Before her performance in Chicago last night at Park West, I had a chance to talk to the quickly rising star about her music, her inspirations and the way mass media spoonfeeds flavor-of-the-minute pop bands to the public. But she can say it better than I can. A transcript of the interview is below, and my review of her concert is also posted on BloggerNews

ZACH FREEMAN: So, you’re in LA right now? The weather must be great.

MISSY HIGGINS: No, it’s horrible. It’s gray and freezing and raining.

ZACH FREEMAN: Really?

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah.

ZACH FREEMAN:  Wow. I don’t know about that because I’m in Chicago.

MISSY HIGGINS: Well, it’s not gray, freezing, and raining like your standards, but it’s definitely not typical L.A. weather. But I’ve actually pulled out the jacket I bought a couple of years ago in Chicago when I was touring and I just could not believe how cold it was so I went into the nearest Nordstrom and said, “Give me the warmest thing you’ve got.”

ZACH FREEMAN: I just moved here from Austin in the summer so this is my first winter here and I can’t believe how cold it gets.

MISSY HIGGINS: I was just in Minneapolis and that was the coldest I’ve been in my entire life. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how anything survives.

ZACH FREEMAN: I don’t understand why people move to these places.

MISSY HIGGINS: Me neither. Although apparently Minneapolis was voted the most livable place in America, the most livable city. The most parks per person and all that.

ZACH FREEMAN: In Chicago when I’m walking in the winter and looking around and everything is dead and frozen, I’m thinking, “What made people settle here and go, ‘this looks like a good place to build a big city. That seems like a good idea.’” 

MISSY HIGGINS: I think they must have decided that in the summer and then when the winter came around they were like, “Oh shit, too late now.”

ZACH FREEMAN: That’s exactly what I said. Cause in the summer, it’s like, “Wow, what great weather. And there’s a lake, and it’s so nice.”

MISSY HIGGINS: I guess when it comes to the summer you appreciate it so much and you forget that the winter was ever a problem.

ZACH FREEMAN: That’s true. Being in Austin I never really had winter so you just kind of take for granted the fact that it’s 70 degrees in February. And now I think by the time April rolls around and I actually have some spring weather we’ll actually enjoy the weather instead of taking it for granted.

MISSY HIGGINS: Right.

ZACH FREEMAN: Okay. So, how long will you be touring in the U.S. on this tour?

MISSY HIGGINS: Well I start my tour in a few days and it will be about a month long. I’m bringing my Australian band over for the first time so that’ll be exciting.

ZACH FREEMAN: So they didn’t come with you last time?

MISSY HIGGINS: No, I’ve never really brought them over. For the first album I brought them over once, but this is the first time I’ve brought them over for this album. I’m playing larger venues than I have before so that should be really fun.

ZACH FREEMAN: That’s so exciting. When you wake up, are you like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe this is still real! I get to get up and go play at all these venues!” or do you start feeling like it’s a normal job like, “Oh doing this again. Playing again.”

MISSY HIGGINS: No, I feel extremely lucky. Sometimes it gets a bit tiring, the whole traveling aspect of it is not that fun but at the end of the day you get to get up on stage with your band for a couple of hours and have the most fun, so it makes all the travelling worth it. And I really love being on a tour bus. There’s just something about living out of each other’s pockets that enables you to develop this really close bond with the people you’re travelling with and that’s also one of the greatest things about touring.

ZACH FREEMAN: I’ve done a lot of theatre and you work for people for six months and you kind of develop a familial kind of bond.

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah. I went to boarding school so I had a similar kind of thing with the people in my dormitory where you develop these friendships that you’d never develop otherwise with people you wouldn’t necessarily be friends with outside of that world.

ZACH FREEMAN: But you’re with them all the time, so you end up being friends with them anyway.

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah, it’s great.

ZACH FREEMAN: You basically starting recording right out of high school, so do you ever think about if you were to get a regular 9 to 5 job, what you would want to do? Something with the environment maybe?

