MISSY HIGGINS: THE IMPORTANCE OF SINGING IN STRINE
Slim Dusty was right: Australians should feel proud to sing in a local accent, writes Missy Higgins
NOT ONLY DID I NOT TONE DOWN MY ACCENT, I WENT EVEN HARDER WITH IT
I’VE always had a soft spot for Slim Dusty. Those three-chord songs and narrative lyrics are everything I love about old-school country music. There’s no fancy production, no frills — just simple, well-told stories of a postwar, outback Australia, written by a man (or sometimes his missus), on a beaten-up guitar.
The simplicity of Slim’s music belies the genius behind it. Any songwriter will tell you it’s much harder to write a good, simple, catchy tune than it is to pen an intricately sculptured, multi-layered composition. One requires brain, the other requires heart. Paul Kelly does it. So does Bob Dylan. It’s a solid, classic, welltravelled style. Folk and country singer/songwriters are nearly all cut from the same cloth.
The country music industry in Australia owes a lot to Slim Dusty. Before Slim there was little to no country down under that wasn’t a direct copy of American country — or at least none of it was being played on the radio. Slim’s Pub With No Beer, his first huge hit, was seen as a turning point in Australian musical history: country was carving out a territory and a sound of its own. Australian country began to take over the airwaves with a fresh, homegrown style.
How great it must have been for all those farmers, those outback pub owners, to hear their own accents for the first time on the radio, telling their stories.
Had I been a generation or two older, I might have been directly influenced by Slim, but I was never much exposed to him as a kid. When I did find the music by which I would be forever influenced, it was via musicians who had likely also been informed by Slim: Kasey Chambers, the Waifs, Paul Kelly. So I still have Slim to thank. And not just for my songwriting style, but also for my “Aussie” singing accent.
It’s hard to say exactly how I came to sing like that, but it must have had a lot to do with the music I was listening to when I was starting out: Frente and Something For Kate both sang in strong local accents. Few artists were doing that before Slim arrived on the scene.
As with Chrissy Amphlett, blazing the neon trail for frontwomen all over Australia, Slim blazed the red-dirt trail for Australian singer/ songwriters, allowing us to remain unashamedly ourselves.
Perhaps the other reason I began singing the way I do — it’s strange we don’t all automatically sing in the accent in which we speak — was because I never quite believed a singer who didn’t sing in their own accent. I want to connect to singers on a personal, honest, emotional level, but I rarely felt that with Australians who sang as though they came from somewhere else. In fact, it felt to me as though many of those singers were acting when they sang with an American twang.
I don’t feel strongly about it any more: we’re all influenced by different people, and if your influences sang with an American accent, then it’s understandable you might do that too.
But back when I was starting out, it became a statement. I was choosing not to betray my roots, I was being more “authentic”. Things are much more black and white when you’re younger — right and wrong, good and bad — and it’s all so we can create the illusion that we know who we are and where we stand in the world. As the years roll on, we realise we know far less than we thought, and so there’s something mighty — if misguided — in the certitudes of our youth.
I recorded my first album, The Sound of White, in Los Angeles when I was 20 (or was it 19?). The producer, John Porter, said to me very nicely one day: “Your accent, it’s … very strong when you sing, isn’t it? Perhaps, ah, we could tone it down a little? Some people might find it a bit distracting.”
I took great offence. Not only did I not tone down my accent, I went even harder with it. “Boom, that’ll show them,” I remember thinking. “How dare anyone think that me singing in my own accent is distracting? I’m not f..king American!” The accent went on to become stronger out of sheer spite. “If this is going to polarise people,” I thought, “I may as well not do it in halves.”
Having the opportunity to sing Slim’s The Biggest Disappointment as a duet with Dan Sultan has been a career highlight.
Dan really owned that part. We tracked it live in the studio: it always makes me feel like I’m a kid again, harmonising with my brother and sister at the kitchen table, tapping forks against mugs and singing real close.
After the recording, I was thrilled to discover it was Joy McKean, Slim’s wife, manager and sometimes co-writer, who wrote the song. What an amazing thing: to write a song for your husband to sing about his life as an adolescent, and for it to sound so authentically like his own voice.
That kind of songwriting takes great skill. As they say, behind every great songwriting man there’s an even greater songwriting woman. This is an edited extract of The Biggest Disappointment, an essay from Missy Higgins’s book Oz, published by Eleven and available from September 29 in conjunction with her latest album release Oz.
Missy Higgins resisted pressure to sing like an American