It’s been four years since Missy Higgins released her second album On a Clear Night — technically five years, since it came out a year earlier in her home of Australia. And considering she’d written most of the songs from that album years before, we’ve been missing out on a lot from the bisexual musician. So when she came out with The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle this summer, fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Missy’s back!
“I guess I had always said I wanted to take a big break after that album,” Missy told me, “but then when it got time for me to, I guess, take a break, I’d reached a level of success in America that was pretty great and I guess my record company all thought that if I was to release another album soon after, that I could capitalize on that success and I could maybe take my success to the next level. And I just felt, I don’t know, I felt a bit of pressure there, so I think I wanted to maintain what I had over here so I tried to write but it just didn’t work. I wasn’t listening to my instincts and my instincts were saying to take a big break.”
The break turned into “an existential crisis,” Missy said. She tried to write but nothing “was sounding very inspired.”
“I got really, I guess, disillusioned by that,” she said. “It kind of ruined my love of music and my instrument started to give me anxiety and it just all became too much. So I just walked away from music and after doing a lot of talking with my family and friends, I realized I had to quit indefinitely and if I made my way back to music I wanted it to be without any pressure or without any stress and happen completely naturally, which is what happened. “
The inspiration for returning to music came when Missy was asked to play as part of Lilith Fair in 2010. Missy said performing for and interacting with fans changed her perspective on what she had thought was a more “selfish pursuit.”
“Sarah McLachlan invited me on her tour, the Lilith Fair tour and yeah, at that time I hadn’t played in years and I was kind of pretty skeptical about it. I thought ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know if I can do this.’ But my manager kind of convinced me to do it and when I got over there and started playing again, I really just immediately fell back in love with music and as soon as I got out on stage I just felt so at home and that really inspired me again,” she said. “And also talking to my fans after the shows was really humbling as well. They made me realize that I’d kind of stopped making music for myself in a way. They were still so supportive and they’ve been waiting for a new album after so many years and I realized how lucky I’ve been and how much I’d taken that support for granted.”
Many of the songs on The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle are a direct reflection of Missy’s feelings while she was finding, as she says, who she was without music. Even after she was re-inspired by playing live writing new music was still hard work.
“It wasn’t like the songs just came tumbling out but I had a new, I guess, a renewed sense of hope and positivity and ‘I can do this,’” she said. “I wanted to do another album again and that was a big sort of step for me initially, deciding that I wanted it. And I wanted to make this a really fun experience so it was a conscious decision to make it a joyful experience and not a stressful one. And so I reached out to a bunch of friends and I asked them to collaborate with me and it was really really fun and I went to Nashville and collaborated with people there and sort of lived there for a while and fell in with really great singer/songwriter community and importantly it was away from the prying eyes of my record company and I didn’t let them have any involvement in the writing and the making of the record. That made a huge difference to me.”
One of the things that changed the course of Missy’s music also happened on Lilith Fair: She met Butterfly Boucher, another Aussie singer/songwriter who ended up co-writing and co-producing her new album.
“Her and I met because we had several people over the years say to us that we should meet and we should collaborate so we just kind of gravitated toward each other and said ‘Hi, hi! So and so said I should meet you.’ And we kind of felt like we’d met even though we hadn’t. And we just got along really well straight away and I’ve always been a big fan of her music and she’s Australian, too, so I thought maybe I should ask her to collaborate,” Missy said. “So she said ‘If you ever make it down to Nashville, let me know.’ And then I just so happened to meet someone a few months later that told me I could use their guest house in Nashville to stay in and write so I took that opportunity and telephoned her when I was down there and yeah, the collaborative relationship really worked.”
Once in Nashville, Missy started to meet with potential producers but nothing really clicked. Eventually Butterfly suggested she could produce the album.
“I thought it was such a cool idea. I mean I would have asked her but I didn’t think she’d be interested,” Missy said, laughing. “The fact she really wanted to was enough for me. I thought we had such a great relationship and it would be such a fun experience which is exactly what I wanted it to be.”
Their relationship in the studio transfers beautifully on stage for their current tour, too, as Missy joins Butterfly for parts of her set, and Butterfly plays bass and sings back-up on all of Missy’s songs. They work so well together it will almost be a tragedy if they don’t continue to perform together after they complete touring on this album.
“We did a lot of laughing in the studio,” Missy said. “That was the best thing about it I think. Just the fact the whole process was just really loose and joyful. Don’t get me wrong, it was really hard at times, as any recording process is, it’s a terrible emotional roller coaster. But we had a lot of really fun times.”
Missy said another component needed for her to make an album she’d be happy with was living and working in Nashville. The collaborative community of songwriters there was inspiring to her, more so than her previous short-lived home of Los Angeles.
“It seems to be a lot more tight in Nashville. I guess a lot smaller and more collaborative. And I think LA, because it’s so huge and there’s so much going on and so many people, it tends to be less community-oriented and more competitive in a way, where in Nashville people are more just kind of set up there and they have a lifestyle going on and they really enjoy collaborating and it’s not about trying to step on anyone’s shoulders to get anywhere else,” Missy said. “It’s about the joy of creating and that’s what really inspired me. It wasn’t writing in order to get anywhere with it. They just really wanted to do it for a living. They just want to make it a sustainable way of living. And it is so much cheaper to live in Nashville for the quality of living is better too. It takes a lot of stress out of it.”
On stage, Missy joked that saying the name of the album, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle, sounds kind of funny because it’s hard to say it with the intended irony. Many of the songs are about Missy’s feeling pressure from the recording industry, including “Everyone’s Waiting,” but there also some really sexy tracks, too, in true Missy style. “Unashamed Desire” and “Tricks” are two such songs, the latter of which was co-written with Katie Herzig. But even when she’s writing with someone else, she said the songs all stem from her own “experience or observations.”
“There’s definitely a lot of songs about this album deal with my disillusionment with the whole entertainment industry and my existential crisis and if I was making a difference and whether what I was doing was kind of worthy, whatever that means. And finding my way back to music and being able to love it again and feel good about it again,” Missy said. “There’s a song about my grandma who passed away, songs about some love affairs that I had. [Laughs] ‘Hidden One’” is about the power of the people and how it really starts on an individual level and how we really can’t rely on our government. I guess the underlying kind of theme would have to be trying to find myself again trying to find myself without music.”
Watching Missy on stage, it’s kind of ridiculous to think she’d ever quit playing music. Her effortless genre shifts, multi-instrumental talent and smooth-as-satin vocals make her one of those timeless artists you could see over and over again without ever feeling overexposed. Her music is without a timestamp or trend, which is probably why she found that as much as we need Missy, Missy needs music, too.
“I think that’s what I’ve found: I don’t really want to know who I am without music,” she said. “It was a really, really difficult kind of question to ask. I didn’t really find happiness without music. It was fine for a little while but I had never been as happy as I have been now that I’m back and inspired again and playing music again. I think the thing is I never lost my love of music, I just forgot how to love it. I forgot how to do it. I guess I just became disillusioned and I couldn’t find my way back to it. But I always wanted to, so it’s just one of those things where I guess I tried a whole lot of things, I threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and at the end, nothing stuck. I just realized that I needed music in my life and it did make me more happy than anything else ever could.”