STEVE KNOPPER NY Times 4/18/14
Sia Furler walked into the Silver Lake studio 10 minutes late, ignoring the 22 keyboards and six guitars and giant speakers on her way to the blue velour sofa in the back. There she pulled a MacBook Air from her white Goyard bag and called up “Living Out Loud,” a song she had just started writing. As the music played, Furler began scat-singing: “Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
Before, finally: “Haaaaaaaaaaa!”
Furler, who refused to pose for a photograph for this article, recently appeared on the cover of Billboard with a bag over her head.
It was a sunny Los Angeles morning in early March, and Furler, who is 38, was dressed in a white tank top and capri pants with a blue, long-sleeved shirt tied around her waist. Furler usually wears her lightning blond hair in a bob that’s somewhere between Anna Wintour and Deborah Harry, but this morning it was tied in a loose braid. And though she is slight and barely 5-foot-5, her ability to sing in an eerie high register, like Merry Clayton on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” makes her seem much taller. She and Greg Kurstin, a producer and writer, quickly settled into a familiar routine in which she sang and gave short instructions — “that’s nice”; “that’s emo” — and he followed with big, ringing, gospel-sounding chords on his Steinway. Within minutes, they coalesced in the form of a pop song.
“Is that a chorus?” Furler asked. “That feels like a chorus.”
“Yeah,” Kurstin replied.
She scat-sang more gibberish: “Mananananan-m-dah! M-dah!”
Some of the artists for whom Furler has written songs. Clockwise from top left: Beyoncé, “Pretty Hurts”; Britney Spears, “Perfume”; David Guetta, “Titanium”; Rihanna, “Diamonds”; Ne-Yo, “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)”; Flo Rida, “Wild Ones.”
“Now we’ll do a harmony on top.”
“I need to write,” Furler said. She hunched over her laptop and started typing, turning her gibberish into real words, which she simultaneously sang over the piano.
Pop hits these days usually have at least two or three writers, and the choruses are generally celebratory — “victim to victory,” as Furler put it. For some, this process can still be soul-wrenching and endless, but Furler has no patience for that. In recent years, she has become a one-woman hit factory, working with Kurstin and others to write songs for artists like Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. And her hits — including Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” and Eminem’s “Beautiful Pain” — seem to roll off something of a pop-music assembly line. Furler wrote Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in 14 minutes. After the D.J. David Guetta invited her to write the melody and lyrics for one of his songs, she futzed around on the Internet and pumped out “Titanium” in 40 minutes. (It has since been downloaded more than 3.7 million times.) After 45 minutes in the Silver Lake studio, Furler finished “Living Out Loud” and declared it perfect for Brooke Candy, a new singer-slash-rapper she described as a “feminista glam alien.”
Furler’s instinctive style can seem a little hasty. When she looked up from her laptop, she told me she wanted to crank out another single, which she hoped to record before Kurstin’s 1 p.m. commitment. Her inspiration, she said, was a word that popped into her head a few days earlier — “polygraph” — and soon enough she was two-finger speed-typing lyrics on her MacBook Air as Kurstin worked on a bass line, adding percussion and effects, all recorded via multicolored horizontal bars of Logic software on his desktop iMac. Within minutes, she had taken a stab at the chorus. (“If you love me/I gotta ask you/would you take a polygraph?”)
At first, Furler, who has a loud Australian accent, sounded sort of like Adele. But as she filled in the alto vocals, the song resembled something by a soul-pop girl group, like Destiny’s Child, the old Beyoncé vehicle. Finally, as she bent her knees and rose up for the high notes, free-throw style, the song became anthemic — full of love and loss and all that other stuff in the big, overly simple way that sounds great on the radio. “Oh, this is so good,” Furler said. “Rihanna’s gonna do this. I can feel it.”