MISSY HIGGINS: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d go and get a regular job. I go through these stages of fantasizing about what else I could do with my life for a change and what I may have become if I hadn’t become a musician. But I think at the moment I’m just accepting the fact that this is what I’m meant to do right now and I’m just going to ride this out til I’m finished. And then I think I’ll do a bit of exploring and see what I gravitate towards. Obviously I’m really interested in the environment and I’m also doing a lot of self-exploration at the moment and trying to figure out all those deep questions like “What am I doing here?” and “Who am I?”, so I might be going to India or something like that. I don’t think you ever find the answer, but I think it’s interesting all the things you discover along the way.

ZACH FREEMAN: Definitely. Your career got kicked off when you won a writing competition, but were you already heading towards being a musician or did that kind of push you on that course?

MISSY HIGGINS: I definitely decided that I wanted to be a musician, but I had no idea that my songs would be received like they were. I guess I had no idea that I was any good, but I knew that I had a passion for it and I didn’t want to do anything else. I knew that I was a pretty good singer so I thought that that was kind of my calling: maybe be a singer in a jazz covers band or something. And that was fine with me because that’s what I loved, but then when my “”competition started being received and people started really responding to them and saying that they could totally really relate to them, that was when my world kind of shifted and I realized that maybe that might be what I was supposed to do.

ZACH FREEMAN: Two of your songs on “On a Clear Night” were recorded in one take. Do you try to do that just in general so that you can maintain a sense of rawness and realism that you have on your album?

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah I do. With Mitchell and I we made a conscious effort to make the songs sound as alive as possible without having them sound like they’re in a big grubby music hall or in a live club or anything. Just keep the life in them and keep the emotion raw and all the instruments sounding fresh and new and I think we really achieved it. I don’t think you can actually achieve that live sound unless you do the takes completely live, but as far as everything sounding really fresh and beautiful, I think Mitchell and Dave definitely achieved that.

ZACH FREEMAN: Speaking of realism in the songs, I read that “Wrong Girl” was written after a bad breakup, and it seems like “Peachy” is from that same kind of place. Do you find that you write better when you’re melancholy and heartbroken?

MISSY HIGGINS:  I find that it’s definitely easier to write from the very bottom of your state of mind. I think when you can’t get out of that dark place, I find that writing a song helps you claw your way out word by word and note by note. I think it’s such a cathartic thing to do that when you’re feeling like you’re stuck, writing a song about it is a good way to kind of work it out and get it out from the inside and onto the instrument or out into the world and so it’s no longer your problem, it’s everyone else’s… or no one’s at all. It’s just like writing in your diary I guess. It’s my way of writing in my journal, to write a song about something I’m going through. But when you’re happy, I don’t have such an inclination to sit down with my instrument. I guess I feel more like going out and frolicking in a field or something rather than sitting in a dark corner with my guitar and a bottle of whiskey. Two very different needs.

ZACH FREEMAN: Do you write lyrics or words first?

MISSY HIGGINS: I usually write the music first. I’ll just be singing along with it and humming a melody and then words will come and form themselves in my mouth and then I’ll write it down and usually I write down the first lyrics that come to my head without thinking about them and then I go back and try to make sense of them all.

ZACH FREEMAN: When I listen to your lyrics, I really get the feeling that there’s a real person behind them, like a singular voice, it’s a similar feeling I get when I listen to Jack Johnson. Do you write exactly what you feel or do you ever find yourself changing something so that it might connect with more people?

MISSY HIGGINS: I think I write… I try to explain what’s going on inside my head in the most eloquent way and I think I try to write in a way that mirrors exactly what’s going on in my head but also in a way that can be understood universally, not necessarily specific to any one moment in time. I guess that’s just my way of writing, so that everyone can relate to it, and in year’s time I’ll be able to relate to it even when I’ve moved on from the personalness of  this moment.

ZACH FREEMAN: So take something that’s specific, but make it so it applies to everyone?

MISSY HIGGINS: It can be adapted to everyone’s story. And I don’t think I do that consciously, I think that’s just my way of writing.

ZACH FREEMAN: Why do you think there’s not more singular voices out there? Are record labels too controlling or are artists not willing to stand up to record labels’ demands to change things?

