getting of wisdom by the time Lose My Shit rolls around. I found myself intrigued by all of this, because for a novelist the writing all takes place under one big sky, even when you’re breaking it down into shorter moments.
“So, long story short, what happens when you write an album like Vertigo? Are you deliberately creating a new world, or letting a lot of smaller, unique worlds emerge from each song?”
She kindly wrote back that with Nightflight, the album as a whole was its own world. “We tried to thread it through with stories about decay, light, darkness and death. It's quite a creepy album in some ways.”
(I remember Abe saying something like that here shortly after it came out. Like me, he found it very difficult to listen to Sarah.)
On the other hand O Vertigo! was mostly written by just Kate alone, and she didn't pay any attention to making it a coherent album.
“I didn't want to over-think anything, it was a much more instinctive process. Each song was its own world. Themes did emerge. A lot of it was about asserting myself, my 'voice' (both meanings), and generally being unashamed, being playful. Plus love and heartbreak of course. A lot of the songs were written while walking so it has a kinetic energy. It can be hard to tell a whole story in a song - mostly it's more like lifting the curtain for a couple of seconds, and each listener interprets the scene in their own way. I know 'Jimmy' means different things to different people. I know what the songs originally meant to me, but after I've been performing them for a while, sometimes I forget, because I've heard so many different interpretations from people.”
This is the defining experience of telling stories, of course. Once you let them out into the world, they’re not really yours anymore, they belong to whoever listens to them and in a very real sense there are as many versions of one story as there are people to listen to it or read it.