Many hired-gun songwriters enter the business as failed pop stars. Linda Perry, whose band 4 Non Blondes had one big single in the ‘90s, has made a fortune writing pop hits like Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” Max Martin, a Swedish studio whiz, left his metal band, It’s Alive, after it failed to take off. Furler, however, had the chance to be a rich and famous star herself. In 2005, when she was known simply as Sia, her tense-but-evocative piano ballad “Breathe Me” appeared in the final scene of “Six Feet Under,” the HBO series, as each of its lead characters aged and died on-screen. “Breathe Me” became an instant viral sensation — U.S. sales of the single reached 1.2 million — and her manager, David Enthoven, tried to leverage the song’s success in conventional music-business fashion, starting with a tour.
Furler, however, was uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming famous. “It’s horrible,” she told me over tuna salad and coffee at a cafe after the studio session. “I just wanted to have a private life. Once, as my friend was telling me they had cancer, someone came up and asked, in the middle of the conversation, if they could take a photograph with me. You get me? That’s enough, right?” She also became increasingly dependent on alcohol and drugs, and soon enough, effectively sabotaged Enthoven’s plans: Furler demanded to bring her two tiny mutts on tour, which would require renting an extra bus; she also refused to do “promo,” an obligation nearly every performer must endure, like showing up for on-air glad-handing at radio stations and submitting to numbing shifts of 15-minute phone interviews. As her addictions deepened, her behavior became increasingly dark. She eventually dressed herself and her band in masks and black costumes so crowds couldn’t see their faces onstage. In May 2010, Furler contacted a drug dealer and ordered “two of everything,” she says, except meth and heroin. She held on to her stash and contemplated taking everything at once. Months later, she was writing a suicide note.
Fortunately, a friend inadvertently called in time to intercept her plan, and Furler began a 12-step program. Around the same time, she also made an important creative choice. She replaced Enthoven with Jonathan Daniel, who suggested Furler try writing songs for other singers. At first, the idea was a bit desperate. “I didn’t know she could write pop songs,” he says, “because she’s kind of a quirky artist.” But Daniel explained to Furler that she didn’t have to put herself out there as personally as she did on “Breathe Me.” He described what he called “high concept” songs — the industry trick of coming up with a word or phrase that works as a simple, poignant, bankable metaphor, like the Katy Perry song “Firework.”
Spotting a piggy bank on a table, Furler asked him: “So I could write, ‘I’m not your piggy bank’?”
“Exactly,” Daniel said.
Writing for others allowed Furler to hide in plain sight for years. Her songs have sold more than 25 million copies, but in June, she will release her first solo album since 2010, “1000 Forms of Fear.” The first single, “Chandelier,” which came out last month, is starting to appear on Top 40 playlists. For Furler, who refuses to appear on the cover or in her video, the album presents another chance at making it on her own. The question is whether she can be a pop star without suffering for it.
Pop music has always relied on behind-the-scenes songwriters — like Jimmy Webb and the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King — but technology and social media have amplified their power. In an era when the major labels want to prevent leaking and piracy, there is a market for speed and volume, and plenty of well-paid opportunities for writers who can pump out a hit in 14 minutes. In only a few years, in fact, Furler has reached the highest echelon of contemporary songwriters, up there with Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”; Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”), Martin (the mastermind behind many of the Backstreet Boys-‘NSync-Britney hits of the late ‘90s) and Bonnie McKee (Britney, Katy, Ke$ha, etc). Despite being uneasy with fame, Furler has turned out to be deeply comfortable with her world-famous stars. She has also embraced the lifestyle, going to meditation workshops at Demi Moore’s house and making international travel plans via text with Katy Perry. As we left Kurstin’s studio, she climbed into her black Lexus 450 hybrid and declared, half-sarcastically, “I’ve only recently become a baller.”