MISSY HIGGINS: I think society has become a little bit too obsessed with image and there are so many amazing songwriters that get lost underneath all of these beautiful, young blonde things that are trampling them and getting on tv shows to launch their careers and then getting professional songwriters to churn out these mediocre songs for them. So I think it’s just a matter of… a reflection of society’s obsession with pop culture and image and the superficial aspects of music and I think that people are forgetting that the greatest thing about music is the individuality involved. It’s like fashion, I think that it’s boring when people are over-styled and everyone dresses the same because it’s not an expression of who they are as a person, it’s an expression of how someone else thinks they should be or how someone else thinks that they should dress. I don’t know. I think the person that wears those clothes, and similarly, the person that sings the song that was written for them tends to get lost in the process and when you look at that person or you listen to that person you don’t feel a connection to them because they’re so far underneath it all that they get lost.

ZACH FREEMAN: Do you ever feel that you have to fight to distance yourself from that kind of thing being in the entertainment industry?

MISSY HIGGINS: I’ve made a point from the very beginning of my career to not be involved with people that don’t respect my vision and the fact that I want to maintain my sense of individuality and so I guess I’ve made the right decisions to get where I am and I’ve surrounded myself with the right people, so I don’t feel a constant pressure to be anyone that I’m not.

ZACH FREEMAN: I think we’ve already kind of touched on this but it seems like for every few singular female singers, like Tori or Alanis, we’ve got 20 Jessica and Ashlee Simpson and Pussycat Dolls and Beyonce saying “to the left to the left” acting like her boyfriend cheating on her didn’t hurt her. What do you think causes this glam persona and false sentiments like that? Is our culture asking for that kind of sentiment?

MISSY HIGGINS: It’s hard to tell what part of the demand is coming from the public and what is being force-fed to us from these record labels. I think over the years the record labels and the radio stations have begun to dictate what people fall in love with and a link from a record company to a radio station will mean that the hot, new, young thing will get 20 times a day and so people will be forced to get it in their head and then forced to go out and buy it because they think that they love it all of the sudden because they can’t stop hearing it everywhere. But also there’s another movement going on on the internet where that aspect of it is out the window and people are redeveloping their sense of freedom of choice. On all these music sites people can discover new acts and acts can get broken merely from Myspace.

ZACH FREEMAN: Or Pandora.

MISSY HIGGINS: Pandora is a great one.

ZACH FREEMAN: My wife really likes Tori Amos and she was listening to a Tori station she made and then one of your songs came on there and she was like, “This girl’s really good.”

MISSY HIGGINS: Cool.

ZACH FREEMAN: Something like that helps you find what you want. Instead of a radio telling you what to listen to, you’re telling them what you want.

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a really great movement and I think it’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal these days. I think that gives me faith. And in the end real music is always accessible and so it’s up to the people to demand more for themselves.

ZACH FREEMAN: And it will stand the test of time, whereas pop music will be on the radio for three months and then gone.

MISSY HIGGINS: Exactly. And I think you can feel the tension in the record industry because they realize that the power is being given to the people and everyone’s trying to adjust to that at the moment. I think we’re feeling a big shift. It’s a really good time.

ZACH FREEMAN: Tonight my wife and I are going to see Jesus Christ Superstar and it’s starring Ted Neeley as Jesus, he’s the guy that played Jesus in the 1973 Norman Jewison film. So, this guy is 64 years old and still playing a role that he played when he was 30. Do you think you’ll have that kind of longevity with your music or do you think you’ll reach a point  where you stop playing certain songs and only play stuff you wrote later in life?

MISSY HIGGINS: It’s hard to tell because I get sick of my songs quite quickly but then I stop playing them for a couple of months and then I start becoming interested in them so I hope I’ll try and remember that when people come to see you play they don’t just want to hear your most recent songs they want to hear the songs that they discovered you from. A lot of the time the people in the audience have been following you for a long time and they’ve been these really faithful fans your entire career and they’ve come to see you play and there’s probably one or two songs that are the only reason they came to see you play and they’ll just be devastated if you don’t play those songs. And when I’m on the stage I really want the audience to have the best time possible, and if that means playing a song that I’ve been playing for two decades or more, I’ll probably do it. Because that makes a really good show when people walk out of the theatre with big smiles on their faces.

ZACH FREEMAN: Good luck on your tour and I’ll see your show in Chicago. Make sure you bring your jacket you bought last time you were here. 

MISSY HIGGINS: You can be sure of that. As well as many layers of long underwear.

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