Sia Learns to Sound Like Herself
Chances are good that, even if you haven't heard of Sia Furler, you've heard her music.
The song "Breathe Me" helped launch the Australian-born singer's career in the U.S. after it appeared in the final episode of HBO's Six Feet Under. Furler, who records as Sia, has also sung with the band Zero 7, and you may have heard her new album when you ordered your morning latte — it's out on the Starbucks label, Hear Music.
On the eve of a U.S. tour, she spoke with Alex Cohen at NPR West. Sia says she'd heard her own album for the first time only a few days ago.
"Well, actually, I was having a hard day, and so maybe this makes me an egomaniac, but I went on my own MySpace page, to look at compliments that people had written," Sia says. "I thought, 'That'll buck me up.'" The Web site started playing back her own music. "It was the first time I'd ever detached from something that was mine, and I pretended someone else was singing it to me. And I felt comforted. Isn't that really weird?"
Sia titled her new album Some People Have Real Problems — she says the idea came from the experience of recording. She wanted the title to keep her humble.
"We would have all these bourgeois problems," Sia says. "People would come in and they'd be like, 'Oh, my coffee is bitter,' or 'There's not enough hors d'oeuvres.' ... I don't know how it came about, but suddenly we started saying to each other, 'Yeah yeah, but some people have real problems.'"
Critics have pointed out her vocal flexibility and ability to draw from the techniques of many different artists. A recent review in The New York Times ends with this phrase: "Sia is still just learning to sound like herself."
After a lifetime of learning to sing by emulating others, Sia says she agrees. "After a while, when you sing along to something until you feel like you can sort of go unnoticed — after a while, I guess it's an amalgamation of all those voices," she says. "When you write something original, you can't really revert back to anyone."
Sia admits that at times, she has trouble hearing her own voice in performance. But even on the eve of her U.S. tour, she says it doesn't really bother her.
"For me, if I've had a bad show, it's not because I hit a bum note — it's because I told bad jokes and didn't connect with them," she says. "I don't go to shows because I just want to listen to the music performed live. I want to get to know the person who's performing it. Or I want to, like, take away a sense that I had an experience that nobody else is going to have again, or a unique experience for that moment."
ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY. Chances are even if you haven't heard of Sia Furler, you've heard the music.
(Soundbite of song, "Breathe Me")
Ms. SIA FURLER (Musician): (Singing) And breathe me, be my friend.
COHEN: This song, "Breathe Me" helped launch the Australian-born singer's career in the U.S. after it appeared in the final episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under." Sia has also sung with the band Zero 7, and you may have heard her new album when you ordered your morning latte. The CD "Some People Have Real Problems" is out on the Starbucks label, Hear Music.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. FURLER: (Singing) And you (unintelligible)
COHEN: Sia kicks off a U.S. tour tonight in San Diego. Earlier she dropped by our studios at NPR West. And to my surprise, Sia told me she had heard her own album for the first time only a few days ago.
Ms. FURLER: Well, actually, I was having a hard day, and so maybe this makes me an egomaniac, but I went on my own MySpace page to look at compliments that people had written. I thought, that'll buck me up. And then while I'm looking at them it's got these samples of songs, it's got a couple of whole songs, and "Little Black Sandles" started. And I was sort of lying there and suddenly I didn't like read the comments, I just sort of - it was the first time I've ever detached from something that like was mine and I pretended someone else was singing it to me. And I felt comforted. Isn't that really weird?
(Soundbite of song, "Little Black Sandals")
Ms. FURLER: (Singing) Little black sandals are walking me away. Little black sandals, they're my (unintelligible) today. Now I'm free. Free of the big, bad giant who was stalking me.
COHEN: One of the tracks of the album is called "Death by Chocolate." Maybe we could just take a little listen to that.
(Soundbite of song, "Death By Chocolate)
Ms. FURLER: (Singing) Death by chocolate is myth, yeah, yeah, yeah. This I know because I ate it.
COHEN: This track, it seems to address the problem of heartache. What was your goal with this song?
Ms. FURLER: I had a friend. I can't even remember who the friend was now because obviously it happens to all my friends with such frequency that, like, was feeling really crummy because they'd just been dumped. And I just wanted to write a song that had hope.
(Soundbite of song, "Death By Chocolate")
Ms. FURLER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) just let him go. He can't hurt you.
Ms. FURLER: But I'm not so conscious about stuff like that. Like in that case death by chocolate is a myth just came out, and then the whole song just goes blurp in like five minutes. Not really consciously, like it just comes out and then you know what it's about.
(Soundbite of song, "Death By Chocolate")
COHEN: Your voice is capable of doing all these different things, and there's parts of this album where there's these incredible trills and you're all over the place and then there's points where it's very steady and focused. How do you decide when to kind of go all out and hit all these notes and then you decide to bring it in a little bit?
Ms. FURLER: I think that it's like, I think you feel it like so it might be like...
(Singing) You - you have been loved by someone good, yeah.
(Speaking) So you're pushing it and you go and listen to it and you're like, eww, it's too much. So instead you just go...
(Singing) You - you have been loved by someone good.
(Speaking) It's better, right?
COHEN: I think so.
Ms. FURLER: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COHEN: You know, there was a review of this album that I read and it ended, it was The New York Times review, and the piece finishes with this line: Sia is just learning to sound like herself.
Ms. FURLER: Hmm. It's true. I learned to sing by, well, there was a Doors song that I was obsessed by, I think it's "Light My Fire," and it had this bit in it that goes da na na na na na na na na na na na.
COHEN: And that's not a vocal part of the song.
Ms. FURLER: No, but I was obsessed with just that bit of the song. So I had a cassette player and I recorded that bit like 60 times, then I would like lie down. I'd be reading my book or whatever and I'd be like play and it would go na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na, na na na na na na...
COHEN: You're parents must have loved you.
Ms. FURLER: Oh, it must have been a really rough time for them. And then I did the same thing with this Chrissie Hines song...
(Singing) Don't get me wrong...
(Speaking) And I still can't really do it. It's hard to do it that fast. She's amazing.
COHEN: That's her voice. So how do you find your voice if you feel like you still haven't?
Ms. FURLER: Then next I would like sing along to like Sting songs, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and my dad was playing a lot of Shangri-Las. After a while I think I guess when you write something original, you can't really revert back to any one of those voices to try and emulate. I guess like subconsciously it's like an amalgamation of all of those voices that I used to mimic.
COHEN: But what about you now? How do you find Sia's voice? You know, here's this guy and he's writing: Sia's learning to sound like herself.
Ms. FURLER: Well, I haven't got a clue. I have no objectivity about it. None. Like when I'm singing live I can't hear myself. I'm just listening to the rest of the band. To listen to my voice, it doesn't even feel like it's me.
COHNEN: Is that hard to do? So you're about to go on this big tour. Is it hard for you to perform live if you don't have that sense of what you're actually sounding like?
Ms. FURLER: No, because I don't think it's really about how it sounds. It's about the community that you create and it's about like an exchange in energy between you and the crowd. And like for me, if I've had a bad show it's not because I hit a bum note, it's because I told bad jokes and didn't connect with them. I don't go to shows because I just want to listen to the music done live. I want to get to know the person who's performing it. Or I want to like take away a sense that I had an experience that nobody else is going to have again, or a unique experience for that moment.
COHEN: "Some People Have Real Problems" is the new album by Sia. Sia Furler, thank you so much.
Ms. FURLER: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. FURLER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) I'm walking away. (Unintelligible) I'm walking away.
COHEN: To hear some more songs off Sia's new album, go to our music Web site. That's NPR.org/music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.