Fearless. That was the word that kept coming up when Kate Miller-Heidke was dreaming up her second album. Fun was another one. The fact that she even dared to dream while her 2007 debut Little Eve was still ringing loud and clear suggests a couple more F-words. Forward. And Fast.
She had a tough act to follow. After a trilogy of EPs from '04 to '06 - Telegram, Comikaze and Circular Breathing - Little Eve landed in the upper reaches of the ARIA charts and earned the singer a host of accolades. The album went Gold and clocked up four ARIA nominations.
"We had no songs," she says of Curiouser's creation. "What we had was a huge burst of inspiration. We went into this album with a vision. We mapped out how we wanted it to sound; the aesthetic, the spirit of it. Experimental, hooky, dynamic . . . we wanted to exploit everything that's unique about my music."
"We" includes Kate's partner in life and music, husband/guitarist/collaborator Keir Nuttall.
Radiating a newfound sense of mutual certainty, Curiouser immediately struck a chord with fans and critics when it was released in October 2008. In addition to a swag of glowing reviews, the Gold-selling album earned itself another F-word: the First album of Miller-Heidke's to be certified Platinum and to go to #2 on the ARIA charts, and #1 on the Itunes chart.
Ultimately, it's the wonderfully unselfconscious yet accomplished songwriting that takes both Curiouser and Miller-Heidke to the next level. It's the first time she's opened herself up to co-writing - here, working closely with Nuttall - and the results are inspiring.
"Songwriting was always too personal and I felt too self-conscious to collaborate," Kate says. "But after a certain point with Keir, I just lost my inhibitions. We got into a groove where we brought out the best in each other. These songs are better than anything we've written individually before."
Recording with Los Angeles producer Mickey Petralia (Beck, Peaches, eels, Dandy Warhols), who had the right mix of humour, enthusiasm and weird old electronic stuff to offer the new tunes, Miller-Heidke, Nuttall, bassist Ben McCarthy and drummer Steve Pope spent two months crafting Curiouser. With his strict 4pm to 4am shifts (with no days off), Petralia's studio wizardry turned out to be the perfect galvanising force for Miller-Heidke and Nuttall's carefully sculpted home demos.
"To me," she says, "it sounds like a modern album, a forward-looking album." To everyone else, however, it sounds like one of the best Australian records in recent memory - a set embraced by an enthusiastic audience and one lauded with critical acclaim.
"Can't Shake It", possibly the world's first booty-swinging tune about a booty that just won't swing, was the first taste of Curiouser and one eagerly devoured by a growing fan base. It became Miller-Heidke's first Top 40 single, and was nominated for a 2009 APRA Award, in the prestigious peer-voted Song of the Year category.
Meanwhile, a very different song, "Caught In The Crowd" - a double-fisted tug of heartstrings between the gently tootling texture of the music and the recognisably real story of lingering childhood regret - shot to greater heights. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall made history as the first Australians to win the prestigious International Songwriting Competition grand prize, with "Caught In The Crowd" handpicked from more than 17,000 entries to woo judges including Tom Waits, The Cure's Robert Smith, Neil Finn and The Kinks' Ray Davies. The song shone with heart and soul - something indicative of Curiouser, even in its most fun and playful moments.
"Songs had to either have heart and emotion, or have a sense of fun or wit about them. If a song didn't meet either of those criteria it was out," says Miller-Heidke.
The third single from Curiouser, "The Last Day On Earth", became the real tipping point with the Australian mainstream public. A beautifully compelling piece that perfectly captures the indestructible power of love in the most fragile and finite surrounds, it was viewed a phenomenal 200,000 times on YouTube in just four weeks, going on to sell Platinum and becoming Miller-Heidke's first top 3 ARIA single.
Building on the unique vocal and performance dynamics learnt through early operatic training and a love of musical theatre, Miller-Heidke's live shows are as affecting, fun and memorable as her songs. Miller-Heidke and her band have performed hundreds of shows in Australia in recent years, and Kate is now renowned for being one of Australia's finest live performers. A recipient of the Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Concert, Miller-Heidke is now right at home on stage in large rooms packed with her ever-growing hoard of devotees.
Miller-Heidke is also making significant inroads abroad, and has played to large audiences in the UK, the USA, Spain, New Caledonia, Cambodia and Nepal. In October 2009, she will tour the US as special guest of Ben Folds.
"Mickey thought Curiouser was a noun, something that made you more curious," Miller-Heidke says. "That's what made up my mind about the title. Wouldn't it be great if people listened to this album and it made them curiouser?"