Kate Miller-Heidke is one of the most unique and dynamic contemporary artists to come out of Australia, if not the world.
Straddling the worlds of pop, folk and opera with ease, she’s spent the past year performing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, nabbed a nomination for Best Classical Album for ‘Live at the Sydney Opera House’ at the ARIAs and scored a Helpmann Award for Best Australian Contemporary Concert. She’s written an opera ‘The Rabbits’ and spent much of 2017 holed up writing ‘Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical’ with long-time collaborator, guitarist and husband Keir Nuttal. And that’s just last year.
Now, armed with a set of brand new arrangements and backed by a string quartet Kate is taking her alternative classical pop on the road to visit regional theatres around the country. She’s also one of the headliners for Festival 2018 on the Gold Coast, the arts and culture program of the Commonwealth Games.
When she speaks to me, she’s buzzing between meetings and I posit that life now must be quite different to that of the artist who debuted in the early 2000s. Meetings, collaborations, major theatre and opera companies. It’s big business with big outcomes and big commitments.
“I do try to still stay focused on the music though,” she said.
Kate says back then, when she was finding her feet as a contemporary artist, she didn’t project too far into the future because “it’s a bit scary for a musician,” but she’s been surprised with how varied and challenging things have turned out to be.
“Challenging in a good way,” she clarified.
“I feel so lucky that I ended up having that classical – theatrical background because it’s served me well in terms of being able to have my fingers in a few different pies. It makes life interesting and full and back then I didn’t expect to love the theatre as much.”
‘Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical’ only opened in Sydney a few months ago. It’s a pretty big step for Kate – although one she’s clearly equipped for. It’s vastly different sitting in the audience on opening night experiencing the crowd reaction without having any control over how the show goes compared to being a performing artist and improvising based on how people react.
“I always get nervous but that was probably the most nerve wracking experience in my life,” said Kate.
Normally I have to channel all of that energy and nerves into being in control of a performance and getting up there and being in the moment, but this was – I had no control and it was, a rollercoaster ride… Amazing though.
She said the show has been a “huge” success.
“The whole season sold out and we’ve just announced a bigger return Sydney season for next year and we’re working on other dates around the country too.”
From the earliest days of Kate’s performing career, there was an element of theatre, which is no surprise given her love of musicals and her classical training at the Queensland Conservatorium.
“I marinated in it growing up,” she said. “All the Julie Andrews musicals, ‘Oliver’, and I was in the children’s chorus in a bunch of amateur musicals too. And the children’s chorus for Opera Queensland. Yep, all of it.”
I’m curious then, as to whether Kate chose this rather unique career path or whether the dice just kind of fell that way. Did she ever make a conscious choice between a pop career and a classical one? Turns out she did.
“When I was just about to sign my record deal, I was also just about to sign a contract with Opera Australia to be in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and I didn’t have time to do both.”
She chose the record deal.
Kate says what ultimately gives her the biggest thrill is writing and performing her own songs… that sense of creative agency.
“I don’t think I would have been happy to eke out a life as a performer of other people’s songs,” she said.
The career surprise came in the fact that the classical world kept tugging her back and she was surprised that she “loved doing it so much again.”
“It feels like I’ve come full circle in a way. It’s been this interesting, windy path – back to theatre-making but on my own terms. I feel really lucky and grateful for that.”
This 2018 tour takes Kate Miller-Heidke on the road with her husband and self-described ‘heavy metal folk’ guitarist Keir Nuttal plus a string quartet. She’ll visit regional towns across Australia, plus Gold Coast for Festival 2018 and she’ll road-testing material off her new album.
“I always hope to make something that’s different to the thing that came before,” Kate said of the new record. “It’s still in its early gestational stage at the moment. ‘O Veritgo!’ was quite a pop record but I’m feeling drawn back to that folky sound. I’m doing a song from ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ on it as well.”
And if, like me, you’re feeling a little over-awed by this lady’s incredible creative talent, you might feel better knowing it’s not something that spills into other facets of Kate’s life. I know because I asked.
Can she change a tyre? Iron a shirt? Bake a cake? She laughs at that.
“I honestly have zero practical life skills at all,” she said. “This is just a very small niche I’ve spent a looooot of time on.”
Kate Miller-Heidke hits the Queensland Music Stage for Festival 2018 on Thursday 19 April.