Why Kate Miller-Heidke fell in love with Eurovision

Having found her voice in the penumbra of pop, opera and musical theatre, singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke says the infamously kitschy Eurovision Song Contest was always something in her sights.

But it took last year's final at Lisbon's Altice Arena, when she saw Israel's Netta dazzle the audience with a competition-winning song composed of whirrs, clicks and pops, short-phrase lyrics and Pokemon-inspired staging, for lightning to strike.

Kate Miller-Heidke will represent Australia at this year’s Eurovision.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

"That was the point where it really crystallised for me," Miller-Heidke says. "I felt so surprised and so delighted by her vocal performance, it just tickled my fancy. That was the moment where I felt like it could be a competition that had a place for me."

As a teenage girl, the self-described social outlier says she was the last to be picked for anything. "I was absolutely terrible at sports, I was always the last person chosen for any team," she says.

But with 13 ARIA award nominations to her name, and five Helpmann trophies in her cabinet, including best original score for the hit stage musical Muriel's Wedding, it's plain the 37-year-old has not spent her formative years worrying about her lack of sporting laurels.

I was a terrible show-off and quite weird and eccentric.

Her first two albums, Little Eve and Curiouser, co-written with her songwriter-husband Keir Nuttall, went gold and platinum respectively. The pair have also co-written Zero Gravity, the song Miller-Heidke is taking to Eurovision in Tel Aviv, Israel, next month.

Growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane, however, Miller-Heidke says a professional music career seemed out of her reach.

"I was a terrible show-off and quite weird and eccentric," she says. "I didn't fit in well at school, I was pretty socially ostracised and my parents got divorced when I was quite young, so from an early age music was always my refuge."

Kate Miller-Heidke at Eurovision: Australia Decides. Credit:AAP

Then the film The Delinquents, about the teenage romance of Lola (Kylie Minogue) and Brownie (Charlie Schlatter), was filmed in a nearby suburb. And suddenly, to the eight-year-old Miller-Heidke, showbusiness had set up shop just down the road.

Her ambition was always to be a singer-songwriter, but as a teenager a clearer path took her to the Queensland Conservatorium, which transformed the teenaged Joni Mitchell wannabe into a future soprano.

"Opera is purely merit-based, that's what's so great about it," she says. "The only thing that matters is the voice. I wanted to sing like Joni Mitchell but my teacher encouraged me to learn classical pieces which I started to love, but it took me a long time before I really, truly appreciated opera."

At the same time as she auditioned for Opera Australia, she also came into the sights of the record label Sony, who wanted to sign her. Faced with both contracts, Miller-Heidke sat in her manager's office and was given the choice of two paths forward. She chose the record deal.

"I did think that they were completely separate and I was sort of ready to sacrifice opera at the altar of pop, because I could write my own songs and be in control of my creativity in the pop world more," she says. "I could say what I wanted to say.

"But as time went on I realised, much to my mother's satisfaction, that actually there's a lot of rich territory to be mined where the genres meet. And having fun with the superficial boundaries between those genres."

Kate Miller–Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall perform in 2012.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Physically, Miller-Heidke is slightly built, at just 160cm. But as a performer she has an immense presence on the stage. She speaks confidently and clearly, but with humour and a pervading sense of mischief.

What makes her so perfect for Eurovision is that her style blends pop, opera and musical theatre, to which we can add a sense of physical performance that is both spirited and, at times, powerfully restrained.

"Eurovision resists quantifying, it embraces eclecticism and it encourages experimental music," Miller-Heidke says. "A lot of people don't recognise that but it's absolutely true in my view. I think what seems to work, from my perspective, is the element of surprise, something surprising."

Breaking down a Eurovision strategy, however, is an equally unsteady science; for every song like Netta's poppy Toy there is another like Salvador Sobral's smooth and dreamlike ballad Amar Pelos Dois, which won the competition the preceding year for Portugal.

Kate Miller-Heidke won a Helpmann for best original score for the hit stage musical Muriel’s Wedding.Credit:James Brickwood

"All music is made for a particular space, whether that is somebody's headphones or a concert hall, you can't make music for a vacuum," she says. "And if I try to lock myself in a room and say, okay Kate, now have some authentic feelings and write something honest, I find it crippling. I need to imagine the stage. I need to make something I would like to see and hear."

In getting her game face on, Miller-Heidke says she has even consulted her predecessors.

"I've had conversations with most of them, really good conversations with Dami Im and Guy Sebastian … everybody says that it's a marathon and you have to really pace yourself," she says.

"Vocal fatigue is the biggest concern [because] Eurovision is such a massive operation that you're sort of a cog in the machine," she says. "And there's nobody else that particularly cares if my voice is tired, or I don't want to speak, or I don't want to sing. So, it's something that I have to be vigilant about."

