Missy Higgins’ OZ is something different … an eclectic album of Aussie cover versions and a quirky book of related essays.
The music and the prose are best experienced together in a beautiful clothbound CD/Book edition but they can also be enjoyed separately in physical or digital forms.
The OZ album features Missy re-imagining 15 Australian songs that were originally recorded by a diverse set of artists (eg: The Angels, Slim Dusty, Something For Kate, Warumpi Band, Paul Kelly, The Drones). In the accompanying OZ book, Missy uses each of those recordings as the starting point for a sprawling series of essays; reflecting on life, love and how not to wear high heels.
OZ is also the name of a one-off tour which will weave its way around Australia in September and October. This special concert series will combine some OZ songs alongside a set of Missy Higgins classics such as “The Special Two”, “Scar”, Steer”, “Where I Stood”, “Unashamed Desire” and Everyone’s Waiting”.
Over the last decade songs like these have made Missy one of our most beloved singer/songwriters. Her three previous albums have sold more than a million copies. They’ve each gone to #1 on the Australian charts and each has also been recognized with ARIA Awards.
“I wanted to try something different this time around”, explains Missy. “I couldn’t decide between making a covers album or writing a book so I decided to do both at once.”
Mind you, between her first two albums Missy tried her hand at acting in an acclaimed movie (“Bran Nue Day”). Then, between her next two albums, she went off to University for a year so this isn’t the first time she’s deliberately tackled new frontiers. Even so, the hydra-headed nature OZ presented her with multiple challenges.
“Musically it’s intended to be a real mixed bag of lollies. That was deliberate. I wanted to put together a group of wonderful Australian songs but I also wanted avoid all the obvious ones because I feel like “Great Aussie Songbook” collections have kinda been done to death. So I listened to thousands of tunes and ended up picking the ones that struck a personal chord with me for some reason. It didn’t matter when or where they were written or whether they were well known. All that mattered was whether I felt I could make them my own.”
Hence the unconventional tracklisting.
Most local listeners will probably already be familiar with classic OZ songs like Paul Kelly’s “Before Too Long” and The Angels “No Secrets”. However, this will be many people’s first encounter with gifted composers like Sydney taxi driver Perry Keyes (“NYE”) or Melbourne art-rock combo The Drones (whose epic “Shark Fin Blues” is one of the album’s centerpieces). Then there’s works like the indigenous anthem “Blackfella/Whitefella” and Slim Dusty/Joy McKean’s country classic “The Biggest Disappointment” which deserve to be heard outside the communities in which they’re already iconic. Throw in critically acclaimed artists like The Go Betweens (“Was There Anything I Could Do?”), The Blackeyed Susans (“Curse On You”), Neil Murray (“Calm & Crystal Clear”) and Something For Kate (“You Only Hide”) and it’s clear that OZ is not ’just another covers album’.
There are four main threads that bind this disparate collection of tunes. The first is obviously the lyrical and vocal combinations that allow Missy to truly inhabit each of these works as if she had written it herself. The second is the strikingly live production by Missy and American orchestrator Jherek Bischoff (Amanda Palmer, David Byrne, Kronos Quartet). Bischoff has been called “a pop polymath” by the New York Times while the NME has called him “the missing link between the sombre undertones of Ennio Morricone and the unpredictability of John Cale”. His unconventional string and brass arrangements across the album give it a signature from the Nelson Riddle-esque stylings of Don Walker’s aching “The Way You Are Tonight” all the way through to the icy alienation of Iva Davies’ “Don’t Believe Anymore”.
The third thread that runs through the OZ recordings is the presence of contributions from various friends of Missy’s. Not only does she cover Dan Sultan’s timeless “Old Fitzroy” but the Deadly Award winner (and “Bran Nue Dae” co-star) also adds his unmistakable voice to an ol’ timey rendition of “The Biggest Disappointment”. Kate Miller Heidke and Amanda Palmer are among others to feature prominently.
Finally, the entire collection was mixed by multiple Grammy recipient Jay Newland who also mixed Missy’s breakthrough album “The Sound of White”.
But the challenges didn’t stop at the music – Missy also set out to write a ‘matching’ book.
“I’d been approached a few times to write a memoir but I felt a bit young for that, plus my life really hasn’t been that interesting so far!” quips Missy. “The truth is that OZ started out as a series of essays because I wanted to try writing prose as a new challenge. It’s a long story but eventually the book morphed into also being an album.”
“It was fun to use the songs as springboards for discussing all sorts of things. I’ve tried to keep it all really conversational – much like thinking aloud. Essentially it’s just another way of sharing my random thoughts and feelings with an audience – much like I do at my gigs.
“Hopefully some people will enjoy reading the essays alongside the songs as that’s what I had in mind when I wrote them. I imagined playing the music for a friend over a bottle of red wine and just chatting away about things that related to each song as it came along. It’s not intended to be any huge literary statement of course but I enjoyed the challenge.”
OZ – the album and the book – will be released on September 19.
It’s Australian stories for the ears, the eyes, the head and the heart.
“Obviously part of the reason I called the whole project OZ is that it’s all about Australian songs. Plus, for the first time, I recorded the whole thing in Australia. However the title has a second meaning. I like the idea of songwriters being like the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”. Some people think we’re special people who have special powers but really we’re just scared little people hiding in a backroom somewhere, working like crazy to make sure we don’t get found out. I certainly feel like that a lot of the time and I reckon all of the radically different people who wrote these songs probably shared that one thing in common. We all just landed here in a balloon that got blown off course. We have no idea what it all means or what we’re supposed to be doing – we’re just trying to do something good while we’re here. That’s OZ. Couldn’t be more perfect really. “