Little known on these shores, Australian singer songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke is the kind of quirky pop star which appeals to British sensibilities, so much so that it is strange she is still so under-the-radar over here.
A formally trained classical singer, she turned to “popular” music nearly a decade ago to great aplomb. On occasion her operatic voice pokes it’s head above water, but when doing so she rarely plays it straight nor safe.
On the night the stage was a simple one. Kate on vocals, percussion and keys, along with her husband and musical collaborator Keir Nuttal on Guitar and Loop pedal duties. Yet with this simple set up she maintained interest and variation through her 90 minute set, never losing the crowd for even a moment.
Her voice is smooth and clear, with a clarity of diction so vital to spinning her melodic yarns. With me that evening was a KMH virgin, and she enjoyed the gig immensely; following the lyrics without a hitch. Granted, the always wonderful acoustics of the Union Chapel helped here, but only when the source sound is so well controlled. As mentioned, in certain numbers, Kate drops into her operatic voice – while sensibly moving back a little from the mic! – for some explosive moments. The rather mental yodelling on “Vertigo” has been described as “Enya on crystal meth”, and rarely has a funnier nor more apt comparison been made! Her staccato and equally bonkers cover of “Psycho Killer” plays a similar trick, bringing a smile to every face in the audience.
And yet, while she is more than happy to play with her music and the whimsy within, her writing means business as often as it charms and tickles. “Caught in the Crowd” has won her songwriting awards and is now used by the Australian School board in their anti-bullying campaign. It is a clever and devilishly simple lyric – “I was young and caught in the crowd/Didn’t know then what I know now/I was dumb and I was proud/And I’m sorry” – and proves that Kate understands the darker side of human nature and the fallibility in us all.
Keir is a mean if understated acoustic guitarist; this is meant as a compliment. He plays just enough to accompany Kate and his loop pedal usage was sublime. Palm muting and rhythmic play built clever soundscapes on the more loop-heavy numbers and made my musician ears perk up in wonderment. On one song, Kate leans in to ‘Ohh’ and ‘Ahh’ into his soundhole – a clever touch, adding a cheeky spectacle to this particular number.
Kate is comfortable with inter-song banter. Her anecdotes about her music are both high on humility and humour, making us feel like we are guests to her gathering, and welcome ones at that. Her quirky outfit she likened to a cross between a upturned lampshade and a shuttlecock. Naturally.
Perhaps the most unique addition to any gig I have seen came after only one song. Kate invited a young lady called Naomi onto stage, who then proceeded to ‘sign’ for the remainder of the set. Never have I seen a gig where those of impaired hearing were so well catered for, while entertaining the rest of us with a visual interpretation of the music. Her signing was subtle yet graceful, with an air of modern dance to her gentle, controlled movements. Their stage chatter suggested this was a one-off affair, but regardless, it was a warming addition and never once felt contrived. Naomi was a captivating extra to the music for all attending. Humour lay here too; the track “Lose my Shit” was an interesting one to sign, as you can imagine.
It so happened that one of my friends attending with me that evening works with Deaf-blind children. She had nothing but kind things to say afterwards about Naomi’s interpretation of Kate’s lyrics. What I saw as gentle ‘dancing’ during guitar solos, she said were “echoes” of lyrics used in the song, matching the rhythms and undulations of the guitar work. Quite beautiful really.
It says a lot that something which could have been seen as odd, or perhaps (heaven forbid) overly PC, seems so natural alongside Kate’s music. I cannot help but wonder if her move to Popular music years ago was a movement to be closer to the more personal, human edge of music, which is arguably more distanced in the elongated vowels and vibrato stylings of classical singing?
It also says a lot that Kate was kind enough to reply to my tweet about her on the day of the gig. She joins The Leisure Society and The Barenaked Ladies as acts kind enough to engage with me on twitter.
A class, human act. Do check her out if you are new to her work.