In 2013, when Miller-Heidke parted ways with Sony, the singer-songwriter began to discover the actor within. "I felt, as a recording artist, a little bit freer to choose my own path," Miller-Heidke says.

Miller-Heidke wrote an opera based on John Marsden's children's book The Rabbits, which won critical acclaim, and then in 2014 performed in the New York Metropolitan Opera's controversial production of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, to both standing ovations and street protests.

I felt like my entire identity was exploded and had to be rebuilt inch by inch.

Two years later Miller-Heidke and Nuttall had their son, Ernie. And Ernie's birth, in hindsight, became the catalyst for a path which would see Miller-Heidke on her way to Eurovision.

Motherhood was, Miller-Heidke says, fundamentally altering.

"I felt like my entire identity was exploded and had to be rebuilt inch by inch, and obviously my identity is entirely wrapped up in my art, possibly to an unhealthy degree," she says. "I felt like I couldn't sing anymore, that I couldn't sing the songs that I used to sing, because I had changed on a fundamental level.

"And that terrible sleep deprivation and the fog that follows you around as a new parent, particularly as a new mother," she says. "Now I feel like I'm a stronger person. I feel very connected to every other woman on the planet, because giving birth is really f—g hard, and parenting is even harder."

“I felt like I couldn’t sing anymore, that I couldn’t sing the songs that I used to sing, because I had changed on a fundamental level,” Kate Miller-Heidke says of how motherhood changed her.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

How it all becomes encapsulated in a song which taps into both her post-natal depression and her jubilation of becoming a mother, is a harder process to define.

"What I was trying to capture with this song is that feeling of reclaiming your life, that sense of elation and empowerment, but also to capture what it felt like before that," she says. "It covers a wide scope of emotion but it comes from a very real place."

For the couple, it also caps off an almost two-decade musical partnership, and marriage, which has been a stunning success.

There is no trick, Miller-Heidke says. "The answer for us has been to respect the fact that the other is going to grow and possibly at a different rate to you, and to give them space to do that, and to work at coming back and meeting in the middle again," she says.

"We've gone through phases in our relationship, where we have had to take a step back from the creative partnership and I had to do my own thing for a while, and Keir's been the same," she says. "It's just that thing of just letting the other person grow and not feeling threatened by that."

In February, 2018, Miller-Heidke (and Nuttall) were one of 10 artist-songwriter packages to compete in Australia Decides, a public-and-jury voted national competition similar to the Swedish Melodifestivalen, used by the Swedes to successfully send strong Eurovision contenders into international competition for decades.

Kate Miller-Heidke performs at the Blues Festival in Byron Bay.Credit:Natalie Grono

From the stage, she says, she had the best view in the house.

"There was an incredible energy in the room, it was like a rock concert on steroids," she says. "It's full on. You can't help but feed off that energy. It's a peak experience. It was quite hard to come down from that actually. It's very terrifying and thrilling.

"When you get on stage, the feeling of surrender and just channelling that energy, it's such a tidal wave of energy that you're getting back, and if you can be swept along on that then it's quite a transcendent feeling that I guess that I could liken it to skydiving," she says.

She does admit to pre-show nerves. "And I can't even imagine how nervous I'm going to be before Eurovision, I'll probably pass out," she says. "I think the key is just to try to channel that nervous energy and to kind of just delay the focus."

Winning, she says, left her in shock. "In a daze, really," she says. "I couldn't quite believe it. I was incredibly surprised and grateful to everybody, the people who had voted."

Now all she has to do is win. Again.

It's no easy task, and made no easier for a singer-songwriter whose work on Muriel's Wedding handed her the unusual gift of having to deconstruct the music of ABBA, whose 1974 hit Waterloo not only won that year's Eurovision Song Contest, but became one of the most successful Eurovision winning songs of all time.

Miller-Heidke praises the economy of ABBA's music, the "beautiful restraint" in their song writing. But she says outside of the obvious endurance of the work, there are no easy clues to be found to winning Eurovision in a careful study of the music charts of Waterloo.

"The appeal of ABBA is perennial, isn't it … if they entered Eurovision next year with Waterloo, they'd probably win," she says, laughing. "To hear the joy if it, it's undeniable. It's irresistible music."

In any event, she is heading to Tel Aviv with her game face on. And a costume that is equal parts inspired by the Statue of Liberty and the Greek goddess Athena.

She's competition ready, she says, even if the little girl inside was often denied a prime position in schoolyard sports.

"But for the sake of my own sanity and mental health, I'm switching that part off, because it's not going to serve me well, I know that," she says. "And that's why I'm glad that I'm 37-years-old and going into this, because I'm trying to take with me a sense of perspective.

"I always said from the beginning, just getting to go is such a privilege. It's huge. Whatever happens beyond that is going to be fine. I am putting a lot of effort into making sure my performance is the best it can possibly be. I don't want to f— it up."

The 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest will be held in Tel Aviv on May 14-18 and broadcast in Australia on SBS.

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