Furler lives in Echo Park, a trendy neighborhood north of downtown L.A., with a rear living-room window overlooking Hollywood. (She’s building an addition in back that will soon be larger than the house itself.) The place is modern and modular, with white walls and white trim, and when I say I like her retro Northstar refrigerator, she says, “This is the refrigerator that David Guetta built.” She gestures toward the large pictures in her den, including a charcoal portrait of herself titled, “Sia in the Morning,” and a bizarrely funny self-portrait of Lee Materazzi, the photographer, wrapped in a rug underneath a piano bench. “This is the artwork that Flo Rida built,” she says.
Furler prefers to be detached and cheeky about how she earned it all. Several times during our interview, she repeated the phrase “I can’t believe I got away with it,” referring to what Alex Macpherson, the pop-music critic, calls “these vague, inspirational, cliché ballads.” This type of music would have seemed deeply out of place on one of Furler’s five hyperpersonal, bohemian and soulful albums. And she certainly never aimed to write these “victim to victory” ballads when she was starting out. After all, Furler was born to an artist and teacher, Loene Furler, and Phil B. Colson, a blues guitarist known as Philby, in Adelaide, Australia. According to him, their family life was a creative idyll, filled with hippies and feminist musicians, living in “connubial bliss,” at least until the unmarried couple split and he moved to Sydney when Furler was 10.
Furler didn’t have much of a relationship with her father after he left, but she had a natural gift — that voice — and wanted to follow him into the business. In 1993, when she was 17, Furler was working at an Adelaide cafe when she happened upon Crisp, a local hip-hop/soul band along the lines of the Roots. “I’ll be your singer then,” she told a guy she knew in the band. When she showed up at rehearsal, Jesse Flavell, Crisp’s founder and former guitarist, recalls, “she opened her voice and we all kind of stopped in our tracks. And we all felt, O.K., this is going to work.” It was also clear, however, that Furler did not have the extroverted persona of a natural performer. She relied on booze to help get her through live shows, and her alcoholism eventually intensified, years later, after she left the band, when her boyfriend was run over and killed by a taxi in London. (Furler’s mother broke the news the day before she was to fly and visit him.) Almost nobody knew about these personal demons when Furler later hooked up with Zero 7, a British trip-hop duo who developed a dedicated following in the late ‘90s but lacked a lead singer. Furler sang memorably on a few of their albums and caught the attention of a couple of Hollywood music supervisors who would later pitch “Breathe Me” to the producers of “Six Feet Under.”
Trying to become a pop star is not for healthy people, or sick people who want to be healthy. The hours are irregular, the sleep is intermittent and the drugs and alcohol are plentiful. Furler began to realize she had an addictive personality. Whenever she quit drinking, she would invariably become hooked on raw food or Nutella. And after she was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, she took antidepressants and painkillers, including Xanax and OxyContin, and eventually became addicted to those too. “I was in the back lounge, high on Xanax and alcohol, watching every episode of ‘E.R.’ from the beginning,” she said of her years on the road. “When you’re in a different place every day, there’s this kind of madness that sets in. It’s easy to get away with getting high, because everybody’s drinking on the road. None of my friends thought I was an alcoholic, and neither did I.”
When she eventually sobered up, after her suicide attempt, Furler found that her struggles were oddly valuable in her second career. She excelled at one of a pop songwriter’s main jobs: connecting with impossibly famous, needy people. She was a natural at listening to stars talk about their own insecurities and quickly turning those feelings into catchy hits. Furler and Aguilera, a fan of Zero 7, clicked in the studio after she helped the singer write four songs, including “All I Need,” about her son, Max. “She’d sit and have a mini-therapy session with Christina,” says Sam Dixon, who co-wrote and produced the songs. “I would leave the room. That was secret ladies’ business.” Britney Spears, who worked with Furler on “Perfume,” among other songs, also felt a close connection with her. “I fell in love with the way she looks at life,” she says. “There is a bit of darkness somewhere in there, but it doesn’t come across in a frightening way.”
