Hearing is Believing

February 29, 2008


If you're a music fan wary of the overly twee or unbearably cutesy, there are plenty of signs that could warn you away from 32-year-old Australian-born pop singer Sia Furler.

For one thing, the artist --who simply goes by Sia (pronounced see-ah) -- has been annoyingly ubiquitous in Starbucks: She's the woman with the bad bowl haircut pretending she's a 5-year-old, drawing on her face with markers on the cover of her third proper album, "Some People Have Real Problems," recently issued by the coffee chain's Hear Music label.

The packaging alone is enough to fear some awful hybrid of Feist and "Juno" chanteuse Kimya Dawson. But then there's Sia's calculated displays of casual eccentricity: She's been known to wear outfits that make Bjork's infamous swan dress seem tame in comparison. She's fond of telling interviewers she's talking to them from the toilet or, in my case, the bathtub. And she's apt to drop bizarre non-sequiturs in response to the most straightforward question.

"Mental, mental, chicken oriental!" the singer cracks when I note that her schedule has been pretty intense of late. (That turns out to be a reference to some British comedians in the mold of MTV's "Jackass" team, but what that has to do with anything, I don't know.)

The silly trappings disappear, however, the minute you listen to Sia's music: She's a witty, erudite, insightful and very smart lyricist with a voice that can range from a husky, jazzy purr (witness her cover of Ray Davies' "I Go to Sleep" or her own "Death by Chocolate") to the sort of breathy, girlish coo that Feist tries to pull off but can't ("Academia," "Little Black Sandals"). While many artists aspire to rejecting any easy pigeonholing, Sia actually pulls it off.

"Well, that's very nice of you to say," the artist says, presumably still in her bath. "I don't read reviews or interviews or anything, just because I'm afraid: If I believed the good, then I'd believe the bad, and there will be bad. I'm sensitive and get easily upset and insulted. I'm just like anyone else who wants to change, grow and adapt to situations and communities, and I constantly seek new environments. I think it would be very difficult to maintain one kind of art or whatever for your whole life. I think it's unrealistic.

"Also, I'm just into becoming better every day as much as possible. I mean do-gooding and stuff. I'm into do-gooding, growth and change and all that in my personal life, so it's pretty natural that it would be respected in my work."

Sia's seeming overnight success in the United States has actually been more than a decade in the making. Born in Adelaide with a marginal connection to rock royalty --her godfather is Men at Work frontman Colin Hay -- she started her career as part of the Australian acid jazz scene, making two albums with the group Crisp before starting her solo career with "OnlySee" in 1997.

A few years later, the singer moved to the United Kingdom and began to win a wider audience, first with a remix of her song "Little Man" that became a huge club hit, and then via her vocal contributions to hit singles by the group Zero 7. Eventually, she moved to the States -- first Los Angeles, then New York -- and prepared to capitalize on the exposure that came from her songs placing on the soundtracks of "The O.C.," "Six Feet Under" and several other television shows.

Has this long and twisting climb given her any perspective on success?

"I think it's just a noble appreciation," Sia says. "I think after a lot of hard work and struggling to feel credible or cool or wanting to be accepted or approved of generally in life and by the entire universe. ... I think it was really difficult to accept it! [Laughs] I'm not cool or credible! When I finally decided I didn't need to prove that in my music and I just embraced the cheese and decided that it was fine if I wanted to make really middle-of-the-road pop music --the awesome thing about it is that as soon as I accepted that, everything started to go really smoothly.

"People introduced my music to their moms and dads, Starbucks picked up the album and it's selling like hot cakes. So I went from being a largely unsuccessful recording artist to actually starting to make a living out of it, which is really nice."

As it happens, Sia's commercial success coincides with a rosier outlook in her music: In comparison to her last album, "Colour the Small One" (2006), "Some People Have Real Problems" is a decidedly upbeat and optimistic effort, as the title indicates.

"On the last album, I was really nuts -- totally cuckoo," Sia says. "I was having a nervous breakdown and I was in a really crummy place. Then, after 50 grand worth of therapy and just a lot of change, I'm in a better mood. I made a pop album. but that was rejected by Island records. I delivered a really upbeat pop album right after 'Colour the Small One,' and they were like, 'OK, you can't do this. You're a downbeat artist; you're going to confuse your fan base. It's too early in your career.' I was like, 'Well, that's what I'm delivering, because that's where I'm at.' And they were like, 'Well, you're dropped!'"

Sia laughs about it now because she can: She is Hear Music's first signing of a non-"heritage" artist.

"It's great, isn't it: We've got Uncle Paul [McCartney], we've got sister Joni [Mitchell] and we've got my boyfriend Kenny G!"

With two out of those three, she is at least in deserving company.