Kate Miller-Heidke Biography
We all know her voice by now. Without question, they are some of the most gloriously elastic vocal chords in contemporary music. In one song, she will sound as hushed and intimate as a lover before sleep, before reverberating with an operatic force so great, it seems possible walls might collapse and time will fold in on itself. Across the Pacific and Atlantic—from Australia to Asia, the US and UK—stunned audiences have been mesmerised and transformed, one at a time, by the extraordinary talent that is Kate Miller-Heidke.
Now, following double-platinum sales for her last album (2008’s Curiouser), sets at Coachella, international dates supporting Ben Folds, acclaimed opera performances in Australia and the UK, and catching US critics—from the New York Times to the New Yorker—off-guard, Kate Miller-Heidke returns with Nightflight, her first solo album in three years. Over 11 songs, Nightflight signals a new-found sophistication in songwriting that sees Kate meditate on homesickness, mortality, love and surrender, in an album that is both sonically lush and emotionally stark, deeply personal and yet utterly panoramic.
Written between the frenetic jolt of London and the rising floodwaters of Toowoomba, Nightflight showcases songs about real people’s lives: family members who have died, teenagers who went missing in the ‘90s, friends looking for love in the wrong places and Kate’s own longing for home. In previous albums, Kate has immersed herself in high cabaret drama, polished electro-pop and heart-arresting ballads. With Nightflight, her mission was simple: to focus on the craft of pure human storytelling with clear-eyed clarity.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been a reaction against the previous thing,” Kate says. “Nightflight is definitely a more vulnerable and exposed record than anything I’ve done before. If Curiouser was a playful, dysfunctional adolescent, Nightflight is more like a damaged, melancholy person in her late 20s. With Nightflight, we wanted something darker and more organic, more beautiful and more expansive.”
Writing the Album
In the three years since Curiouser—an album with singles that went gold (‘Can’t Shake It’), platinum (‘Caught In The Crowd’) and double platinum (‘Last Day On Earth’)—Kate embarked on the kind of projects you’d expect to see on someone’s CV over their lifetime.
As well as touring non-stop across 2009 and 2010, she played major international festivals including Coachella (US), Lilith Fair (US) and Rifflandia (Canada), roughly 80 shows with Ben Folds across North America, the UK and Europe, as well as her own shows in Asia. Alongside long-term collaborator and partner Keir Nuttall, she also became the first Australian to win the Grand Prize in the International Songwriting Competition for ‘Caught In The Crowd’ (the judging panel included Tom Waits and The Cure’s Robert Smith), performed opera alongside David Wenham (‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, Sydney Opera House), more opera in the UK (‘The Death of Klinghoffer’, English National Opera), scored 1.5 million YouTube hits for her novelty song ‘Are You Fucking Kidding Me?’, released an electro side-project album (Fatty Gets a Stylist) and infected New York with an earworm in the form of ‘Are You Ready’, a Fatty track used in the state’s lottery commercials.
Living out of a suitcase eventually takes its toll though. There are the long flights, the unceasing jetlag and the disorientation of wandering through duty free shops without a sense of time zones. “Home becomes this intangible sense of what heaven must be like,” Kate says. “So at the end of all that, we decided to go in to hiding in Toowoomba for a few months in late 2010 and early 2011, to sort of cut off contact with the outside world and try to collate these scraps of ideas and half-songs. At the end of all this constant touring, it seemed like it would be a real haven.”
Kate and Keir returned to Australia to set up a semi-permanent home at the old home of Keir’s maternal grandparents, who had recently died within a short span of one another. “After they both passed away, the house had been on the market but hadn’t sold, so we decided to move in,” Kate says. “It was a lovely house looking over the range. The most striking feature of the house is how everything of Keir’s grandparents’ is still there. Furniture, photos, bathroom stuff. Even day-to-day stuff like an empty wallet or Keir’s grandma’s half-used lipstick. That permeates Nightflight: a basic sense of our own mortality and the complete impermanence of things.”
Moving from London to Toowoomba was a culture shock, but Kate and Keir embraced how Toowoomba afforded them isolation. Eventually though, they got more isolation than they anticipated when floods rolled into town that January. “Toowoomba sits on the top of a big mountain and the house had beautiful expansive views. That also meant we could see the rain coming in from miles and miles away. There was something eerie and slightly sinister about experiencing heavy rain that doesn’t let up for so long” At their peak, the floods closed off roads and literally shut Kate and Keir in for weeks. “We couldn’t leave if we wanted to,” she recalls.
All of this informed what you now hear on Nightflight. “The writing process was shrouded by death in a way,” Kate says, “but also these contrasts. The fact we were living in an old person’s house, but we’re both young, the fact we were living in Toowoomba, a place we didn’t feel we belong. So there are all these contrasts between light and shade, life and death, joy and melancholy, and honesty versus obscuring the truth.”
Recording in Melbourne, Mixing in Suffolk
After writing the album in Toowoomba, Kate and Keir recorded Nightflight over two months in Melbourne. “For a long time we thought we’d do it in England, but we wanted that option to collaborate with people we know and like,” Kate says. “Toowoomba was so isolating and we didn’t then want to put ourselves through that again. It did take a while to remember how to converse with other people after that long,” she adds, laughing. “We worked from midday until midnight for months recording the thing. We lived and breathed it.”
Keir Nuttall co-produced Nightflight alongside engineer Rob Long and legendary rock producer Lindsay Gravina (Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, The Living End, British India) in Lindsay’s Birdland studio in Prahran. “Lindsay is kind of a Melbourne institution,” Kate says. “He’s a strange genius who rarely ventures out into the sunlight. We never saw him eat. For a while we suspected he was a vampire. He has this track record of making really dynamic, warm-sounding records with a lot of great people. Especially the Roland S. Howard stuff he’s produced. It sounds so alive.”
Instrumentalists included James O’Brien (The Boat People, Machine Translations, YesYou) on bass, Gemma Turvey and J.P. Shilo on piano and a mini choir of friends. Kate also enlisted a small army of drummers: John Castle (Washington, Lior, The Bamboos), Steve Pope (Angus & Julia Stone) and Dan Parsons and Luke Moller (Shane Nicholson) on violin/viola. After recording in Melbourne, Kate and Keir took Nightflight to Suffolk in rural England, where it was mixed by Cenzo Townshend (U2, Florence And The Machine, Kaiser Chiefs, Snow Patrol) over three weeks.
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