Last August, Lea Michele, a star of Fox’s “Glee,” requested that Furler help her record songs for her debut album. Michele wanted to write one personal song about her co-star and boyfriend, Cory Monteith, who died the previous month of a toxic combination of alcohol and heroin. During the two hours they spent together over coffee at a Los Angeles studio, she spilled out the story to Furler, who took notes, then played Michele a work-in-progress song on her iPhone. Michele began to sob on the sofa, and Furler eventually wrote “If You Say So,” based on the young star’s feelings. “Maybe it was because I have a dead boyfriend, too,” Furler said later, offhand, while recounting the moment. Then she paused, no longer cheeky. “Maybe I have some shame around it,” she said. “Maybe I’m embarrassed because I’m writing something so cheesy. Then something like that experience will happen, and I’ll realize maybe I’m not as stupid as I thought — and maybe people aren’t as stupid as I think. It occurs to me that there is value to what I do.”
When we first met, Furler immediately blurted out that she had scheduled one of our interviews during a pizza party she was planning for her friends in order to “avoid intimacy” with me. I knew that she was freaked out by the idea of talking to a reporter, but Furler’s defensiveness or anti-fameness, however omnipresent, belies the fact that she is reflexively intimate. As we prepared for the pizza party, she started talking, casually, about her failed suicide attempt. She was sitting in her New York apartment on a September day, she recalled, watching “Real Housewives” on Bravo, when she thought she needed something “to relax.” Furler had been sober for a few years then, but she decided it was time to take the drugs she bought months earlier. Her plan was to check into a fleabag hotel around the corner and ingest every pill she had. She wrote a vague note to her dog walker, she said, and another note to a hotel manager requesting an ambulance: “I’ve killed myself and I don’t want you to have to suffer seeing my dead body.” When her friend called, though, she thought better of it.
Despite her success, despite her new famous collaborators and friends, despite the fridge that David Guetta built, Furler still isn’t comfortable with fame. She refused to pose for a photograph for this article and recently appeared on the cover of Billboard with a bag over her head. But the 12-step program encourages people to “share,” she says, and she now tries to be more open about herself. As I dusted mushrooms and Furler washed kale in the sink, she said she spent five years not talking to her dad, who she believed was jealous of her career. At one particular point, she says, she offered to sing backup on the album he had been working on for more than a decade, and he snapped, “It’s my record, and you’re not on it.” (Colson denies this.) A few years later, Furler wrote him a series of resentful letters, including one asking why he moved away when she was 10.
Eventually, though, Colson came around to admitting to his daughter that he was not proud of his behavior. “I wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roll drug addict or anything, but I would go out and do gigs and stay later and have some bourbon and Cokes, or maybe smoke a hash joint or something,” he told me. “And the next day you have to come down off that — I might be a bit dark and sullen.” Over the last two years, father and daughter have reunited and now speak frequently. “In my sobriety,” she said, “I have discovered that the people I love, and who hurt me, were sick like me.”
The pizza party was low-key — 20 of her friends, including Patty Schemel, the former drummer for Courtney Love’s band, Hole, showed up. No wine was served. But at some point Furler mentioned that her style of high-speed songwriting had replaced her other addictions — drugs, alcohol, Nutella, etc. “Focus,” she said. “Workaholism. That’s my new jam.” It came out in a half-serious way, but she seemed to mean it; writing songs, even in 14- or 40-minute bursts, was a serious attempt to open up, to “share.”
The new album, “1000 Forms of Fear,” undeniably reflects an older vintage of Sia, with sadder, brutal lyrics that are far too violent and introspective for Top 40 radio — a result, perhaps, of her own internal “secret ladies’ business.” But it also displays elements of Furler the pop-anthem writer, and many of the songs, like “Eye of the Needle,” are built on a simple metaphor. Furler’s gigantic voice, full of emotion and empathy, makes every sentiment sound, well, like going from victim to victory. Furler might have invariably called these kinds of songs “cheesy,” but I could tell she wasn’t ashamed of them anymore. Now it seemed as if she truly knew their value.