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Sunday 18 March 2018

Music: Anti-fame Sia - the pop Wizard of Oz

Saving face: Sia Furler refuses to play the fame game and frequently hides her features behind a mass of blonde hair
Saving face: Sia Furler refuses to play the fame game and frequently hides her features behind a mass of blonde hair
John Meagher

John Meagher

On November 2, 2013, the music industry magazine, Billboard, delivered one of its more eye-catching covers: It featured the bare shoulders of a woman and a paper bag covering her head. The words on the bag read, "This artist is responsible for over 12m track sales, has a new single on The Hunger Games soundtrack and doesn't want to be famous". Underneath the 'peel off' bag was a blonde, bobbed individual whom even seasoned pop watchers might struggle to identify in a line-up.

Since then, Sia Furler has done everything she can to draw attention to the fact that she does not wish to play the typical pop star game. Her face, it would appear, is most definitely not her passport. She performed on Graham Norton's wildly popular chat-show with her back to the cameras while recent American TV appearances have seen her sport a wig that has covered her face. Furthermore, she appears to have eschewed the typical promotional rounds for her latest album, This is Acting, which was released yesterday.

And while her peers vie to out-do each other in the sexed-up stakes, this native of Adelaide, Australia, has little interest in making explicit videos or wearing skimpy clothes. Even the cover of the new album marks her out from the pack as she twists her face into the sort of grimace you'll never see the likes of Rihanna or Katy Perry make. One can only imagine the dismay from her record company when she chose such an unflattering portrait for her artwork.

Sia is different in other ways too. At 40, she's older than most of her peers - though not her Antipodean counterpart, Kylie (whom she has written for in the past). And, unlike the tunnel-visioned path to chart glory taken by the likes of Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, Furler came to the pop firmament in a very circuitous route, initially getting a glimpse of success as backing singer in Jamiroquai, then making small ripples as guest vocalist with the English trip-hop duo, Zero 7. Her first two solo albums sank without trace, but those who bothered to listen would have become acquainted with a singer-songwriter capable of writing strong songs that were just a touch out of the ordinary.

Her fortunes would change when she released her third album, Colour the Small One, in 2004. It was an impressive collection that saw her lumped in with the 'quiet is the new loud' movement then popularised by bands like Kings of Convenience although the intricately crafted, delicate songs gave no hint of the pop direction she would eventually head towards. Still, as a calling card, it impressed - and it opened several doors.

Last year's riveting book, The Song Machine, lifted a lid on the secretive world of pop songwritiing factories and it was into this environment that Furler would slowly migrate. She started on the periphery of what's still a largely male-dominated field, but showed what she could do by contributing key parts of songs to people like Ne-Yo.

Her big break as a pop writer arrived when she was asked to pen tracks for what would become Christina Aguilera's sixth album, Bionic, in 2010. Three Sia numbers made the final cut and she found herself in serious demand. Such was the volume of commissions coming her way that she decided to retire as a pop artist in her own right and concentrate on song-writing.

Since 2011, she has written for a dizzying array of singers, including Rihanna, David Guetta, Beyonce and Flo Rida. Her prodigious output and knack for writing global hits put her on par with the kings of contemporary pop, Max Martin and Dr Luke.

Then, she demonstrated that she was a fully fledged pop star in her own right by releasing one of 2014's most ubiquitous songs, the life-affirming 'Chandelier'. It was typical of the rousing tunes she has delivered to so many others; songs that celebrate, in her words, "the victim to victor".

And there are plenty of the same on This is Acting. In fact, all were originally written for the likes of Rihanna and Adele, but were subsequently rejected for one reason or another. She's made no secret of the fact that the songs are all rejects - not an admission to fill newcomers to her music with optimism. Furthermore, she told Rolling Stone last year that she didn't particularly care for one of the tracks, 'Reaper', and only included it because her manager liked it.

In a world of hot air fuelled by all the self-aggrandisement, there's something wonderfully candid about Sia because not only has she admitted to disliking 'Reaper' but the supposed 'co-write' with Kanye West was nothing of the sort.

When asked what it was like to write with West, she said, "Well, he wasn't there. They'll entice me into a session by saying, 'Rihanna will definitely be there' or 'Kanye will definitely be there,' but it's hilarious because I turn up and, almost always, they never come. So I went into the studio to write for Rihanna with Kanye and neither of them showed up and I stayed for less than an hour."

She added: "They had two tracks. They told me what they had wanted. There were notes from Kanye, and I can't even remember what they were. I remember I just raced in and raced out, and I thought there was something about the chorus that seemed fun about this song, but I never thought it would see the light of day."

If that isn't disarming enough, the speed with which she writes the essence of her best known hits is extraordinary. A couple of years ago, she told The New York Times that she wrote 'Diamonds' for Rihanna in 14 minutes and 'Titanium' (eventually recorded by Eminem) in 40 minutes.

To prove her point to the journalist writing the long profile, she made up a song from scratch and had the bones of it completed in three quarters of an hour. There's a certain genius in that.

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